Poppies on the Wheat. Before 1890 the most famous woman writer from Amherst wasn’t Emily Dickinson.

I once thought that one of the marvels of Emily Dickinson is that she was able to create such revolutionary poetry without any supporting circle of fellow writers. She had poetic heroes: Shakespeare, Emily Bronte, Elizabeth Barrett Browning, but she never met them. Well, it turns out there’s a bit more to her story.

Last year I followed a thread that her sister-in-law, neighbor, and friend Susan Dickinson wrote poetry, and as a result performed one of Susan’s poemsCrushed Before the Moth.”  Interestingly, it sounds a bit like an Emily Dickinson poem. This year, I’m reading Genevieve Taggart’s biography of Emily Dickinson, one of the earliest written—researched in the 1920s when people in Amherst who knew Dickinson and her family were still living. And it’s inside that book that I met up with Helen Hunt Jackson.

Helen_Hunt_Jackson_NYPL

Helen Hunt Jackson: poet, novelist, activist.

 

Helen was the same age and a childhood classmate of Emily Dickinson, but she married a brilliant military engineer and left town.*  Taggart’s biography tells me that she returned to Amherst and visited Dickinson several times. By the 1860s Helen too was writing poetry. Like Emily Dickinson, Helen Hunt Jackson was connected with Thomas Higginson, the editor/abolitionist/feminist who Dickinson famously reached out to and corresponded with, and who helped edit the first collection of Dickinson’s poetry after Emily died.

Helen and Emily exchanged work and discussed writing. Genevieve Taggart even says that Jackson was selecting work for her first collection of poetry while visiting with Dickinson. Unlike Dickinson, Jackson aimed to be published, and did so not only in magazines but eventually in over 20 books.**  While Thomas Higginson discouraged Dickinson from publishing, Helen Hunt Jackson adamantly urged her to. Jackson midwifed the publication in an anthology of one of Dickinson’s poems “Success is counted sweetest”  the only poem of Dickinson’s published in a book during Dickinson’s lifetime.

Did their writing influence each other? It’s hard to say. Jackson certainly didn’t convince Dickinson to become a publishing professional author, but another woman of the same age and town selecting and publishing books of poetry had to encourage Dickinson at least as much as the far-away Bronte and Browning. On the other hand, it seems that Dickinson had already written a great deal of her now famous work before she renewed her childhood friendship with Helen.

I was intrigued to find out that Jackson wrote a novel in 1876 Mercy Philbrick’s Choice  which featured a heroine who was socially reclusive, wore white and wrote poetry that some think might be a novelized tale of Emily Dickinson. I skimmed through it this week. At one point in the novel, a friend of the poet character sends two of her poems to a noted editor who responds favorably, and my heart leapt up, as this sounded like a description of Dickinson’s famous letter to Higginson. There seem to be other tantalizing passages that could be a friend roman à clef’ing Emily Dickinson. But one has to remember that the novel’s author herself, Jackson, is a poet, from the same age and home town. Mercy Philbrick  could also contain elements of her own life and character. That certainly seems so of the title character’s poetry quoted in the book—it doesn’t sound at all like Dickinson.

So, here’s today’s piece, a poem written by Helen Hunt Jackson about an Italian wheat field. It’s kind of a revoicing of Wordsworth’s famous “Daffodils”  poem, but it has its own charm and details. We celebrate National Poetry Month here the same way we present poetry the rest of the year, a mix of the well-known and the forgotten. To hear my performance of Helen Hunt Jackson’s “Poppies on the Wheat,”  use the player below. Want to follow along with the text while listening? Here’s the full text of the poem.

 

 

 

*Emily met Helen’s husband Edward Bissell Hunt when the couple visited Amherst and Emily noted that he was one of the most fascinating men she’d ever met. Edward Hunt was killed at the Brooklyn Navy Yard during the Civil War while leading the testing of a top-secret weapon of his own design, a self-propelled torpedo. Helen remarried after Edward’s death extending her formal name to Helen Hunt Jackson, though she often published using the non-gendered pen name H. H.

**While her poetry is not well known today, Helen Hunt Jackson became a campaigner for Native American rights starting in 1879. In 1881 she published her first book under her own name, a book setting out the reasons for her cause A Century of Dishonor which she sent to every member of congress. Three years later she novelized about Native American issues and wrote a best-seller Ramona  which has been characterized as Uncle Tom’s Cabin,  only dealing with Native American mistreatment.

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The Lake Isle of Innisfree

Last time we had a young man, an American walking in Paris in 1913 who came upon his poem leaving the Metro. Today, another young man, an Irishman in London in 1890, is walking too. He comes to a shop window, drawn by the sound there of water splashing. Looking in, he saw a fountain on display, its upward spray buoying up a ball.

The sound of water instantly brought memories of his childhood home on the coast of Ireland—and as he had been reading Thoreau’s account of his stay at Walden Pond, a small personal fantasy occurred to him of building and living in a self-sufficient cabin on a tiny island back home. Because that Irishman was William Butler Yeats, a poem came from that shop-street window, “The Lake Isle of Innisfree.”

william-butler-yeats-irish-poet-and-dramatist-in-his-study-at-woburn-buildings-london

If one can’t have a solitary wattled cabin, at least one can have books

 
That poem is now one of those beloved “Poetry’s Greatest Hits.” A few years back it topped a survey by an Irish newspaper as its readers’ favorite poem, and though I can’t find a picture of this, I’ve read that it’s been printed on a page of Ireland’s passports since 2013.

Lake Isle of Innisfree

Ireland’s favorite Irish poem was written in a foreign country

 

Of course, like most any Yeats poem it sounds lovely. Its language is straightforward, and there’s not much that needs explication. For a sound medium, it’s not always that a poem’s strongest images are sounds, but here the sounds of lapping water, bees’ hum-resonance, crickets, and a bird’s wings in flight carry the story.

Pound too, with his “In a Station of the Metro”  chose to use nature images in his Paris subway poem; but Yeats makes it plain that he’s stuck in the city, walking the grey pavement, not some country path. Thoreau had presented himself as the practical man in his book, making empirical living experiments. Yeats presents himself as the Romantic, helping imagine an Ireland—then viewed conventionally as a poverty-blighted colony—as an Eden, another locus amoenus. Another unusual choice Yeats makes is switching around the way we might describe night and day: night “a glimmer” and noon “purple glow.” Even though this was written before the dawn of urban lights dimming the night starfield, that’s the glimmering I sense, and if Irish coasts are foggy, noon could have a diffused glow. 1890 London might have fog and coal-fired air pollution too, maybe London fog didn’t glow, and maybe something beyond “light pollution” dimmed the stars.

This weekend’s St. Patrick’s day has become an occasion for the Irish diaspora to look toward its former homeland; and this poem, which speaks with Yeats’ humble yet beautiful specifics, invokes generally the homesickness of travelers, exiles, and immigrants. The specific in poetry often does that, the personal history that’s included standing for us all. This morning, as I filled my mouth with the word “peace” that Yeats wrote down twice in his poem, I could think of the island of New Zealand, and other travelers, exiles, and immigrants.

To hear my performance of Yeats’ “The Lake Isle of Innisfree”  use the player gadget below.

 

The Changeling

Have you heard the name Charlotte Mew? I hadn’t until I came upon it in Herbert Monro’s 1920 Some Contemporary Poets  this month. Last post I presented Walter J. Turner, another now-forgotten early 20th century poet found in Monro’s book-length survey of his era’s British poetry. While I doubt we will ever see a full-fledged W. J. Turner revival, with Mew I think there’s room for growth in interest. She’s that unusual and that good.

I’ll probably spend more time on what I’ve found out about Mew when I present another piece, but to hit some highlights: she cut a notable figure even among the unconventional artists of Bloomsbury, wearing tailored men’s suits and displaying a wide-ranging intellect. Mew was both parodied for her eccentricities and praised. Among her literary admirers: Thomas Hardy, Virginia Woolf, Sara Teasdale, Ezra Pound, Siegfried Sassoon, Walter de la Mare, and Harold Monro himself, who published her first collection of poetry.

Charlotte Mew

Maybe she looks like Gene Wilder as Willy Wonka, but read/listen anyway…

 

Why haven’t I (and likely you) heard of her? Fame forensics is a fraught subject. She’s one of those authors that straddles the centuries, though she didn’t start publishing poetry until the 20th. Some of her subject matter looks backwards, and individual lines will sound like they could be from a Victorian-era poet. Even so, her poetic style is her own. She uses uneven line lengths and unstable rhyme schemes, yet they don’t fall into doggerel. Mew died in 1928 and was not active in publishing in the last years of her life, so as Modernism was taking over she may have been just a bit “yesterday’s papers.” She may be one of those cases where her career didn’t rise high enough and maintain sufficient altitude to carry her glide-path into the second half of the 20th century. But like her admirer and champion Hardy, Mew is another one of those poets who at first, in some superficial respects, can seem old-fashioned, yet her core outlook is modern and unconventional. If one comes upon her work today and doesn’t expect her to sound like T. S. Eliot or Wallace Stevens, her uniqueness can still deserve your attention.

“The Changeling”  is a fairy story of the chilling variety, more “Belle Dame sans Merci”  than Disney. It’s Peter Pan meets Tam Lin! Like some other Mew poems I’ve already read as I start to look at her work, it’s extraordinarily easy to see modern psychological and sociological analysis in it’s situation. The narrator’s outsider sensibility is right there from the start, and the lure of the old wild natural world makes the order of the urban home and nursery regimen seem like a riot against that.

It’s Peter Pan meets Tam Lin!

Despite there being no regular line lengths or stanzas, I found it reasonably easy to set Charlotte Mew’s “The Changeling”  as if it was a folk song of the “Tam Lin”  variety. Alas, as is the case with many of my favorite old ballads, the result is lengthy by song standards. To compensate and decorate the time while you hear Mew’s tale unfold, I’ve added things that a handful of adventuresome British Isles folk-revivalists might have added 50 years ago: there’s tambura, sitar, and my first effort at playing tabla drums.*

So brew up some tea or elfin grot and listen to “The Changeling”  with the player gadget below.

 

 

 

 

*I tried an inexpensive electric sitar a few years ago, but never got the hang of it. I now play sitar and tambura using a MIDI guitar, retuning when desirable. For my attempt at tabla today, I didn’t use a drum controller or pads, but instead triggered the drum hits and pitches with my MIDI guitar as well. As I should always do, I offer my apologies to the real masters of those instruments who have given me much listening pleasure over the years.  On the other hand, my 9 minutes or so today is a short piece compared to many traditional South Asian numbers.

The Book of Lu T’ang Chu

Why bother with little-known poets of the early Modernist age? Well, it’s conceivable that we can better understand the context the better-known poets were operating in by looking at the field the greats stood out from. And frankly, I get a kick out of looking at the left-behinds and odd corners. Like a crate-picker at a used record store, I’m looking for those weird finds that you can’t quite believe exist or that reflect some transitory moment in the culture.

I’ve already mentioned Arthur Davison Ficke in an earlier post as one of the Davenport Group, a bunch of Iowans, who with their rural Illinois cross-river neighbors, made a bit of a splash in American culture in the first part of the 20th Century. Ficke is not as obscure a character as Muriel Strode from our last post, but the separating distances of fame and achievement shrink as time moves on, so you’re not going to run into either of them in any survey course or even specialist literary class in school.

Unlike Strode, I could find out about Ficke’s family background. He grew up in one of Davenport’s richest and most cultured families. His father was a prominent lawyer and had amassed a considerable oriental art collection. After education in Davenport, Ficke was sent to Harvard where he was a classmate of Franklin Roosevelt. After graduation he was granted one of those traditions of the well off, an overseas tour which included travel to Japan.

Throughout his school years, Ficke was drawn to the arts, and yet family expectation dictated that he was to practice law. A career as an art critic and poet therefore progressed alongside lawyering. During WWI, and while serving as a military Judge Advocate, he met Edna St. Vincent Millay and eventually a post-war love affair blossomed. You may see some similarity to Millay in today’s Ficke-written piece, a rhymed, metrical sonnet, a form Millay also worked in.

Arthur Davidson Ficke and Edna St Vincent Millay

Arthur Davison Ficke with Edna St. Vincent Millay.

 

Like Millay, Ficke mixed with the Modernists socially while not consistently writing in the new Modernist style. This ambiguity of Ficke’s toward Modernism played out in an event we’ll cover in a future post.

I don’t find Ficke’s poetry as musical as Millay’s, but his“The Book of Lu T’ang Chu”  still has its charms. The poem combines Ficke’s interest in the Orient with a subtle observation about art in the modern age. This poem’s ancient Chinese emperor and Ficke himself are now both dust in the wind, as we all will be—but we can still listen to his meditation, set to my new music and performed on acoustic guitar, piano, and an attempt at playing (via a MIDI controlled “virtual instrument”) the Chinese traditional zither that came to the fore during the Tang dynasty, the guzheng. Use the gadget below to hear this.

The Emperor of Ice Cream

I was reminded of this poem, and Wallace Stevens in general, while writing about the 20 most anthologized modern American poems recently. It’s odd that I needed to be reminded of Stevens. His poems were always present in the anthologies of my school years, back in the last century, along with Frost (who I disliked when I was young), William Carlos Williams (who I didn’t understand), and Eliot (who I liked for his verbal music without much understanding). There must have been something about Stevens that attracted me, as when I recall the poems I wrote in my youth, they more often looked and sounded like Stevens than those others. There’s a wit of a very contrarian kind that’s all over Stevens’ work, so I’m sure that was a big part of it, but I think it was also Stevens’ verbal music that pulled me in, and unlike Eliot’s, I (subconsciously) imitated Stevens.

I later read that Stevens walked to his famously conventional job as an insurance executive every day, and composed his poems in his head as he walked. This makes sense, as I did the same thing, with the two-footed meter of walking informing the rhythm from the soles of the feet up, rather than from the head down. Another thing about writing while walking: the music of that rhythm carries you into a more hypnotic and subconscious space were lines that sound good and fit to the beat are carried and held into memory more than carefully considered phrases that one would compose at the keyboard or with thoughtful pen in hand—and that same flow can knit together the unlike before thought can reject it.

If you take Stevens’ particular perverse wit, and meld it with composition of poems while walking, you have the recipe for a Wallace Stevens poem like this one.

The title of “The Emperor of Ice-Cream”  has that impish quality. It seems to be light-hearted. Who’s his consort, the Dairy Queen? Is his uncle the King of Burgers? Did he know Prince? Queen Be? Duke, Duke, Duke, Duke of Gelato. And the poem starts off as if we are in a variation of the nursery rhyme “Old King Cole, he was a merry old soul” by calling for the strongest man to crank the ice cream maker.

A digression: do 21st Century people even know what an ice-cream maker is? It’s a bucket, no larger than one used to mop the floor, filled with ice that surrounds a smaller metal canister with a hand-crank-driven paddle screwed into the top. Salt is poured onto the ice, melting it so that it can get the canister colder than zero centigrade, as the crank is turned to churn the mixture of sugar and cream. As the process continues, the contents of the canister thickens and the force needed to turn the paddle increases. Even with a strong man cranking, the resulting ice cream will be softer than the concrete brick of modern ice cream, as that is a creature of refrigeration unknown in Stevens’ youth; but the cool, rich, sweet taste would also be all the rarer then too.

Ice Cream Maker Ad

“Call the roller of big cigars, the muscular one” churning that 2 gallon one would take a mighty man

 

So back to the poem. We have the strong cigar-maker man churning, amidst young, common, unmarried women and boys bringing flowers. The resulting ice cream demonstrates Stevens comically expanded vocabulary, it’s “concupiscent,” lustfully good!  Freud may have famously insisted that “a cigar is sometimes just a cigar,” but a multitude of Blues metaphors contemporary to Stevens would agree, this is a lusty scene.

And the title reappears. Pleasure, broadly drawn, is the ruler of all!

So far Stevens has only been perverse in the weird “Old King Cole”  language of the revelry, capped off with a word that most of us can’t even pronounce, much less spell or define.

Bang! Into the next stanza. I had always thought “dresser of deal” was flowery poetic diction for “we need to deal with” the situation in this next scene, but it’s more of Stevens’ vocabulary quiz. “Deal” is an archaic term for cheap pine wood. The exquisite detail of the missing drawer pulls, so much like the shabby second-hand dressers of the bedrooms of my pre-IKEA youth, yields to the fullness of the scene: it’s a room with a dead body.

Digression again: my son bursts into the room where I am writing this. He has just heard a robocall barking “If you or your loved one is over 65, they have a 1 in 3 chance of falling. Don’t let that fall be their last. Press 1 to…” He’s laughing, and continues “…hear about our warning-thingy scam…”

I follow on with my additions “…and press 2 if you want him to die anyway since he’s not allowing you any screen time today….and 3 if you are hard-of-hearing and WOULD LIKE US TO REPEAT THIS MESSAGE LOUDER.”

Back to the solemn dead body, cold and dumb, being covered with a sheet from the dresser of deal that is poignantly too short to cover the feet. Stevens leaves the light on, we need to see this clearly. And the title returns, now a refrain, and in this new context, the ruler of all offers only fleeting pleasures that one strives for, passes through, and melts away. The poem ends.

Stevens arrives at the insurance company offices. He strolls in past the receptionist, arrives at his office. Warren G. Harding is President. He asks his secretary to take this dictation. Obedient to her accustomed role, she folds back the steno pad, pencil in hand. Did she care for his poetry that she transcribed? That would be immaterial, she has only to listen.

Wallace Stevens Walking

Strolling Wallace Stevens in the 1920s. Cane in one hand, thesaurus in the other?

 

Two scenes. Two passing stations on a walk perhaps, or a flight of memories as lines emerge along steps. Only one more perversity to note, a puzzling line that looks like a typo: “Let be be finale of seem.” Let the steps the author is taking when he wrote this be our guide. One stride: “Let be”, then a double-time step: “be finale,” another step: “of seem.” I had never figured this line out, but someone on the Internet named Daniel E. Burke pointed me to this letter Stevens wrote in 1939. If Stevens had caught a crack in the sidewalk causing a hitch in his step, the line might have been more clearly composed as “Let being  be the finale of seem,” but the Hartford sidewalks were too-well maintained, and Stevens never cared to be understood anyway, only listened to.

 

I had meant to write more about the music I composed for this one, but I’ve run way too long again. I wanted prominent drums to represent the flow of time, a cello to represent the melancholy death thread and a jaunty acoustic guitar part representing the swiving partiers of the first part. Assessing the performance I first thought I should redo or remix it to keep the cello and the guitar to their respective stanzas, but then I rethought that too. Shouldn’t they both be present in each scene to give the flavor of Stevens’ perverse combination? To hear my performance of “The Emperor of Ice-Cream”  use the player below.

 

 

The Self Unseeing

Today’s piece is our first proper piece by English poet Thomas Hardy. In America Hardy may be better known as a novelist, though he considered himself a poet first and last. When Hardy began writing poetry in the 19th Century, William Wordsworth was but a decade dead, and at the end of his career in 1928, T. S. Eliot’s “The Wasteland”  was several years old. So, Hardy’s career starts at the tail-end of the English Romantic revolution, and proceeds through the Modernist Explosion of the early 20th Century.

In some particularities of locales and events, Hardy’s poetry can seem of the 19th Century; but his language, direct, colloquial, and unfusty, seems as modern as the 20th Century modernists. Indeed, modernists from Robert Frost to Phillip Larkin found much to admire in Hardy. Setting many of his poems in the rural areas of western England diffuses the placement of some Hardy poems on a timeline, as the more rapid pace of cosmopolitan change does not mark them as sharply.

The Hardy Tree

“Strap yourself to a tree with roots”
Gravestones moved by Thomas Hardy when progress impinged on a country graveyard.

 

Today’s Thomas Hardy piece is “The Self-Unseeing,”  published in 1901, right in the turning of those centuries that Hardy spans. This is another poem brought to my attention by the Interesting Literature  blog, and I cannot improve on the excellent analysis of the poem there.

In “The Self-Unseeing”  there’s a visit, in a mix of memory and reality, to a long-ago childhood house, a mental voyage many of us can do, assuming we can ride out the emotional waves. Given the fires, floods, earthquakes and winds of the past couple of months across our continent, some will be being taking this visit now wholly in memory.

Thomas_Hardy's_heart

Bury my heart in Stinsford.

 

So, that’s it for analysis of the poem this time, but we’ll offer some music to go along with it: strummed acoustic guitars and bass, and a vocal that’s a bit more to the “sing” side of our usual talk-singing.  To hear it, use the player that should appear below. If you like the variety of what we’re doing here, combining various words with various music, please help us by sharing links to here, hitting the like button, or otherwise letting folks know. Thanks!

 

From Sunset to Star Rise

Today was the Autumn Equinox, which some use to mark the beginning Fall. Where I live it was very hot and muggy, hardly autumn-like at all, and even the reasonable breeze could not budge the heat. I went bicycling with my son, promising him ice-cream, which he accepted as adequate exchange, and picked up cold sandwiches for our supper, but in-between I worked on the setting for this piece, yet another by Christina Rossetti.

I wasn’t intending to return to Rossetti so soon, and I’m not sure how I ran into this poem, but it meshes so well with some others I featured here this month about summer and attitudes to love. I just couldn’t deny it.

Going beyond the last Rossetti poem of longing we featured here, or William Carlos Williams with his observation of nature’s dispassionate summer, or Edna St. Vincent Millay’s notice of a missing summer muse of comfort in herself, this one is more distressed. The speaker is depressed and is showing her friends away—it’s a fairly pure piece of Victorian melancholia. Will her friends notice she’s not keeping her garden up and bring her round some tea and biscuits? One hopes so.

Christina Rossetti charcol

Christina Rossetti: sadness that none-the-less sings in a lovely way

I know little of Christina Rossetti’s life, if she suffered from depression, or if this reflects a more temporary mood; but in whatever case, she fashioned a finely crafted lyric to present the experience. I find this sort of thing often in English poetry, sadness that none-the-less sings in a lovely way. Here is America we grew up some Blues, and we tend more to bargain with despair, or call it names and begin to insult its absurdity.

The title is a bit of puzzle to me, though. “From Sunset to Star Rise”  has something of a “It’ll get better” connotation. Was she trying to remind herself of some wisdom that could come from this, or that there is some mystery yet to work out?

Musically I wrote this on acoustic guitar and the full arrangement retains the acoustic guitar part with some disconsolate drums and slowly building synth parts. To hear it, use the player gadget below.