When I Peruse the Conquer’d Fame

Modernist American poetry has two parents, Emily Dickinson and Walt Whitman, but it’s been awhile since we’ve presented any Whitman here. Dickinson is a subversive Modernist, ironically skewing the expected tropes. Whitman on the other hand is the provocateur, the poet who is proud to say right out front everything he wishes to change.

As Whitman prepared his 1860 edition of his evolving Leaves of Grass,  he was about to cross a Rubicon of a sort. He had decided that erotic material needed to be added to his great collection. Since he wished to be all-inclusive and unabashed, starting with himself, that material would vary, but it would include expressions of male homosexual longing and relationships.

Whitman in 1860 - caricature from Harpers Monthly

Walt Whitman as caricatured in 1860 in Harper’s Weekly

 

Once again, my knowledge of the historical context here is not extensive, but some brief reading this weekend indicates that to the mid-19th century American audience, the homosexual elements of what Whitman was to publish was little or no more disturbing than the erotic element generally. For a man who was already wishing to revolutionize English poetry with his free-verse and universalist message including what would surely be considered shockingly fleshy writing about desire, longing, and connection was certain to complicate his goals for a wide audience. His leading ally within American High Culture, the Transcendentalist Ralph Waldo Emerson, counselled him to not include, or to greatly tone down that material.

Whitman didn’t take that council. The 1860 edition of Leaves of Grass  included a section, Calamus, that was full of love and desire between men. Emerson was right, that would complicate Whitman’s task of revolutionizing American poetry.

When Transcendentalist Thomas Wentworth Higginson* asked Emily Dickinson if she had read Whitman shortly thereafter, Dickinson replied: “You speak of Mr. Whitman. I never read his book but was told that he was disgraceful.” If one is of a speculative mind, one can imagine Emily Dickinson getting a plain brown wrapper delivery of Leaves of Grass  that she would never acknowledge.

This Monday is Veteran’s Day/Remembrance Day, and as he prepared the Calamus  poems Whitman was not a veteran or a survivor with war memories, as the American Civil War that would add another tremendous shaping force on his poetry was still more than a year off. Still he would write this moving comparison that I present today.

When I Peruse the Conquer'd Fame as published

Today’s poem as it appeared in the 1860 edition of “Leaves of Grass.”

 

“When I Peruse the Conquer’d Fame”  is a comparison of two things: fame and envy. Perhaps the fame part will strike you first, along with the implications of worth and value. The fame in the title most often comes to prominent men: victorious generals, Presidents who bask in their election and men who put their names on large buildings. The U.S. Presidents that Whitman would have had in mind then were bumbling ineffectual men, totally incapable of coming to grips with the immense and deadly crisis they were careening toward, but famous none the less.**  What generals would he have in mind? Napoleon or his adversaries perhaps, men who could shuffle the borders and crowned heads back and forth in tides.

And for comparison, Whitman sets out “the brotherhood of lovers.” Does he mean men who love men? As this is part of the homoerotic Calamus  poems section I think we need to accept that is significantly so. He goes on to praise the lovers who are steadfast in their love as aging and fate and even the numbing of time is arrayed against them.

This task of enduring love is not something unique to same-sex lovers, and I suspect that Whitman, the universalist, recognizes that too. But in his particular, he’s saying that unfaltering love which would not then be socially acknowledged is all the more extraordinary, though unknown compared to the war-heroes and political potentates.

Did Whitman, and I suppose myself in my choice to present this poem at this time, just dis veterans? That objection would assume that the two groups are mutually exclusive, at odds. That isn’t so. And if Whitman was here to answer he’d point out he spoke of Generals, Presidents, and rich men, not the soldiers he later comforted and whose wounds he dressed in the upcoming war.

And of course, in the U. S. today it’s Veterans Day, set aside for those who after their service may well have continued as or became those ardent lovers whatever their sexual orientation. We honor them for their service in the one regard, Whitman asks that we consider the second as well.

What of the other comparison, the one you may not have noticed, the one concerning envy? Whitman has chosen not to weigh his comparison between the two sets of roles only by their levels of objective fame, but specifically in the example of his own state of envy. He says he doesn’t envy those powerful and rich men—but of the “long and long” lovers, there he says he is bitterly envious.

Let me suppose Whitman was sincerely speaking here (he has almost no other mode in his poetry than sincerity). But there is an element in Leaves of Grass  where the poet speaking—“Walt Whitman” as the character in his great collection of poems—is meant to be an example, as his verse is an example, of an imperfect thing striving to find a different, better path to something new and not fully known. Whitman, like the best of Modernist art, like various America, like many veterans, ardent as a lover is running faithfully and with a heart open toward an affectionate and unknown future.

Once more I marshal the ranks of my marcato orchestral instruments for “When I Peruse the Conquer’d Fame”  into another “punk orchestral” piece. Harmonically, I’m working a three-chord trick here, just as if the composer/conductor’s podium was stocked with Ramones. Other than the use of a rock’n’roll drum set, the other unusual textures are mixed subtly into the low-end where there’s a contrabassoon line and Fender electric piano bass (ala Ray Manzarek). You can hear it with the player below.

 

 

 

 

*It’s possible that a canny Dickinson might have been telling Higginson what Higginson would want to hear, since Higginson, though au fait with political and social radicalism, was also of the opinion that Whitman was disgusting.

**Coincidentally, the U. S. President when the Calamus  poems including edition of Leaves of Grass  was published was James Buchanan, who may have been gay himself. Though Donald Trump has already selected Andrew Jackson as his favorite President, Buchanan may also prove to be indispensable to his legacy in that Buchanan has long been the consensus choice among historians as the worst-ever President of the United States.

The Testimony of Harmonica Frank Floyd

I promised a return of Dave Moore earlier this month, and here he is, presenting a story that frames itself three ways. In today’s piece Dave reads a short passage from Greil Marcus’ 1975 book Mystery Train: Images of America in Rock’n’Roll Music,  which in turn includes this story 20th century musician Frank Floyd told about himself. Marcus uses the not-quite-a-footnote career of “Harmonica Frank” to outline a grand story of American music forming itself from disparate sources, and Dave’s selection focuses on something particularly disparate and desperate in Floyd’s story, the diversity of work musical and otherwise that Floyd knitted together into a life. That litany of Floyd’s gigs is the coat of arms on the flag of “The old weird America” that Marcus’ famously invoked.


Beside the trick of playing harmonica like it was some stogie, all the while singing, Floyd would play two at once using both his nostrils and his mouth. Getting attention in those old weird America gigs wasn’t easy.

 

Way back early in this blog I had some fun with how my reading of Marcus’ conception had me misinterpreting a song my like-named great-grandfather had reportedly liked. And so, let’s not take Floyd’s claim to have invented rock’n’roll too comprehensively—America invented rock’n’roll out of its own needs and resources, which is essentially Marcus’ over-arching thesis in his seminal book.

I’m over half-way in watching Ken Burns’ Country Music  16-hour documentary series. I’ve got a few hours left to go, so please no spoilers, I don’t want to know how it comes out. It has drawn some criticism for being an overview with Burns’ characteristic trope of excerpting some figures to represent the greater points and leaving out or footnoting others. I suppose the later problem is inevitable but will also always be a fertile ground for argument, and the former, the survey course pacing that keeps moving forward with short excerpts of songs and talking heads (and yes, those won’t stay still pictures’), is something I’ve come to accept with anything that tries to tell a more than century-long story.*  We currently live in a world where much of the once rare and physically bound-up resources of our history, our cultural histories told by example, are widely available, constrained only by time and our levels of interest. Overviews, just as pieces about obscure figures, can inspire one to use those resources to find out more.

Decades ago, when the Internet was still young and more text-based, I was enormously frustrated by Burns’ similarly-scoped Jazz.  Some rare film clip or unheard recording would play for 10 or 15 seconds, and then a talking head would be cut to, telling us how important this one was, how we should pay attention to it, while the filmmaker was doing exactly the opposite.

Country Music  does exactly the same thing, but in a great many cases the whole thing is available fairly easily now. And in the middle episodes, where the “Country and Western” era played out for 20 years or so, I hear the music of part of my father’s life, one of the gigs he knitted together to make a living. I hear the songs that would play on his transistor radio sitting on the metal dash of his bread van, racks now empty and rattling after tray after tray of loaves had been carried into small-town grocery stores via his drives over two-lane roads. Over that insistent chorus of bare-rack snare-taps, the steel guitars and keening vocals cut through readily where we never talked.

Burns’ doesn’t have to play the whole song for those. I know it and I don’t know it instantly.

Well, there I go, off onto something else, talking over consideration of Dave’s presentation of Harmonica Frank Floyd and the many gigs Floyd did while trying to do his “something different,” songs and earn his daily bread. I think you’ll find Dave does a nice job of presenting Floyd’s story. The player to hear him tell it is below.

 

 

 

 

*You can’t win department: the criticism that you didn’t include everybody is the opposite side of you didn’t go deep enough on any one thing. As long as you accept that there’s some value in these survey-course/overviews then you are committed to not delving the depths on a particular issue, style, or person. Of course some get left out, just as the canon of poetry leaves some out—but as we do here with some of our pieces over the years, as Marcus’ did by including the obscure figure of Harmonica Frank, as to some degree Burns did by including another harmonica player: DeFord Bailey in his survey, that should just inspire other, corrective and extending work.

More on that exchange published in the prologue to Kora in Hell

Did you find yourself agreeing more with H.D. or William Carlos Williams in Thursday’s audio piece taken from Williams’ Kora in Hell?  If I was to survey listeners, I’d be surprised if Williams wouldn’t win far more applause. Being that it’s his  book, and he controls what H.D. presents before he responds, it wasn’t really a neutral-site debate.

That sort of exchange could remind you of our modern political ads, where candidate A is quoted or shown in some excerpt that appears outlandish, and then candidate B is cut to saying that they think that’s just as outlandish as you think it is, and I’d never take that position, so vote for me. Except, it’s in reverse. It’s Williams, candidate B, who’s taking the more extreme position. Still I think Williams will largely win the audience.

It’s also easy to see this as a male/female dynamic. H.D. makes a suggestion, plausibly insightful, asking only for self-reflection on W.C.W’s part. Williams responds to her, in much more forceful rhetoric, defending his freedom, saying in effect when you say “sacred” I hear “heretic.” I think a great many observers of gender roles would see this as a stereotypical exchange. I agree*, but I could imagine this same exchange with the genders switched—less common, but possible. And it certainly occurs in a same gender situation too.

Something else that came to mind as I read this was a division that was made in an influential essay at mid-century, something that was still current when I was in school. This month I re-read that essay after Kora in Hell  and the telling exchange I took from its prologue. It’s by critic Philip Rahv, published in 1939, and its title “Paleface and Redskin”**  sets out the framework of its thesis, something that professors still thought relevant when I was being taught. The title is a distinctive dichotomy Rahv had observed in American literature. This paragraph from Rahv’s essay summarized the two types:

…the redskin glories in his Americanism, to the paleface it is a source of endless ambiguities. Sociologically they can be distinguished as patrician vs. plebeian, and in their aesthetic ideals one is drawn to allegory and to the distillations of symbolism, whereas the other inclines to a gross, riotous naturalism. The paleface is a ‘highbrow,’ though his mentality…is often of the kind that excludes and repels general ideas; he is at the same time both something more and something less than an intellectual in the European sense. And the redskin deserves the epithet ‘lowbrow’ not because he is badly educated—which he might or might not be—but because his reactions are primarily emotional, spontaneous, and lacking in personal culture. The paleface continually hankers after religious norms and tends toward a refined estrangement from reality. The redskin, on the other hand, accepts his environment, at times to the degree of fusion with it, even when rebelling against one or another of its manifestations. At his highest level the paleface moves in an exquisite moral atmosphere; at his lowest he is genteel, snobbish, and pedantic. In giving expression to the vitality and to the aspirations of the people, the redskin is at his best; but at his worst he is a vulgar anti-intellectual, combining aggression with conformity and reverting to the crudest forms of frontier psychology.”

Rahv ostensibly doesn’t favor either side. His observation, made by a man who could claim to be an immigrant, outside observer, was that American Lit was binary and divided with authors on one side or the other and no synthesis, and that this was a bad thing. ***

Palefaces and Redskin Potatoes

Pale faces and redskins, or 3 artists and some spuds.

 

It’s easy to see that divide in the H.D. and William Carlos Williams exchange. H.D. in the moment captured in her letter to W.C.W. is paleface, and Williams is redskin. Rahv expends most of his examples on novelists, and Modernist novelists like Hemmingway and Faulkner and Sherwood Anderson he feels all fail to a significant degree due to redman tendencies. But Modernist poets weren’t really in either camp as Rahv defines them. Ezra Pound could be claimed as either, and even in the two early pre-Modernist poems I’ve just presented here he tries on each personae: in “Grace Before Song”  a pious poet in service of art who will be personally forgotten and in “In Thus in Nineveh”  as an unheralded poet who will be remembered because the people value the lively if imperfect vitality of his verse.

Feel free to consider Rahv’s classification system as silly, outdated, or even distasteful. I myself consider it an amusing parlor game kind of thing, more subjective than Rahv thinks it is, and as subject to superficial oversimplifications as taking a “Which Disney Princess are you” quiz. ****

I wasn’t going to include any audio with today’s post, but after spending a day avoiding completing this post so that I could play with orchestra scoring, I figured I could read a couple more sentences also from Rahv’s 1939 essay backed by a short example of what I was coming up with. The player’s below.

 

 

*Even though Williams and English language Modernism in general coincided with the rise of women’s independence and citizenship, and even if women were participants in this cultural revolution, that doesn’t mean that Modernist men were invariably feminist—far from it. There are things to admire about W.C.W. for sure, but even in my limited reading of his work I keep getting this weird vibe from him where women are concerned.

**Yup, Rahv went there with the casual use of the racial slur. As literary culture goes in this era, totally non-remarkable and non-controversial. The first college I attended, where I heard of Rahv’s essay, had named its sports teams The Redmen, a just  more polite term. I had a tiny part in asking this name be changed. In Rahv’s defense I’ll say that he was a Jewish heritage immigrant from the Pale of Settlement. If life experience is knowledge, he likely “understood” ethnic slurs as deeply as any of us.

The kind of dichotomy Rahv lays out has analogues in modern discussions on just how street a rapper is, or debates on if performance poetry can be “real poetry.”

***From the luxurious wisdom of history, I found it fun reading the essay to see who of his contemporaries he thought was fatally damaged by this inability to join the strengths of both groups. He seems to give obvious paleface T. S. Eliot a passing grade, though noting that he had to leave America. Rahv says “Faulkner’s horror stories have long ago ceased to have any recognizable value.” History disputes Rahv there. Hemmingway is just a retread Natty Bumppo he says, an arguable case still today (even though I’ll take the other side on that one). Emily Dickinson gets an atta girl notice as a more or less successful paleface. No, additional reflection since 1939 has discovered that Dickinson is a redskin with paleface trappings.

****I’m Jasmine.

The Parlando Spring 2019 Top Ten Part 2

Before we continue with our count-down of the most liked and listened to audio pieces this past spring, let me remind newcomers what the Parlando Project does. We take words (mostly other people’s, usually poetry) and perform them along with original music in various styles and sounds.

I really try to honor that intent for variety. My musical and singing limitations cannot be overcome just by intention—but the idea is to test limitations to see what will bend or break, not to treat them as barriers to be looked at from a safe distance off.

7. Water. One of our post series this spring I called “The Roots of Emily Dickinson.” I had the obligatory exposure to Dickinson during my education in the mid-20th century. My impression then was that she was treated as an approachable poet of the second rank. I think the shortness of her poems was part of that presumption of approachability, and that contributed to her subsidiary ranking too. And yes, the filter of gender stereotypes and prejudice had to be a factor. Common anthology poems like “Because I could not stop for death”  added a little gothic touch to our genteel high-school textbooks, and in my college life she got a place in American lit, though much less in more general literature or poetry courses.

But when you dive into Dickinson deeply you may find that the modest surface level of a Dickinson poem, which seems a homey back-lot pond, is rather a deep and mysterious well, and that you’ll run out of breath long before you touch the bottom of some of her little poems. If you’re curious like me, you can’t help but wonder: “What did Emily Dickinson think she was doing?”

So, this spring I looked at some of her models, confidants, and influences, and chief among them must be Transcendentalism, the hard to pin down American movement centered in Dickinson’s own region and time whose instigator and leading prophet was Ralph Waldo Emerson. I had fun in my original post on “Emerson’s Water”  by comparing Emerson’s fame and influence to Oprah Winfrey—but really, you’d have to add to Winfrey, Malcom Gladwell and the Dali Lama to get the range of Emerson’s influence.*  I was going to add some Robert Bly in there too, but though Emerson wrote poetry and influenced poets up to and including Robert Frost and Wallace Stevens, Emerson’s own poetry was not even wholly esteemed by other Transcendentalists.

Emerson’s poem “Water”  is still worth hearing, as many of you must have found here this spring. Back in The Sixties, when I first encountered the Transcendentalists’ story, I could see connections to the Hippie culture, and now in a generally more practical and materialist time I still see linkages. The Midwest had exceptionally widespread flooding issues this spring, and Emerson could have written “Water”  this year to address that. What’s Emerson got to say about water? The player is below.

 

Charles-Temple-Emily-Dickinson-silhouette

I could use this silhouette as metaphor for trying to understand Dickinson from what surrounded her. For the more mid-20th century among us: look at that chin and hear Charles Gounod’s music.

 

 

 

6. He Wishes for the Cloths of Heaven. William Butler Yeats is another familiar word-musician who supplies words to the Parlando Project. Perhaps I came closer to Yeats because I’ve ended up hanging around some Irish-American poets** once I moved to Minnesota, but if one is interested in musical sounding poetry in English, with things to consider beyond the inviting sound, eventually you’ll turn the corner and Yeats will be there.

The poem’s romantic closing lines are among several of Yeats’ that are well remembered by readers—memorability being one of the great tests of poetry. Hear those closing lines, for the first time or again, with the gadget below.

 

William Butler Yeats with cat

It was a classic battle of wills. The cat would not get up until Yeats agreed to get the cat food, and Yeats wouldn’t get the food until the cat got off his lap. Both were found and rescued in an emaciated state.***

 

5. May-Flower. From the roots present in Emerson, to the flower as expressed by Emily Dickinson herself, here’s the fifth most liked and listened to piece this spring.

Let’s return to the question of Dickinson’s intent. There some thought that this was written as merely a riddle-puzzle, that the reader was to guess the genus of the bloom from the clues in the poem. If that so, if that’s all, then it seems to me that Dickinson failed as a riddle-maker, as the clues don’t seem to determine the exact flower (and Dickinson, the avid botanist, would have had the knowledge to have done that). I decided to take her text and drill down to the mystical essentials she wrote of instead.

This is not the first time I’ve written of the psychedelic aspects of Dickinson. I can’t quite do the differential diagnosis on her eye problems (for which we know she needed medical attention) or decide on the theories that she may have had epilepsy or another disorder that could have caused auras and visual disturbances, but Dickinson often seems to be asking us to see differently, more intensely, as I believe she does here.

What kind of singular mind can toss this off as a riddle?

Hear my performance of “May-Flower”  with the player.

 

 

 

*All of these pop-culture comparisons understate the influence Emerson seems to have had in American academic life, also largely centered in New England at the time, but I don’t think they understate that Emerson’s readership in America’s 19th century extended deeply into the general literate class.

**Perhaps the most directly connected to Irish culture of them would be Ethna McKiernan. A footnote is not an adequate way to draw attention to the news that she has a new book, but she does.

***This is a joke, and only this footnote is serious. And don’t link to yesterday’s post for your homework as a cite that Carl Sandburg taught O’Hara, Baraka, and Wilbur about the building trades.

Thoreau’s June

We’ve already heard from Claude McKay and Thomas Wentworth Higginson on the month of June, and now it’s time to turn to one of the foremost spirits of the mid-19th century American Transcendentalist movement, Henry David Thoreau.

Thoreau is well-known for being in the activist, live-the-ideals, wing of Transcendentalism, though readers here have been introduced to Thoreau’s contemporary Thomas Wentworth Higginson—more than a footnote in the Emily Dickinson story—who also spent considerable time living those ideals.

Henry David Thoreau

Collect the series: Unfortunate Hair Stylings of Important Personages

 

Thoreau and Transcendentalism’s major domo Ralph Waldo Emerson lived in the same town in Massachusetts, and one of the most striking things for me when I first visited that town, Concord, was to think that in a matter of a few blocks there lived Emerson, Thoreau, Hawthorne, Bronson and Louisa May Alcott—all in this place not that much larger than the small farming community I grew up in. What a town that must have been in those years!

Transcendentalism is a little hard to put a finger on exactly as a movement because it was interested in and had change-convictions about so many things. Higginson in his 1899 collection of memoir pieces Cheerful Yesterdays  calls it “The Period of the Newness” and speaks of “The Sisterhood of Reforms.”

My current working-definition of Transcendentalism is it is the belief that there is a primary knowledge to be obtained from the deep study and meditation on the structures and methods of nature, as opposed to the accumulation of received and conventional truths about it. Thoreau the Transcendental activist helped to pioneer this, often writing about his direct experience of nature. His thought process also caused him to develop political ideals, including Civil Disobedience to unjust and violent government actions, famously inspiring Gandhi and Martin Luther King.

Thoreau didn’t just inspire Gandhi and King with his writing. The first story I ever heard of Thoreau recounted the tale of Ralph Waldo Emerson visiting Thoreau who had been jailed for refusing to pay taxes as a protest against the Mexican-American war and its support of slavery.

Henry, what are you doing in there?” Emerson asked across the jail door bars.

“Waldo, the question is, what are you doing out there?” Thoreau replied.

But here’s one lesser known thing about Thoreau, the deep naturalist, writer and political activist: he was also something of an engineer. Between writing and other activities, he was active in his father’s business, a small factory that made pencils. A chief problem at the time was the formulation of the graphite used in the “lead” for these indispensable writing instruments. Thoreau’s father’s pencils, like other American pencils at the time, used a too soft binder that led to a crumbling point and blurry line. Through study of European pencils (and one suspects a little lab time on his part) Henry David Thoreau, Transcendentalist writer, philosopher, and activist figured out a clay formulation to mix with the powdery graphite to produce a much better American pencil. Profits from the sale of these pencils and the underlying technology* were largely what supported Thoreau’s writing career.

Not to make too fine a point of it—and King and Gandhi might have found other inspiration, and Thoreau other funding—but the 20th century Afro-American civil rights movement and the independence of the Indian sub-continent owe something to a thing as prosaic as a better pencil design—monumental things that literally come from a feet of clay.

Today’s piece is a short meditation taken from an entry in Thoreau’s Journals for June 6th 1857. Adding to the above connection, when Thoreau was writing his nature observations in the field, he most likely was doing so using a pencil of his own design. Note too that at one point engineer-Thoreau talks of the revolution of thought connected to the revolution of the natural cycle of seasons as if they are the meshing of a gear train.

Thoreau June 6 1857

Handwriting as bad as mine! The page from Thoreau’s journal containing today’s text.

 

Written as prose, it has a flow that I could find to recite and accompany it with music. The piece’s chordal part I played on an electric 12-string guitar recorded in the manner Roger McGuinn and the engineers on The Byrds recordings devised in the Sixties. Instead of the John Coltrane-inspired lead 12-string melodic line of something like “Eight Miles High”  I played an acoustic guitar with an E-Bow, a magnetic invention that drives a guitar string to vibrate and produce a flute-like sound. As I read a little about Thoreau this week, I came upon the information that he was also an avid flute player, so it seems appropriate.

The player gadget is below. My apologies for being away from this blog and blog activities so far in June—you know, life and things.

 

 

 

 

*Here’s more about Thoreau and his pencils. I first heard the story on the radio series “Engines of our Ingenuity”.

Higginson’s June

Here’s another post in our informal series “The Roots of Emily Dickinson.” Now a title like that may lead some to think I’m some sort of Dickinson scholar—which would be a fine thing to be, but I’m not. Frankly, when I started this project a few years back I assumed I’d present some Emily Dickinson poems. After all, not only do they famously fit well to music, but she was part of the poetry canon that I was raised on. Then something unexpected happened.

When I started to dig into Dickinson poems they grew mysterious, not just the elusive mystery of their intent or even their true subject, but the somewhat more external mystery of how they came to be written in the mid-19th century in a town in rural Massachusetts without any sure models for Dickinson’s new kind of poetry.

We know how many other writers assembled their machines and what fueled them. Shakespeare and Bob Dylan worked within successful entertainment enterprises, even if they were to reshape them. T. S. Eliot had a scholar’s interest in a wide range of art and spirituality across history, and after the trauma of WWI a significant part of the culture was waiting for someone to reassemble it however dolefully, even if it was in his Cubist collage. The Surrealists were crystal-clear about their influences and the impact of Freud and psychoanalysis. The G.I. Bill after WWII and the following post-war American prosperity introduced large numbers to colleges and college towns, including some who would likely not have attended before the war. This fueled not only the Beats, but the more academic-associated American poets of my youth. The 20th Century urban migration of Afro-Americans and the Talented Tenth tactics of the early 20th century U.S. Civil Rights movement encouraged the Harlem Renaissance and similar artists.

Emily Dickinson? It’s just not so clear to me. My best guess remains that she was a Transcendentalist of some sort in a household dominated by a father that wasn’t. Transcendentalism, staunchly individualist in it’s outlook has no mandatory dogma, but the sense that the intense, even visionary study of nature reveals the deepest spiritual truths seem to me to be its core. Received truths, any established customs and traditions, are to fall before this apprehension.

However individualist in philosophy, the Transcendentalists and the Boston publishing and cultural nexus were intimately connected socially in a way that Dickinson was not.

One incident, often judged as a quasi-accident* closed this circuit. In 1862 as the 31-year-old Dickinson had begun her extraordinary five years or so of white-hot poetic composition, she wrote Thomas Wentworth Higginson and enclosed a few of her poems. A string of correspondence ensues, and eventually the two met in person.

Dickinson’s letter is conventionally seen as a “cold call” prompted by Higginson writing a magazine article in The Atlantic “A Letter to a Young Contributor.”  That article is largely unremarkable if sensible, the subject one that is covered over and over wherever there are editors who accept written submissions. Submit clean, legible copy. Re-writing is as important as writing. Remember your audience and take pity on them. Hey, the editor is on your side—they, like the writer, want to produce good work.

And here we come to the next beat in the story as it’s usually told. Higginson is often portrayed as something of a doofus, the archetypal mansplainer who can’t understand Dickinson’s greatness. He suggests Dickinson write more conventionally and doesn’t think her work is suitable for publication. Presented with one of the founding geniuses of Modern poetry, he’s blind and hesitant.

Is that so? Well, there’s a lot we don’t know. First, we only have letters from Dickinson’s side of the correspondence. I’ve delayed this post so that I could at least read some of Higginson’s writing on other contemporaries of his and Dickinson, and one thing stands out from his later 19th century accounts of his life and times: he’s the soul of discretion (obscuring names for embarrassing incidents), generous even to his opponents, and extraordinarily hesitant in claiming credit for any of the things he may have been instrumental in. As an editor and literary critic, he seems to have a fairly good and objective eye, and he does not shy from pointing out shortcomings in writers he admires. I read his essay on Emerson written shortly after Emerson’s death, and his admiration for the man and his intellect does not keep him from agreeing with judgements about the faults of Emerson’s poetry. It therefore seems likely he could have suggested changes to Dickinson in his correspondence.

How artistically wrong would those suggestions have been? How harmful might they have been to the isolated Dickinson? Even if he was “wrong” could he have been tactically right about what mid-19th century audiences would tolerate? Here we don’t know the devilish details, but we know some things otherwise: Dickinson wrote most of her nearly two thousand revolutionary highly condensed poems as this correspondence was initiated. If Higginson squelched her or convinced her to temper her individuality, he must have been bad at it. If, on the other hand, what he said encouraged and kept her going, that would be consistent with what occurred.

Here’s something else we know objectively: in 1890 he was instrumental in getting Dickinson’s posthumous-published-career off the ground.**  He did not prevent and may have agreed with the conventionalizing of Dickinson’s punctuation, adding of titles to title-less poems, and so on—but historically those editions sold well right from the start and gained Dickinson a reading public. He added his prestige to the launch with the book’s introduction where he framed her (not yet knowing how well Dickinson would sell) as a sort of art brut phenomenon:

“In many cases these verses will seem to the reader like poetry torn up by the roots, with rain and dew and earth still clinging to them, giving a freshness and a fragrance not otherwise to be conveyed.”

This may be false, even if it’s an accurate advertisement for the impact reading Dickinson for the first time may have on a reader. Yes, Dickinson was likely a more conscious and careful artist than this impression leaves us with. But it worked! Remember, there was no Dickinson tradition to be misinterpreted when he did this. To a large degree, the reason we have an on-going debate about Dickinson that more than a handful of graduate students and eccentrics like me care about is because of his work in insuring that original edition.

Now for a surprise. I did not know that Higginson had written poetry until I came upon this poem by accident while looking for June poems. I can find nothing about it, but in the absence of knowledge I’ll speculate it might be from Higginson’s college-age youth. Here it is:

June

I may be full of perplexing thought even if this June day isn’t

 

It’s a graceful sonnet. I’m not in love with the slightly over-egged consonance of the “Lieth the lustre of her lovely life” line, but I’d suspect other readers would point it out with appreciation. On the other hand, the vowels of the preceding line “All the long day upon the broad green boughs” are pleasing to me. And the poem’s fine opening line, referring to June’s summer overture, “She needs no teaching,—no defect is hers” is hard for me to not read, whenever it was written, as the proper way to approach Emily Dickinson’s genius. The ending of the octet “While too much drugged with rapture to carouse/Broods her soft world of insect-being rife” is a truly strange one, half awkward “poetic diction” perhaps necessary to make the rhyme, and half a striking William Burroughs a-century-too-early image of June on the narcotic nod as summer’s insect-being is partly suppressed for the moment.

The sestet is not as distinctive, and I wonder if “zone” was chosen for its rhyme rather than being the best word at the end of the 12th line, but overall more interesting than most 19th century American sonnets. In his “Young Contributor”  article Higginson sagely notes that duality of the critic who’ll offer criticism when they themselves are not accomplished in the arts they criticize. “People criticize higher than they attain” he says.

After all that, here’s Thomas Wentworth Higginson’s sonnet “June”  and my performance of it. The player gadget to hear it is below.

 

 

 

*The writer of the standard Dickinson biography Richard Sewell believed that regular Atlantic  reader Emily Dickinson was attracted to Higginson’s nature articles which he’d published in The Atlantic  prior to the “Young Contributor.”  Early Dickinson biographer Genevieve Taggard speculates that George Gould (which she identifies as Dickinson’s ex-fiancé) may have suggested Dickinson write Higginson.

**I’m still underinformed on all the details of how we got to the 1890 publication of the first large batch of Dickinson poems. Originally, Dickinson’s sister looked to Sister-in-Law and intimate friend Susan Gilbert Dickinson to shepherd the publication. Susan Dickinson said (after the successful Higginson-introduced 1890 edition) that she had a big idea for presenting Dickinson in a fuller way from the start, but the project didn’t seem to get off the ground in the mind of Dickinson’s sister who was legally the rights holder. In an example of the multivalent family dynamics of the Dickinson family, the mistress of Susan Gilbert Dickinson’s husband (Emily’s brother, Austin) Mabel Todd Loomis, was then brought in as well as Higginson to edit and arrange for the first publication of Emily Dickinson’s work. Where Higginson comes in within this series of connections and who selected who, I don’t know, but seeing the book to completion and getting it published and launched with notice and eventual surprising sales has to be presumed to be largely Higginson’s work. He was the man with the connections, track record and prestige after all.

It Is Not Always May

I cannot start any presentation of a Longfellow poem here without noting his extraordinary fall from esteem and fame. Once, through a combination of the historical moment in the growth of the United States, his talents, and a desire to write earnestly meaningful poems, Longfellow seemed our national poet. Did it seem, when that was so, that this would be for all time—or at least for an age longer than a decade or two short of a century?

Any reading across this project’s nearly three years will show that I find worth in the less-well-known, the overlooked. But nothing that is honestly popular can be unworthy of examination—after all, even manifold problems and failures of art in that which drew a large audience tell us something about that audience, our fellow human beings. Which case now, overlooked or popular, is Longfellow?

Choice Thoughts from Longfellow

Imagine a current poet whose rep could generate a board game where one wins quotes from their poems (image from Maine Historical Society collection)

 

If Whitman, Dickinson and Frost—or their unseen ghosts in our zeitgeist—still motivate our inner singing muses, can we understand that trio—our current national poets—as reactions to Longfellow, making him still a prime-mover of some interest?

So, let’s listen to “It Is Not Always May”  today. Rhymed metrical English language lyric is not easy to do, and harder to do if you want it to sound easy, and this one is pretty good. Yes there’s a bit of “poetic diction” here, words and word-order that we’d never say in actual speech, and I suspect that would be true even in 1842 when this poem was published, but it doesn’t greatly harm the poem.

The imagery is largely conventional, though as a seasonal poem we may expect some of these ready-mades to be checked off: birds, bird-song, budding trees, the young, the frolic. Can one do a winter poem without snow and stasis, an autumn poem without colored falling leaves, and so on? Yes, this is possible, and originality can be a great strength—but there’s a certain resonance with the choir of poets to sing those ancient notes in one’s own song. Conventional and outdated it may be, but I rather liked the clouds as sailing vessels in a river-fed harbor awaiting a west wind to up-anchor from New England for the “Old World.” And the poem’s refrain: “There are no birds in last year’s nest,” which Longfellow identifies as a Spanish proverb, has its vividness too.

Oh in my soul, I think the Imagists were right, that too many poems use conventional images as mere counters, pro-forma symbols, not real vivid objects we can consider as existing outside the poetic line. But I could just see Longfellow and the sea-side clouds as an actual charged moment.

And how about this poem’s sentiment? Well many acceptable modern poems have opinions, outlooks, sentiments, and so the charge against Longfellow isn’t really that, rather it’s sentimentality, the idea that he has no original outlook, no fresh take. What would his readers in the days of his fame have thought? A feature, not a bug? Longfellow was the premier “Fireside Poet,” suitable for reading to the family, suitable for school-books and children’s illustrated early readers. Did they view this poem as a basic truth to be reminded of, or did they view this as sufficient in itself? I assume some thought each.

Yes, I want more than that from poetry. Reassurance and singular conventional answers aren’t even what children want and need exclusively. But this poem is balanced in a way that I can admire. It’s a carpe diem poem without a smarmy pickup line, a song of the life-death cycle that plays the undertones, a poem that asks subtly for youth to be irresponsible, or responsible to their youth not earned wisdom (“to some good angel leave the rest”).

Do we need a new Longfellow today? I’m not sure. I would be pleased if more people appreciated poetry more widely, and as I’ve argued elsewhere here, that “not great poetry” does no harm, and might even do some good for more unusual or challenging poetry. I think I forgot to say clearly enough in my recent series on “Are Song Lyrics Poetry” that to a large degree we’ve asked song-lyrics to fill this role of poetry in my lifetime. But I do believe we needed a Longfellow at least once to establish the ground on which our foundational modern poets erected their structures.

So, it’s fitting that I chose to sing this May poem of Longfellow’s, even given the limitations of my singing voice. Once more I was drawn to using the less and more than realistic Mellotron flute and cello sounds to signify a pastoral scene. Even with my limitations, “It Is Not Always May”  sings well and easily, and I urge you to hear it with the player below. The poem’s text is available here if you’d like to read along.