I’ve got a gorgeous song for you today, despite a difficult week for new work. I’ll try to get to it shortly, with only a little throat-clearing first.
It was 18 degrees F below zero* this morning. Oh, there was probably some wind chill too, but let’s not put too fine a point on temps like that — Minnesota January winter certainly doesn’t.
Our winter, to speak broadly, isn’t just cold. There’s also ice, snow, and winter cancellations and rescheduling. If that sounds grim, well, somedays it is — but then there’s a little something else about this sort of winter when you run across others out in it. Early this morning I saw another bicyclist with full face mask and goggles sawing their bike over the packed snow pavement. Before that, a woman walking her dog, each of them concentrating on getting such business done. In other duties, some school kids were walking to school. Every one of those fellow citizens are dealing with this shared winter too, and despite not being able to see much of their faces, you can likely feel something of a common cause.
But winter can also be experienced without even such scattered crowds. I used to commute around midnight on a bicycle, and the urban streets on rough winter nights would be the same as some new nowhere, like unto a SciFi paperback cover of the astronaut gazing through alien ruins. My wife sometimes runs just before dawn to a park that has no others but her and the existential animals.
Today’s piece is a winter poem by American poet Elinor Wylie, who wrote absolutely lovely short lyrical poems around 100 years ago. Hers is a slightly different winter. First, she’s walking with someone else. She doesn’t mention the temperature, but I doubt it quite as bitter-brittle as my morning. Hers is explicitly windless, but there is snow, the kind of loose powder that tends to fall when it’s colder than the soggy wet flakes.
Wylie’s reputation dropped fairly rapidly after her premature death in 1928. One knock against her pretty poems was that they were that and nothing else but attractive pictures drawn in word music. Well of course music itself doesn’t task itself with more than to be attractive, and visual art doesn’t need to support a philosophical argument or insight explicitly.
Sure it’s a pretty line: “I shall go shod in silk,” but damn it, open the door, it’s seriously winter out here!
I rather like this poem’s picture, because it’s something of a white-space void with just scant details coming out of the snow, like a Whistler painting. But it’s not even visual clues for the most part — the details are textures, feel images: veils, silk, wool and fleece, feathers and down, and then the velvet of the title. There is testimony that there is no noise, much less talk. Indeed, her partner in the walk is near-totally obscured, and this choice —conscious or unconscious — seems striking to me. Is she alienated from them, or so close that there’s no novelty in mentioning? The sensuality of the imagery may give undercurrents of erotic love, but the obscuring of the partner makes that reading stranger.
Though it’s freshly done, I’m fond of the music I came up with for Wylie’s poem. Maybe you’ll like the little song they make together when I performed it this morning. The player gadget is below for some of you, and if you don’t have that, you have this highlighted hyperlink that will also play it.
Because they usually deal with brief moments in time, we sometimes think of lyric poetry as making do with simple thoughts, singular emotions felt distinctly. Today’s piece, English poet Thomas Hardy’s “The Shadow on the Stone” shows us it can be otherwise.
I suppose one can say it’s a poem about grief, or you could say it’s another ghost story. If it’s a ghost story, it’s poised entirely between belief and disbelief in such afterlife visitations. If it’s a grief poem, and it is that I think, it points out that grief doesn’t mean simple, singular, feelings.
Let me summarize a few things that are biographically behind this poem, even though I think some of its ambiguity can be sensed, felt, and to a degree understood without them.
The poem’s author, Hardy, was married in his thirties* to another woman of the same age. There was something of a romance in their courtship story. She was beautiful, looked younger than her suitor, and loved to ride around the English countryside on horseback. She was a doted-on daughter from a well-borne family that had had some financial setbacks. Hardy was from a tradesman’s family and was not established successfully in a trade or as the controversial author of novels he would become. Not long into the marriage, the wife began to think of this as what would have been called then “a misalliance.” He was beneath her standing after all — and Hardy’s eventual emergence as a novelist of note if anything made her more estranged. She considered herself a writer, while others dismissed her work as all the while Hardy’s began to succeed.
Eventually she moved to the attic of their house, and their emotional separation was an open secret among their acquaintances. In 1912, after more than 35 years of marriage, most spent in estrangement from her husband, she died.** In going through her attic quarters they was found a manuscript she had been writing. Some accounts give its name as Why I Hate My Husband and others What I Think of My Husband.***
For Emma, Forever Ago. Thomas Hardy and pre-ghost-wife wife Emma back in the 19th Century.
So, what happens in the moment of this poem, after her death, and after that life-history? Here’s a link to the poem’s text if you’d like to follow along. The poem’s speaker (I’ll just say “Hardy,” as Thomas Hardy was forthright about the subject of his grief poems) is working during the autumn in his garden and sees cast across a “Druid stone”**** a shadow shape which he says in his imagination brings to mind the shadow of his dead spouse when she would garden there. While he says this was “imagining” he’s not completely sure. Those aware of Hardy’s marriage history will hear a particular salience in the statement that the ghost of his dead wife is one “I long had learned to lack.” But this phenomenon, of intimates appearing in the imagination of the grieving is commonplace, and I can say in the experience of myself and my dead spouse, it’s not a simple wistful visitation. If one’s world has been turned upside down, you may not want it to spin some more, even backwards.
In the second stanza this “Is she really here, or my imagining” state is interrogated. Hardy speaks to whatever is behind him casting shadows, and says (perhaps just in case it’s a real, and maybe even a vengeful, ghost) “I’m sure you are standing behind me.” As if he’s conjured up a spirit and he’s letting them know he knows who/what they are, knows their name, and can query it.
The spirit doesn’t respond. I love the ambiguous skeptic’s final two lines here: “I would not turn my head to discover/That there was nothing in my belief.” Hardy wants to not face it if the spirit is real, not an imagining, and we don’t even know if from fear or love.
Continuing in ambivalence, Hardy says next that he wanted to look and disprove, a statement that he in action doesn’t do.***** Instead he leaves the garden without seeking to disprove or confront the spirit or imagining he believes is representing his dead wife. Best as I can tell, the idiomatic expression “throwing shade” is of Afro-American origin. This Merriam Webster note says it was popularized on Ru Paul’s Drag Race circa 2010, though I’m pretty sure I heard and used it before then. In my performance, I speak it in that meaning, even if Hardy didn’t mean it that way in his time. As in life, Hardy seems to say he must endure and miss his spouse, and so this ambivalence with a possible ghost resonates with his grief.
I mentioned performance above. I started composing here thinking about the Afro-American musical influences on the Velvet Underground, both in rhythm guitar figures and in Moe Tucker’s spare drum kit and approach. If I would have written the drums in this as a jazz-influenced piece, the high-hat would have marked the beat, but there’s no high-hat in this piece’s drum kit, though the tambourine playing does stand in for it somewhat. This didn’t turn out to be a Moe Tucker style drum part after all, but that’s where I started.
My original take had things ending on Hardy’s poem’s final word: “fade” — but overnight I decided it needed a reprise after that hung resolution, and while playing that I decided to riff on some other famous lyrical uses of the word “fade” as a trope of death and persistence. A player gadget is below for some to hear my performance, but if not, this highlighted hyperlink is another way to hear it.
*This is fairly late for a first marriage in the mid-19th century.
**She and Hardy were 72 in 1912. This is not one of those stories of the stricken young bride who died long before her time.
***We may wonder just what the real deal was with their relationship, who was meaner or more dismissive to who — and well, the patriarchy and all that may have colored within the lines, as most accounts by men and women seem to paint Thomas Hardy as the aggrieved party in the marriage. Interesting matters — but for the purposes of presenting this poem, beside the point. Flip a few gendered words in the poem, and imagine it being written by a widow who thinks of her abusive or belittling husband after his death.
****I wondered about this peculiar detail. Was this a characteristic English garden decoration, like a birdbath or garden gnome statue? No. A large flattened top stone was found during construction which Hardy thought was an actual Druid stone, perhaps used as an ancient altar. More evidence that while Hardy was a skeptic, the realness of a supernatural “apparition” is meant to be in question — and this may also allude to some metaphoric bone and ash sacrifices the marriage brought to their lives.
*****In a short essay on this poem, Jeremy Axelrod sees an allusion to the story of Eurydice and Orpheus in the underworld. Hardy doesn’t usually use classical Greek allusions in the poems I’ve read, but even if unintended, well, “death of the author” and “archetypes.”
A longish one this time. I’ll try to make it worth your while.
In the places I go it has been hard to escape Joni Mitchell and the 50-year anniversary of her breakthrough record album Blue this month. Mitchell is one of those artists like Emily Dickinson* or Thelonious Monk who people contemporaneously recognized as someone on the scene, someone whose work might appear at hand or gain mention — but then decades afterward the level of originality and importance of what they had done becomes more and more clear.
Mitchell’s Blue wasn’t immediately recognized as a classic, successful statement. Musically it’s a bit odd, even by the eclectic field of 1971 recordings. Though “singer-songwriter”** was a growing genre at the time, most of them would present their songs in a full band context on record. Instead, Mitchell’s record is spare, often just her voice and one instrument — and sometimes the instrument is a mountain dulcimer at that! She often used her voice unusually, with quick almost yodeling leaps in service of the originality in her melodic contours, and this was off-putting to some. One thing I remember about listening to Joni Mitchell LPs back in my youth was that the amount of volume in her upper register would rattle the plastic frame and enclosures of my tiny portable stereo’s speakers, producing a very unpleasant buzzing distortion.
To the degree that she was noticed in 1971, that she could be a figure who’s fame might outreach her record sales or rock critic esteem — it wasn’t just that she was a successful songwriter for others who could round-off her corners just a bit to present “Clouds (Both Sides Now),” “Woodstock,” or “The Circle Game” to a wider audience than their author could — it was because she was known as (this gets complicated, stay with me here) as the “girlfriend” of a lot of male rock stars. This got joked about. The now infamous Rolling Stone “Old Lady*** of the Year Award” in 1971, or a joke picture of a purported Joni Mitchell LP with a song listing of: 1. Crosby, 2. Stills, 3. Nash, 4. And Young.
Do those of my generation remember that? Did you laugh? I did. That’s part of the complication, but then I believe sex is only funny when you’re risking doing it “wrong” — and it is best if it’s funny some of the time. Dead serious and entirely secret? We might as well sign up for Brave New World industrial reproduction or efficient devices shipped in plain brown wrappers.
That said, now-a-days that 1971 behavior toward Mitchell is now viewed as belittling and a case-study in patriarchal attitudes in the “counter-culture.” Which it was. In the era’s defense I’ll say that the times were groping (should I revise that word?) toward an imperfect but different attitude toward sexual relationships. Just exactly what women would have to say about this wasn’t the first or second thing on the official list of speakers, alas.
It just so happens that Mitchell spoke up anyway, and mixed that with a kind of music which might have seemed just a bit odd or imperfect then, but now is seen as effective, important, and original.
And now it’s time to play Frank’s favorite history game. Folks are thinking about Joni Mitchell and 1971’s Blue here in 2021, but what could we see if we rebound off that 1971 time and look back 50 years from then?
Well, they do tilt their berets the opposite way. Edna St. Vincent Millay and Joni Mitchell
The poetry fans who are still with this post were wondering when I’d get to Edna St. Vincent Millay. In 1921 Millay had broken out as a young poet to watch, partly by that “being on the scene” presence in New York City in the era around and just after WWI, and by famously losing a poetry contest with a poem that many (including the contest’s winner) thought was the best of the lot. That poem was then featured in her debut book-length collection, and now it was time for the “difficult second album.” She planned that second collection to be what was to eventually become her book: Second April, a title that suggested that plan. But she was having trouble with her publisher, and eventually another collection came out ahead of it, just as the 1920’s began to roar: A Few Figs from Thistles.**** It’s a fair analogy: that book was Millay’s Blue. And like Mitchell’s Blue people noticed the author’s public persona not just the poetry. Millay became the exemplar of “The New Woman” of the 1920s, who were sometimes finding patriarchal marriage a doubtful institution, and flaunting disregard for traditional arguments financial and domestic for that. Speaking openly about erotic feelings. Creating their own art rather than settling for standby muse duties.
I’m not sure if even an incomplete list of Millay’s lovers was known to a general poetry reading public 100 years ago, and one can’t quite imagine Poetry magazine naming Millay “The Old Lady of 1921,” but the persona in A Few Figs from Thistles gave us that adventurer in love character that makes Millay and Mitchell echoing artists. But the original edition was a thin volume, chapbook length, and from things I’ve read this week it seems that Millay worried that it wasn’t substantial enough while Second April’s publication faced continued delays. A second version of A Few Figs from Thistles was hurriedly planned and issued, and some of the additions were standout poems in the collection as we now know it, such as the one I use for today’s audio piece: “Recuerdo.” Here’s a link to the full text of that poem if you’d like to follow along.
In her heyday of the 1920s Millay’s Modernist milieu and outlook wasn’t always reflected in her poetic diction. This may have helped her readership who were not yet used to, or appreciative of, free verse or other experiments in expression. Robert Frost or William Butler Yeats would also retain a poetry audience in this time with lovely metrical verse that expressed the modern condition, but Millay was (to my mind) not consistently as facile with metrical verse and more often fell back to fusty 19th century syntax and language,***** but she could also rise above those limitations. “Recuerdo” is an example of that. It has an effective refrain expressing two contradictory and relatable emotions: “tired” and “merry.” Those emotional words are contained solely within the refrain. The rest of the poem progresses in the Modernist/Imagist style: things and events are described out of order, and in a common Modernist trope in a mixture of tones and importance. How many love poems include a phrase like “smelled like a stable?” Yes, this is largely a love poem — why it even touches on the aubade formula of the pair’s night being interrupted by the dawn — but look again: love (or sexual desire) as a word or even as a direct description is not mentioned once! Yet many readers can sense and feel the limerence of erotic love all through the poem intensely. That is there in this objective and fragmented depiction. Remarkable!
But that absence does allow for some ambiguity. Is there some level of inconsequential going-through-the-motions experience available in a reading of this poem? Or at least some sense of transience in the experience, which after all is framed by the title which means memory in Spanish? I think that’s accessible there too. Suppose I was to present this poem by inventing a frame that imagines it was written by two drug-addled addicts hooking up for one night and to say that that emotion word “merry” in the refrain has some archaic meanings that are congruent with “high.” Same words, different effect in that frame. Or if the same poem was written with a title like “How I Met your Father.”
Perhaps I overthink things, but the last stanza with the donation of fruit to the older woman who responds with words of gratitude was rich in ambiguity to me as well. An act of Christian charity, mixed in Modernistically with other random events and sights? Seems likely, but if I’m traipsing around tired and tipsy with my night’s hot flame and somehow, someway we’re carrying two dozen minus two each of apples and pears, their value isn’t exactly gold, frankincense, and myrrh. Is the older woman’s “God bless you” a simple expression of thanks or an implied suggestion that maybe the two younger lovers might want to kick in some spare change, which they consequently provide? Given the push-pull of political radicalism and romance in Millay’s work, can we be sure she doesn’t intend to portray something of the limits of the gesture to the old woman?
How many are thinking then that I’m an unromantic old cynic who has misunderstood and harmed this poem? Is there another group that says I’m not straightforward in my social and political analysis of the situation? Well, my fate is to be doomed to be in both states alternately and sometimes at once. That’s why I like this poem.
One knock against Millay and other New Woman poets of her time once the peak of her fresh fame wore off was that she wrote love poems, not statements about the important, complex issues facing us. Fifty years later, one knock about Joni Mitchell was that she was writing songs about two little people who don’t amount to a hill of beans in this crazy world. Both of those summary beliefs are incorrect — but then, what is it you are saying: love songs are simple?
Maybe for you. Not for all of us.
The player gadget to hear my performance of Edna St Vincent Millay’s “Recuerdo” will appear below for some of you. No player to be seen? Then this highlighted hyperlink will open a new tab window and play it. My music today isn’t very Joni Mitchell-ish (though later Mitchell, much past Blue, was a bit into synths). The vocal turned out to be a “scratch track” I kept because it seemed usefully spontaneous, even though I omit a few words in the poem’s text inadvertently.
*Dickinson wrote much of her work in the 1860s, and a small group of people knew of some of it though almost nothing was published in her lifetime. I speak here of the Dickinson that existed at the turn of the century after several volumes of her poetry with regularizing edits had been issued. Today she’s taught as one of the great American poets. Back when I was in school she was a charming slight oddity that seemed to fit in with some of the small, short poems the Imagists/Modernists produced in Millay’s time.
**Years ago I wrote a humor piece where I called this 1970’s trend “Singer Sewing-Machine” artists because so much of their ethos had airs of “back to the land/rent a house in Laurel Canyon/sew hippy blouses and embroidered patches on your jeans.”
*** “Old lady” and “Old man” as in “My old lady” were usages borrowed from what were the old-fashioned/outdated terms for wedded partners. Used in the more fluid arrangements by young people in the mid-20th century counter-culture they were supposed to be ironic statements of: partnership at least for now. Mitchell’s song on Blue“My Old Man” is an encapsulation of that moment.
****Back when I first presented a poem from that collection that so many of you liked this spring,“First Fig,” I was unaware of the origin of that book’s title. I wonder if my father who memorized Millay’s short poem but also studied to become a Christian minister in the Millay era would have known that Millay’s book title is from Jesus’ words in Matthew.
*****Her admirers can parse this as a Modernist use of older “ready-mades” which are being modified in the context of her 20th century verse.
Let’s continue with my serialized performance of T. S. Eliot’s “The Waste Land,” moving onto the next portion of its concluding section “What the Thunder Said.”
The poem is called “The Waste Land,” but except for that title’s general metaphoric weight and a few passing foreshadowing lines, it’s only here, more than 300 lines into the poem, that we finally enter the landscape promised in the title. It some kind of rocky desert, almost Martian, and the poem’s speaker is also like unto an astral traveler descended from a spaceship onto it. Later in the section we learn that there is at least one other traveling with the speaker, but this is yet unrevealed, and even then, there is nothing definite about this traveling companion.
“Damn Martian cicada infestation, and this dry grass sure could use some rain.” Alt-timeline Eliot in another genre.
Who are the two people? No name is given to the speaker of this section, and it’s easy to think it’s the poet himself, though some have figured the speaker to be Tiresias, the male/female time-lost wanderer featured elsewhere in the poem — though if Tiresias is something of a Virgil in this Divine Comedy, perhaps they could just as well be the companion to the poet here. Another theory has the second to be either Jean Verdenal, the friend and putative lover of Eliot who had been killed at Gallipoli in WWI, or Eliot’s wife Vivienne Haigh-Wood. It’s also possible to read the unnamed companion as us, the reader, accompanying the now unmasked Eliot to the poem’s conclusion.
These are all theories of scholars, whose greater knowledge and reading I respect. I personally have always read the “two” as the divided self, and I perform the poem from this understanding.
There are glimpses of others in this landscape, “red sullen faces sneer and snarl from doors of mudcracked houses” but are they visions, hallucinations, or inhuman if living? I read them as these — perhaps out of preference — as Eliot seems to have shared a substantial portion of the crude racial/ethnic stereotypes of his culture.
Today’s section was, at least at one time, Eliot’s personal favorite part of the poem. In 1923 he wrote to Ford Madox Ford saying there were “about thirty good lines in The Waste Land” and he wondered if Ford could decern them. Ford didn’t try, so Eliot revealed that he was talking about “The 29 lines of the water-dripping song in the last part.”
If I was put in FmF’s place, I wouldn’t have picked these lines out from the over 400 of the poem. There is a musical logic to this section — that’s there throughout much of “The Waste Land” — but here, instead of the vivid yet mysterious characters we have met in the run up to this section, we have — for a moment — what seems like a short interval of self-pity.
Today’s musical performance of this part of “The Waste Land” tries to track Eliot’s landscape and outlook. A player gadget will appear at the bottom of this post for many of you to play it, but if you don’t see that, this highlighted hyperlink will open a window or new tab to play it too.
What will we find as we press further into The Waste Land during the final installments of our serialized musical performance of the entirety of Eliot’s landmark poem for National Poetry Month? Check back here or follow the Parlando Project to find out.
We don’t usually associate Emily Dickinson with metapoetry or with the widespread sampling and recontextualizing such as found in T. S. Eliot’s “The Waste Land.” But this poem from Dickinson, one of her best-known, could be engaging in something we could call that.
The poem starts off with a clear indication of reference, by putting its first word in quotes. Based on Emily’s unusual but internally consistent style, I don’t believe that she’s using quotes to indicate hope as concept, as an ideal (she capitalized words to indicate that sort of thing). If it’s a quote, she’s referencing someone else. Who said this “Hope?”
My chief candidate would be the poet and poem from our last post, Emily Bronte and Bronte’s poem “Hope.” If you read and listened to “Hope” in our last post you’ll know that “Hope” isn’t a hopeful poem at all. Dickinson’s poem, on the other hand, is often viewed as praising hope, but if you read/listen to them together, Bronte’s poem sheds a different light on the much better-known “thing with feathers” poem.*
Dickinson seems to start where Bronte ended. Bronte’s hope has feathered wings, and it uses them to soar to heaven to never return. Dickinson starts with “hope” only specifically given the potential for flying away, but Dickinson has “hope” sticking around. Some read the feathered aspect of Dickinson’s image as cute, like a pet songbird, a friendly image, but I don’t think Dickinson does cute much, and I’m not sure she’s doing it here.
What Dickinson says about hope in the rest of the poem has been read as outright praise, but if we take that fly-away-and-feathers link between Bronte and Dickinson, we should be alerted that there may be more shading the situation.
For those who’d like to read along, here’s today’s text and the Bronte poem it may be referencing
Dickinson’s hope sings without words, which is a statement of great ambiguity from a poet. Abstract sound that goes beyond meaning is part of poetry’s power, yes, but “without words” may also say that, for good or ill, hope is generalized and not realized by the specifics of the situation. A song without words could be like advice that things will always get better, always turn out fine. A friend or advisor that always tells you that; whose non-specific hope is constant and never relenting can be a “not today please!” thing after all.
The second stanza is an extended metaphor of the hope-birds sweet song in a storm. “Plucky little bird! Good for it!” Is one reading. But there’s an odd line in there that must be weighed too. If the storm is bad enough the bird might be abashed, embarrassed, Dickinson says. Why would that be? Is the hope-bird, shy, timid? Bronte’s hope is said to be in her poem’s first line, and that turns out to be a very severe flaw as Bronte develops it. Could it be even darker? Did the hope-bird say listen to my hope-song in the storm and not fear—oh, how embarrassing—category 5, your town is wiped out by the tornado or hurricane?
Am I being Debbie-downer here? Could be. But how else does one explain the “abash” in that line?**
The last stanza begins still carrying over that metaphor: hey New Englanders (and Minnesotans!) if it’s cold, the frozen center of winter, you can still hear the magical hope-bird. Out way beyond land on the strangest sea? You can hear it. The hope-bird is operational in any and all conditions!
More won’t-shut-up testimony about the hope-bird there. Is this fulsome praise? Recall Dickinson’s famous definition of poetry: “If I read a book and it makes my whole body so cold no fire can warm me I know that is poetry.” And in “Wild Nights Wild Nights” she speaks about adventuring on chartless wild oceans. Not to paint Dickinson as an inner stone-cold Goth here, but cold and strange are not what she seeks to avoid. Dickinson says the hope-bird keeps “so many warm.” She doesn’t say everybody or herself.
What do I make of Dickinson’s concluding couplet? Many readings see it as a comment that hope isn’t self-serving, the crumb being reward for a pet or a tamed or otherwise human-habituated bird. Dickinson (unlike Bronte, whose hope is portrayed as fickle and even cruel) has just made much of hope’s seeming ubiquity. If we take it that she’s commenting ambiguously on someone else’s hope or Bronte’s portrayal of a fickle hope, she could have undercurrents in those last two lines. She may be saying “My hope is wild and unpredictable, maybe not as specifically feral and cruel as Bronte’s, but my hope is not my pet, not at my beck and call.”
Of course, a great deal of this reading depends on thinking that when Dickinson put hope in quotes she meant to refer to the title of Bronte’s poem whose protagonist is highly skeptical about hope. There’s another thing she might be quoting, a special use of the word. When Dickinson entered Mount Holyoke the students there were highly encouraged to make a sincere profession of religious faith. At the end of her single year there, Emily Dickinson was still in a small group that refused to make that profession. The school had a classification for those hard-cases. They were put down as “Without hope.”
*Somewhere in my reading this spring someone tipped me off to consider Bronte’s “Hope” as an influence on this poem of Dickinson’s. I did, and this is what I found following that tip. However, I can’t find any note I made about where I first read that there might be a connection. I owe someone.
**I’m truly hesitant in this regard. I do believe in the intractable nature of the human condition, and I think Dickinson does too, but I don’t want to discount hope or “the peace that passeth all understanding” as a necessary part of dealing with those things.
When I first conceived of the Parlando Project several years ago I did not plan to analyze the poems I presented. My original vision was to present the combinations of music and words directly, unmediated.
I had several reasons, including that I didn’t think I was particularly good at that, but the chief reason was that I was worried that was too easily associated with the idea that poetry was some kind of tricky riddle meant to lock out it’s meaning from the unworthy, rather than a different way to approach how things are.
For every person who is satisfied by “solving” a poem, there are twenty-times more that find the effort not worth their time or attention, and a not unsubstantial number that have been found-out for bad readings, wrong guesses, and are shamed from ever making another attempt with poetry. Or for safety and comfort, some readers will restrict themselves only to poetry that seems to reveal itself at first sight.
The experience of poetry as rote code-breaking or writing of it like a video game cheat solution, even if you find that sort of thing engaging and fun, reduces it. Constraining your poetry experience to easily-grasp aphorisms and reassuring sentiments also limits it.
Once in operation the Parlando Project didn’t follow my plan. If you’ve been reading the more than 300 posts here accompanying the audio presentations of poetry, you’ll have seen that most of the time I present some kind of explanation of what I think the poem means. How’d that happen? Mostly because I ask questions as I experience the poems, and then I think “Why not try to find an answer?” Those answers often delight me, and I can’t help but share them.
And maybe that’s just as well. Get the puzzle part, the explain part, out of the way and we can get on with the enjoyment of the word-music, the music-music, and the innumerable costumes, persons, and ways of speaking by which the poems come walking up to us.
Why introduce today’s piece, D. H. Lawrence’s “A Winter’s Tale” like this? Because I can’t tell you what this poem of his means to me, at least not yet. For a moment I stopped myself and asked how I could perform or present this without knowing that.
Lawrence, better known as a novelist, was also a poet published in the early Imagist anthologies, and this poem fits well into that new Imagist idea of how poetry should present things. Minnesota is covered by a couple of feet of snow at this point in our particular winter this February. The winter landscape Lawrence presents is vivid and rhymes with my experience.
Early spring in England, daffodils in the grass, flowers in planters…and then snow.
It’s the other character besides the poet/speaker/singer and the landscape that puzzles me. It’s only a pronoun, “she.” And what do we know of “she?” Female. Walks out in the deep snow, no mention that there is any accompanying her. “She’s waiting.” For what? We aren’t told directly, though the lovely line that describes her waiting “Impatient and cold, half sobs struggling into her frosty sigh” is both vivid and mysterious. England isn’t as cold in winter as Minnesota, but no sane and competent person goes standing out in the rural snow alone without some good reason. Well except for hunters, and my sane statement still stands. I did give some thought about the poem being a hunting story, but I can’t think of any English game that would be large enough to sob and sigh.
The last stanza only compounds the mystery for me. She’s “come so promptly.” Huh? Sounds like there’s more than a common-sense supposition that there must be a reason for her to be there. The poet/speaker/singer steps to her, and the poem concludes before it tells us, saying only the question “Why does she come, when she knows what I have to tell?”
I read one attempt to explicate this as the story of a woman who has come to meet her lover who is about to break up with her, keying partly off the line that says she’s come promptly though she knows that “she’s only nearer to the inevitable farewell.” I don’t have anything better myself, but I’m not buying that. Another says she’s death. I could go part-way for that, although then what’s she/death doing knowing about and being constrained by farewell? Death breaks up with us, we don’t break up with death!
Could she be winter? The poem’s opening says winter has just arrived or returned overnight, so there’s a link to the “promptly” remark. That gorgeous sobs and sighs line could be winter winds. If this is so, then what the poet/speaker/singer has to tell winter is that they know spring will inevitably come.
And so my appreciation for the mystery continues, it isn’t solved now, and it was far from solved when I performed this earlier this week, singing only the question, and thinking of Mark Hollis. It was intriguing to forget certainty as I sang lines of uncertain meaning, but I could grab onto their beauty and find emotional hooks in threads even if I couldn’t view the tapestry. My earlier experiences of this poem, particularly when heard aloud and formed in my voice, are no lesser than my experiences after questions and possible answers.
It’s my hope, as it has been since I started this Project, that you can do the same, and listen to the audio pieces (perhaps several times if you are intrigued) and let meaning and the emotions that surround it accrue in its own time, for your own self. The player gadget for D. H. Lawrence’s “A Winter’s Tale” is below, and thanks for listening, it means so much to me.