Brahma by Emerson

The early 20th century American Modernist poets I often feature in this project were born in the 19th century. What American poets could they look to as their influences while they developed the poetry that rapidly re-shaped English language poetry? The answer/list for American American-Modernist influences is surprisingly short, and as a result these poets looked to writers from outside the United States. A summary list would include the early 19th century British Romantic poets and those still emulating that style in the UK. French writers got attention (even those French writers who had been influenced by American writers). Classical poets were still part of the British-influenced education system, so like Shakespeare the turn of the century Americans might have gotten “some Latin and little Greek” in school.

What are we left with for home-team poets? Poe, that formative poète maudit? Not much — even though his influence on some of the French writers was there second-hand. Dickinson? Less than some now may imagine in our age where she is considered a giant of American poetry. Dickinson was not significantly published in the mid-19th century, and so she was, on the printed page (beginning in the 1890s) a near contemporary of the Modernists. So, for our early Modernists at the beginning of the 20th century, Dickinson was considered more often as a new, interesting oddity than as the canonical mainstream. Longfellow, the massively successful American poet whose own roots lay in recasting European language poetic forms to American English? It is to laugh. Did even Vachel Lindsay or Carl Sandburg, the most populist and public minded of early Modernist era American poets ever dare to tip their hats to him? I haven’t seen it if they did, as Longfellow was already beneath contempt. Sandburg and the Black American Modernists like Fenton Johnson, Langston Hughes, and Gwendolyn Bennett did look to Afro-American Spirituals, Blues, Jazz lyrics and forms, but like Dickinson this influence would become greater later in the 20th century than it was in the first part. That leaves us with Whitman, who “broke the new wood,” as Ezra Pound put it, with his free verse, his hardly subtext eroticism, his ostensibly personal I-am-the-one-who-wrote-these-lines voice, and his poetry of mystical optimism.

Today I’m going to perform a poem by the only poet whose pioneering interests and corresponding influence are plausibly greater than Whitman — and not just because he was a direct influence on Whitman and Dickinson: Ralph Waldo Emerson. You can trace Emerson’s spirit in 20th century (and 21st century) American poetry not by his poetic tactics (he was often a mediocre-to-awkward poet) but by his underlying world-view, one that helped form a widely influential New Thought movement in the United States called Transcendentalism.

What did Transcendentalism give American poetry?*

  • Individualism and equality of office. Every person’s soul has an equal potential to receive important revelations and insights. From the start this included women and eventually it included all ethnic backgrounds and races.
  • The Book of Nature is the scripture. Nature isn’t just a decorative metaphor — it’s the revelation of all that is.
  • The job of poetry is not just to be beautiful, it’s to instruct. Transcendentalists didn’t do irony** that much and they almost never took to the poète maudit stance. That is not to say that it didn’t have stoic threads*** in its weave, or that its optimism was unbounded.
  • America is not only, maybe not even primarily, an Atlantic continent. It’s also a Pacific one. We should be open to China, India, Japan, et al as artistic and philosophic influences.

That last one is shown distinctly in today’s piece, a poem of Emerson’s from 1856 that shows he’s been deep into the Hindu Mahābhārata**** — something I haven’t been. Reading Emerson’s poem to prepare for composing my music and performing it, I’m as lost as an ordinary someone listening to a Tolkien adept, or as a father listening to my daughter talk anime or Homestuck.  My research says that many of the stories in this Hindu sacred epic deal with wars and wars between gods — and that behind it all, though not usually as an active part, is Brahma, the maker of the universe, who, as Emerson’s poem tells us, is above and beyond such struggles. The poem final line, “Find me, and turn thy back on heaven” then says that all else, even some heavenly reward or alliance, is illusion — that nature, the all that is, Brahma’s abode, is the highest revelation.

Emerson reading

Influencer. “Hey, @Fuller, @Thoreau, @Alcott — this easel thing is a great lifehack for reading Indian sacred literature.


My musical performance is available below with a graphical audio player. The acoustic guitar composition here is within another Asian and Afro-American influenced musical style, one that its founder called “American Primitive.” I’m not fond of that label, but John Fahey meant it in the sense that it looks to show a direct experience in the music, not that it was unsophisticated or ham-handed. In my case the pork-fingers are a risk, but it fits Emerson’s text (linked here) well. No player visible?  This highlighted link is your alternative way to hear my performance.


*Note to readers: I am not a scholar of American literary history, just a curious visitor who writes about my exploration. I’m not an expert on Transcendentalism either. I could be wrong in details or significance in today’s post, or with many others here. All this is offered as “It seems to me (sometimes).”

**Dickinson, who may have been a Transcendentalist, and certainly was familiar with its precepts, does have access to a side-eyed, darkly humorous at times, irony.

***Robert Frost, the stoic, seems to have a deep and dark reading of the Book of Nature which he shared with his British friend Edward Thomas.

****By later in the century, we began to take for granted that South Asian and Japanese religion, philosophy, and art are available for American poetry, while Emerson was there at the beginning. I’d expect the non-Asians, however well-meaning, to misunderstand some of it, even as they appropriate it — but then I’d assume some Asians misunderstand, or differ in their understandings, too. Yankee Emerson was one of the first here, and I have no standing to discuss what he got egregiously wrong or surprisingly right. Let me also note since this is cruel April, that T. S. Eliot, a half-century after this Emerson poem was published, took to studying Indian religion in college, dropping his own samples from Hindu and Buddhist scripture into the Modernist landmark “The Waste Land”  while still an expatriate American.

She is As Near to My Heart

Here’s another piece adopting words by Rabindranath Tagore, the Nobel Prize winning songwriter and polymath. Tagore is a remarkable man about whom I know only a little more than the average Western musician or writer. His life as a writer is only a small part of his impact in South Asia, but that alone is enough to bring your attention to him. Knowing as little as I do about Bengali literature, I take it from others that he’s exquisite in that language, and that, at the beginning of the 20th Century, he accomplished the same task for his culture that the modernist poets writing in English did, bringing a fresher, more colloquial language to poetry.

Tagore wrote in many forms of literature, but when his Nobel Prize was awarded, the only work available in English was a book of his lyrics, which he had self-translated into English prose—which makes him the first songwriter to win the Nobel for Literature. Tagore’s own prose translations do not fully hide the musical nature of the works, but they often sound somewhat stilted to this English language reader. I’ve adopted his words somewhat for this piece. It’s a love song.

Now for those that come here for talk about the words used, we’re going to diverge this time and talk instead about the music.

It’s likely that Tagore also wrote music for this, but I do not know his tune. My knowledge of South Indian music is limited as well, but like many Westerners, my introduction was Ravi Shankar records that were widely available in the Sixties. Ravi Shankar had become something of a cultural fad then via his association with A Beatle!  and the sideways belief that this music was “psychedelic.” That word, a neologism of the times, was formed from the Greek words for “mind” and “manifesting,” meaning music that could produce altered states of consciousness, inferring that it was like mind-altering drugs, and that it might be a suitable aural counterpart to imbibing in same. Looking back, I find this a quaint sort of categorization, as much music—and even the mind itself—can change one’s appreciation of consciousness, perhaps not with the whipsaw impact as the psychoactive drugs of the time, but powerfully enough.

Mark me down as a man who doesn’t know when to let go of a fad. Despite my listener-only naiveté about South Asian music, three things attracted me upon hearing those recordings, or viewing the small portions appropriated to Shankar in the rock concert films of the era:

The drone. This is a complex music based not on a progression of chords, but instead where the color changed not from a new chord or key, but with timbre, melodic scale, rhythm, and expression against a static, home chord or tone. I might have grabbed this from something else eventually (John Lee Hooker and Miles Davis were also there to tell me this about the same time) but Shankar and South Asian commonplaces like tampura and harmonium drones were where I first appreciated this.

The tabla. The rhythmic structure of South Asian music is as complex as any I know, and is its most “foreign” element. The rhythmic structures have extraordinarily long cycles, difficult to “count” in a mathematical toe-tapping sense. I have a fair to poor sense of rhythm myself, but I heard these complex rhythms “melodically,” not as marks on a grid, but as a string of events with a compelling line of sound. As expressive hand drums capable of vibrato, the tabla encouraged this.

The sitar. To this day, the strum of a sitar is the go-to sound-effect clip to say “hippie.” Which is a shame because it’s a remarkable instrument with many musical features exploited by its virtuosos. To my ear, and to many guitarists who wanted to approximate the impact of the sitar, the main things were the ability to provide its reinforcement of the drone with resonating strings, and the raised frets that allowed notes that were in fact a cluster of microtones sounded in close vibrato.


Ravi Shankar with Alla Rakha Khan on tabla and Kamala Chakravaty on tampura


For “She Is as Near to My Heart”  I approximated all these things with non-South Asian instruments. The song’s harmonic home point is an arpeggiated cluster consisting mainly of D, E, G, and A notes, giving a key center that is ambiguous, but that I thought of as A minor for my purposes. In place of the tabla, I used a syncopated 4/4 that is comfortable to our rhythmic toes, but to give it that tabla sound, I used congas and a drum machine with its own electronic approximation of the tabla’s pitch bend. For the sitar element I used a MIDI interface to play a digital instrument approximation of the real thing with a guitar. And over the top, well why not, some electric guitar where I mixed blues with some more sitar-sounding licks like psychedelic guitarists liked to do in the Sixties.

Squier Fat Nashville Telecaster

Not a sitar, but…


You can hear this using the player below. We’ll return soon with more talk about words next time.