The name of it is “Autumn”

Did Emily Dickinson mistake her tone, her presentation? This question occurred to me as I went off into the deeper, album cuts* of Dickinson’s work looking for autumn poems this fall. Her early poem, titled on posthumous publication “Autumn”  is charming and very much in a mainstream short poem tradition of the day. If she was seeking publication or just checking in on an honorable hobby of an upper middle-class** young woman, it would do.

The next Dickinson Autumn poem I found and presented, “Besides the Autumn poets sing”  is still charming, if self and otherwise referential in a sly way. If I was to “translate” it into the diction and particulars of New York in the 1950s it could be written by Frank O’Hara. I believe she intentionally means that poem’s opening word: “Besides,” and that is not a careless rendering of “beside”. That little “s” makes it a poem about what the poets of her time did “Besides” (meaning “in addition to,” or perhaps “surplus too”) Autumn, not merely poets rendering in verse the season while metaphorically writing en plein air. That makes the poem an expression of what is other than, or in opposition, to what a leading American poet of Dickinson’s day like William Cullen Bryant was writing.

If I was to read this poem in isolation, if it came to me “over the transom” would I make that assumption? I’ll be honest: I suspect most times I’d miss it. I’d hurriedly read the poem as another simple Fall season lyric. I’d miss that “s.”

Did Dickinson intend this slyness, if I’m right in my more careful reading? My understanding of her character is yes, she did. I could be wrong. If writers, if poets, can misunderstand how their tone will be read, certainly us readers, busy and full of our own prejudices, can also do our part to misread or read ourselves into their work.

But then I came onto this remarkable Dickinson poem, one that’s frankly strange on the surface: “The name of it is ‘Autumn’.”  Even now, over 150 years after it was written, this makes no pretense to being a conventional poem.

The first thing I noticed was that as a poem of fall, it doesn’t really work—or work the way we expect a poem on that subject to work. Yes, fall leaf color is a common trope for landscapes that have this event.*** But this poem goes overboard if that is all it’s trying to do. Yes, many of the autumn leaves are red, and yes we can say they are blood red. But if that was what Dickinson was intending, and if repetition of that trope might add to its power, I think many readers would think it’s overdone.

And so my first thought was, that must be Dickinson’s intent—to over-do it—because I now trust Dickinson as an artist, and feel from reading her that she often is seeking some doubleness in her expression.

But before I continue with my sense of the poem, let me alert you to two other readings that have been put forward to explain what this unusual poem is on about. The first is that it’s a poem about a particularly deadly section of the American Civil War in the fall of 1862. Historically aware readers often wonder why Dickinson (unlike her contemporary poetic revolutionary Whitman) doesn’t deal with this deadly domestic war directly. Unlike Whitman she didn’t live in close proximity to the battles, but she was the daughter of a politician who had been caught up in the slide into this war, and an avid reader of the journalism of the day. The Civil War reading says this is her recasting of the slaughter of these battles.

If one accepts that idea the images make sense, a strong argument for it. But I’m unsure how Dickinson, even as an aware news-reader, could have received this explicitly gory battlefield scene. I’m unsure that the Republican newspapers she read would have featured detailed descriptions of the slaughter.**** The only way I can imagine Dickinson having an opportunity to pick up these specifically blood soaked slaughter/war images would be if the somewhat self-sufficient semi-rural Dickinson homestead slaughtered their own animals for food and Dickinson (who came to be responsible for the gardening food aspect of the homestead) observed that.

The other reading is that this is a menstruation poem. Likewise, the images can be fitted to that conception. And while we know nothing of Dickinson’s gynecological history (which as readers we need to know, along with the sperm and motility counts of all male authors) there is no barrier here regarding Emily Dickinson’s experience and knowledge, and so I think this one is more likely.

The third possibility is that Dickinson did intend this to be another autumn poem, just with stronger imagery; and if she may have misread how the poem’s tone would be encountered by others, that by this time in her life she didn’t care. She could intentionally have brought in those things other, modern, readers have seen in it, warfare and menstruation, and created one of those bidirectional images where the thing signified and the images used to illuminate it are of roughly equal importance. One clue to that is that she’s once more making use of quotation marks. “The name—of it—is ‘Autumn—’” the first line seems to say we need to examine that word. What could we find on examination? One thing I, the punster, finds is “Awe-tum.” The other thing she may be saying is: “Well, it’s got a common name we might find unremarkable, a mere label for a season, but it’s serious business to nature.” Then, all that blood—and in my reading, the intimate linkage to human fertility—is to make that case, to drown that conventionality.

In such a case, the imagery takes over from the subject. If in the process of composition, the poem became not about autumn but about menstruation, then autumn becomes an intense outward image for what would have been a private, if widely shared experience.

Given that frankly feminist examination of literature is no longer a rare thing, I wonder how unprecedented this was poetically as a subject? Anyone know of any poem preceding Dickinson’s that has a plausible focus on menstruation? A passing line in the old ballad “Willie O’Winsbury”  doesn’t compare to this level of imagistic intensity.

 

Rather than some colorful fall landscape photo, here’s Anne Briggs whose singing helped bring the ballad “Willie O’Winsbury” to the fore.

Well, all that talk, and the comic incongruity of mansplaining my experience of Dickinson’s poem, but this poem is lovely again as word-music. Dickinson is famously sing-able, so I was charmed to put even my shaky voice on the line here. I keep thinking I’m building up to a big-time orchestral score or a mass of synthesizer lines, but today I’m musically down to just acoustic guitar once more. This past week, I found online an entire 90 minute coffeehouse set by Tom Rapp and Pearls Before Swine, and the melody today is similar to one used in Rapp’s “There Was A Man.”  I even planned singing a couple of verses of that song in a sort of a round with Dickinson’s, but I couldn’t make that work.

The text of Dickinson’s poem is here. My performance of it is available in a player you should see below, or on most podcast platforms or Spotify as the Parlando Project.

 

 

 

*(in geezer voice) In my day there were musical collections sold on disks, and they had to have a bunch of songs, not just the hits. A kind of wireless streaming service called “radio” sometimes played cuts that weren’t the ones that you’d pick out for your playlist. It was a primitive existence, but we didn’t know any better back then.

**It’s not straightforward to place the mid-19th century Dickinson household in class hierarchy. Clearly they were a prominent family in their town, so in the context of Amherst, likely the 1% for the latter half or more of Dickinson’s life. But Amherst also wasn’t a wealth center, thus my approximation.

***It occurred to me as I looked at my series of autumn poems I’ve been presenting this month, that there are large portions of this globe that don’t have the “theater of the seasons” that Dickinson’s Massachusetts and my upper Midwest share. The whole leaf-turning fall colors event is a big deal and traveling to rural areas where the largest canvases can be seen is a thing here. One academic paper behind a paywall that I found an abstract for even suggests that fall-colors tourism in the mid-19th century to New England places like the Franconia Notch might have contributed to this Dickinson poem.

****The political career and situation of Dickinson’s father is too complex a subject to detail today. He was a unionist Whig, who supported the compromises with slavery-states meant to prevent the Civil War, while likely opposing the practice of slavery itself. When the Whig party died out it was largely absorbed into the newly founded Republican party, which included those who were more militantly opposed to slavery and such compromise.

Dickinson’s father stood with the compromisers who thought preserving the union primary over the more aggressive anti-slavery factions of the Republicans. It was the election of the first Republican President, Lincoln, who presented himself as unifying those two wings of his new Party which was the proximal cause of the outbreak of the American Civil War—in other words, the slaveholders in slave-holding states figured Lincoln wasn’t serious in acceptance of the ex-Whig and unionist wing of Republicans and that he would allow the more abolitionist wing to take power.

Once the war broke out, there was considerable agitation in the North to settle with the Southern slave states, either to reform the pre-war union or to accept the formation of the new slaveholder Confederate nation. A prime argument for this was the deadliness of the ongoing war. So, in general, Republican papers in the day would not have been in the business of publicizing the grizzly nature of the warfare instead of bloodless gallantry and sacrifice.

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Besides the Autumn poets sing

Since we’ve re-established that Emily Dickinson can do simple, here’s a lovely poem of hers that introduces more than a touch of “meta” to her poetry.

This poem’s first line starts the meta thing right off. You could quickly read the opening word as “Beside” without the s, and then the poets are singing in the presence of Fall. I suspect Dickinson wished to include that element but subvert it. “Besides”  means in this context “beyond that, in addition to.” So, there’s this thing: “Autumn” that poets sing about that is what? Well, it’s prosaic (i.e. prose and routine, not poetry and unique/charged). It’s small: “few,” and “little.”

Next stanza, the song now riffs with “few:” “A few…mornings,” “A few…eves.” Dickenson’s diction is still casual here, but she drops a couple of unusual adjectives with that repeated pair of fews. Unusual adjectives are often a weak crutch in poetry. Throw together some out-of-the-blue random adjective with a noun and you’re suddenly all surreal, poetically mysterious and creative—but more importantly, do these unexpected modifiers create a charged image?

“Incisive mornings,” is a bit of a play on words. Incisive here means not just perceptive, as in the coolness and lack of light predicting winter’s shorter days and lack of warmth: but taken in its other meanings, its winds are cutting and daylight is being incised, removed. “Ascetic eves” also speaks of removal, evenings no longer long with lingering light and it hints at spiritual matters this removal may reveal.

The second stanza ends with two references to poets, presumably examples of the ones mentioned as the poem opens: William Cullen Bryant, an older poet contemporary with Dickinson, and James Thomson, a Scottish poet of the 18th century. Neither are well-known today (though Bryant was a very important American cultural figure in his time). Dickinson mentions them and says that the stuff in their supposed Autumn poems are “gone.”*

In the context of these two stanzas, Dickinson is saying: the existing poets aren’t telling us much about autumn. I think that Dickinson’s sly inclusion of those two concise, precise, and original adjectives is cutting. She’s showing that in two words she can say more about autumn than they can in some long-winded poetry.

harvesters by Peter Bruegel the elder

Sheaves get mentioned in passing in Dickinson’s poem, so I get to exercise my love for Dutch painting

 

The second half of the poem has Dickinson unleashing her style of poetry against these musty odes. The third stanza’s word-music is just wonderful. I won’t dance about its architecture today—you can just read or listen to it—I’ll only point out that the end-words “brook” and “touch” have a lovely rhymish echo, even though they aren’t even slant rhyme. This stanza has the superb line “Sealed are the spicy valves” which partakes of the musicality but is an elusive image too. As I read it, I thought of gardeners in our climate planting garlic cloves this time of year, but garlic was not yet a thing in Emily’s New England. After an hour or so of trying to decode the image, to determine what specific spice plant in Dickinson’s time and place is referred to,**  I now think this a more generalized image of withered flowers. “Valves” is used only one other time in Dickinson’s poems, in the more famous A Soul selects her own Society  poem where they appear as “the Valves of her attention.” “Spicy” I’ve judged now is just a biologic/erotic reference to flowers pollination role. We may read the valves anatomically in various ways, but eyelids*** may be intended, as in the closing two lines of the stanza.

The final stanza is Dickinsonian too: nature in Dickinson’s poems is often personified in comical and non-charismatic species, here squirrels. Comically, her thoughts on the matter of autumn and poetry will be of great interest to the squirrel, and in this image she’s pointing out her non-existent status as a literary figure compared to Bryant et al.

It could just be a handy, casual sentiment to finish the poem, but Dickinson may be earnest in her concluding phrase: her mind is the sun that can illuminate the lack of sunlight as Winter solstice approaches.

Mostly acoustic guitar for the music performance today, though if you listen in the background you’ll hear a little harmonium and tambura. You won’t hear it in the rhythm or the instruments timbre, but I put a hidden reference to one James Marshall Hendrix in the music. You can read the full text of Dickinson’s poem here as you listen with the player gadget below.

 

 

 

*Thomson wrote the lyrics to “Rule Britannia,”  and Dickinson is likely referring to his long Miltonic blank verse poem called “The Seasons”  in her 16 line one. Bryant’s poetry may be largely forgotten, but his former cultural salience is still honored with a lot of school, street, park, and place names in the U.S.

**As an adult, Emily ran an extensive garden in the largely self-sufficient Dickinson family homestead, and in her youth she studied botany and produced a remarkable herbarium book filled with precisely identified plants—so it’s not crazy to think that she could have had a specific plant whose lifecycle she understood. A full-fledged farm field operated right across the road under Emily’s window at the homestead. The “sheaves” in Thomson’s poem wouldn’t have been abstract to her either.

*** If one wants to get more biographical in reading the poem, Dickinson famously went for treatment to Boston for some tantalizingly unspecified “eye problems” a few years after this early poem was written.

Dickinson’s Autumn

I sometimes wonder if I overstress the mysterious, even mystical, element in Emily Dickinson. Perhaps I’m overcorrecting for the too-limiting image of the charming eccentric writer of little poems that was her package-label when I first learned of her in the middle of the last century. I’ve since wanted to put the small print somewhere on the Emily Dickinson carton: contents may be unsettling during reading. Sold by weightiness, not boastful volume.

But Dickinson was at times a writer of lighter verse, enclosing seemingly cast-off poems in letters to friends. Her classmate (and in Dickinson’s lifetime, more literarily successful) friend Helen Hunt Jackson would write and publish casual poems about the seasons or travel. When Dickinson wrote this way, was she bending her art to expectations for women of her time, or was she expressing a playful side of herself? Humor, as in satire and incongruity, is an essential part of Dickinson’s verse, even her darkest verse. When it’s employed without mysterious, ambiguous themes, that same sense of humor can produce a poem like today’s “Autumn”  by Dickinson.

Even the part of me that loves to search for deeper meanings and undercurrents has trouble finding them in this poem. If forced to rely on that I could offer that her concluding remark that “Lest I should be old-fashioned, I’ll put a trinket on.” could be read as a comment on the loosening of plain-style 18th century Puritanism in Dickinson’s time. But let’s be serious: this is lighthearted, an example of the “happy Autumn” poem, and such things can make good songs.

Tree learning fall colors

Tiny clusters of turning leaves, like splatters on a green drop-cloth.

 

So I tried not to weigh this one down: major chords, acoustic guitar, bass, low Mellotron strings, and a touch of piano with the sustain pedal down. You can hear it with the player gadget below and read this short poem in its entirety by clicking this link.

 

Sonnet 73 “Bare Ruined Choirs”

Here’s one of the best-known of Shakespeare’s sonnets, which means it’s clearly one of “Poetry’s Greatest Hits.”

Since I’m not a real scholar or expert in such things, let’s take a look at it as if it was another of our presentations of lesser-known poems by little-known poets. You may want to follow along with the text, which can be found here. What might we see if we encounter it this way, without preconceptions?

The first thing one might notice is the antique language. In this case it’s not so much a case of “need to look that one up” words so much as it’s the olden-days tenses, pronouns and word forms: “mayst, ”thou,” “see’st,” “fadeth,” “doth,” “perceiv’st,” and “ere.” Given that the sonnet is a compressed form (this one uses 121 words) that might put one off. The syntax too, is not modern-day natural speech, but then when undertaking a sonnet even modern-day poets will sacrifice some of that for sound and compression of expression reasons.

If one is able to overlook those two things, or simply accept them as artifacts of the form and the time it was written, the next thing I notice is how much is stuffed into those 121 words. Tonight I’ll go to a meeting with three other poets, two of which are more accomplished than I am, with several published collections under their names. If I was to present to this group a poem with as many ideas and loosely linked tropes as Sonnet 73 (albeit with whatever level of skill I otherwise possess) they would likely be puzzled and displeased with it. Modern poetry is full of a great many styles, but many of them don’t try to push so much into so short a poem.

Let’s briefly look at those thoughts and the images by which we are to experience them. The first two lines open with a common autumn poem touchstone: the turning, falling, and fallen leaves. There are approximately 127 billion English language poems using autumn leaves by now, though there might have been only a few dozen in Shakespeare’s time. I think his image here is dual though, the left-leaves are compared to a balding head.

Chandos Portrait of Shakespeare

He’s not balding, he just has a large forehead. This disputed portrait has not been used to argue that Shakespeare was actually written by Larry Fine or translated from Klingon.

 

This image is further developed or morphed in the next two lines, including the image by which I always remember this poem: the now bare or near-bare branches bereft of the migratory and mate seeking/singing birds of earlier in the year liked to a ruined choir loft. Since choir lofts are elevated, and we’ve started with leaves equaling the now spare hair on a head, they are also the mind and voice which engenders such poetry and song.

Starting in the 20th Century some Shakespeare scholarship relates that ruined choirs image to the destruction and abandonment of Catholic abbeys and churches during his century. If so, Shakespeare has brought an undercurrent of the dangerous social change of his century into his short poem.*

Shakespeare doesn’t linger on that image, though it is so sharp it may have made his point. He next moves on to another image we now find common, the ending of a day related to the later parts of one’s life. His take is the variation (also used in some autumn poems) that there is extra beauty in the endingness, by implication it’s preciousness of limits, and from the luminous colors of sunset. He develops this a bit with an image that would have once seemed common, but has since fallen into disuse: that sleep is a model of death.

The final quatrain before the concluding couplet develops yet another image, one steeped in fire as one of the classical four elements. It’s antique physics, but observationally still rich for anyone that has ever dealt with burning wood: the speaker is the hot coals, hotter than the kindling fire of youth, or the early lapping flames. Since this is ostensibly a love poem, one can take this as another commonplace: fire equaling desire. My reading is that the love poem aspect is yet another layer of image, present, but not the only element, as it’s also about the artistic spirit that could create such a sonnet. The final line in the final quatrain is nearly the equal of the “bare ruined choirs” one. “Consumed by that which it was nourished by” is both a statement about the scientific nature of combustion; about desire, love, and it’s ending; and about the artistic impulse: that we must burn, fill and empty ourselves as if by weightless flame; that we will consume our time, our life-time.

The final couplet, as with many an English “Shakespearean” sonnet, jumps on to something else. In its guise as a love poem, it says that the lover must be extra passionate and devoted, because the poem’s speaker has limited time left and yet they still love them. What should we make of that? As a devotional interpersonal love-note, the thing the poem presents itself to be, it has emotional heft.** As a statement about the artistic drive, likewise. Every time one sets out to make something, we truly don’t know if it’s the last work we will do. As we age (I’m old, this is eminently personal with me) this becomes less and less a moot philosophical point. Treat the work as a lover, treat your lover as a work of art.

So, there’s a lot of territory in this poem. Even doing my best to present it with my performance there’s too much here to absorb in one listening, one reading, in one moment in one’s life. This is a reason why other kinds of poems may be better received. Many modern short poems seek to make one point, or tell a story with a plot rather than a complex instant that has no plot yet, or several plots happening at once. Those poems can work too, and work quickly.

Shakespeare seeks to lure us with his word-music, even now centuries later, even though he’s going to try to put a gallon of thought into a pint-sized poem, and even if he’s going to use a form of English we strain to hear as natural. “Bare ruined choirs where late the sweet birds sang” isn’t just an image, and an allusion to a piece of history that may be unfamiliar to us, it’s a lovely piece of sound. I could go on with other lines that have their compelling worth as sound: “When yellow leaves, or none, or few, do hang” or “Death’s second self, that seals up all in rest.” Can that word-music let us live with the 121 words long enough to get over the things which make us either hear this as “Shakespeare” the brand name or as an example of obsolescence?

I tried in my performance to illuminate the text and its sound as best I could. You can hear it with the player below.

 

 

 

*I’ve always loved the way Michael Wood presented the beginning of his series of TV programs on Shakespeare by saying he was born into what was a police state due to the whipsawing religious and geopolitical changes/wars/disputes England went through in the 16th century.

**By pointing out that this poem in my mind is expressing something about the experience of making art, I’m not prudishly seeking to eliminate the erotic reading. Many of the best images are bilateral. They aren’t just some thrown-off thing meant to decorate the poem with some cleverness or allusion. The thing used to represent the thing is real, maybe even more real than the thing it signifies. The thing signified enriches the image just as vice versa.

For an example of the erotic use of some similar imagery in a complex emotional landscape see this Edna St. Vincent Millay sonnet, a favorite of listeners here.

One piece of evidence that Shakespeare intends this as a complex set of images is that it was likely written when Shakespeare was in his 30s. Sure it reads “true” for this old man, but it’s not memoir as poetry. Memoir as poetry can work too, but I often feel that we’ve over-emphasized that mode.

Pied Beauty

It’s said about significant musicians that a careful listener can tell who’s playing just from their sound. The word-music of poets could be a similar tell, but in the case of poetry we have other kinds of data: subjects, characteristic outlooks, and the kind of imagery they choose to use—and those things often overwhelm the distinctions in the sound of a poet’s poem.

But even 130 years after his death, British poet Gerard Manley Hopkins sounds like no other. The piece I’m going to present today is one of his best known poems: “Pied Beauty,”  and he intended it as a rhymed metrical poem, but Hopkins’ conception of meter and phrasing is so unlike other English poets that it might sound like a piece of free verse.

If Hopkins doesn’t sound like other poetry in English, he does have some similarities to Old English and ancient Welsh poetry, two languages he had some familiarity with. In place of the traditional musical phrases that his Victorian contemporaries might use, flowing lines in regularly stressed feet, Hopkins substitutes shorter, broken and paused phrases and a great deal of word sound echoing beyond just conventional end-rhyme.

Reading Hopkins in the pre-Modernist era at the end of WWI must have been like hearing Thelonious Monk play piano just after WWII. It doesn’t sound “right,” it breaks, or more correctly ignores, rules of how things are supposed to sound. Yes, the phrasing is instantly felt as rhythmic, but that’s no anchor, because the rhythm is part of what’s “wrong.” But also like Monk, to more than a few listeners, it can be arresting, even on first listen. You don’t have to understand the structure, or know how it works differently—that’s not a simple task by the way—to hear something that grabs your attention. You may dig it; but even though we humans are natural imitating machines, you may still not be able to do it.

And so, like Monk, Hopkins doesn’t have as many imitators as he has admirers of his achievement, even today.

Monk Hopkins Genius of Modern Music

His music still sounds more modern than most—both of ‘em.

 

An additional barrier to Hopkins is that his subject matter, though explicitly Christian religious, is also often harrowing. British poets have long explored unrelieved melancholy, but Hopkins doesn’t want to read Job, or understand Job theologically, he wants (or can’t escape) to be Job.*

Which makes “Pied Beauty”  a good introduction to Hopkins word-music, because while it’s making a subtle theological point, this is not a particularly sad, tragic, or even solemn poem. Did Hopkins interject “Who knows how?” mostly to make his rhyme on the 8th line? I don’t know, but I can’t read that phrase and this poem without a little of the feeling of “Ain’t that funny? Unchanging, pure monotheist deity, and yet maker of a world of mixed and changing things.”

Musically, I’m not Thelonious Monk, nor was meant to be—am an attendant lord, one that will do. Still I musically sought to put a certain angle on my usual chords and cadences. Old-time Chicago jazz guy Eddie Condon said the modernist jazz composers flatted their fifths, while his crew just drank them. If so, I caucus with the modernists. Harmony has laws and customs, but the anarchists have melodies.**  The full text of Hopkins’s poem is here. My musical presentation of it is available with the player gadget below.

 

 

 

*Just because he’s so distinctive in his sound and phrasing, we don’t need to overlook the imagery in Hopkins’ poem. Skies like cows? That’s proto-Surrealist, “old bossy in the skies with diamonds” stuff. I have to confess that my eyes once read “brinded cow” as a more conventional if workmanlike “bridled cow.” Brinded means patched patterns as on cows’ hides, it’s an archaic Middle English word, in keeping with Hopkins’ love for the sound of the poetry of the ancestors of modern English. See also firecoal colored tree nuts and painted fish.

**Well this is true at least for me. When I’m not working in drone or heavily home-chord centered structures, I will construct chords and chord progressions based on others’ ideas, or the mathematical commonplaces, testing the results for interest. But for melody, I usually don’t choose to follow rules or commonplaces, and when I find myself approaching those things, I may start to subvert them immediately. Yes, there are pleasures in knowing exactly what note comes next—must come next—but there’s too little music out there that mines disputing that expectation.

I awoke this morning to read that Ginger Baker died, a prime musical iconoclast if there ever was one. I’d read the earlier notes that he was gravely ill and I think I may have tried to imitate some of his playing (those tom rolls…) with the drum track on this.

Dunbar’s October

We’ve had Edward Thomas and Henry Vaughn waxing medicinal about autumn and affliction, and now it’s time to head back across the Atlantic to see what metaphor American poet Paul Laurence Dunbar brings to the season.

By coming to prominence in the 19th century, decades before James Weldon Johnson’s 1922 Book of American Negro Poetry  signaled the tip-off of what became known as the Harlem Renaissance, Dunbar proved to Afro-American poets of the 20th century that it was possible to get over to the culture at large.

Paul_Laurence_Dunbar by Norman Wood

Paul Laurence Dunbar “Let the world dream otherwise…”

 

Like many cross-over artists, he did this by doing the established forms as well or better than the incumbents. One way he did this was by writing in regional black dialect, in poetry that is frankly hard for me to decode from my 21st century location. On one hand, regional dialect was all the rage in 19th century America across various regions and ethnic heritages, and there’s no reason that Afro-American dialect couldn’t be part of this—Oh, wait, there is a reason: white supremacy.*

Dunbar was born near the end of Reconstruction, right as the reaction to the possibility of full Afro-American humanity and citizenship was snapping much of his country back to a feudal system based on presumed, and if not presumed, enforced, inferiority. One can’t avoid the problematic nature of trying to portray a range of comic to simple-wisdom-dispensing Afro-American characters speaking a non-standard version of English in a context of a society that was fairly sure that was the extent of their intellect.**

Dunbar Live!

Fitzgerald’s Auditorium later became Atlantic City’s “Club Harlem” and hosted jazz and R&B acts.

 

But that was only part of what Dunbar wrote. He also wrote supple 19th century lyric poetry in standard English, as good or better than the “Fireside School” of  East-Coast poets that were the standard for American poetry at the time. And it’s that side of Dunbar’s work that I present today with his poem “October.”

“October”  is an extended metaphor nicely developed over 24 lines of rhymed and metrical verse. Dunbar alternates his rhyme scheme of ABAB to AABB to add some delightful variety. The autumn notes of harvest bounty and oncoming winter are struck and sounded cleanly.

It was only after enjoying it as a good poem in this style that I began to notice another context, an undertone. This had happened to me earlier this year when presenting a Dunbar love poem, “Kidnapped.”   After performing that one, I moved on to ask: did the child of two formerly enslaved people write a poem about being captured like a butterfly and being taken far away from some home landscape? Yes, he did. Was he consciously encoding that undertone into a popular poetry form that could have been printed on a genteel valentine? I don’t know. It seemed a stretch as a conscious choice, if only because the undertone/metaphor wasn’t developed as fully as it might have been.

This time, with “October,”  Dunbar does develop his metaphor, and I know of no document where he comments on his thoughts on this poem. Autumn’s harvest is presented as if it were an economic system, and dare I say it: as a feudal/sharecropper system. October is wealthy and in charge, and harvest makes her wealthier. She is presented as foolish with this collected wealth. The poet observer’s persona is not outraged by this however—indeed he portrays her as happy, carefree, joyous, beautiful. And the poem is also unambiguously beautiful. Is this personified red-headed October, collector of the treasure and bounty, deserving of unstated disgust or even envy? Is this an idealized Daisy Buchanan-like character?

Your eye (like mine) as you first encounter this poem may be on the signified season. We can’t be expected to see the fall of the year as a real person, with an actual role and privilege in a system, can we? Is it only unconscious sub-text?

Ambiguous as this is, this is part of the wealth of poetry. It can be enjoyed as word-music. Its metaphors can be admired for cleverness and their own silent music of thought. But it’s also the way for the moving minds and experience of others to be shared. It is the concise literature of the oversoul.

I performed my solemn version of Dunbar with acoustic guitar, piano and electric bass. If you’d like to check out the text of Dunbar’s poem, or follow along as I perform it, it can be found here. The player for my musical performance is below.

 

 

 

*I expect a percentage of this blog’s treasured audience just clicked off when I typed that phrase. If you, indignant, at least followed to this footnote, thank you, I appreciate it. I know that some of you come to poetry and music to escape the turmoil of politics and social problems.

**It’s hard to do, but some Afro-Americans managed to do it. I can trace the musical line of it anyway, from Charlie Patton to George Clinton to the hip-hop movement.

Edward Thomas’ October

Moving from 17th century Welsh poet Henry Vaughn we’ll jump forward to a favorite of this blog: 20th century Welsh poet Edward Thomas. Thomas is less well-known in the U.S. than he is in the U.K., perhaps because he’s sometimes classed as a “Georgian poet,” a loose classification given to early 20th century British poets who weren’t Modernists.

As far as America was concerned, not being a Modernist wasn’t a good thing as the 20th century continued, particularly given that two Americans (Ezra Pound and T. S. Eliot) were instrumental in the Modernist revolution in English-language poetry. Georgian poets were soon seen as those that hadn’t gotten the news about what sort of topics, outlooks, and word-music was appropriate for the new century. Societal and cultural failures were prime topics, skepticism and a multivalent posture toward agreed-upon premises were expected, and the tight starched collar of strict accentual-syllabic verse music was loosened.

Thomas’ other problem was that he was killed during WWI, and wasn’t published to any degree until after that war was over. In Great Britain, those war poets who held to the pre-war verse forms were given some license because of their service and sacrifice. In the U. S., this was largely a non-factor.

But of course, what kind of word-music a poet uses has little to do with his subjects or outlook. Thomas, like his American friend Robert Frost, was roughly as Modernist as any of his contemporaries, he just didn’t sound like one if you muffled his words so that only the sound and rhythms remained. Like Frost, he never developed a Cubist or Dadaist kaleidoscopic vision, but within the monocular vision by which they squinted at modern problems, their analysis was fully of the new century.

Edward Thomas The Night Tripper

Sun,  Moon, and Herbs; scabious and tormentil, Edward Thomas knows ‘em!

 

Case in point: today’s piece, Thomas’ autumn poem “October.”  The subject of “October”  is depression. Thomas gives it an old name “melancholy,” but depression and existential isolation is its matter. Many of Thomas’ other poems (including most of those we’ve featured here) have him focusing on the decision whether he as an over-draft-age man would volunteer to serve in WWI, a war whose cause he didn’t really believe in. In the end he decided that he would not exempt himself from the human suffering of the war.*  But in those poems, like this one, the other marker that lets one know that we are in an Edward Thomas poem is an almost encyclopedic knowledge of nature. “October”  shows this: the fall plants are specifically named, and the names he chooses for two of them: scabious and tormentil, specifically reference their palliative properties.** And so from the start “October”  features a prime Modernist tactic: the use of specific things to surround the actual, ineffable, topic of the poem. The October day described is altogether pleasant. He remarks it could just as well be spring, and the late fall flowers of the harebell are just as beautiful as the early spring flowers of the snowdrop.

He even muses that at some future time he may be able to see his depression clearly as a finished, or at least understood, thing. Notice: there’s close to nothing in this poem (other than that single “melancholy” that comes in the penultimate line, or that say-what’s-not, not what-is “I might as happy be” statement) that tries to say “I’m depressed and can’t presently find my way out of this mood, to decide my life.” He doesn’t even say “And now it’s fall, and I’ve got a damn winter to live through.” Instead, in “October”  Thomas leaves us in a Buddhist or Taoist moment, able to see the beauty and the sadness, equal reflections of each other. His opening couplet seems to me like it could be a poem by Du Fu or Li Bai, not the poem of an early 20th century Brit, and so I refrain those lines at the end of today’s performance.***

Elsewise in my performance I worked with the new orchestral virtual instruments which have given me more usable staccato articulations, which I’ve put in service of my simple “punk rock orchestration.” My finger strength has returned to a level that I felt comfortable playing the featured fretless bass motif for this.

The full text of Thomas’ poem his here. The player to hear my performance is below.

 

 

 

 

*Thomas’ outlook, his feeling that personal decisions even in the face of doubt and lack of information were critical, were gently chided by Robert Frost in Frost’s famous poem “The Road Not Taken.”  Frost was the stoic, Thomas the existentialist.

**Henry Vaughn, the practicing physician, was more overt about the pharmacology metaphors in his poem about “Affliction,”  but think of Thomas as an herb-doctor as he assembles the formulary of his nature scene here.

***Has anyone tried to translate Edward Thomas into Chinese? Although “October”  is written in English blank verse, so much of it seems like it would sit naturally as a poem in the classical Chinese manner.