“Hope” is the thing with feathers

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.

Punk Monk Emily

My wife sent me this and I believe the illustration is by Wendy MacNaughton.

 

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.

Hope and Hope is a thing with feathers

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.”

Here’s my performance of Dickinson’s “Hope’ is a thing with feathers.”  Use the player below to hear it.

 

 

 

 

*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.

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Emily Bronte’s Hope

If Emily Dickinson had no real models for the revolutionary poetry she developed, she did have other poets she could look to. We know from her letters that one of them was Emily Bronte.

English author Emily Bronte and her two sisters Charlotte and Anne all wrote poetry and then novels, but Emily seems to have been the most avid poet of the trio. Starting in childhood Emily Bronte created along with her sister Anne a fantasy world they named Gondal in which they spun tales of adventure. At least some of Emily’s poetry was connected to that world, and so it’s possible that today’s hopeless piece titled “Hope”  is part of some fully imagined plot and isn’t autobiographical.

Emily Bronte

Emily Bronte. Plotting what to do to that useless hope when she’s uncaged?

 

One of America’s great contributions, an Afro-American contribution in large part, is The Blues. The Blues reaction to misfortune is almost inevitably to battle that misfortune in some way: to mock it, to hip others to it, to talk back to it and tell it that the speaker knows the score and may even settle that score with it some day. Most American Blues aren’t “woe is me, I’ve got it bad, and I’d rather be dead” it’s “I can tell you how much trouble I’ve encountered, but I’m still here.”

Emily Bronte is mocking too, but she’s mocking hope itself, not the unspecified troubles that have figuratively imprisoned the poem’s speaker. Hope is portrayed throughout as an external character, and that character is a pious creep, totally uninterested in easing the pain of the imprisoned speaker.

Still you have to hand it to Emily Bronte here. This is a rather impious poem from a preacher’s kid, even if it’s a character from her imagined world and this is only a momentary lament. Perhaps that’s part of what attracted Emily Dickinson to this fellow Emily. Dickinson is also a great mocker.

Does today’s Emily Bronte poem remind you of a well-known Emily Dickinson poem? Check back later this week and we’ll try to follow up on that—but until then, here’s today’s audio piece Emily Bronte’s “Hope.”  The player gadget is below. Full text of Bronte’s poem for those who would like to read along is here.

 

 

 

Self-Pity

Like Thomas Hardy or James Joyce, D. H. Lawrence is another writer remembered more as a novelist than a poet, though he published multiple books of poetry in a variety of forms in the early 20th Century.

He’s hard to place in the various “schools” of poetry of his time. He was published in Imagist anthologies, but he is also sometimes grouped with the Georgian Poets who eschewed free verse, though he often wrote free verse. He sometimes wrote compressed epigrams like the one I present today. “Self-Pity”  looks like a Modernist short poem on the page, but it doesn’t aim to work like most of those poems on the reader or listener.

DH Lawrence  by Bynner

1923 photo of D. H. Lawrence by Witter Bynner

 

Oh “Self-Pity”  uses all the devices of poetry, save for rhyme. It’s loosely iambic with anapestic moments in meter, though the line lengths are uneven. This is consistent with much free verse, which still wants the beats of the words to be felt, without lock-step marching drills. It has a vivid image (the frozen, falling bird). It has a repetition (“sorry for itself”).

Why then does it seem different from other Modernist poems? Contrast Lawrence’s “Self-Pity”  to two other contemporary-to-it very short poems: William Carlos Williams’ The Red Wheelbarrow  and Carl Sandburg’s Fog”.  “The Red Wheelbarrow”  puzzles readers to this day about its message, other than it wants the wheelbarrow to be clearly real. I think it’s about the beauty and dignity of work and its tools, but perhaps I’m wrong. You may not draw any meaning at all when you first hear or read “The Red Wheelbarrow.” “Fog”  attracts immediately with its metaphor of silent fog and haunches-poised cat. It may seem to you at first a show of how metaphor cleverly works. “Wow, fog and a cat, I never thought of them together. Cool.” It’s only if you hold the poem longer in your mind and heart that you may ask why the fog/cat is at the harbor, that it’s not a pampered pet, but a feral or work animal.

“Self-pity”  is more directive. Many who hear or read it will get the point the first time. Yes, that frozen dropping bird is a vivid image, but it doesn’t lead off the poem, it comes after half-way, and it’s meant to work not as something the poet saw, but as an imagined image to illustrate his point.

Which way is the right way to go about it? That’s for you the reader/listener/writer/performer to decide. The Internet tells us some folks find the direct and pointed message of “Self-Pity”  helpful to them. I myself could stand to be reminded of it sometimes. Literary poetry of the 20th Century gradually made the decision to go with the non-directive imagery way, not with the more frankly didactic aims of Lawrence’s poem. Current writers and readers will get to re-decide this issue for our maturing, teen-aged, century.

“Self-Pity” was used in a Hollywood depiction of military training.  I imagine a Pythonesque skit where John Cleese or Graham Chapman submits other poetry to raw recruits. “I saw the best minds of my generation destroyed by madness, starving hysterical naked!” “Suppose an opponent comes at you armed with plums. So sweet. So cold. What would you do?” or “You are a pair of ragged claws scuttling across the floors of silent seas.”

 

 

What do I think? After all, this is the Internet. I must  have an opinion!

I’m eclectic. I don’t want poetry, or any art, to always work in the same way, to stop surprising me. If I could send myself back and offer advice to Lawrence on his poem, I’d tell him to spend more time on that bird before he tells us what the bird means. By not giving me the sense that a real human stood cold or bundled up or on the warm side of a window and watched that instant, that small bird, ruffling their feathers to hold what warmth was still there before the perch became its last, the poem loses potential power for me.

Thomas Hardy may have imagined his winter darkling thrush entirely as a useful image, but I feel that encounter with his bird. I’m convinced Rilke actually looked at an amputated and archaic torso of Apollo and wanted to see its present state fully before he delivered his reaction. I think Lawrence wanted to make a point, and that bird was a useful slide in his deck.

But that may be sentimentality on my part, and too much of that can be stifling and predictable. And perhaps the poem would loose some of it’s epigrammatic power. How often we see by opposition.

Musically, I spent a good deal of time on the drums/percussion for this track, trying to pull out the vibe of “Self-Pity’s”  meter. With the rest of the music I tried to balance my reaction to Lawrence’s resolution while transmitting the assertion of the epigram itself. To hear it, use the player below.

 

The Wood-Pile

Robert Frost is every bit the master of word music as Yeats and Millay. What makes Frost stand out is that he was every bit the thoroughgoing early 20th Century modernist as any of his free-verse contemporaries, while retaining an ease with accentual syllabic meter.

Here’s an example of Frost handling a subject just as a free-verse Imagist would. His aims, his presentation, hold to the Imagists’ principles. He deals with the thing directly (as we shall see, two things, but still…), and there are no tacked-on metaphors, no stock comparisons, no extraneous “poetic” language. Context is shown, but not explained. He loosens and varies his meter, so the poem sings and never seems to be a shackled march. At 40 lines, it’s a bit longer than Yeats’ poem considering “The Wild Swans at Coole,”  but Frost’s extra detail is even more specific and concrete than Yeats, though both begin their poem with the poet walking in a rural wetland. Yeats slough is a well-known place to him, conditioned with 19 previous visits. Frost is far enough into his swamp to not know exactly where he is, and so experiences what he sees with a first-time immediacy. Yeats’ slough then contains tradition, Frosts’ the more Modernist “Make it new!” place.

Though presented as one simple rural scene and story, “The Wood-Pile”  is more at two poems, though each part speaks to the other. As Frost’s tale starts, we are in the midst of one of his characteristic journeys, just as we are in other famous Frost poems. There’s a need for decision (“Turn back” or “go on farther”) and his choice, also made in other Frost poems, is to go on regardless of whatever doubts brought the question. If he’s lost in the dark by a wood on a snowy evening, keep going. If you come to a fork in the road, pick one and go on. If you’re walking in a swamp in winter and your foot is sometimes falling through the frozen crust, well, keep going “and we shall see.”

And so, here he sees his bird. No Keatsian nightingale, not Millay’s elusive flying swans with their awkward dangling legs and cries, nor Yeats’ majestic 59 swans, but a small bird. This bird becomes a mirror to the poet. Frost’s bird too must make choices in direction, and the poet, sensibly, thinks the bird’s guided by fear. “Keep something between little me and the big lummox trodding through the winter swamp,” he humansplains. And there’s a bit of humor at human’s expense as the poet muses that the bird, like humans with their self-importance, may think that the only reason for Frost to be out in the swamp is to go after the little bird.

Gackle with white tail feather

“He thought I was after him for a feather—the white one in his tail”

 

But, we don’t know why Frost is out in the frozen swamp explicitly. The only reason he’s given, or will give, is the Imagist poets’ reason: “and we shall see.”

The bird leads Frost to the second thing the poem wants to present: an abandoned fire-wood cache. Here Frost zooms in close. Every detail of the cut wood and the once neatly stacked and propped wood-pile is stated. Frost turns forensic, like some New England Sherlock Holmes: this pile has been abandoned for years. Mature vines have grown through it.

wood-pile

“The slow smokeless burning of decay”

 

Here is another context left unsaid. Why would someone abandon a purposeful wood-pile in a swamp? Frost leaves it for us to be detective and to solve the mystery. This isn’t some lot of fire-wood left temporarily to be gathered later in the day, care has been taken to stack and prop it.

The only thing I can think: someone once built a shack (now completely disappeared) on the swamp land. Frost muses, sardonically, that only someone so busy with “fresh tasks” could abandon such effort in cutting and stacking. Does he mean to say, “only a fool would be so industrious to cut and stack this wood and yet not notice he was building his shack on a swamp that would not support a homestead?”

Now, the small bird with his “little fears” and oh-so-human misapprehensions of reality—and now, the steadfast Frost of miles to keep going, even if you may be lost, are set in contrast to this choice. Your fears may lie to you—but so will your optimism.

I once heard an astringent biological statement that the length of our lives can be reduced to a slow-burning chemical reaction. Frost’s last line here is a sad and beautiful analog to that truth.

Turn back or go farther? Go on, and we shall hear my performance of Robert Frost’s “The Wood-Pile”  with my original music. Just use the player below.

The Wild Swans at Coole

Let us for a moment consider length in English language poetry. Despite the customary inclusion of one or two very short poems in most American poetry anthologies (“The Red Wheelbarrow   or “In A Station of the Metro”  typically), one can easily derive from them an accumulated mainstream judgement that poems shorter than a sonnet’s 14 lines are judged slighter expressions of less merit.

Similarly, in music, for all the glories of the mid-20th Century’s two minute and forty second 45 RPM single, serious composed music demonstrates greater regard for pieces of at least middling length, and the 20 to 70-minute symphony is still regarded with reverence. And so on with improvised music practice, which seem to find the five-minute mark as a minimum. Even the later 20th Century movement that got called “Minimalism” worked the idea of fewer motifs considered at greater length.

And so it is when we consider swans, the largest waterfowl, in words. Our last post and audio piece used Edna St. Vincent Millay’s “Wild Swans,”   a fine poem, but if one looks at the accumulated attention gathered in the roughly 100 years since each was written, Millay’s “Wild Swans”  is overshadowed by William Butler Yeats’ “The Wild Swans at Coole.”

Yeats’ poem is worthy of this attention, and he does pack a lot into his mid-length 30-line poem, written by a late middle-aged poet as his colonized country has experienced a failed revolution and his world has seen the shocking mechanized slaughter of the original World War. All that violence is subtext—not once is it mentioned—and as we read or listen to it now, that violence may no longer be apparent, though the background of disappointment remains.

Millay presents the swans as something she cannot comprehend as they fly over her, with her disappointment, her heart at present “a house without air.” Yeats on the other hand presents an almost OCD-level attention with the swimming swans at the beginning of his poem. He has apparently been counting them on each visit for 19 years. He’s going to count them again. And then they fly off in clamor before he can finish his count even though he reports an exact number.

The specificity of those two numbers is curious. Is the 19 years of visits to Coole in Ireland a mere biographical fact? Are the “nine-and-fifty swans” he’s counted an actual census he took regularly? I do not know. Given that Yeats had a long interest in occultism, there may be some occult significance in one or both of those numbers. They are both large numbers for the things they measure: anything one has done for 19 years has a resonance for that long a duration, and given how magnificent the sight of a few swans gliding on the water are, the idea of 59 of them viewed together is an image of overwhelming swan-ishness.

What strikes me most about the two numbers subliminal effect is that both end in 9, and so, seem to be almost at an ending. As the poem develops, Yeats returns to that effect.

These details, written in Yeats typical lyrical fluency, accumulate throughout the poem. The lake and sky repeating each other. 59 swans. The “bell-beat” weight of their wings as they heavily swing them into flight, equally straining, equally coalescing into aerial rings. Their companionable swimming on the cold water “lover by lover”—ah, there’s that 59 again, an odd number—at least one swan has no mate.

But he doesn’t say that. The poem is all its music, the image after image, the beauty after beauty mixed with the undercurrent of impossibility of its permanency. The world will change, the poet or the swans will not return.

19 years of repetition does not mean 19 years of repetition to come. 59 swans is all but too much beauty, but one swan is without a partner.

Davis Coltrane Yeats Millay

John Coltrane: “Sometimes when I’m playing there are always new sounds to imagine, new feelings to get at. There’s never any end.”

Miles Davis: “Try taking the f’ing horn out of your mouth”

 

So, do the 30 lines of Yeats mean it’s a greater poem than the 8 lines of Millay, an objective judgement causing its greater fame?

Why do I have to choose? If Yeats had written 60 or 6,000 lines would “The Wild Swans at Coole”  be better? If Millay had written 80 lines, would her “Wild Swans”  have shown greater skill? We can derive from how anthologists, poetry critics and audiences respond what their preferences are, even those they never articulate explicitly, but in the end it is the longer poems that make the short poems concise and the short poems that make the longer poems seem overwhelming.

How many times have I listened toKind of Blue?”  Does Miles Davis need to play more notes? Does John Coltrane need to play fewer? Looking at these two poems about swans, they illuminate each other.

The gadget below will play my performance of Yeats’ “The Wild Swans at Coole.”

 

Wild Swans

Let’s return again to Edna St. Vincent Millay as I start a short series of pieces using words by more well-known poets, each of whom considers the book of nature as played out by birds.

Millay’s “Wild Swans”  may be somewhat overshadowed in the Cygnet Committee by William Butler Yeats’ “The Wild Swans at Coole,”  published only a few years earlier than Millay’s poem. The birds of these poems’ central image, the largest waterfowl, are known for white and graceful beauty while at rest or swimming on the water, which contrasts with their somewhat overburdened flight and strangled hinge-in-need-of-oil song.

Other than their pure color and size, it may be the swan in flight that makes them something of the ornithological model for angels, as for such a large bird to have enough strength and wingspan to fly is practically miraculous.

an_angel_playing_a_flageolet-Burne-Jones

No matter how hard you blow on that horn, not enough wingspread to get airborne

 

In “Wild Swans”  Millay presents that miracle in flight, but by misdirection or misapprehension. The swans are flying as the poem opens, but Millay is instead looking inward—and furthermore, the poet thinks this introspection is bringing no insight.

Swan taking off

Headlong effort transcends grace

 

But in this short poem’s second part, the images and insights come anyway. In an apostrophe to her heart, Millay addresses it as a “house without air”—an acute metaphor there for despair—and she now asks for the swans to fly over us again, trailing their ungainly legs, crying unselfconsciously their sad and awkward calls.

Wildness, movement, flight beyond bounds, the miraculous after grace, the next day flying over the weeks, then the months and the years.

This is a surprising poem, it’s titular image, those wild swans, are missing, until they are called for in the last five words; not to be beautiful, but straining to be possible.

To hear my performance of Edna St. Vincent Millay’s “Wild Swans”,  use the player below. And remember I rely greatly on readers/listeners helping spread the word about the combination of various words and music here. Tweeting, linking, including in Facebook posts and on other social media, helps this project reach it’s audience. If you don’t do social media, that’s fine too, the amount of work it takes to do this makes that a practical impossibility for me; but if you like this, hitting the Like button for this post helps keep me going.

 

 

 

A Cold Heaven

We’ve already met Irish poet William Butler Yeats with a brief poem earlier this month. Now his words return with a piece suitable for the aftermath of Valentine’s Day, for “A Cold Heaven” is the tale of a rejected valentine. It’s also fitting, because Valentine’s Day comes in the midst of late-winter. February, as Margaret Atwood put it, is a “month of despair, with a skewered heart in the centre.”

Here in the northern Midwest it was a “seasonable” 19 degrees F. this morning, and hardy ice has outlived any soft covering snow. There is a promise of a thaw this weekend, but that will only recall mud and the detritus of what the snow once remembered inside it.

Critics from more temperate climes praise Yeats for his oxymoron here of “ice burned,” but up north we know that’s just what happens to skin in the cold, with no need for poetic intercession. And my back yard, my cities’ parks, and our central greenway have been home to that “rook-delighting heaven” he speaks of as well. Strange isn’t it, that the bird of death is so smart, so intentional, so sure, and yet inscrutable.

In “A Cold Heaven,” Yeats’ winter and his death-omen birds lead to a missed and misunderstood, “crossed” love; and he takes the blame: if not for the season, for the failed love. Like so many, and without the succor of chocolate or flowers, he is left in the rejected lovers worshipful, davening stance, “rocking to and fro.”

But he is a poet still! “A Cold Heaven” breaks itself in two with an image that is also a pun: “Riddled with light.” Yes, we Northerners know that winter light. Brighter than summer, and paradoxically the sign of a piercingly cold day. He knows his love’s in vain, and yet no amount of blame that he can assign himself—even if he exhausts “all sense and reason” to catalog that blame—can account for the failure of his love. What can solve this “riddle?”

Yeats begins again, with a majestic “Ah!” only to take us on a short ghost story, the spirit of his love in purgatory, in bardo, naked as a corpse or as a lover, wandering and asking why clear skies, clear answers, seem like punishment.

So to all those whose valentines were not accepted yesterday: peace. Such riddling has no end to its depths. I know this: that hole is too deep to be plumbed, just know that it’s deep. The correct prayer for such things is unknown.

Yeats and Gonne

Look, maybe she’s just not that into you…

As a performance, “A Cold Heaven” had some challenges because Yeats makes use of enjambment, where lines break in the middle of sentences; and where the meaning too, often forks, seeming to mean one thing before the line break and another afterward. Since I like to let the lines “breathe,” so that the music can interject, and so that the words’ impact can sit a little bit before the next line, I resorted to repeating a few words. There are also a couple of other audio tricks in the piece. The string parts, particularly at the beginning have a “backwards tape” articulation where the sound swells from louder to silence, in the reverse of the normal decay of strings, which I hope signifies the drop into the past in Yeats’ text.

To hear “A Cold Heaven” use the player gadget you should see just below this.