Wild Nights Wild Nights

Thomas Wentworth Higginson may have exaggerated a bit, speaking then of “dread.” But it was 1891, and he had taken on editing the surprisingly vast literary legacy of Emily Dickinson for its first substantial publication. In this task, he was a lucky find, for though he had engaged in a lengthy correspondence with Dickinson when she was still alive—the real rarity was that he was a thoroughgoing radical, a Transcendentalist comfortable with heterodoxy, an uncompromising abolitionist who raised and lead a company of Afro-American soldiers in the Civil War; and rarer yet in his time, a stalwart feminist who knew and worked with pioneering American feminists Lucy Stone and Susan B. Anthony.

Thomas Wentworth Higginson in uniform

Abolition, Transcendentalism, Civil War, Women’s Suffrage and rights
Higginson wasn’t going to keep a little keep a poem about desire bottled up

 

So, fear of controversy was not in Higginson’s nature. Still “dread” was the word he used:

One poem only I dread a little to print—that wonderful ‘Wild Nights,’—lest the malignant read into it more than that virgin recluse ever dreamed of putting there. Has Miss Lavinia (Emily Dickinson’s surviving sister, and the one who found the large cache of poems at Emily’s death) any shrinking about it? You will understand & pardon my solicitude. Yet what a loss to omit it! Indeed it is not to be omitted.

What dread could a little 12-line poem cause? Dickinson’s “Wild Nights Wild Nights”  appears to be a poem about unembarrassed female desire. Even with suggested subtext supplied for for lines like “Rowing in Eden,” it probably seems less shocking today. Still, let’s give Higginson some credit. He not only didn’t want to censor it, he maintained it needed to be included for publication.

Even if we’re not shocked by an erotic element, let’s not forget: it is an Emily Dickinson poem. It’s terribly concise. It sings off the page, yet with such short lines, just three to five syllables long. It’s memorable. When I mentioned it to my wife as the next piece I was working on, she nearly knew it by heart.

But most strangely, though it starts like an ardent valentine, it finishes either in disconnected thoughts blurred by lust, or with something altogether less conventional. Setting humptastic subtext aside, why would one row in Eden? You’re in paradise! Where do you want to go? Do you need to stock your ship up with the fruit of knowledge against the scurvy of faith? And you’ve made it to port in the last stanza. Again, let’s leave the “made it past third base” metaphors behind for a moment. Why are you exclaiming the sea when you’re in port? I even wonder if Dickinson is slipping in a pun here: “Ah! the sea!” sounds like “Odyssey.” Is Emily’s wild-nighter an Odysseus looking to getting back on the boat and back to sea?

I don’t know exactly what Dickinson is getting at there. It’s her characteristic level of concision: pretty, but sharp pieces of glass, leaving lots of slant light to refract.

Veedon DIckinson

Poetic license. Yes, I know “Wild Night” is on Tupelo Honey

 

We’ve followed the Parlando Project goal of varying the music with Dickinson poems so far, even casting her as a classic blues singer. For “Wild Nights Wild Nights” I wrote a more rocking R&B thing this time. I relaxed a bit with the vocal this time too: tossing it off in one take while playing the acoustic rhythm guitar part. The opening lines of Dickinson’s poem reminded me of Van Morrison’s song, and so I slipped a few mutated lines near the end. Play the performance with the gadget below. You can dance if you want to…

 

 

Millay’s Sonnet 43

Edna St. Vincent Millay was another poet who offered little to the “New Criticism” critics who largely set the canon for the 20th Century, even though her career, which covered the first half of the 20th Century, ran almost exactly through the same time as Eliot, Frost, Pound, William Carlos Williams, and Wallace Stevens, and even though she achieved significant readership and a level of awards and accolades while living.

What was their problem with Edna St. Vincent Millay? Well her popularity would be a negative in some lights. In this regard, critics are often no different than the record store clerks of my own day, whose estimation of any indie band would inevitably drop as soon as they achieved a widely-played record. And there’s the “her” and “she” problem. The level of disbelief of the idea of a woman artist probably varied among these critics, but literature was still a very male world at that time and unconscious prejudices are a given. But even if we skip those two, frankly illegitimate, factors, there is the issue of Millay’s plainspokenness.

St Vincent

Annie Clark performs as “St. Vincent,” Edna St. Vincent Millay is on the right. Google carefully!
Clark has said the stage name came from a NYC hospital, but if that’s so, it’s a remarkable coincidence.

Odd isn’t that? This value that you might rate highly in friend was held as low regard by the New Critics, who likely thought it common and unremarkable. A Millay poem typically says exactly what it means, right out. There may be images, but they might not pass Imagist muster. They aren’t stark omens whose meaning is felt and then deciphered, they may be more like the illustrative images the Imagists wanted to leave behind. Millay’s all tell and too little show for them.

And Millay’s language often seems stuck in the 19th Century too. Some lyrical poets like Yeats and Frost adopted Modernist tropes and were able to make their rhymed and metrical poems sound more like contemporary speech. Millay sometimes seemed to be reading from a somewhat musty library book when composing her poems.

The most extended image in “Sonnet 43”  is a bare winter tree, which could be a borrowed image, or a homage, and I choose to manifest the later in this performance.

Can our modern (post-modern) age free up some respect for Edna St. Vincent Millay? I think so. With contemporary poets, we now sometimes value plainspokenness. And the cluster of things that Millay spoke plainly and honestly about include love, sex, and desire.

This sonnet was published in 1920, it’s nearing a century old. If we slide over some of the 19th Century “poetic diction” (something I found easy enough to do when performing this) it’s as honest and as nuanced report on the state of a heart as anything written then or now.

And if one must have ambiguities for art’s sake, honesty can contain that too. Some read this poem as bitter, or a lonely-hearts club statement, or as regret for a life that Millay’s time would’ve called promiscuous. That’s not how I understood it to perform it. I think the speaker is recalling an active love life they rather enjoyed. They reveal themselves (honestly) as something of a sensualist. As the Petrarchan sonnet wraps up its octet, the speaker allows a touch of regret about those lovers who turned to the speaker at midnight “with a cry.” What did the speaker offer them? I think the closing lines say some “summer,” a summer that “sang in me”—that is, that summer is not something the speaker intentionally gave or offered, and the speaker doubts that the muses of that summer offering will still speak through her. William Carlos Williams—unlike Millay, following all the Imagist rules—touches also on the caprices of summer and fulfilled desires in It Is a Small Plant,”  but some are more accustomed to a male author speaking ambiguously about the honest incursions and boundaries of desire.

Perhaps this poem benefits with some listeners in being heard performed in a male voice? I can’t say for sure on that.

Among the 20th Century admirers of Millay’s verse were my father (who grew up on the 19th Century Longfellow and the like, so Millay’s 19th Century diction was no bar) and a distant cousinoid of mine, the modern American theater pioneer Susan Glaspell.

I rather like the musical accompaniment for this one. I worked quite a bit on the drum part trying to bring out different colors, and for the bass I was able to supplement the electric bass with some bowed contra-bass, which is one one of my favorite sounds in the world. Ironically, Millay started out wanting to be a concert pianist, and the top line here is one of my naïve piano parts. To hear me perform Edna St. Vincent Millay’s “Sonnet 43”  aka “What lips my lips have kissed…”  use the player below.

Heat

Just after the start of the 20th Century two teenagers met at the University of Pennsylvania. One was 16 years old, a smart and cocky boy without much in the way of money, who had somehow managed admission to the University at such a young age.  The other was 15 and the only daughter of an astronomer and professor at the college. So devoted was the girl’s father to his astronomy, that it’s told that his wife needed to come by during the colder months with a kettle of hot water to unfreeze his eyelashes from the eyepiece of his telescope. This professor was the enlightened sort of early 20th century father who believed in women’s intellectual equality. He dreamed that his daughter would become another Marie Curie.

However, the two teenagers soon fell in with each other, and science was not in their bond. Poetry and the arts were. A year or so later, a new freshman arrived at the University to study medicine. That freshman was William Carlos Williams, and he would complete his studies and become a pediatrician and family doctor who practiced for decades in Patterson New Jersey while writing purely modern poetry. The boy and the girl fell in love, and were secretly engaged, knowing that the boy’s lack of money and established career would prevent the girl’s father from giving permission of them to marry.

Real Genius Jordon or HD
The 1985 movie “Real Genius” is a documentary of this meeting between two teenagers in college.

 

The girl grew up and was sent to Bryn Mawr, a woman’s college that was known for having a tough “men’s curriculum,” following her father’s hope that she would become a scientist. There she met Marianne Moore, who also became a noted modernist American poet, but at Bryn Mawr she failed in her studies. The American oracle Barbie would later proclaim: “Math is hard!” and a career in science was out.

But wait. What of that cocky boy? Oh no, he’s gone to England! And double oh no, he now engaged to another woman there. After all this, we can now begin our story again.

This now young woman who had already met and befriended William Carlos Williams and Marianne Moore, went to England to meet back up with the young man she had fallen in love with as a teenager. The young man was Ezra Pound, and the young woman was Hilda Doolittle—but she wouldn’t be much longer.

Young Ezra Pound2HD

Sorry, “Real Genius” its really about how Tears for Fears was uncool, but now is kinda cool.
And here are the real and young Ezra and Hilda.

 

Pound was in England trying to stir up a poetic revolution, something that would forge past the reformation of William Morris and the Pre-Raphaelites and give poetry a fully modern cast. Hilda showed Ezra some of her new poems, and Ezra did three things that he would do repeatedly for other poets in the next couple of decades.

He immediately recognized that Hilda was writing the kind of fresh, spare, honest poetry that he thought necessary to break the grip of the past. He would see to it being published.

After admiring it, it took his pencil to it, and slashed out parts of the already concise poems. I can hear some of you drawing a breath on that, considering the sexual politics, ready to cry “Asshat!”—but that’s Pound, even with poets of genius: cut it, pare it down, make it new, not one extra word. A few years later he’d do the same thing to T.S. Eliot, and the surviving variorum manuscripts show why Eliot called Pound “The Better Maker” of The Wasteland.”   Pound’s editing pencil seemed to teach like the sensei’s stick, and once shown, poets like Hilda Doolittle and Eliot understood how to do the same thing themselves.

And then he took that editing pencil and signed Hilda’s poems “H.D. Imagisite.”

That last move was another part of Pound’s talents. He was probably more successful in launching other poet’s careers than he was his own. He had a shrewd promoter’s eye. “Imagiste” or “Imagist” was the name Pound would give to the modernist poetic movement that would during the years of WWI as radically reshape English poetry as the war would reshape the maps of the world, and here he was saying, rightly, that H.D.’s poems would be the ne plus ultra of that movement. As a name, H.D. was as pared down as the new poetry would be. If he’d lived long enough to see video screens with 1024 lines, he could have said calling them HD for “High Definition” was a tribute to his call for seeing things truly. And H.D. masked Hilda’s gender, still important in a world where women were widely thought to be incapable of great art. The former Hilda Doolittle didn’t object. She’d never liked the family name (“Do-Little” she thought it scanned) and besides, her sexual identity and friendship affinities were at least HD.

Let me admit that this post is unfair to H.D., the writer of the words of today’s piece. We’ve gone past my customary length limits and we’ve only barely touched on H.D.’s talents and extraordinary life. I’ll need to revisit her work soon and give H.D. her due.

What can I say about today’s piece “Heat?”  Well it’s an appropriate July poem, and the titular heat, in true Imagist fashion is both a closely observed thing: actual summer heat, and an image that, without simile or extra framing, is imbued with complexity. Last episode we had Pound/Li Bai, two men, showing desire and longing in the “River Merchant’s Wife”  with only a few actual named emotions or feelings. H.D., the better Imagist, shows female desire with not a single named emotion. The poem’s final phrase:

that presses up and blunts

the points of pears

and rounds the grapes.

is sensuous beyond words—it’s only 13 words to be beyond after all—and with four p and s sounds it holds four kisses.

To hear my performance of H.D.’s “Heat,”  use the player below. And thanks again for the likes and the social media shares!