After all the storm and breadth of remarking on my several-year presentations of “The Waste Land,” the totality of which takes more than an hour to listen to, it’s time to return to a smaller Modernism. To start that off, let me present a tiny poem by Emily Dickinson.
How many Flowers fail in Wood — Or perish from the Hill — Without the privilege to know That they are beautiful —
How many cast a nameless Pod Upon the nearest Breeze — Unconscious of the Scarlet Freight — It bears to Other Eyes —
Indeed, with some editing/translation it could be a full-fledged, circa-1916 Imagist poem. Dickinson’s poem speaks of plural flowers, and that’s in tune with the point it’s making, but an Imagist might have simply changed it to a singular flower, or at least an instant of several flowers. The negative-pathetic fallacy of the flower’s ignorance of its beauty might have been excised. So, if William Carlos Williams or H.D. had written it in the 20th century it might have arisen like this:
The flowers fail in the wood And perish from the hill. Is there a privilege to know That they are beautiful?
There is a breeze, and in it Some nameless pods — Seeds of scarlet freight Bearing from eyes to eyes.
More or less the same thought and brevity, just a removal of the remaining 19th century Romanticism that Dickinson retained even as she would question it, and of course the word-music changes some. Today I chose to keep Emily Dickinson’s word music and original expression intact. But either poem is making a declaration about art: that it’s often created because it must be, out of an urge that is as omnipresent and mysterious as flowers, and that like flowers it’s part of a reproductive system that allows many seeds for few flowers and even fewer idle reflective eyes to see the flowers, this passing fecundity and unnecessary beauty.
All flowers, like all artists, fail, but “Unconscious of the scarlet freight…”
I present this piece today as I read two memoirs by little-remembered early-20th century Modernists — and from those little-noticed flowers I noticed some others, eyes carried in the wind to my eyes that I hope to present here soon for yours. But for today, we have my performance of Emily Dickinson’s “How Many Flowers.” with a player that will land and bloom for some of you, and this alternative for those who don’t see the player, a highlighted hyperlink that will open a new tab to let you play my performance.
*In our 21st century — with grace of a scholarly culture once blind but now can see — the depth and subtlety of Dickinson’s vision and the thought that she’s able to stuff into tiny poems is now widely celebrated.
I’ve just spent much of a day with Emily Dickinson. I’ll tell you it was enjoyable, not the least because there is a factor in many of her poems: they grow when you spend time with them.
It started late last night. I noted that I had been looking at early examples of “jazz poetry,” poetry from the previous Twenties that celebrated jazz music and jazz musicians. A thought occurred to me: I’ve gone too far into #NationalPoetryMonth without a Dickinson poem. Which of her poems might deal with music?
“Musicians Wrestle Everywhere” came up in searches, though it was not a Dickinson poem I’d seen before.* Here’s a link to the full text, and here’s another to a manuscript of it in Dickinson’s own hand. After my first reading of it, my reaction was, “I don’t know if I can fit this with the jazz poetry. While ‘Musicians’ is the first word, the musicians largely go away and we’re off into Dickinson’s headspace.” Well, my second thought was, “This could work some other way and time, disconnected from the Jazz poetry stuff. Let me see what I can do about making it a song for later use.”
I didn’t want to go toe to toe with Carter. My mood today was to make this somewhat foggy poem more immediately understandable on first listen, while Carter emphasized the poem’s more abstract thought-music. Wrestling with Dickinson’s words and my desire today as I tried singing it and working out my music, I decided to make some minor changes to the words*** and to add a refraining line. The former tactic is generally frowned upon, and many a living author will forbid it. The later, repeating a line or section, is generally allowed. One of the reasons that page poetry often seems less effective as song is that we have a strong desire for repetition in song. I think if even when silently listening we are “singing along,” and we desire to know when some part is recognized as coming around again. Refrains bring us into the song, even on first listen.
So, what is the poem’s point that I hope to make clearer in my song and performance? I believe that Dickinson is saying that musicians, and herself, extract from the time and vibrations of crowded reality our new tunes, rhythms, timbres, and harmonies. Those composing ears aren’t merely transcribing. They might refine melodies within the strife of conflicting environmental sounds, but to some larger degree they are hearing the unheard music that does not exist, though founded or surrounded, in observable reality or philosophy. In the final verse she mentions some think what inspires composers is the pagan “music of the spheres” or some choir of angels, or the departed in heaven — the later a place the skeptical Dickinson is not sure of.
So where does new music come from, if not just imitation, transcription, a cosmic mechanism or ancestral angels? This is the reason for my refrain, to make more adamant what I think Dickinson may be saying. Why are our April trees budding? Why is there new life in our spring without our trying or thought — and in notion of our stewardship of the Earth, despite our neglect? “I think it’s that new life” the now refraining line repeats. Life, creation, poetry, music, it wants to happen.
I would be ahistorical to suspect that Emily Dickinson’s piano improvisations were anything like Elmo Hope. On the other hand, if my lame joke tempts you to listen to some of Hope’s recordings…
By the time I’d worked out a meaning to Dickinson’s poem I’ve come to think that it is a compliment to the Jazz poetry I was looking at before after all. The Jazz poems of the previous Twenties I’d seen mostly observed the musicians and provided a listener’s appreciation of what they were putting down. In Dickinson’s poem, she’s the musician, the composer themselves.
By late this afternoon I’d completed the music and recorded the acoustic guitar, bass guitar, cello and violin parts for my song setting of “Musicians Wrestle Everywhere.” The player gadget to hear my performance is below for many of you, but if you don’t see it, this highlighted hyperlink will open a new tab to play it too.
*She wrote over 1800 poems, so another fine thing about exploring Dickinson is that there can easily be a new poem to experience. Which reminds me to point out that this project has over 500 pieces to experience here too.
**Yes, I know the bit about how you can sing many Dickinson poems to the “Gilligan’s Island Theme,” or “The Yellow Rose of Texas,” or as this post reminds us, many hymn tunes. The post also has a short summary of what’s known about Dickinson’s musical involvement. The author notes that Dickinson was familiar with mid-19th century string-based dance music as well as having some ability to improvise on piano. I wonder at the Celtic and African strains that might have crept into Amherst by the 1860s. The only instrument Dickinson mentions in her poem is the tamborin, which appears to be an African derived hand-held drum instrument.
***I wanted to modernize the syntax and usage a bit to add to the clarity for the contemporary listener. A line in the third verse uses one of the few archaic terms in this poem “Dames” which has largely fallen out of American usage even as a faux-genteel slang term for women. By expanding the following term from “Men” to gentlemen I echo a somewhat outdated formality and may have helped make clearer that the “bright Majority” of “vanished Dames and Gentlemen” are the dead of the past.
Today’s report on the most listened to and liked pieces featured here over the past quarter will show three experiences of the mystery of winter. So, let’s return to our countdown:
4 Twilight Fallen White and Cold by Joseph Campbell. I seem to have become something of a promotor of this little-known in the United States Irish-born poet who I still know little about. He published a series of poetry collections before the end of WWI, and then his poetic output dropped off, for reasons I’m not yet clear on, though the politics of his country’s decolonization struggle may have contributed. This piece using his words that a lot of you liked and listened to may be the most mysterious of today’s trio.
Best as I can figure it, this winter nature landscape poem may be an expression of his nation’s detracted state and situation, particularly in the invocation of ancient earthworks (raths) and burial mounds — but I cannot plumb the entirety of the refraining line of “wounds of Eliom/weep on me” that I feature in my setting of Campbell’s poem. Eliom is a plural word for gods, sometimes used for polytheistic gods, sometimes used for the singular monotheistic diety, and as it may be here, used for angels. If that’s so, then the starry constellations, the winged vampires, the curlew birds, the floating mists, the carrying sound of the ocean are all the Eliom, the angels in this changed winter nighttime vision.
To hear my setting of Campbell’s poem, you can use this highlighted hyperlink which may open a new window with a player, or in many cases, you’ll see a player gadget below to directly play it.
It’s been too long since I’ve said this: thank you for coming to read or listen here. It’s become harder for me to respond to comments or properly promote this project, but I appreciate so much those who come here, listen, and let others know what the Parlando Project does.
3 The Snow is Deep on the Ground by Kenneth Patchen. Lawrence Ferlinghetti, whose words we met earlier in this countdown, would sometimes remind folks that he wasn’t really part of the Beat Generation, even if he was associated with others who might have been so thought. Patchen is a similar case, or perhaps more so, in that his poetry career started in the 1930s,
As with many of the best Patchen poems, even the political ones, this is a love poem, delicately poised between the enchantment of love and the world that allows the shattering of it. If one can fully absorb the illumination of this poem, as with some of the best of Patchen, you would cry tears of joy and sadness at the same time.
You can hear my performance of Patchen’s “The Snow is Deep on the Ground” with this highlighted hyperlink, or if you see it, with a player gadget below.
You can read, or listen to my performance, of “The Sky is low” and find a whimsical nursery rhyme, and find enough enjoyment in that — but let it stick in your memory or repeated ear and a little dialog about predestination, first causes and fate is discernible. To listen, use this hyperlink, or you may see a player gadget to directly play it below.
One more post in the Top Ten countdown to go, and then we can move on from the mysteries of winter to the mysteries of spring.
This little poem by Emily Dickinson seems at first so slight, little more than a tiny winter nature lyric using the risky literary trope of the pathetic fallacy* deftly enough that it doesn’t cloy. The language is almost entirely simple and plain-spoken, but in such a short poem the words that aren’t entirely clear may reward further attention.
Dickinson’s handwritten manuscript for today’s poem from the collection of Amherst College.
The Imagists that came decades after Dickinson’s work weren’t much for the pathetic fallacy, but if one ignores that element— something possible to do because it’s so swift and unpretentious about it — this poem does work like an Imagist poem or like one of the models Imagism sought to emulate, the classical Chinese short poem.
Let’s start right at the first line, and the first word that requires some figuring out. “The sky is low, the clouds are mean” sets our stage. A “low sky” and “clouds” would indicate that this poem’s day-moment is overcast, but what does “mean” mean? It would be easy to think it’s saying, pathetic-fallacy-wise, that the clouds seem angry and spiteful. I think many modern readers will hear this sense primarily, and I cannot eliminate that Dickinson intended that at least as an undercurrent, as it seems a pair with the complaining wind we meet in the second stanza. Yet, in the context of the sentence that makes up the first stanza, my best thought is that she is presenting the clouds as a secondary definition of “mean” (now somewhat obsolete) as shabby or stingy. The image she’s setting up is that it’s overcast, but it’s not a snowstorm, there’s only a modicum of that mentioned: a specifically singular “flake of snow,” so that may be all these clouds are producing.
Our snowflake does have feelings. From its actions, aflutter in the wind and singular enough for the eye to want to follow it as an individual, it seems indecisive about what route to take over the landscape. It might fly high (“across a barn”) or low “through a rut.” It’s frozen (sorry, can’t help myself) in a moment in the poem and we never find out. In its concise way, Dickinson’s snowflake is like Robert Frost’s chiding portrait of his friend Edward Thomas: two possible roads, and the snowflake thinks it’s important to choose one.
The pathetic fallacy gets stronger as the second stanza begins. A cool or cold gusty wind is presented as if it’s complaining for hours on end. For an old/weak bicyclist like myself who tires of headwinds that seem to always be in my face no matter that one has changed direction, this is an ascribing of malice and forethought that I can appreciate. If you look at Dickinson’s own manuscript, you can see that she considered using a legalistic term** “some parties,” but “some one” seems the broader and better choice. Here, in a different aspect from the snowflake who thinks it has at least a binary choice, it appears the wind is saying it’s been diverted or prevented from something.
In this small poem’s presentation, these two things are joined. The snowflake thinks it can decide, but we know the wind will send it where it directs, but the wind thinks it has been in someway enjoined. Pathetic fallacy aside, it cannot choose, meteorological forces and barometric lines will send it where they will.
In the last two lines, Dickinson doesn’t tell us how it comes out — she refuses to leave her poem’s lyric moment. Her final line brings one more uncommon word choice. It has it that “Nature, like us, is sometimes caught/Without her diadem.” A diadem is a ruler’s crown, worn to signify that the wearer, well, rules, decides. Once more, the pathetic fallacy is invoked: nature is the decider, but for the poem’s moment they have momentarily forgotten to put on the device that lets them take on that power — but in a tiny aside (“like us”) Emily Dickinson says we actual humans, who can actually think, feel, decide are sometimes also in this situation, we may blithely follow what seems like a free will choice or complain that we are forced into our directions. Which is it, really? Did you forget your diadem?
Read this poem, or many an early Imagist poem or classical Chinese poem, and it may seem a miniature painting of a mundane scene. We may be charmed briefly, or we may think, “Oh, that’s too slight to be a thoughtful poem.” Did Dickinson consciously or unconsciously intend what I see here? The number of times she was able to pull off effects like this poem can produce, and the subsidiary writings demonstrating how she thought*** indicate that even if she didn’t consciously work out the complexities underneath her simplicities in some grand and lengthy inner symposium, she put herself in the place where she could receive and express these charged moments.
*The pathetic fallacy is the tactic of ascribing human emotions and thought to inanimate objects or forces. Despite the literal words of this poem, it’s not debatable that snow does that, and the wind doesn’t really have some angry dispute.
**I’m not sure how many scholars have considered that Dickinson grew up in a family of lawyers, and even though as a woman that field was not open to her, it’s likely that some of that was picked up by her avid mind.
***Long footnote ahead! What can we gather from how Dickinson used this poem that might indicate how she considered it? This poem was “published” in a personal letter to the wife of a couple that were long-time friends of Emily. The husband in the couple was Josiah Holland, a medical doctor and lay preacher. By the time this poem was written in 1866, Josiah had become a well-known journalist, lecturer, poet, and author. He was a principal in the Springfield Republican newspaper which famously published seven of Dickinson’s poems during her lifetime. He had just published one of the first full-length biographies of Abe Lincoln, and would a few years later found and become the first editor of Scribner’s Monthly. His wife, to whom the letter with the poem was addressed, Elizabeth Holland, has no known literary work — but read the letter by following this link. Here one may get the sense of how another important literary personage who Emily Dickinson interacted with, the formidable Thomas Higginson, remarked about how Dickinson wore him out. The amount of philosophical legerdemain, reference, and zen parable in this short letter is striking to me. Did Dickinson expect Elizabeth Holland to understand that letter?
Emily Dickinson’s correspondence and friendship with the Holland couple seems to have been one of the most stable and ongoing in her life, equal to those who were Dickinson’s blood relatives. Whatever bonds were between them, this letter shows the expectation of considerable intellectual understanding, and for “The Sky is Low” to be enclosed indicates that Dickinson had goals beyond the simplistic for it.
Before continuing with our count-down of the most liked and listened to pieces here this past autumn, let me remind newcomers what the Parlando Project does. We take words, mostly other people’s words, usually poetry, and combine them in different ways with original music.
“Oh, you mean you make them into songs?” Well, sometimes, yes. But not always. I don’t always sing the words, thus the project’s name.
“So, it’s spoken word with some music in the background.” You could say that about some pieces, but I want the words and the music to interact, comment on each other. The music isn’t just background.
“Music with chanted words. Are you a rapper?” I wish. Can you imagine the commercial potential of old guys chanting poetry, often to acoustic instruments? House-party! I’ll bring the Gerard Manley Hopkins, Emily Dickinson, and Fenton Johnson! No, I’m not a rapper, but you could say that I’m more a separate branch growing off the roots of things that rap also grew from.
“Are you some kind of beatnik?” Wait, where’s my black turtleneck, I’m going to reverently listen to some cool jazz records now while trying to remember what was so important about being intoxicated first. Oh, what was the question again?
“The last few numbers on the Top Ten had those orchestral instruments. Are you setting poetry texts to music in the tradition of art song?” One limitation of this project is that neither Dave, nor certainly I, possess bel canto voices that can realize what most art song composers do. I’m conceptually doing what art song composers do, but the empirical results reflect my outlook, performance resources, and limitations. Also, like Yeats, I fear that elaborately sung melodies obscure the impact of the words.
OK, back to the countdown. If you’d like to read what I wrote when I first presented these pieces, the bold-faced titles are hyperlinks to that.
The first edition of Dickinson’s poems featured a picture of Indian Pipe flowers in bloom, but like all flowers, autumn, if nothing else, ends their term. Indian Pipe (also called Ghost Pipe) is a strange plant that doesn’t use photosynthesis, but rather gets its energy from fungus. The picture was chosen because avid botanist Emily liked this unusual plant.
3. As if the sea should part by Emily Dickinson. From Emily B. to her American admirer Emily D. we go. For all the mythos about Dickinson’s later years of not leaving her family home, does anyone ever ask if being cooped up in a house with a family half-heartedly uninterested in poetry was all that comforting to her? In her most vital writing years, Dickinson still roamed some physically—and mentally. I’ve had some fun over the years here suggesting musically and graphically that Emily Dickinson would rhyme with Sixties psychedelia. “As if the Sea should part” is certainly mental traveling of the purest sort. The player for this performance is below, or if you can’t see the player, you can use this hyperlink.
2. The Listeners by Walter de la Mare. When I started this project I thought I’d be rocking out more often than it’s turned out to be the case. Part of that result comes from being increasingly unable to record with Dave or others, and some from enjoying the novelty of being able to score and play orchestral instruments. My version of de la Mare’s weird minimalist ghost story isn’t crossing the hardcore boundary, but this is a rock band arrangement that sounds good turned up on your speakers. The player to test that claim should be below, or if not, this highlighted hyperlink will play it.
Forever and Crumbling. So if I disregard the outsized number of listens Hopkins’ poem got, this summer’s most liked and listened to was another Emily Dickinson-based piece where I joined two short and somewhat abstract Dickinson poems into what I thought was an interesting combination. I called my combination “Forever and Crumbling.”
“Forever” talks about the localized instant we all live in, that Dickinson lived in too. “Crumbling” talks about decay happening from a chain of those instants. In theory the two pieces, that Dickinson wrote separately, change/enlarge when related to each other. That and my musical performance of them is my contribution. Your likes and listens say that some of you found that worthwhile.
I’ve sat here most of the morning and now into the afternoon trying to write something useful in addition. If we are charged to “live in the moment,” 2020 makes that especially challenging. If we seek to halt and reverse the cobwebs and rust on our ideals and nation, like Dickinson’s “Crumbling” it will take more than an instant’s act. Nothing I wrote today brings what I can believe adds anything to our instant in time or repairs our current state of dilapidation. When I first posted this piece in the first week of June, I felt the same awkwardness. I have faith (or is it only habit?) that art and beauty have worth, but it takes a lot of faith some days.
Wishing all of us justice and mercy, and some wisdom to see a balance of those.
4. A Mien to Move a Queen by Emily Dickinson. My teenager, who suspects my musical output as being less than relevant, taunted me gently by asking as I started writing this post if I was presenting Winnie the Pooh. By “Pooh” we may decode: something simultaneously old and immature.
I can’t quite give you the flavor of this, but there’s a quicker wit in my house than mine even when my wife is out of town.
Well that post just happens to be the one that introduced the 4th most liked and listened to piece here this summer: Dickinson’s “A Mien to move a Queen.” And yes, it is a strange poem, though it draws me in none-the-less. It may be one of Dickinson’s riddle poems, like “May-Flower” though I can’t solve its riddle. Dickenson may be looking at another flower, or a bird or insect.
Did a carefree song seem out of place in our 2020 summer? Or was it something we wanted to visit, if only for the minute and 46 seconds the performance lasts? Well, in any season there is happiness. Seething anger, somber reflection, these may seem to be the noble emotions this summer, but joy is not an ignoble emotion.
The American Midwest loves lawn signs. I ride by many each morning in my neighborhood: election candidates, Justice for George Floyd, roofing contractors, high-school sports teams, and a couple of these too.
2. The Poet’s Voice from speeches by William Faulkner and Bob Dylan. Our current American age is suffering much from insufficiency of empathy. What kills or mutes empathy? Fear is one thing. One sentence in William Faulkner’s Nobel Prize acceptance speech struck me so strongly when I read it this year. Not the one I was quoted so often by teachers then my age now, back when I was nearly 20, the one that went: “Man will not merely endure: he will prevail”—this, somehow, they seemed to be saying would come from literature, of all things, stuff written largely by dead men. Thanks pops. Now let me return to being worried about which of us is going to run out of tuition money or the will to continue this hidebound education, and get drafted. No, that one was Faulkner’s hopeful future, a future we haven’t yet made obsolete. Instead, it was this sentence, earlier in the speech, the one that should make you sit up and take notice:
Our tragedy today is a general and universal physical fear so long sustained by now that we can even bear it.”
Old man Faulkner, though he may be as imperfect as the brightest and most perceptive person today, is really saying something there. In the context of his entire speech he appears to be referring to the particular fear of a nuclear war, but then how strange that he calls this “so long sustained” when nuclear arms were around the age of our current Presidency’s term when he gave this speech in 1949.
So, if fear mutes empathy, let us acknowledge that carrying someone else’s song in your ear, your mind, your mouth, is the pathway through which it can infect your heart with empathy.
I’ll return soon with the post revealing the most popular piece here this past summer. That’s going to be a somewhat complicated story.
Emily Dickinson didn’t mind at all being strange or odd in her poetry. For example: today’s poem, which after an opening line quickly goes off to a strange place and then stops at eternity in less than 40 words. In one of her best-known poems, “Because I could not stop for Death,” she saunters at a mid-19th century horse-drawn pace to eternity. But with today’s poem, rocket ships couldn’t leap as fast. Here’s a link to the text of “As if the Sea should part” if you’d like to follow along.
It’s not only pace that separates Dickinson’s mode of expression in these two poems. On the face of it, “Because I could not stop for Death” begins as a somewhat friendly and homespun gothic, a tale of a clearly metaphoric trip told with homey touches in its imagery: children playing at recess, harvest-ready fields, the early chill of oncoming autumn night. “As if the Sea should part” starts with a miracle which might draw us in, as if we’re to be following Moses across a divinely separated sea. But it’s not exposed seabed and astonished crabs we’ll see as the sea parts. It’s “a further sea.” And we’re off!
And then that further sea parts, and reveals another sea. This is all beyond the speed of even these few words, it’s almost beyond the speed of thought or revelation. Li Bai’s mental presumption conjured up some drinking pals here a few posts back, but Dickinson’s poem progresses too fast to present itself as mere fancy. Dickinson had a famous two-factor definition of poetry: a goose-bump chill that would make any clothing as insufficient as a gossamer nightgown outdoors in autumn—or the top of one’s head being taken off. This poem intends or portrays the later.
I get the impression, the three seas are only a start, this first parting of the waters to reveal other waters which also then part. Why does she stop at three, other than it being the minimum to establish the pattern? I found one reading that thought the capitalized “Three” in the poem may be intended as the Christian Trinity,* the three-form God-Head. Many of Emily Dickinson’s family and cohorts took to revivalist Christianity, something that Emily specifically resisted. We also know that she knew of and may have had an affinity for Transcendentalism, an American movement that sought a more immanent, first-hand spirituality based on the soul of humanity and the revelations of the book of nature. The experience in this poem seems more the later than the former, but “presumption” is a key word at the center of the poem. After all, the poem begins with “As if…” telling us this is imagined, not direct observation. This entire poem is her mental flight, and not a meditation on the seashore, which after all would be a hundred miles from Dickinson’s Amherst.
The final stanza is extraordinarily difficult to follow. “Periods of Seas” starts out gnomic, and the best I can extract from it is that Dickinson’s mental traveler is now also seeing not just the measure of oceans’ surfaces, but the measure of time when seas might dry up or form—but all those eons are being seen in a measure of three words. Even at the speed of her vision she realizes that there is no way to reach all the shores of seas in this infinity, for at the greatest speed of mental travel they will part and show new seas.
Am I reading too much into this? And is this just so much mystical “Oh, wow man, I just realized the universe is like infinite, ‘cause even if you reach the edge of it, what’s beyond would be just more different universe still forming, you know!” Well serious cosmology and humankind’s sobering spiritual awe at nature, or its foggy analog of too many bong hits, Electric Kool Aid, and cups of Chinese wine, it’s all a little too much. Dickinson had a garden to keep, food to prepare, poems to write and sew into little books. Why did she write this down? To briefly remind herself of what happens when the top of her head lifts off perhaps. She may never have intended it be something for us to read and understand, though we might still hear it, somewhat muffled, over the roar of parting seas.
“I believe I’ll go out to the seashore, let the waves wash my mind, Open up my head now just to see what I can find” are not lines from Dickinson’s poem. Also kids: drugs and vinyl are both overrated. Sarcastic political activism is too, but which of these are necessary?
A tip of the hat (or is that the top of my head?) to the Fourteen Lines blog where I came upon this Dickinson poem for the first time. Today’s audio performance of Emily Dickinson’s “As if the Sea should part” relates to the particular foggy analog of mid-1960’s psychedelic music, a little like something that Country Joe & the Fish would fry up back then. The player gadget to hear it is below for most of you, but if you don’t see the gadget this highlighted hyperlink will also play the piece.
*This reading then has the “presumption” as the poem’s speaker scoffing at the presumptive idea that the God-Head could be limited to merely three manifestations.
Not every record had those lyric sheets. Some artists opposed them on principle—Bob Dylan was one—though to a large degree the reason we got them was due to that hold-out, Mr. Dylan. Dylan revolutionized song lyrics. Before Bob Dylan, no one wrote songs with lyrics like he did.* After Dylan, a lot of everyones tried their hand at it. In the 21st century when we hear or see lyrics that use an accretion of rapidly changing metaphors and a kaleidoscope of dark-cylinder mental outlooks, we no longer notice that they are Dylanesque. It’s just a mode that songwriters can draw from the common.
Would that have happened if Dylan hadn’t happened? Possibly. And plausibly, only similarly, but distinctly different. Would Richard Farina (sans motorcycle accident) or Leonard Cohen have won a Nobel prize for reshaping a word form?
One argument that it would have still happened was the psychedelic phase of pop music that followed Dylan’s revolution. There, later in The Sixties, opaque and strange lyrics got another push, one that was largely ascribed to intoxicating chemicals which produced visual sequalae and baroque mental turns. Now of course the intoxicated or drug altered poet was already a thing in literary poetry, and the sober cold-water-army songwriter was likely a minority long before “The Sixties.” But Dylan had punctured the membrane that separated those two crowds, and so we got the Canyons of Your Mind school of songwriting too.
19th century straight-edge punks on dihydrogen monoxide, usually also anti-slavery and pro-women’s rights too. Comes with a lyric sheet!
Some of it was good, some of it bad—but then we might see lyric sheets to the wind like these:
Oh where are you now
Pussy willow that smiled on this leaf?
When I was alone
You promised the stone
From your heart….
Brandish her wand
With a feathery tongue
A mien to move a queen
Half child—half heroine
An Orleans in the eye
That puts its manner by
For humbler company
When none are near
Even a tear
Its frequent visitor
If you were a bird and lived very high
You leaned on the wind as the breeze came by
Say to the wind as it took you away
“That’s where I wanted to go today”
Bedouin tribes ascending
From the egg into the flower
Alpha information sending
States within the heaven shower
From disciples, the unending
Subtleties of river power
The chorus sings: “OK Boomer,” and you can ascribe all of these to chemical traces, wonder about their authors consequent mental damage, or coldly appreciate them as word music, but I’ll come at you from a minority report: the trip’s in your head, not in the drug. I gave up stuff you can smoke (mostly nicotine) around the time I passed the trustworthy border age of 30. I never spun the pill roulette wheel. Needles are for records or loose buttons.
Next stop for the psychedelic bus is some credit for those lyrics above. The first is from Syd Barrett’s post-Pink Floyd song “Dark Globe.” The second is the beginning of an arresting if mysterious poem by Emily Dickinson. The third is by children’s writer, humorist, and WWI vet A. A. Milne quoted by songwriter Paul Kantner to begin the Jefferson Airplane’s “Ballad of You and Me and Pooneil.” And the fourth is the start of “Slip Inside this House” from the 13th Floor Elevators’ Tommy Hall and Roky Erickson.
A little day glo paint or patchouli and Emily Dickinson fits right in when she writes in this mode I think, even if she’s a century too soon, “The Eighteen-The-Sixties.” When I ran into that first stanza of her 1861 poem known by it’s first line “A Mien to Move a Queen” earlier this month, I was immediately captured by its strange mystery, so much so that I worked out the music you hear today without even knowing that the poem was longer than that one stanza, and I was so entranced by it that the piece you hear today uses only the first and last parts of her poem because I think the middle parts break the mood that first stanza gave me. Want to see the entire poem? The link is here.
The omitted middle section seems playful to me—even as the British would say, twee, but I am of course editing a genius here. I still like my selection as I hope it adds some weight to the whimsey. What was Dickinson on about in this poem? Even living with it for a few days, I’m not entirely sure. The opening stanza is often read as connecting to Joan of Arc. Some read the poem as Emily reflecting on herself and constructing her own persona, and the middle section I omitted gives some evidence of that. Beside it’s general mysteriousness, there are to my mind two pieces of particular heightened sensitivity or even hallucinogenic imagery: the “Orleans in the Eye” line and the sensuous and heard quiet of the “Like Let of Snow” image.
So, we started with musty cardboard squares and moved through two steps of an era of wilder and wilder metaphors sung to music, and finished with Emily Dickinson, sewing 1861 fascicles by whale oil light while listening to Syd Barrett or A. A. Milne feedback on her record player long into the night. In between songs, the needle stops shimmying and she can hear the sound of snow moving across snow outside, filling, and not, summer’s empty room.
The player to hear my musical performance of a selection from Emily Dickinson’s “A Mien to Move a Queen” is below. Thanks for reading and listening!
*Yes there are examples that made it into popular or semi-popular music pre-Dylan. Modernist poetry had already done all of these things earlier in the century, and in addition, a big part of what Dylan used in creating his work were the un-acknowledged Modernists who created the Afro-American blues. None of that disproves the point that Bob Dylan showed that you could do that sort of thing in a proximate way that led to a revolution in the possibilities of song lyrics.
Today Emily Dickinson is going to show us how not to write a poem—and how to make it work anyway.
This piece combines two different poems she wrote: “Forever—is composed of Nows” and “Crumbling is not an instant’s Act” in a way that I hope lets each poem reflect on each other. Both speak about time and the universe’s track along it, and that’s part of Dickinson’s substantial task as the poet here: these things are abstract. The Modernist experiment, which Dickinson in many ways presages, would generally try to represent even the most abstract, contradictory, and elusive things as images, palpable things. When that tactic works, it lets us find a shape, a sensual feeling, a weight and color to things we otherwise cannot behold.
Dickenson can do that. Forgotten Imagist Carl Sandburg* even called her an Imagist, just as Imagism’s call to Modernism was emerging a few decades after Dickinson’s death and posthumous publication. But here, in these poems, she predominantly avoids that tactic.
I can think of a few reasons she might do what she does in these poems. If you’d like to follow along, here are links to the text of “Forever..” and to “Crumbling…”
First, she received a science education. This may seem odd, even though some time back we learned that Percy Bysshe Shelley, the uber-romantic poet knew how to calculate the distance between the Sun and the Earth, but Emily Dickinson was a woman as well as a poet in Shelley’s 19th century. Science? My 21st century child goes to a high school with a substantial STEM program. “It’s all guys, and they act like it too” is the report about the Engineering class here in 2020. But in Emily’s New England, science, the humble mechanics of the universe, was actually considered a safe subject for the hampered female brain. Politics, theology, fine arts would all be fields walled off from women anyway, but they were also considered inappropriate for the lady-brain.
The second is that she grew up in a household steeped in the legal profession. Her father, her grandfather, and her brother were all prominent lawyers. Though I’m not a full-fledged Dickinson scholar by a long-ways, I’m not aware that this substantial fact is much discussed as potentially formative in how Dickinson saw and thought about things. Yet, here by her poetry we can see that she was possessed of a mighty intellectual engine, one whose genetic blueprints and environment would be tailored to express things as lawyers might: in sharply defined abstract legalities.
Lastly, 19th century poetry was comfortable with abstraction of the sort she exhibits here, though few could match her compression of expression. We still use much abstract rhetoric in general discussion, but our poets generally recognize the danger of taking the specific vividness out of verse.
In the first piece of our dual Dickinson presentation today, she makes a statement about the nature of time: that it cannot be experienced relatively other than as an infinite series of nows. She cannot find a physical image for this, and so uses abstract scientific and legal language to describe this mystery: “Composed…Infiniteness…latitude…remove…dates…dissolve…exhale,” and the near-enough Latin of “Anno Dominies.” This, the language of a contract or scientific paper. That said, a phrase like “Years—exhale in Years” is palpable.
The second piece, “Crumbling is not an instant’s Act,” could be read as a tiny summary lecture on entropy. In the middle stanza of this three-stanza poem (‘Tis first a Cobweb on the Soul…An Elemental Rust,”) Dickinson moves from abstract summary to imagery, but even here, her knowledge of botany, both empirical and academic, is deployed. “Cuticle” is not some chat over a manicure—it’s a distinct feature of plants. “Borers” and “rust” likewise would be familiar to Emily as the dedicated gardener of the Dickinson household.
Emily Dickinson, science nerd:. Hosta’s cuticle protects it from dust, Dickinson’s self-made herbarium scientifically categorized a host of plants, and Rudolf Clausius considers entropy and whether to grow a mustache or not
The concept of entropy was only first posited in 1850, and I don’t know if Dickinson had any access to discussions of what would have been a fresh scientific concept. Some read “Crumbling is not an instant’s act” as a reaction to medical or psychological issues Dickinson was personally facing rather than musings on the formal structure of ruin and the universe’s law of return to equilibrium. That reading works too. This old guy may not study thermodynamics, but I can personally recognize the states in this poem without measuring instruments or a blackboard of equations.
If you or I were to try to write either of these poems, we’d risk failure. Our abstractions might seem enervated, while the compressed energy of Emily Dickinson carries me through her argument, even where one cannot follow its intellectual thrust easily. In the middle of these abstract arguments, in the second stanza of each three-stanza poem, Dickinson lets in enough imagery to pull us in.
It may seem odd, now, in this month, as the nation stands at a crossroads to present these two poems today. Frankly, as I looked for any poem in the public domain that wouldn’t seem beside the point or merely pander to it, I failed.
Dickinson wrote in the midst of the greatest crisis, moral and physical, that our nation ever faced. In 1963, in a critical year of struggle against Afro-American civic oppression, John Coltrane released four records. In 1863, in the midst of the turning point year of the American Civil War, Emily Dickinson wrote 295 poems. Coltrane was a musician, not a poet or singer. I can’t fault him for not giving us words when he gave us “Alabama” and “A Love Supreme.” Emily Dickinson’s poet’s words don’t address the Civil War directly, we can even doubt that she understood the situation of Afro-Americans and slavery’s advocates significantly, however sharp and searching her mind was. So, check your privilege Emily? Sure. But her poetry is about—no not just about, is —freedom, a searching, seeing mind. Our caring hearts take us partway there. Our minds must journey too.
In combining these two poems I wanted to put them in a context that rings for me, in our present moment, however abstractly. We are in our forever nows, as we always are. Ruin is not a now, but a formal process, consecutive and slow.
Thank you for reading and listening. The player to hear my performance of two poems by Emily Dickinson should appear below.
*In looking for the next piece here I must have read or re-read over a hundred Carl Sandburg poems this past week. He’s often remembered as the 20th century’s first great inheritor of Walt Whitman, with great spanning catalogs of Americana in rambling free verse. But early Carl Sandburg is full of attempts and successes at concise Imagist poems that work like his contemporary pre-High Modernism Imagists’ poems did.