A Mien to Move a Queen

Ready to go on a roundabout trip with today’s blog post? Keep your hands inside the car, we’re going somewhere back to here on another wild-mouse ride.

A couple of things the foot-square vinyl LPs of my youth afforded us: liner notes to help guide us in appreciation of the grooves within, and more commonly as The Sixties progressed, lyric sheets.

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.

Cold Water Army

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

Or

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

Or

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”

And

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.

Emily Dickinson: Forever and Crumbling

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.

Cucticle-Herbarium-Clausius

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.

Some Rainbow coming from the Fair

There I was, thinking it’s been over a month since I’ve presented an Emily Dickinson poem here. I didn’t start this project thinking that Dickinson would be so prevalent as a source for texts, but that’s what happened, and during the past four years my appreciation and wonder at Dickinson has increased greatly.

One thing I came to sense in her poetry that I had not noticed before was an air of the mystical combined with an almost psychedelic playfulness. This can be dark or light depending on the poem, but since many of the things I’ve been working on lately have been in a darker, more gothic vein, I thought I’d look more to the lighthearted side. I started a search for Dickinson and spring, and while I’m not sure exactly what keywords I used, this poem turned up very near the top, and it immediately captured me. I had thought I’d be searching for a while but found my next piece in less than 10 minutes.

“Some Rainbow coming from the Fair”  is not one of the most famous of Dickinson’s poems, nor has it been commonly set to music (unlike many other Dickinson texts). Here’s the full text and a picture of the manuscript in Emily’s own handwriting if you’d like to follow along.

It opens with two remarkable and attractive lines that don’t present a distinct image. I’m not sure which meaning of the word “Fair” we’re to understand in the first line. Fair as in a celebratory meeting or market (like a county or town fair) or fair as in beautiful, but rainbows and fair in the first line and we could almost be in My Little Pony land if Dickinson doesn’t launch us further out quickly into a “A vision of the world Cashmere.” I first thought of the luxurious wool,*  but she also could be using this word as an alternate name for the Asian region called Kashmir. Peacocks complete the luxurious imagery of the first stanza. In later context we’ll see that this is an image of wildflowers, but at this point we’re still in mystery and allure.

Next stanza is lovely in sound and more specific in what it pictures. Butterflies are butterflies, ponds have insect sounds again, and in an image that might make one laugh out loud, bees are “barons” out of their castles and on the ambling march.

Third stanza, robins have replaced the enrapturing snow that Dickinson so ably described in a poem many liked here last winter. She next gives us an orchis flower prettying up for an old lover, the exotic Spanish nobleman “Don the Sun” who is revisiting her in her swamp.**  The sensual and the silly playfulness keep mixing it up.

In context we now suspect that the poem is describing wildflowers in its more impressionistic and feathered images. And the final stanza marshals the spring blooms into an army. And then, like it started, the poem departs with two lines that end in mystery. What’s up with the flower children of “turbaned seas” and the “Circassian Land?”

Well first, flowers again.*** The spring flowering tulip’s name is derived from the same word as the Turkish word turban because the bud’s shape is of a like shape to the head covering. The Circassians and their native region in the Caucasus mountains were in the news at the time this poem was written. Imperial Russia had invaded the area, and the Circassians were fighting back.**** Some of the coverage dealt with atrocities including the enslavement of Circassian captives and captured Circassian women being held in Turkish harems. As we’ve discussed before, this last trope was an exotic/erotic fixation for some westerners. Circassians were geographically “Caucasians”—and in the archaic understanding of ethnicity of this time, Caucasians were held to be the prototypical white race. Therefore, beyond the usual fascination with underdog fighters against Imperial forces and humanitarian concerns with displaced refugees, there was this additional element of “White Slavery” and a frisson of the forbidden.

So this is a very particular and odd way to end the poem—but even if you know nothing of the current events of the mid 19th century, it does still convey that exotic flavor. A reader reading this without context may still find it an enjoyable spring celebration poem. It certainly captured my interest at first reading. But wait, there’s one more bit of context!

It may well have been intended to capture it’s reader, as it did me, in that it’s one of the poems Dickinson sent in a letter to her friend, sister in law, neighbor, and possible lover Susan Gilbert Dickinson in 1859. If you look at the end of that handwritten manuscript, it ends with this note:

Emily's Dear Sue Note

Dear Sue, I haven’t “paid you an attention” for some time. Girl.

 

 

As with all things Emily and Sue, there’s a gathering amount of modern speculation and scholarship to these matters. Just a little friend to friend note or a bread-and-butter obligation repaid to a sister in law? Or is this poem meant to be an encoded mash note to a romantic crush?

If it’s consciously or unconsciously erotic, one may be able to see that reading without strain. Cashmere as fabric for a vest or blouse. The pervasive flowers now as the beautiful reproductive organs of plants. And butterflies. The bees, are they singing Slim Harpo’s “I’m a King Bee”  from a hundred years after Dickinson’s poem? That Orchis waiting for a lover? Oh, for certain. Sensuous feathers. The whole captive in a harem as role-playing. It’s not just the spring wetlands that are getting steamy in here!

In the end, the poem may stand either for spring’s desire and delight or the poet’s. And as I said last time, it captures you with it sound of thought either way. The player gadget for my performance is below.

 

 

* Dickinson might have had it in mind, as this textile from Asiatic goats had been introduced to western countries, and Massachusetts in her time had mills that wove it into fabric.

** The informal British English meaning for “bog” was not likely on Emily’s mind. However, one of Dickinson’s poetic heroes Elizabeth Barrett Browning had helped propagate the Latin lover trope with her publication of her love poems Sonnets from the Portuguese in 1850.

***Emily Dickinson was an avid gardener, and as a young woman compiled an elaborate herbarium classifying a great many flowers in her region. Whenever Dickinson mentions a flower you can be sure she knows more about it than the average person.

****These overseas battles were covered in the Springfield Republican,  a Massachusetts newspaper that was read in the Dickinson household and which was one of the few places that published an Emily Dickinson poem while she was alive. Alas for the Circassians, the final outcome of this invasion was diaspora and what in a quaint 20th century euphemism was called “ethnic cleansing.” And to think that I sought out this poem because I wanted contrast to other, darker stuff I was working on.

Confucian Ode on Blake, Dickinson, and Whitman

It’s time to wrap up our National Poetry Month celebration, and once more I’m going to present a piece where I wrote the words as well as the music, a piece in celebration of the unpredictability of poetic genius. In the “Song of Myself”  section I presented a few days back, Whitman proclaims that America contains multitudes, plain and profound things, contradictions—and furthermore that everyone of us can contain all and each of that.

He could have spoke the same of the world, even if he was a believer in American Exceptionalism. But he wasn’t alone in American beliefs. Artist, printmaker, and poet William Blake thought as much in London even as we struggled here for independence. And in the era Blake wrote his “America, a Prophecy,”  in our America, a young woman, who had been abducted from Africa and enslaved, Phillis Wheatley, filled the next fold of her future by writing her book of poetry.

And by Whitman’s time we had Emily Dickinson, born a free white woman in a prosperous household, yes, but not yet in a time when those of her gender could hold for the power of her own mind. Her grandfather, her father, her brother all made and read the law, but she fully became Shelley’s unacknowledged legislator of the world.

In all the oppressions and focused indifference of America and the world, humankind still has these poets. Let us wonder and rejoice in them—and also those living now—who, whatever their given lot in life, open themselves to a blessed consciousness and find someway to convey it to us.

Speaking now of my poem that makes up today’s text: I think I called it a Confucian ode not only because I tried to use whatever understanding I have of how Li Bai and Du Fu expressed themselves in 8th century China, but in the sense that the much older odes collected by the school of Confucius were intended to instruct society as a whole, not just serve as an anthology for other poets.

Confucian Ode to Blake Dickinson and Whitman

Here the text of today’s piece. Classical Chinese poems don’t use punctuation either.

 

The process of explaining poems can suffer from the explaining the joke or speaking about music dangers. But since I have a passing acquaintance with this poem’s author, let me say a few words about my intent this time. In the first stanza, I note the priors from which our three poets came: William Blake’s father was a hozier, a maker of socks,*  Emily Dickinson, as we’ve already discussed was the daughter of a lawyer, and Walt Whitman’s father was a house carpenter.

If poetic accomplishment was a matter of instruction, none of them would have stood a chance. Of course, there are other poets with fine educations, and poets whose households were steeped in literary culture and expectations; but in the area of poetry, they historically stand side by side with these of more modest backgrounds.

A couple of years back I presented two poems together, one by Carl Sandburg and the other by Ezra Pound that spoke of Dickinson and Whitman. The better educated Pound takes a side-swipe at Whitman who he declares he once merely detested, saying Pound’s time is for carving, though grudgingly, that Whitman “broke the new wood.”

Pound has a point. I too think Whitman could have used a good editor, though perhaps then he wouldn’t be Whitman, so capable of maddening us to contradiction with his excess. In this year’s portion of “The Waste Land,” “Death by Water,”  editor Pound took the exceedingly well-educated Eliot’s lengthy tale of a shipwreck and drowning and carved out the sharpened epitaph we now know, that I could present this month. So, in the second stanza I make my bow to craft, and to those of us who help preserve and present the work and souls of poets. I speak of this craft and preservation as a container, much as the poets are containers for the blessed consciousness they open themselves up to receive.

In the third stanza, I make a new connection to the first two stanzas. I speak of those wealthy in this world, with fine socks and gloves, lawyers to take care of their contracts, and builders to make their towers. If you are an American these days, you may think I refer to a particular someone who puts his name on lots of tall buildings—but that name is writ in water. By such actions and pride they are saying the buildings are not the point, they—their selves—are what is contained in them.

Trump tower with shadow on name

If we’re labeling things, the top on the other side should say “noggin.”

 

I end the poem with another stanza and a final couplet, continuing to tie the preceding in. This is my attempt at the “music of thought” I speak about often when I speak of poetry: a power that finds harmonies in thoughts, images—rhymes in things not only in words. Why must we say and share our poetry? Because it’s not ours. In acts like the Parlando Project and histories of much, much more, humanity preserves and presents it, and celebrates it in National Poetry Month.

Yes, if we wrote it, we stayed still to write it down, practiced the discipline to convey what blessed consciousness may have conveyed to us, removed the words and other personal cruft that obscured it, cut the cord and buried the now shabby afterbirth. We share it, not because it is ours, but because it has worth.

Thank you for reading and listening, thank you for the kind words. Thanks to Dave, Heidi and Bert for helping make this project happen. April is ending, but May can be filled with poetry too, so follow this and spread the word. The player to hear my performance of “Confucian Ode on Blake, Dickinson, and Whitman”  is below.

 

 

 

*And so, by way of a footnote, our April-born William Shakespeare’s father made gloves.

A light exists in spring

Given the times we live in and the current virus-crisis, can I be excused for being a little bit late with an audio piece for World Poetry Day?

It occurs to me that if World Poetry Day was some kind of Olympian-Olympics or the World Cup in Verse, and the United States had to look over its relatively short history on the literary scene and pick it’s most powerful and representative champion, Dickinson could be our choice, even though she spent her writing career not really having one.

Indeed, when I was introduced to Emily Dickinson as a teenager back in the middle of the last century, that was the inevitable, subtitled fact about her: a recluse, a nun of poetry in effect—self-isolated in her room, scribbling odd little poems which are now seen to have at least some middling value because, well, they’re so unusual and such.*

For a century and a bit more, past-through that time when I first read her, and over our new century line by a couple of decades, readers, critics, and listeners still discover that there’s as much there in her little poems as we seek to look, and look again, for.

Take today’s spring poem of hers “A light exists in spring.”  It’s as simple and complicated as a William Blake song of experience. It’s as metaphysical as a poem by Donne. Yet it doesn’t push me, or (I think) many other readers away. It draws me in to this mystery of what it is describing. Dickinson confides in us: we are likely to feel/see this too.

I compared her to Blake with consideration, because poems like this strike me as describing some kind of mystical or limerent moment. Dickinson has a strange effect often, she can be a cold romantic, a skeptical seer, as I read her.

Something in spring almost  speaks to her, and that “almost” in her poem seems powerful—a present absence. I question my musical setting once again today. I’m not sure if I have mistaken a playfulness in this poem as a meditation upon a mystery.

Perhaps it’s my time, and much of the other world’s, this World Poetry Day that leads me there. Many of us are taking Emily’s vows this March, this spring: sheltering in place, practicing social distancing, pondering perhaps a mysterious illness’ distance short or near—and whatever our usual disposition, we may be now far from even lonely crowds in our homes and rooms. This spring is visible as a distance as far as we can see.

My Fathers House 1850  Emily Dickinson

Shelter in place: Emily’s room was on the 2nd floor behind the trees in the front-left of this picture.

 

The player to hear my performance of Emily Dickinson’s “A light exists in spring”  is below. Thanks for listening, reading, and sharing the existence of this project.

 

 

 

 

*Scholarship has shown this blurb-level summary of Dickinson’s life was misleading. For a woman of her time and location, she was above the average line in experience (Some college! Visited other cities. Privileged and connected family in a college town located in the region of America’s greatest intellectual ferment at the time). But by her middle age the burden of a woman’s domestic role and a much speculated-on illness tied her down to the homestead, and only then, in her later years, did she become the recluse of legend.

The Most Popular Parlando Project Piece for Winter 2020

December seems so long ago doesn’t it? More so this spring in our current crisis. Back on the 10th of December I awoke, took my bike ride to breakfast in a pleasantly crowded café, where I read that it was Emily Dickinson’s birthday. While eating breakfast I decided I should try to make a Dickinson piece before the day was done.

This morning in March, I rode to that same café. Normally there are 20 or 30 folks there drinking coffee, eating breakfast, talking, reading or fiddling with notebooks or notebook computers during the morning on a weekday—more on weekends. Today they are to close their dining area for the duration at noon, and the two couples eating breakfast several empty tables apart (along with some not-present more) will need to do what I did and pickup takeout fare to keep this place a going concern.

Last morning to dine in at Turtle Bread

Cold but sunny morning, and taking their last chance for awhile to have breakfast together.

 

When Emily Dickinson was a child, her family grew up not in the grander family house her grandfather had built and lost due to debts and business ineptitude, but in another house across the road from a cemetery. Some biographers think this molded the young mind of our great poet, but then the literature of that time had a decidedly gothic tinge to it anyway. And that’s not the place she lived as the poet we know.

Her father worked assiduously to repair the family wealth and regained the homestead. Emily’s room is in the front of the house. Out to her left would be the garden and orchard that she became the master of with the illness and eventual death of her mother. Below her, the kitchen where she and the family’s immigrant Irish servant fixed the family meals and baked. That garden and orchard is now gone as the world of her family and town moved on from its former rural self-sufficiency. Also gone is the 11-acre Dickinson meadow that would have been more or less straight-on in view for Emily at her writing table on one of her December birthdays.*

The famously sequestered Dickinson of her later adult years would have been living our current Covid-19 life of “social distancing” and stay-at-home self-isolation. You might think her poetry would be more solipsistic for that, but she really was a mind forever voyaging. The winterscape she portrays in this short poem is quite likely that Dickinson meadow or her bare garden.

Though the creation of the music and recorded performance of it was rapid even by this project’s quick pace, I don’t think it suffers from that at all as I listen to it again today. The post I wrote about it in December was not one of the most liked or read this winter, but the audio piece was listened to more than any other one during the past three months,** and by enough to score the top spot anyway.

As I consider my sequestered music making today—something I can create even in these times, by myself, playing each part in turn—I feel for those other musicians whose art and the revenue to support it requires a live venue, a paying crowd coming through the door. Of course, cooks, wait staff, musicians—small businesspeople for the most part and only a portion of our world—are not the only ones who will suffer through the duration of our current crisis, but they were in my thoughts as I write this.

Is Dickinson’s poem lighthearted and playful or more gothic in mood? My current reading of Dickinson is that it’s both. She is amazed at the shapes and filigrees of the barren landscape, yes—but it is a place of stilled and departed artisans as she portrays it. She sees an absence, that resonate line: “Summer’s empty room.”

My performance of Emily Dickinson’s “Snow” also known as  “It sifts from leaden sieves” is available with the player gadget below.

 

 

*Here’s a highly detailed blog post about the vantage point of Emily’s room in the Dickinson homestead. It even goes so far to suggest that the irregularities of mid-19th century glass may have been the genesis of some of the impressionistic or even visionary imagery in Dickinson’s poetry.

**The second most listened to piece was #6 on the list “Do the Dead Know What Time It Is.”

Winter 2020 Parlando Top Ten, numbers 4-2

As we continue our countdown toward the most popular piece of this ending winter, we come to a section coincidentally that’s all poets known by three names. You can’t plan something like that, but your listens and likes counted up that way.

4. “The Stare’s Nest at My Window”  by William Butler Yeats. This poem grew on me after I selected it from a short collection of poems Yeats wrote on the Irish Civil War that followed Irish independence. Just after I read the series for the first time this winter, I mentioned to my wife that Yeats seemed to be too far into his mystical side for me to find something I could attach to in them. “The Stare’s Nest”  seemed only the least bad for my use after that first reading, largely because I could grasp its word-music as promising.

I often work on the music and performance before I work on the research about the text and its background. I did so here, though one may think it perverse to do that—my setting and performance will then come from me working without a context, and without the best information about an author’s intent. Still, the setting I came up with accumulated considerable power for me, and even though it’s me playing all the parts I composed and reading Yeats’ words, my impression of “The Stare’s Nest”  was transformed as I experienced what came from that combination. Though I made these components, the whole presented something I was unaware of.

What did I become aware of in the process of creating the piece? This poem I feel is perched somewhere between a prayer and a magical spell for his country.

 

 

 

3. “The Times are Nightfall”  by Gerard Manley Hopkins. Speaking of word-music that pulls me into places I might not otherwise choose to go, Hopkins is an example. He seems to be a full-on Christian mystic with more than a touch of hair-shirt depressive in his soul that he doesn’t fight so much a seek to feel more fully.

But his metrical conception, his use of repeated sounds, I’ve liked from the first time I read him. He believed his ideas there (borrowed from the more Saxon ancestral branches of English poetry) worked better than the musical structures adopted from the Romance languages or from poetry in Latin.

One can test his theories by seeing how his hymn to dark winter works with music as I do here.

Yeat and Hopkins

Yeats the great Irish poet and nationalist spent a good deal of time in England. Hopkins, the English poet with a distinctly English prosody was a priest unhappily sent to a post in the still colonized Ireland. Despite our world-wide virus crisis, St. Patrick’s Day will be celebrated by an Irish diaspora here in the United States this week.

 

2. from “Dirge”  by Ralph Waldo Emerson. Emerson is better known as an inspirational force via his essays and influence on Transcendentalism than as a poet, but his influence was felt by poets and in poetry. The distinctly American poetry that emerged in the 19th century is almost completely made up of poets touched by him.

When I have dipped into Emerson’s own poetry it’s produced some of the most popular pieces during the run of this project, but I wasn’t looking to find another Emerson poem this winter. “Dirge”  came forward in a round-about way from watching the Apple TV+ Dickinson,  a streaming series presenting a youthful, passionate Emily Dickinson. That series fully intends to use our present culture as a lens and overlay to espie into Dickinson’s times, something that I think worked for its released first season, though it works most completely if one looks also with a more sober eye at this genius. The creators seem to have done their homework. Lot’s of little details and obscure Dickinson trivia are referred to. And speaking of Transcendentalists, they manage to have some wicked fun with those other three-names Henry David Thoreau and Louisa May Alcott—who are both skewered with lesser-known biographic facts that aren’t full pictures of those two by far, but make for some good scenes.

In one scene, Dickinson and a young man Dickinson is crushing on bond over their mutual love of Emerson’s “Dirge”  for its gothic lines about a field of ghosts. I had to check out the poem. I worried that is might be a too long and how well the 19th century sentimentalism in the text would work for modern audiences, but trimmed a bit for length, the listeners here sure liked it this winter.

 

 

So, what’ll be the most popular piece here from the past few months? Will the author go by three names? Obscure author or well-known? American? British Isles? Translation from another language? Stay tuned.

Emerson’s Requiem

In the last hour of 2019 I was sitting on the couch with my son as we exchanged video clips we thought each other should see. I mentioned that Neil Innes had just died, that he was part of the Monty Python circle, and that before Python he had founded a musical group that helped inspire the Pythons called the Bonzo Dog Do-Dah Band.

“I think I’ve heard of the Bonzo Dog Do-Dah Band.”

“Search for ‘Canyons of Your Mind’”  I suggested. Sure enough, the magic of Internet searching brought up a video. “This is the most Sixties song ever” I promised.

Here’s the clip we watched.

Farcical fascicles found  “In the wardrobe of my soul, in the section labeled shirts.”

 

 

I wasn’t sure if I needed to provide context for it. As the performance shows they’re sending up every bit of performative anguish over absent love as well as the worship of musicians offering it. And the lyrics? They should have mortally wounded a certain kind of Sixties metaphor that was supposed to transcend our mundane world. In the middle of it Neil Innes plays a guitar solo that was likewise a pig cupid’s dart to the heart of every guitar hero moment. Anyone got the tab for that?

Son was not impressed. He had just shown me a Franz Ferdinand video chock-full of early 20th century Dada and Constructivist art moves: Max Ernst, Kurt Schwitters, Alexander Rodchenko visual riffs. In contrast, the Bonzo’s Dada lacked the same danceable drive and sleek black stage dress of the smart and sharp 21st century Glaswegian rock band.

Oh well. I hadn’t seen the Franz Ferdinand videos he showed me and I was glad I saw them. They made me think how we are still working out the Modernist revolution as we enter another decade that will be called “The Twenties.”

Early in the last week, I watched an episode of Apple TV+ Dickinson with my wife. In it Emily was crushing on Benjamin Newton over their mutual admiration for Ralph Waldo Emerson’s poem “Dirge,”  “The one where he’s on a plain with all those ghosts” as TV’s Emily has it.

That made we want to go back and check out Emerson’s “Dirge.”  What might Dickinson have seen in it?

It is 19th century Goth, right full of death and lonely love for the dead. Emerson had suffered at least as much as his early 19th century peers in terms of early deaths in his circle, and his poem is quite similar to a poem Abraham Lincoln wrote around the same time that we’ve featured here. One of Emerson’s charms as an essayist was that his mind might take him anywhere while writing one, and the reader is afterward taken along for the ride. This one-thing-after-another move can also work in poetry, but when Emerson the poet does it, it generally doesn’t work for me. “Dirge”  suffers for that.

Here’s the text of “Dirge”  as Emerson published it. The TV show’s Dickinson latched right onto that arresting image, a rural plain full of ghosts, but Emerson buries the lede, putting another stanza before it. That stanza isn’t entirely bad, indeed its abandoned field with scanty corn could have conceivably informed Dickinson’s “Summer’s empty room” in her later poem we featured this December. I tried performing the poem in its entirety, but it was running nearly 8 minutes (longer than I like to use here) and so I then decided to cut to length by removing those stanzas that were Emersonian digressions. I’m not sure that’s the right way to go, though I think the listener might prefer my more single-threaded version. In some of the excised stanzas, Emerson made the poem’s setting distinctly his Concord hometown; and the mourned, missing folks: his siblings who died young. Specificity also works in poetry, but I’m not sure it strengthens this  poem.

One more thing before I offer you a chance to hear my resulting performance. An 1850s Emily Dickinson would have been reading this kind of gothic romanticism in its moment. The element, performative or not, of contemporary personal emotion in poems was part of the change of 19th century Romanticism. Her models: Emerson, Emily Bronte, Elizabeth Barrett Browning, and others used that mode. Even Whitman made common use of it. Here’s something I find striking: Dickinson generally didn’t. Her poems make little use of sentimentality. She will use emotional words in her poems rather than images meant to invoke feelings in the 20th century Imagist manner, but those emotional terms often seem examined, observed, set to the side.

I asked my son if what put him off the Bonzos was that they were desecrating his musical religion. *

“No, you could have just picked a better one.”

Acoustic guitar and a mix of synthesizer sounds for today’s musical performance of Emerson’s “Dirge.”  The player gadget to hear it is below.

 

 

 

 

*Pedantically one could draw a fairly direct line from the Bonzos to early Roxy Music to “Anarchy in the UK.”  But no more footnotes today! If I’m going to excise Emerson’s digressions, why should I give myself license?

Odds and Ends

I’ve not engaged much in re-blogging, but two pieces I’ve read this week really struck me: one for an idea and examples of how it might be executed, and the other for a sharply-written essay on a novel from the same early 20th century era that much of the poetry we use comes from.

The idea? A professor and poet Lesley Wheeler, who teaches a course in American poetry from 1900-1950, gave this assignment in lieu of the conventional essay: “create 8 pages of a little magazine from the period, including a cover, masthead, mission statement, table of contents, and a few ‘solicited’ submissions (mostly real poems from the period, but they were allowed to make up one or two plausible imaginary modernists, too, and write poems in those personas). They also had to write reflective essays explaining their literary and design choices and providing a bibliography of models and other sources they consulted.”

That’s a powerful idea. She shows examples of some of the responses to the assignment, and I’d love to see more of what the respondents chose to do. No one lives in history, even those old dead people were immediate. Here’s a link to her post.

The essay came from an unexpected source. I follow a blog Yip Abides  that features unusually framed urban-midwestern street photography, a genre that follows the photographic aesthetic of my late wife. He also likes to feature videos that have impressed him, often animation. Visual art and musically oriented blogs are a large portion of my follow list as my own portion of reading on literature is taken up almost entirely with things that directly apply to material for this project.

But this week, there was a post there about The Virginian, a novel I’ve never read, but one of that helped formulate a genre, “The Western,” that dominated popular entertainment in the mid-20th century much like a certain kind of SF/Fantasy dominated the last part of it and the beginning of our current century.

The blogger, Bob Roman, writing about The Virginian  ranges perceptively over the areas I’d want a writer to cover. What’s the connection between the cowboy “necktie party” and KKK style lynchings and murders?* How much does the American frontier underlie some particulars in contemporary libertarianism? And there’s more. Well worth reading, and here’s a link to it.

And before I leave to write another post on a new audio piece, a few miscellaneous follow-ups on things discussed earlier in the year.

How has Apple TV+’s Dickinson  turned out? This is one of the premiere offerings of the tech giants new video streaming service, and its over-heated pre-release trailer emphasized a conceptual strangeness that made many dismiss it as a deeply unserious piece of muddled youth pandering.

Sue Gilbert and Emily Dickinson rock out

Rebel Girl thinks she’s the queen of the neighborhood. I got news for you: she is!”

 

I’ve now seen the first episode, and so far it seems to be what I’d hoped it was: a tongue in cheek re-contextualizing of Emily Dickinson’s life which both comments on her actual mid-19th century issues and our own times. Last year’s theatrical film Wild Nights with Emily  tried to do something like this and had its moments, but I thought the overall execution flawed. Wild Nights with Emily  and Dickinson  are both comedies, but it was as comedy that Wild Nights  failed, its portrayals of Thomas Wentworth Higginson, Helen Hunt Jackson, and Mable Loomis Todd were all too broad. True, they are peripheral characters in Wild Nights,  but that too was a choice. As best as I can tell from one episode Dickinson  doesn’t make those choices and is the better for it as a comedy. The characters of Dickinson’s world are more rounded portrayals.

The first episode was full of little footnote-quality accurate factoids about the Dickinson family—the creators apparently wanted to show they had done their research. Two choices Dickinson  appears to make could work or fail as the series continues: It may have trouble showing why Dickinson matters and it makes the choice to play Emily Dickinson as younger than she was.

At least in the first episode, Dickinson is represented as being recognized by some in her peer group as “a genius” and a few lines of one of her best known poems are repeated almost as often as the hook in a current pop song, but we so far get no sense of why her poems are crucial. This may change over more episodes of course, but it’s always hard to show what a writer does visually. If you do a biopic about a great performer you show an actor portraying them performing, if the simulation is good you’ve made your case. Watching someone write, or how that writing works inside the minds of readers, is not so easy to act.

The first episode seems to be set in 1852, when Dickinson was the age that actor Hailee Steinfeld who plays her is in real life, 22 years old. But this is before Dickinson wrote most of her poems. Chronology seems to be a difficult issue for filmmakers trying to portray Dickinson’s life, but if the show works, I’m willing to grant them license for being loose with that. More problematic is that they appear to be portraying Dickinson as a teenager rather than as a 20-something, much less the 30-something that apparently wrote much of the poetry. I’m aware that different times had different norms for childhood and youth, but were 22-year-olds acting more like 16-year-olds in 1852? I couldn’t help but think the history they were unintentionally demonstrating was the TV and Hollywood practice of having high-school age characters played by 20-something actors.

I’ve had to live through an era when Dickinson was thought of as an arid eccentric, frustrated spinster, and even as a corrective I’m not sure I want her now to be portrayed as only the hormone-saturated brain of our adolescences either. We’ll see how they deal with that as the show goes on.

The knowing comic anachronisms and indie soundtrack? Bring’em on! The Parlando Project obviously isn’t opposed to purposely doing that kind of thing.

In closing then another thing relating to a recent presentation of a Dickinson poem here. What might be behind that striking image of windblown snow starting to fill a field as “summer’s empty room” in Dickinson’s Snow  poem? Well, it was one of those poems she enclosed in letters (one of Dickinson’s contemporary uses for her writing). This one went to Susan Gilbert, the woman some modern scholars posit was her lover, and who was certainly one of the intelligent intimates that helped sustain Emily. I think that was an image of longing in the otherwise “winter wonderland” mise en scène of Dickinson’s poem.

An audio piece? As we approach winter solstice, here’s one of my favorite Dickinson presentations from this project, “We Grow Accustomed to the Dark.”  The player gadget is below.

 

 

 

 

*White-on-white lynchings and extra-judicial killings were a common trope in Western movies and TV shows of mid-century, while terrorism directed at Afro-Americans was almost never the subject of popular entertainment. Consciously or subconsciously, this could have been American culture trying to address that which it was loath to address.

Fall 2019 Parlando Top Ten, numbers 4-2

We’re now nearing the top of our look back at the most liked and listened to audio pieces this past fall. Yesterday we used words from a trio of women writers, and today starts off the same way. If you missed the original posts on my encounter with these texts and creating the music for them, I’m including a link to them in each of their notices in this Top Ten series, and those linked posts also will show or link to the full texts. The player gadget to hear the audio performances with original music is after each listing below.

4. Autumn by Emily Dickinson. We start off again with Emily Dickinson. I can’t help it, every time I go looking for some additional texts I run into a short Dickinson poem that fascinates, and that’s just the sort of thing I like to use here.

Oddly, this one isn’t the weird, sly, or mystical Dickinson. It’s just a light piece of occasional verse. In my original post I noted that Dickinson’s classmate and friend Helen Hunt Jackson could have written and published this sort of poem, and it’s the sort of verse that would have fit well in the newspapers and periodicals of the time.

Of course, her times weren’t placidly occasional as this poem seems to be—they were less so than even ours are. She grew up in a time that the U.S. political system was falling apart, unable to solve the social and economic addiction to chattel slavery based along racial lines. Her own father was a local principal in one political faction trying to grapple with this.*  The years of her greatest poetic output paralleled the bloody 4-year civil war that followed.

I can’t say for sure why Bob Dylan issued his Nashville Skyline  album in 1969—another war-torn time. In that LP Dylan dared to write the simplest, even corny, statements; and the singer who had snarled and howled his words at the height of his fame sung them in a tenor croon. Is there some truth—or at least momentary respite—in those sentiments? Opinions differ. Dickinson’s “happy autumn” poem reads like that to me. My suspicions are that it was a part of her capacious mind (no one can be fierce all the time), that she wanted to show (in this early poem) that she could do those expected kinds of verse, and that maybe it was a resting place for her (as it could be for us) from the changeable world that refuses to change.

 

Brancusi’s Golden Bird by Mina Loy. It was a blockbuster trade. The United States sent Ezra Pound and T. S. Eliot, both powerhouse Modernists with a reverence for old school classicism to the European side in return for a scrappy English up-and-comer Mina Loy and a future draft pick which turned into W. H. Auden.

Not quite as disastrously one-sided as the Babe Ruth for cash trade that happened 100 years ago a week from today, but then maybe the U. S. side thought that with William Carlos Williams, Robert Frost, and Wallace Stevens they were already primed to take on the post WWI poetic field.

And as I noted in my original post, this poem of Loy’s was published in the same issue of The Dial  that included a modest little contribution from Eliot: “The Waste Land.” You might have heard of that one.

It’s only lately that some have come to re-assess Loy. And talk about fierce, committed, and assertive writing by a woman—Loy could bring it. “Brancusi’s Golden Bird” is a high-energy hymn to Modernist art.

Mina Loy and Patti Smith

Separated at birth? Mina Loy and Patti Smith. Alas, Loy was more than a generation ahead of the electric guitar, a fault we’ve now remedied.

 

In the 21st century, Patti Smith, one of my heroes for demonstrating the uses of heroes, and a model for the value of guitars with poetry, has issued some below the radar explorations of various Modernist artists. Let her heart and mind go where it wants to go, but I do sometimes wonder if she’ll get around to Mina Loy, whose soul might resonate with hers.

 

Do Not Frighten the Garden by Frank Hudson. Yes, the Parlando Project continues to be about “Other People’s Stories.” That means it’s about how I react to others’ writing. There’s no lack of selfish pleasure in that. The thrill I get when I compose the right music for a text, or when I complete a translation of something from another language, or just perform a piece with some degree of satisfaction is more than enough.

And really, honoring other people’s work is important! If our poetry scene is only voices, however vivid and individual, speaking only their own words, then it risks being the silent forest for the trees.

In my defense, I offer that “Do Not Frighten the Garden,” is inspired by a phrase in one of poet Robert Okaji’s poems as I discussed in my original post on this. In all probability I wouldn’t have written my poem if I hadn’t read his poem. Writers in general are instructed to “Write what you know,” but like “Look before you leap” and “He who hesitates is lost,” opposites can be true. Particularly with the immediate lyric poem, there is another possible instruction: “Write what you didn’t even start to know until just now.”

And here’s my holiday wish to you, adventuresome reader and listener: that something we present here inspires you to see something differently or possible. Tomorrow we’ll be back with the reveal of the most popular piece this fall.

 

 

 

*I found out awhile back that Emily Dickinson’s father was a Whig and then Unionist Republican, which indicates that he was one of those that sought compromises that allowed slavery to continue while preserving the union. As far as I know, we have only small indications of Emily’s own views on these issues, but Amherst was not an all-white community, and while researching these things I found a link to a fascinating story of her father’s part in defending those who thwarted an attempted abduction into slavery of a local Afro-American woman.