Modes of Emily Dickinson: I Am Afraid to Own a Body

Let us return to the genius of Emily Dickinson, as we have regularly here at this Project. As I look to her work over the years, I find that Dickinson has several modes. In one mode, her approach is charming, a just-between-slightly-weird-friends sharing of concrete observations of people and the physical world. Even when that Emily speaks of death and eternity, it takes as its conveyance and destination a horse-drawn fate and a well-made bed/grave. Another mode, not as well represented in her “greatest hits,” can be puzzlingly condensed and abstract, as if shorthand notes taken from her own mind of states of thought or insight that come upon her.

One aspect of genius is that it can get away with things that us more craft-assigned poets cannot. To be abstract and nearly impenetrable at any length tires out readers even as her other poems draw us in. If one reads Dickinson as an entire collection, these modes are interspersed. We might think, “Oh, there’s our friend Emily in one of her private moments we cannot join — moments we accept with partial-at-best understanding because we’ve come to love the other parts of her poetry.”

Today’s short Emily Dickinson poem bridges those two modes. It opens as arrestingly as any poem could with the striking statement “I am afraid to own a body.” As I did with our last Dickinson performance here, I wonder at that line and immediately relate it to body dysphoria, something that portions of our current society experiences and is more free to express.

The poem then moves on to an allied and contrasting statement nearly as striking: “I am afraid to own a soul.” The soul is by definition incorporeal, but by linking it with the body in the first line we may palpate it none-the-less. As the quatrain finishes these two connected things, body and soul, are described as valuable, and despite our fears, inescapably present. The poem might be too short if it ended there, but I’d recognize it as a complete koan of enlightenment — but it doesn’t end.

I am afraid

1st stanza draws us in. 2nd one confounds. You & I may not be able to get away with such writing, but let us trust in the genius of Emily Dickinson.

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In the second quatrain we are off in the abstract Emily. I often seek to remind readers here that Emily lived in a house devoted to law with a father, grandfather, and brother who practiced law.*  I think there’s passion and emotion in this second and final stanza, but if we are to follow it we must think as if we’re reading a contract or one of those user agreements we so often click “accept” on without reading. This stanza as saying that both body and soul are willed to us, like a “conditions attached” bequest in a will — and then after the stanza’s second em-dash, what? Who’s the “Duke?” Since rural mid-19th century Massachusetts was not supplied with titled nobility, I suspect this is connected to something Dickinson read. I’m going to take a flying leap of wild assumption here, one that you shouldn’t “take to the bank” any more than my “what if?” wondering that the mouldering man who died for truth in this other Dickinson poem could be John Brown, and a link much less certain than the idea that the kept in quotes “hope” bird was a reference to Emily  Brontë. Could this poem’s Duke be Robert Browning’s monologuing one who speaks of “My Last Duchess?”  I know Dickinson read Elizabeth Barrett Browning, so it’s not an impossible leap to think she read EBB’s spouse too.

If our Duke is exhibiting his deathless painting of his now dead (likely on his own orders) “last Duchess,” Dickinson is perhaps (in a very obscure and condensed way) mentioning drawbacks to our existence as a body** and as a questing soul.***  What then to make of the final line? I’m not sure. Is God the bequeather of the soul and body in the bargain our speaker is afraid of? Is God as cruel and exacting as Browning’s Duke? What’s the closing “Frontier?” The course of our lifetimes not yet mapped out? A “light out for the territory” escape? I’m not sure.

I’ll be honest, I recorded my performance of this second stanza not having figured out even these potentially wrong readings of it. What did I rely on then? There is some worthwhile word-music — and poetry using that tactic can give pleasure and connection before understanding. I trusted the mystery of the words might convey some mystery to the listener even if I had not opened the packet containing their meaning. My hope: that I could be, however imperfect and limited, one who carries Emily Dickinson’s genius to you.

You can hear my performance of Emily Dickinson’s “I Am Afraid to Own a Body”  with the player gadget below. If you don’t see the player, there’s this highlighted link that will play it too. Speaking of links, there are other hyperlinks in the post above to some other Parlando Project Dickinson pieces that you might want to read.

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*Have other better-known and credentialed scholars made much of Emily Dickinson’s connection to the law? I think the last time I searched I didn’t find much of anything. There’s a thesis topic for some young reincarnation of Wallace Stevens.

**Not much of a leap to a feminist reading of a female  body here.

***One of my observations on reading my first full-length biography of Dickinson many decades ago was how remarkably determined she was to resist the pull of declaring herself as “saved” during her time and place’s Christian religious revival. Schoolmates, family, and community all declared, and she steadfastly refused.

I felt my life with both my hands

The occasion for today’s post and audio piece is Emily Dickinson’s birthday, but I chose this poem of hers to set to music for other reasons. It’s been quite the year since spring for my little family, and this past month has had some additional things to deal with. I keep meaning to find a way to write about those things, but despite the large presence of I-own-my-part-of-the-story writing on the Internet and elsewhere, I can’t feel comfortable writing for the public about personal journeys of others I love and are close to me.

I’ve read through various collections of Emily Dickinson’s poetry over the years, and I even attended online a reading this past September of all 1,789 of her poems from one ascribed complete edition. Here’s one thing I notice about reading or listening to Dickinson: while I’m always ready to wave my hands in the air for her greatest hits, each time you dive into that alternate hymnal of hers some poem will seem new to you, will grab you with a fresh surprising turn of phrase or thought.

And so, it was a few weeks ago when someone shared today’s poem on the Internet. I wished I’d taken notes, as I have that person to thank. Even before I finished reading “I felt my life with both my hands”   I said to myself “Is Dickinson talking about what I think she’s talking about — and if she isn’t, has she written a poem that accidentally speaks to certain things we think of as modern concerns?” I think the question comes around to if this is a spiritual poem about immortal souls, or if it’s a body image poem — and then, if we must necessarily divide those things, if Dickinson wanted us to. On the outward level this poem speaks of our inner spirit, of consciousness of selfhood, but the metaphors are often physical things one can touch and see, and since Dickinson has shown in other poems that she is comfortable writing in incorporeal abstracts, I can easily believe this imagery is a choice here.*  In short, before I finished that singular reading of this poem this fall, I thought “Dickinson is writing a poem about body dysmorphia, or plausibly gender dysphoria.”

Both of those things weren’t named until after Dickinson’s death, and discussion and understandings about gender dysphoria are still somewhat new in our century, so it’s a leap to say that our mid-19th century poet means to write about those things. So let me go through the poem and try to extract a gloss of what Dickinson wrote.

Both my Hands

I added an “inline epigraph” to the text of Dickinson’s poem. It appears in quotes above.

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The first stanza refers to an antiquated test for life, holding a mirror up to a subject’s nose and mouth to see if it mists over from respiration — but she’s also portraying by association looking in a mirror. Of course in our day the glass we hold up to our faces is likely the screen of a smartphone with a selfie camera, but the image retains.

I don’t think one needs to insert much into the second stanza to see body dysmorphia. Sure, she could  be reaching for a rhyme for “round” when she uses “pound.” I’m not knowledgeable enough to know what weight ideals were for Dickinson’s time and place, but what’s clear here imagistically is that the poem’s speaker is examining their body and feeling like they are not that body. Is it because they, their self, are philosophically a soul — or because that body doesn’t agree with their soul?

Third stanza. More body examination. “Jarred my hair” is a particular image. Is this some kind of pomade or other cosmetic? I think Dickinson has chosen jarred to pun on “jarring” here. The dimples image would again speak perhaps of weight concerns/dysmorphia.

The last four lines, Dickinson’s final stanza, indicates again the spirit or soul as essential self. Having left off with knowledge that the self/spirit and the body are not the same, the new place, the new home, the poem’s speaker finds themselves in is Heaven.

Nowadays speculations learned and affinititory about Dickinson’s sexuality have become common, yet I don’t see any first page search hits on her and gender dysphoria. The case for that here in this poem may well be accidental, if none-the-less striking, as the narratives of folks experiencing gender dysphoria might well fit into these poetic lines: the separation of the spirit and the body, the disconnection of the body from the authentic self, the feelings of relief when expressing outwardly their inner conviction. The third stanza’s jarring of hair and pushing in dimples takes another vivid incarnation if viewed in that frame.

Now those with the patience to read this far may still be interested in what I did with this experience of the poem — though if you’re a patient reader who is muttering “Balderdash” as you read the above, you are excused to go do something worthwhile. My impression from my encounter led me to alter Dickinson’s text with a sort of in-line epigraph from the song “Candy Says,”  written by Lou Reed for the opening track on the LP eponymously called The Velvet Underground.* *  The unpredictability and distress of the past couple of weeks has, I fear, given forth a less than ideal performance — but perhaps it’s imperfection has a certain authenticity to the times it was composed and recorded in. You can hear it with the player gadget below (where seen) or with this backup highlighted link.

May you find your joy and help others find theirs too. Production of new pieces and new blog posts here may be erratic, or they may be therapeutic, in unpredictable proportions, but there are the over 650 pieces in our archives here.

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*Another choice is her use of “both my hands” in the first line. It’s not like the body would slip out of one’s grasp if you didn’t grab it with two hands. I think this is a choice to highlight duality.

**This song from 1969 opens with a clear dysphoria statement: “Candy says, I’ve come to hate my body, and all that it requires in this world.” I’m sure there are clever thinkers among spiritual people who can consolidate the idea of an inner soul which is not the physical body with a disbelief in gender dysphoria.

I’m Sorry for the Dead Today

Last episode here we had Jean Toomer’s poem of alienation from labor. In Toomer’s “Beehive”  the poem’s voice is portrayed as just another drone bee, only able to fantasize of escaping work or receiving any benefit from it. Today’s piece is by Emily Dickinson, and while there can often be a touch of irony in Dickinson, I think we can take the voice in her poem “I’m Sorry for the Dead Today”  as earnestly engaged in their farm work.

One doesn’t have to go too far into differences in biography to account for the contrast between the two poems. As I mentioned last time, Toomer was the child of an enslaved person, and the book in which his poem appeared was his literary account of an early 20th century southern American feudal society associated with a racial caste system. Dickinson was an upper middle-class daughter of a successful lawyer and politician — and well, let’s just say it — even if the rights and social assessments of women in mid-19th century America were constrained, she’s got that White Privilege and a different economic vantage point.

Dickinson’s poem, the one we perform today, looks to a specific farm labor event: the harvesting and storage of hay, likely for the animals including the horses used for transportation by her family. One thing I learned when I visited the Dickinson Homestead a few years ago was that the area right across the highway that still runs in front of her family’s house, was a field used to raise grain; and that at least in her youth, Dickinson had as one of her chores, taking food and water to the workers in that field. I don’t know the details of the ownership of that field. Was it shared between more than one family? A village green sort of resource for the town? The harvest depicted here seems to involve more than one family. That doesn’t make certain that it’s a shared field. For haying time, particularly when one has a smaller family lacking muscle power headcount, there may be an exchange of services between farmers, either for hire or in a cooperative barter agreement.

It’s a temptation, one that some American thinkers of Dickinson’s time easily fell into, to romanticize that kind of work, so different from the arrangement of slave labor plantations or share-cropping vassals. Indeed, some of the Northern and border state opposition to American chattel slavery was based less on belief in the full humanity of the enslaved and the crime of denying that, than on the idea that “free soil” labor was ennobling in and of itself and a benefit to a republican citizenship.

So, when Emily Dickinson, northern state’s daughter of a Whig representative, speaks of how engaged and happy the hearty labor of the hay harvesters is, she may be participating in a political sentiment of her time. Now how much the ironic Emily wants to undercut this I can’t tell for sure. The poem’s general argument is that this bustle of life and colleagueship for those with human rights, who are not scrounging for subsistence, is such that the sleep of death is not welcome. Is she making a subtle point in some undercurrent, that death will find this work only vanity? Is there a winking case for the repose of the grave verses labor’s toil? Intended or not, you might find a bit of that there, but it doesn’t seem so to me.

I'm Sorry for the Dead Today

Dead simple chords today. When I present these songs-sheets I’m hoping for better singers and players than I to take up these pieces.

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Did you find this discussion of what surrounds this poem tiresome or detracting from the pleasure of Dickinson’s verse as a piece of art? If so, you may not even get to this paragraph. I read a remark by writer Caitlin Moran this week that a woman spends less than 1% of her lifetime making love — yet sex and desire, and woman’s role in that, seems to take up a much greater portion of what is written about them. Poetry too has that disproportionateness — and I’m not here to knock love poems, particularly honest ones — but I feel the world of work is too unrepresented in poetry. Maybe I’ll find a poem of acute love, or a transfixed descent into the book of nature next time? We’ll see.

You can hear my musical performance of Emily Dickinson’s “I’m Sorry for the Dead Today”  with a player gadget, if you see that. No gadget? I supply this backup highlighted link.  Thanks for reading, listening, and putting up with my varieties here!

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The only Ghost I ever saw

Here, as promised, is the start of a series of Halloween-themed posts. Today’s audio piece uses words from 19th century American poet Emily Dickinson, and as usual for her it’s titled using the poem’s first line: “The only Ghost I ever saw.”   Dickinson is no stranger to the gothic, but she often approaches it playfully — and that seems to be the case here. Here’s the full text of the poem along with chord-sheet notations for the 12-string guitar part I accompany it with today.

The Only Ghost

Sing along with Emily and the tree ghosts

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The surface “plot” of this poem is straightforward, if detail sometimes puzzles. The poem’s speaker (presumably Dickinson) has seen a ghost once. She describes the encounter using some expected and unexpected description, and then closes with a puzzling final line. Since the description of the ghost is most of the poem let’s examine that closely. We first learn the ghost is dressed in “mechlin.” What’s that? A type of Flemish lace. The ghost has “no sandal on his foot.” The ghost moves soundlessly but with some speed, bird or dear-like. The ghost’s “fashions” are “quaint.” It might wear mistletoe. The ghost makes no footfall noises, but is not noiseless either. It’s said to laugh “like the breeze.”

The concluding lines say Dickinson doesn’t want to look behind and calls the day she saw her ghost “appalling.” I’m indebted to the Prowling Bee blog who notes that in Daniel Webster’s American 19th century dictionary, appalling may mean to astonish or to grow white among other meanings that have fallen out of use. Over time that we’ve taken it to mean frightening or disgusting.

This sort of mystery with detail is a format which suggests a riddle to me, and Dickinson did write riddle poems. So, is the ghost a metaphor for something else she’s observing? One could hazard a guess it’s snow, which might sweep in on winds like this with frosty lace, but the ghost is said to step “like flakes of snow.” It could be wind —and cold currents are often felt as “ghostly” — except again, Dickinson spends at least three lines in her short poem describing its actions as like a breeze. Snow like snow or breeze like breeze would be tautologies.

If it is a riddle, my best solution is that she’s viewing a tree in a grove of trees. Bark or moss, or even more likely the light filtering through small branches is the lace mosaic. It has no sandal to walk on the ground, its foot is in  the ground — and note that Dickinson says no sandal on his foot (singular), not feet as in a human ghost. It steps in the wind in its swaying, but the noise in that movement isn’t from the foot of the tree, which stays stationary. And the branches dart back and forth like a deer leaping or a bird hopping. The prime clue is that mistletoe. Mistletoe is a parasite plant, it only grows by embedding its roots in trees.  The branches make noise, the laughter, and in the path of the breeze the laughter would spread to other formerly still and pensive* trees around. Dickinson knows botany, I understand she and her family cultivated trees, and she has written other riddle poems with plants as answers.**

So my reading in summary: Dickinson is viewing a tree, perhaps one of the trees that surrounded the Dickinson homestead in autumn, and those flakes of snow its branches are stepping “like” are also  appearing snowflakes in an approaching cold-front. The “interview” is cut short as the day is appalling — growing pale.

Is that an all-too-much a Scooby-Doo “There’s no such thing as ghosts” ending? I’m not certain of it, and the poem charms without the above, letting it stay in mystery. If that’s your worry, who’s to say — particularly at Halloween — that the trees aren’t sentient spirits?

You can hear my performance of Emily Dickinson’s “The only Ghost I ever saw”  with my own musical setting using a player below if you see it. Is that player an invisible ghost for you? Well, summon it then with this highlighted link that will open a player.

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*In the handwritten manuscript, Dickinson shows that she considered “smiling” instead of “pensive” in the poem.

**See this Dickinson flower riddle poem I recast as flower-power.

A Murmur in the Trees

I said, when I was listening to the Tell It Slant Festival’s marathon reading of all of Emily Dickinson’s poems, that I was jotting down lesser-known Dickinson numbers which I might perform in the Parlando Project manner. Well, here’s one of them.

If you’ve followed my various Dickinson performances over the years you may have seen me emphasize Dickinson’s visionary aspects, her outlooks gothic and satiric (often combined), and sometimes her abstract poems of philosophic thought. One thing I noted again during the marathon was that she can be a very acute and intimate poet depicting pain. She’s all that. But sometimes she’s more at playful. Today’s piece, “A Murmur in the Trees,”  for example.

It’s glancingly a nature observation poem, but fancies have taken it over by half-way in, as a fairy tale seems to break out. The opening stanza sets things at night, and perhaps we are in the Dickinson garden (where Emily, predicting an REM song to come, sometimes did gardening tasks at night). There’s a noise, the title’s murmur, in the trees.

The second stanza breaks with a line of alluring consonance that remains a mystery to me, the “A long — long Yellow — on the lawn.” Sunset’s last light beams or dawn’s first ones? Filtered moonlight? And then we are told, something like little footsteps are heard.

The third stanza portrays little fairies or gnomes trooping home, the fourth, robins that could be strange birds who wear nightgowns and sleep in “Trundle beds” or Robin Goodfellow with wings. The poet’s speaker, presumably Emily herself, reminds us these are not metaphors in this moment for normal animals, since what she observes “would never be believed.” She finishes by saying that she won’t test the credibility of her observations anyway because she’s in league with those she’s observed, she’s promised “ne’er to tell” what her night garden contained. The final two lines return to mystery — if nightgown-wearing birds or gnomes, or the both of them hanging out together aren’t ambiguous enough — by saying “Go your way — and I’ll go Mine — No fear you’ll miss the road.” What’s the road? Are they birds seasonally approaching their autumn migration time where Dickinson is famously staying put? If we take that aspect, Dickinson appreciates they know a road away where she may not. Or is the road that other mystery, the “long Yellow on the lawn?” Fairies* are said to have paths (not to be obstructed) that are often difficult for regular humans to detect, but sometimes different colored grass or vegetation is said to be a sign of fairy roads. Is that the long yellow in the grass?

Fairy Birds or Tiny Gnomes

Actual photograph of enchanted birds attempting a marathon reading of all 1789 Dickinson poems. Meanwhile, tiny gnomes have paths and “houses unperceived” if you look hard enough in your night garden.

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The little song I made from Dickinson’s “A Murmur in the Trees”  can be heard with the graphical player below. No sign of the player? No fear you’ll miss the road, there’s this backup highlighted link  that will open a player to play it.

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*This second reading assumes some understanding of Celtic or British Isles folklore on Dickinson’s part. I’m not sure what is known of that possibility. There were Irish immigrants in Dickinson’s Amherst, eventually some as domestic workers at the Homestead.

The Emily Dickinson Tell It Slant Festival

Productivity on this Project has been lowered this week for what seems to be a good reason. I’ve been attending online some of the Tell It Slant Emily Dickinson Festival put on by the Emily Dickinson Museum in Amherst. My focus from their offerings? So far I’ve heard every session of their multi-day, 15-hour, reading of all of Dickinson’s 1789 poems.

These marathon public reading sessions are wonderful, more rewarding than I would have predicted. Their format is to read from the Ralph Franklin edition of Dickinson’s poems, organized in a best estimate of order of composition, with a revolver of readers reading one poem, and then on to the next reader without pause. Online during weekdays, it’s been a Zoom thing, with the reader’s face appearing as they read in turn from their own office or home, and with the poem’s complete text appearing on-screen at the same time. The readers vary in voices and coldly-judged reading skill* — but this is a feature not a bug. You get a sense of humanity breathing the words of Emily Dickinson, and as it’s online, the readers and listeners aren’t even all in America as they celebrate this American poet.**

This process really impresses one with the immensity of Dickinson’s verse. There are often surprises with lesser-known poems catching my interest in-between the “greatest hits.” Dickinson’s various moods and voices come out, reinforced by the various readers approaches. In the side-chat text window, folks (and sometimes myself) react as the progress through the 1789 reaches their favorite poems.

In summary, even though I’ve read — and then spent the time to internalize and perform many Dickinson poems — this marathon reading has overwhelmed me with the facets and power of Dickinson’s work.

Tell It Slant 1

I’ve spent most of my Project time here this week.

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There are still events this weekend, including two final sessions of the marathon reading, though I think the readers may be at a public event rather than in their homes and offices on the weekend. Here’s the event’s schedule and sign up site: The Tell It Slant Poetry Festival 2022 Schedule – Emily Dickinson Museum

Thanks to all the readers and the organizers. Want a musical piece? Here’s my expression of another Emily Dickinson poem that asks us to consider the slant. Player gadget below. Can’t see the gadget? This link then.

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*I’ve worked for a radio network with experienced and skilled voices that expect/achieve a consistent performance when speaking with microphones, so I appreciate those easy-to-take-for-granted skills. But the variety of the readers in this marathon are a modifier of multitudes. Think of the difference between a professional, polished studio music recording and an informal get-together of an assortment of enthusiast musicians. Each has its flavor. The majority of the volunteer readers are as least as good technically as I would be in their role.

**These readers are volunteers. There are indications that one can just sign up to read, but the general level of reading skill I’ve seen indicates at least some self-selection is going on. Maybe 75% of the readers are women and there was only a smattering of people of color. This isn’t a gotcha note on my part. First of all, an all-woman roster could have expressed Dickinson’s range — after all Dickinson herself did — but modern English-language poetry has such a range BIPOC voices that I’d like to see more shades of faces volunteering and reading. I wouldn’t be surprised if the organizers feel the same way.

Abbreviated Summer 2022 Parlando Top Ten

There were fewer audio pieces presented this past summer, so I’m going to abbreviate our traditional Top Ten review of the past season to reflect that — but I still kind of like this part of the Project, as I get to see what pieces got the most response. Like the Parlando Project in general, the most popular pieces tend to be quite various, and it’s often the pieces I’d least expect that bubble to the top. As a proper Top Ten, we’ll look at them as a countdown, starting with the 10th most liked and listened to one and ending with the most. The bold headings are links to the original posts in case you’re new here and would like to read what we said then.

Very briefly here are the pieces that make up numbers 10 through 6.

10. Arthur Hoehn by Frank Hudson. In the summer doldrums I felt free to include more of my own words. This is a short elegy for a classical music DJ who worked the overnight hours. I’m quite proud of the final lines of this one.

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9. Staying the Night at a Mountain Temple by Li Bai. Another of my loose translations of a Tang Dynasty classical Chinese poem. I based my translation on my understanding of Li Bai’s (his name is also rendered as Li Po) general outlook. An example here of how I work with orchestral instruments.

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8. Stratocaster by Frank Hudson. Really, this project is usually concerned with other people’s words, but this sideways ode to an ingenious radio repairman whose swoopy electric guitar design was enshrined in the Museum of Modern Art got a good amount of response.

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7. The Dick and the Dame by Dave Moore. Alternate voice and keyboard player here Dave Moore says some of this is adapted from Robert Coover, but this really holds together as a poetic liturgy for pulp noir. Also I got to wail on guitar.

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6. Let us be Midwives by Sadako Kurihara (translated by Richard Minear). This was my piece for past August’s Hiroshima Day, a short tale of the huddled human aftermath of the first atomic bombing. Is there a word for sad/hopeful? If so, that’s this poem.

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don't underestimate 800

Getting ready to lock up my bike late this summer, and my attention is drawn to a message on top of the post.

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Now let’s move on to the top 5 and say just a bit more about each of them.

5. From Cocoon forth a Butterfly by Emily Dickinson. We’ve done lots of Dickinson poems here over the years. Though we did this one in summer, it talks about harvest time. While poetically condensed, Dickinson observes harvest workers and the proverbially productive bee and contrasts them with a no doubt lovely, but also somewhat unoccupied butterfly. Is Dickinson, the poet, the butterfly? I’m not so sure. My understanding is that Dickinson’s domestic duties in her mid-19th century household, while less than those of poorer families, were also not insignificant. Is the butterfly then poetry, or the poem she’s written, or a fancied life of a full-time artist which she wasn’t? Dickinson ends with this point: at the end of it all, however joyful or laborious, is the Sundown, which is Extinguished. Like the Preacher in Ecclesiastes, I’m thinking she sees vanity in the whole scene.

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4. To Whom It May Concern (Carry Them Away) by Kevin FitzPatrick. Dave and I both admired Kevin’s poetry and outlook, even if neither of us wrote like him — but then as I said elsewhere here this summer, too few poets write like Kevin. Here’s a short poem written entirely in another’s voice, whose words Kevin the poet recognizes deserve repeating, deserve attention, deserve concern. If I don’t write like Kevin, that essence, that principle, is part of what I do here with the Parlando Project.

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3. Palingenesis by Henry Wadsworth Longfellow. Poets today read Dickinson (should) and Whitman (must), but few literary poets will admit to reading Longfellow now. Dickinson and Whitman are great rebels, geniuses of make it new. Longfellow worked in traditions, replanting them in America. If you want to rebel with your attention and consider Longfellow, I’d suggest the shorter lyrics. Was this lyric referencing Longfellow’s wife who died too young in his arms? I can’t say for sure, but I used it to reference my late wife who also died too young more than 20 years ago.

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2. Generations by Frank Hudson. This is a tiny poem in a tidy setting. I’ve been noting recently the lack of perspective in many older persons’ views of the young. Old people are supposed to supply that perspective, to know from intimately observing things over longer time that stuff thought new is just a variation or a carrying forward of the flow of society. Instead, I see all too many who want to proclaim some past got it right and the present is a decadent signal of end times. So, in this short piece I cast myself as the sage of advice to the young, but with a twist.

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What was the most popular piece this summer? Come back tomorrow for the answer.

From Us She Wandered now a Year

How much did Emily Dickinson want her poetry to be understood? I can’t be sure, but I suspect she wanted it to be both puzzling and  understood.*  While she didn’t publish to any extent in her lifetime, she did send by mail or otherwise share poems with friends. The conventions of Dickinson’s 19th century America may be different, but it’s possible that not everyone understood each poem, or even welcomed the arrival of those poems’ enclosure, but these acts indicate that she had elements in her poetry that asked for a public place for her work.

The posthumous publication of a large selection of her poems in a series of books at the end of the 1800’s did find ample volunteer readers though. Selected from her handwritten manuscripts by outside editors and somewhat regularized, they were also presented with tacked-on titles and within subject sections like“Time and Eternity,”  which however criticized by current scholars helped frame her work for her first posthumous readers.

There’s a certain kind of Dickinson poem, often with a touch of gothic whimsy, that most easily attracts a general readership. Others feature proto-Imagist observations that continue to delight readers. While there were other American poets of Dickinson’s time who had a substantial non-academic readership, now more than a century-and-a-half later, few read any other than Dickinson and Whitman.**

Having a general readership should discount no one’s literary merit, but snobbery may ask to have its say. If Dickinson is a poet admired and even read by those who are otherwise unattracted to poetry, this can be introduced as evidence against her worth as a true poet.

Given that, I have been noticing someone on behalf of the Emily Dickinson Museum has been regularly posting short Dickinson poems on Twitter asking for those who come upon them what their interpretation of these poems are. Few of the Dickinson poems this Twitter docent shares are the well-known “Greatest Hits” of Dickinson. Many are eight short lines, and those lines are often full of Dickinson’s oddest syntax and metaphysical musings. Being asked for an on-the-spot interpretation freezes many a reader as much as an armed robbery would — but at least in such a street encounter one likely knows where one’s wallet and valuables are. While I’m old enough to have grown accustomed to my own misreading of subtle poems that my fears of embarrassment are diminished, even I am hesitant to offer a Twitter reply. And this is true even though I’ve already performed some of Dickinson’s poems of that sort. What this series of Twitter posts demonstrates most vividly I think is that a great deal of Dickinson, though a time-tested popular poet, verges on incomprehensibility. So why did Dickinson write such poems?

My theory is that Dickinson was seeking to record in these cryptic short pieces certain moments of personal insight. Why take the time to versify them then? There’s evidence that Dickinson had a musical mind, and containing them such may have been a combination of the matrix of natural “music of thought” and the practical mnemonic virtues of verse. Dickinson was known to write short poems down on household scrap paper, indicating that thought was going on during domestic workdays. Perhaps I’ve come up with this mentally-drafted commonplace-book theory in that I spent some of my ordinary working life composing poetic stanzas in my head that were informed by things I was seeing and thinking while my hands were occupied. Such work is not necessarily “public poetry,” though in Dickinson’s case it now can be viewed by us strangers far removed by Dickinson’s time and place. Here’s her poem. You can be one of those strangers.

From Us She wandered

In memory of my feelings. Dickinson’s austere compression here.

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So what was Dickinson on about with her poem known by its first line: “From Us She wandered now a Year?”   I’m not sure, and I’m sort of comfortable with that. What is clear? It doesn’t have the attraction of imagery. “Wilderness” is totally undescribed, not rising to the level of an image, and “feet’ and “eye” are the only other concrete nouns in the entire poem. There’s no clear sense of where or when this poem occurs. While there’s some sense of separation or change as of the first phrase, the poem evokes no clear-cut emotional tone. “She” and “Us/We” are vague characters, though I read the latter as a general evocation of humanity. Dickinson’s eccentric capitalization invites us to consider many words as philosophic entities, not a “wish you were here” note about a traveling friend.***  Thomas Wentworth Higginson and Mabel Loomis Todd, her posthumous editors, put this poem in that “Time and Eternity”  section, and invented a title “Invisible”  for it, which indicated they didn’t know what she was on about either.

Do I have an impression? I think the poem’s “She” is Transcendentalist Nature, which as I understand Transcendentalism is essentially the revered manifestation of the true universe and any Creator. “Wandered now a year” is the unstoppable progression of seasonal time which goes forward over any barren obstacle that might stop a corporal creature (Wilderness) or without any memorial break for death or state of nothingness (Ethereal Zone). The second stanza says we cannot not fully understand this, though we may have some autumnal intimation at some part of this cycle, where we “took” (in) this “Mystery.”****

I could be wrong, but a worthy enough meaning. Still, the overall effect remains its stark unsensual expression. Few of the normal pleasures of poetry are found in these eight lines. No imagery, no statement of the senses meant to invoke feelings in the reader (other than mystification perhaps). Word-music alone is there in Dickinson’s hardwood-seat pew hymn-meter, the thing she used to write her own hymn book. This is a highly intellectualized and discorporate poetry, but as I said at the beginning, I don’t know if Dickinson intended us to read it. If not, then Dickinson’s feelings and experiences being left-out are beside the author’s point. After all, she herself may have sufficiently felt them, and this artifact is meant only to evoke that memory for herself.  I, this other human today, have this overall emotion evoked: awe at the dexterity of her mind.

Today’s performance has music I composed and played in my “punk orchestral” style along with 12-string guitar. I’m using simple musical structures for the orchestral instruments, but I tell myself I can do so in the same way that guitar combo bands using a few root-V chords can none-the-less communicate something. It’s a brief poem that I represent in a short musical piece you can hear below with the graphical player, or in its absence this alternative highlighted link.

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*This is a common, if not always acknowledged goal of poets: to be worthy not just of a reading, not just of some understanding, but to be worthy of a deeper and more careful and caring reading. That’s a lot to ask for words, even beautiful sounding words.

**I considered adding Poe to this exceptions list. Despite my own efforts, I doubt I could make a case for Longfellow retaining 21st century readership.

***Possible that there’s a specific lower-case “she” and this poem is more simply a “missing you” poem? I’ll offer this aside my theory, that if Dickinson felt that toward specific shes then it could occur to her to personify a manifestation of at least a conceptual Godhead as “She.” It’s possible to be thirsty and thoughtful.

****Sandy Denny’s song “Who Knows Where the Time Goes”  would be an example of a more elaborate and sensuous expression of the same sort of thought. It’s also a feeling I tend to get each fall, which may help spur my Septober Energy, where I set out to harvest what creative energy I have.

From Cocoon forth a Butterfly – Emily Dickinson’s summer consideration

I shared with my wife, who has many concerns bearing down on her this summer, recent video clips of Freya, a celebrity lady walrus who’s lately been hanging out in Oslo Norway’s harbor. Freya is a young 1300-pound mermaid who spends around 20 hours a day sleeping while carelessly lounging on marina boats, sinking a few with her what-the-hell-I’m-wiggling-aboard anyways. During the other four hours Freya chases ducks and swans. The marina also has kayakers and paddleboard riders which she also likes chasing. Recent videos have caught her eating one of the swans,*  but perhaps thinking of her beach-body figure, she’s skipped eating the humans so far.

“Twenty hours of sleep…” my wife responded. “goals!”

Freya

Hot Girl Summer: Freya, in her liminal state between 20 hours of rest, bird and clam eating, boat wrecking, and being adored by her Norwegian fans.

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Now as far as I know the great American poet Emily Dickinson never got to observe a walrus. On one hand, Emily did have a privileged life as the child of a successful lawyer, but then it was the 19th century and they had fewer smartphones, washing machines, lawn tractors, induction stovetops, and air conditioners. At least in her youth her parents believed strongly in self-reliance and careful household finances, and so distained servants, since after all they had a pair of daughters who could do that work. If we think of the later-life Emily Dickinson as the housebound hermit, you may not know that the younger Emily Dickinson divvied up the household work so that she had more outdoor chores compared to her sister.

One of the things I learned when I visited the Emily Dickinson house a few years back was that across the main road in front of the Dickinson house the family also had a field they farmed. And then on the house’s main lot there was an orchard and food garden which were largely the creature of Emily and her mother. Harvesting hay from the field was probably men’s work, but I was told that Emily would be tasked with bringing the harvesters water and food during their work. All that came back to me as I read this charming poem of Dickinson’s that is generally known by it’s first line: “From Cocoon forth a Butterfly.”  Here’s the full text of the poem if you’d like to follow along.

There are three or four characters in this little poetic drama. There’s our Butterfly (joined by others of her kind later), a “notwithstanding bee” who is proverbially occupied pollinating and presumably making honey, and the harvesting men. The fourth character is animated by the poet herself, a flower which despite being a plant is described as “zealous,” waving in a summer breeze for an afternoon.

Our main character, the Butterfly is described as if she’s an idle lady. She seems to have no task, something she flaunts in the poem. The field workers, the men, have obvious tasks. That hay won’t harvest itself. The bee, a cliché of purpose. The flower is a bit more ambiguous. If we assume Dickinson chose zealous carefully, the flower may be ardently worshiping the summer day or perhaps it’s divine author, shuckling in vegetative prayer.

Which character does Dickinson identify with? Maybe a little with all of them, if not entirely with one. If one has farm tasks (or for that matter the artistic tasks of a poet) the idle lady making a show of her leisure isn’t your model, even if you may feel a bit of envy — and yet poetry can be charged as like a butterfly, a piece of beauty that seems to do nothing. The men are doing useful work (see Robert Frost on mowing in this poem) but though Dickinson tends a garden this haying is not her work. Same for the bee. Dickinson no doubt knows the bee’s work, appreciates it too, but it’s not her work. We know Dickinson is highly knowledgeable about flowers, and often makes them the subject of her poems, but this zealot flower? If she’s serious about that characterization, she stands outside that level of belief.

The closing stanza, like her more famous “I’ll Tell You How the Sun Rose”  poem resolves this separation from her, the observer of it all — Vanity of Vanities, all is Vanity — and so the purposeful actors and the purposeless Butterfly will all be gone by end of day. Emily the poet remains, as does her poem if we take the time to observe with her again, many days and decades later.

Before I leave you with an opportunity to hear my performance of Dickinson’s “From Cocoon forth a Butterfly” I want to put in a note here about the lack of activity here this summer. I share some of the concerns of my spouse, and I am also trying to reevaluate this Project to see if I can make what I do here more useful, or beautiful, or something. Traffic and listenership always drops off in the summer, so a good time to reevaluate, and you may see fewer new pieces until autumn.

To hear my performance with original music you can use a player gadget many will see below. Don’t see any gadget?  This highlighted link is here as a backup for you.

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*Showing a connoisseur’s appreciation for the swan greater than William Butler Yeats’ I’d say. Yeats only looks at his swans, and yet the great poet distains at putting his tusks into one like Freya. Walruses also eat clams, which as far as I know have never moved Yeats to poetic transport. Apparently, Norway has a problem with lots of invasive clams, which may be why Freya has been hanging out in Oslo.

Dickinson’s “Bloom”

If I didn’t read the news, it would still be spring.

I’ve mentioned it’s been hard to produce new pieces here recently. While there’s a variety of reasons for this, here’s one: I’d planned a little series on May flowers. I was inspired by my wife’s love for our native northland wildflowers and some gorgeous photographs of cactus blossoms by Kenne Turner that I recently viewed on his blog. I had this witty little poem by Emily Dickinson with a not so obscure moral underneath about being an artist — Emerson with a dose of playfulness. I’d completed composing the tune for it. And I planned to pair that Dickinson with a couple of poems by the master of Chinese classical poetry Du Fu.

But I was only halfway there in how captured I was by transient beauty. Earlier this spring on my morning bike ride I started to mull over this line that hasn’t found its poem yet: “This spring is filled with bird-songs and the death of young black men.” So, the horrible and the hortatory were already mixing in my thoughts, while I have nothing but good will and empathy to claim there.

Everyday I try to will myself to make useful or pleasurable work toward this project, and this, among other things, makes me pause. Am I missing the point? Do I even know what the point is, or the series of points that lead to it? I feel bad for the limits of what I can offer, and then I feel bad for not offering that little. Still, I’m stubborn with this. I keep butting against it, trying to push it over or trick my way around it.

And Tuesday I did. Starting early, I recorded an acceptable performance of the Dickinson poem with my music, worked on music for the Du Fu flower poems, and practiced my understanding of how to perform a poem of Kevin FitzPatrick’s that I will present at a memorial event this weekend. A good day it seemed, even if I missed the day’s near-perfect spring weather outside — never mind, the internal weather of being able to create, to illuminate for myself and perhaps for others the work of Dickinson, Du Fu, and Kevin was pleasant and enough.

Never mind, as I got ready to go to bed after this fruitful day, and I caught the news of another rain of bullets. Grade-school kids!

Should I have something appropriate to say, something useful about that? The horrible and the hortatory. Something that isn’t so entirely obvious to some and beside the point to others? Long time readers here will know one motto I have here: “All artists fail.” I’m certainly failing here for some today.

So, you’re going to hear me perform this little poem about flowers, about the work that goes into making mere transient beauty. Here’s a link to the text I used today if you’d like to read along. Dickinson judges right off that she’s sure this isn’t some “minor circumstance.” And Dickinson would know. She knew her flowers, wild and cultivated, intimately.* She was a serious gardener of food and flowers, and despite her growing reputation for being some secular nun always in cloister, she purposely chose that outdoor work with plants over other household chores. She knew their use for food, she knew their use for transient beauty. Flour and flowers.

Her little poem goes on, and the little bud fights several ways for survival. I love the litigious line she uses in passing that she may have borrowed from her male family’s life as lawyers “Obtain its right of dew.”

Prowling Bee by Heidi Randen

A prowling bee “Assisting in the Bright Affair so intricately done…”

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My dear wife left me on the rise to her job with a hug this morning, wishing me success in being creative today. Was she being a “prowling bee?” If so, as another bard had it, “Sail on my little honey bee, sail on.”

To fail in art, as with Dickinson’s final judgement on our flower that blooms past bud, is a “Profound Responsibility.” If you’re working on art this spring, I’m not asking you to fail, or to be happy with failure — at least I never am. This spring is full of bird song and dead people, the lightness of flower petals laid on us are a suffocating “heavy brocade” as Du Fu had it in a poem of his, one I was able to complete a performance of. All I know and can tell you is how that feels.

To hear my musical performance of Dickinson’s  “Bloom” (Bloom — is Result — to meet a Flower)  you can use the audio player you may see just below, or if you don’t see the player, through this alternative highlighted link.

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*As I mulled over this poem’s presentation, I was reminded of how seriously Dickinson took her connection with gardens and flowers by Twila Newey musing on Twitter that Dickinson’s mature aversion to publishing could have been the result of her individual conviction that transient and intimate beauty, as in her garden, was sufficient, or even superior to a wider advertisement fixed in type.