Forever and Crumbling. So if I disregard the outsized number of listens Hopkins’ poem got, this summer’s most liked and listened to was another Emily Dickinson-based piece where I joined two short and somewhat abstract Dickinson poems into what I thought was an interesting combination. I called my combination “Forever and Crumbling.”
“Forever” talks about the localized instant we all live in, that Dickinson lived in too. “Crumbling” talks about decay happening from a chain of those instants. In theory the two pieces, that Dickinson wrote separately, change/enlarge when related to each other. That and my musical performance of them is my contribution. Your likes and listens say that some of you found that worthwhile.
I’ve sat here most of the morning and now into the afternoon trying to write something useful in addition. If we are charged to “live in the moment,” 2020 makes that especially challenging. If we seek to halt and reverse the cobwebs and rust on our ideals and nation, like Dickinson’s “Crumbling” it will take more than an instant’s act. Nothing I wrote today brings what I can believe adds anything to our instant in time or repairs our current state of dilapidation. When I first posted this piece in the first week of June, I felt the same awkwardness. I have faith (or is it only habit?) that art and beauty have worth, but it takes a lot of faith some days.
Wishing all of us justice and mercy, and some wisdom to see a balance of those.
4. A Mien to Move a Queen by Emily Dickinson. My teenager, who suspects my musical output as being less than relevant, taunted me gently by asking as I started writing this post if I was presenting Winnie the Pooh. By “Pooh” we may decode: something simultaneously old and immature.
I can’t quite give you the flavor of this, but there’s a quicker wit in my house than mine even when my wife is out of town.
Well that post just happens to be the one that introduced the 4th most liked and listened to piece here this summer: Dickinson’s “A Mien to move a Queen.” And yes, it is a strange poem, though it draws me in none-the-less. It may be one of Dickinson’s riddle poems, like “May-Flower” though I can’t solve its riddle. Dickenson may be looking at another flower, or a bird or insect.
Did a carefree song seem out of place in our 2020 summer? Or was it something we wanted to visit, if only for the minute and 46 seconds the performance lasts? Well, in any season there is happiness. Seething anger, somber reflection, these may seem to be the noble emotions this summer, but joy is not an ignoble emotion.
The American Midwest loves lawn signs. I ride by many each morning in my neighborhood: election candidates, Justice for George Floyd, roofing contractors, high-school sports teams, and a couple of these too.
2. The Poet’s Voice from speeches by William Faulkner and Bob Dylan. Our current American age is suffering much from insufficiency of empathy. What kills or mutes empathy? Fear is one thing. One sentence in William Faulkner’s Nobel Prize acceptance speech struck me so strongly when I read it this year. Not the one I was quoted so often by teachers then my age now, back when I was nearly 20, the one that went: “Man will not merely endure: he will prevail”—this, somehow, they seemed to be saying would come from literature, of all things, stuff written largely by dead men. Thanks pops. Now let me return to being worried about which of us is going to run out of tuition money or the will to continue this hidebound education, and get drafted. No, that one was Faulkner’s hopeful future, a future we haven’t yet made obsolete. Instead, it was this sentence, earlier in the speech, the one that should make you sit up and take notice:
Our tragedy today is a general and universal physical fear so long sustained by now that we can even bear it.”
Old man Faulkner, though he may be as imperfect as the brightest and most perceptive person today, is really saying something there. In the context of his entire speech he appears to be referring to the particular fear of a nuclear war, but then how strange that he calls this “so long sustained” when nuclear arms were around the age of our current Presidency’s term when he gave this speech in 1949.
So, if fear mutes empathy, let us acknowledge that carrying someone else’s song in your ear, your mind, your mouth, is the pathway through which it can infect your heart with empathy.
I’ll return soon with the post revealing the most popular piece here this past summer. That’s going to be a somewhat complicated story.
Emily Dickinson didn’t mind at all being strange or odd in her poetry. For example: today’s poem, which after an opening line quickly goes off to a strange place and then stops at eternity in less than 40 words. In one of her best-known poems, “Because I could not stop for Death,” she saunters at a mid-19th century horse-drawn pace to eternity. But with today’s poem, rocket ships couldn’t leap as fast. Here’s a link to the text of “As if the Sea should part” if you’d like to follow along.
It’s not only pace that separates Dickinson’s mode of expression in these two poems. On the face of it, “Because I could not stop for Death” begins as a somewhat friendly and homespun gothic, a tale of a clearly metaphoric trip told with homey touches in its imagery: children playing at recess, harvest-ready fields, the early chill of oncoming autumn night. “As if the Sea should part” starts with a miracle which might draw us in, as if we’re to be following Moses across a divinely separated sea. But it’s not exposed seabed and astonished crabs we’ll see as the sea parts. It’s “a further sea.” And we’re off!
And then that further sea parts, and reveals another sea. This is all beyond the speed of even these few words, it’s almost beyond the speed of thought or revelation. Li Bai’s mental presumption conjured up some drinking pals here a few posts back, but Dickinson’s poem progresses too fast to present itself as mere fancy. Dickinson had a famous two-factor definition of poetry: a goose-bump chill that would make any clothing as insufficient as a gossamer nightgown outdoors in autumn—or the top of one’s head being taken off. This poem intends or portrays the later.
I get the impression, the three seas are only a start, this first parting of the waters to reveal other waters which also then part. Why does she stop at three, other than it being the minimum to establish the pattern? I found one reading that thought the capitalized “Three” in the poem may be intended as the Christian Trinity,* the three-form God-Head. Many of Emily Dickinson’s family and cohorts took to revivalist Christianity, something that Emily specifically resisted. We also know that she knew of and may have had an affinity for Transcendentalism, an American movement that sought a more immanent, first-hand spirituality based on the soul of humanity and the revelations of the book of nature. The experience in this poem seems more the later than the former, but “presumption” is a key word at the center of the poem. After all, the poem begins with “As if…” telling us this is imagined, not direct observation. This entire poem is her mental flight, and not a meditation on the seashore, which after all would be a hundred miles from Dickinson’s Amherst.
The final stanza is extraordinarily difficult to follow. “Periods of Seas” starts out gnomic, and the best I can extract from it is that Dickinson’s mental traveler is now also seeing not just the measure of oceans’ surfaces, but the measure of time when seas might dry up or form—but all those eons are being seen in a measure of three words. Even at the speed of her vision she realizes that there is no way to reach all the shores of seas in this infinity, for at the greatest speed of mental travel they will part and show new seas.
Am I reading too much into this? And is this just so much mystical “Oh, wow man, I just realized the universe is like infinite, ‘cause even if you reach the edge of it, what’s beyond would be just more different universe still forming, you know!” Well serious cosmology and humankind’s sobering spiritual awe at nature, or its foggy analog of too many bong hits, Electric Kool Aid, and cups of Chinese wine, it’s all a little too much. Dickinson had a garden to keep, food to prepare, poems to write and sew into little books. Why did she write this down? To briefly remind herself of what happens when the top of her head lifts off perhaps. She may never have intended it be something for us to read and understand, though we might still hear it, somewhat muffled, over the roar of parting seas.
“I believe I’ll go out to the seashore, let the waves wash my mind, Open up my head now just to see what I can find” are not lines from Dickinson’s poem. Also kids: drugs and vinyl are both overrated. Sarcastic political activism is too, but which of these are necessary?
A tip of the hat (or is that the top of my head?) to the Fourteen Lines blog where I came upon this Dickinson poem for the first time. Today’s audio performance of Emily Dickinson’s “As if the Sea should part” relates to the particular foggy analog of mid-1960’s psychedelic music, a little like something that Country Joe & the Fish would fry up back then. The player gadget to hear it is below.
*This reading then has the “presumption” as the poem’s speaker scoffing at the presumptive idea that the God-Head could be limited to merely three manifestations.
Not every record had those lyric sheets. Some artists opposed them on principle—Bob Dylan was one—though to a large degree the reason we got them was due to that hold-out, Mr. Dylan. Dylan revolutionized song lyrics. Before Bob Dylan, no one wrote songs with lyrics like he did.* After Dylan, a lot of everyones tried their hand at it. In the 21st century when we hear or see lyrics that use an accretion of rapidly changing metaphors and a kaleidoscope of dark-cylinder mental outlooks, we no longer notice that they are Dylanesque. It’s just a mode that songwriters can draw from the common.
Would that have happened if Dylan hadn’t happened? Possibly. And plausibly, only similarly, but distinctly different. Would Richard Farina (sans motorcycle accident) or Leonard Cohen have won a Nobel prize for reshaping a word form?
One argument that it would have still happened was the psychedelic phase of pop music that followed Dylan’s revolution. There, later in The Sixties, opaque and strange lyrics got another push, one that was largely ascribed to intoxicating chemicals which produced visual sequalae and baroque mental turns. Now of course the intoxicated or drug altered poet was already a thing in literary poetry, and the sober cold-water-army songwriter was likely a minority long before “The Sixties.” But Dylan had punctured the membrane that separated those two crowds, and so we got the Canyons of Your Mind school of songwriting too.
19th century straight-edge punks on dihydrogen monoxide, usually also anti-slavery and pro-women’s rights too. Comes with a lyric sheet!
Some of it was good, some of it bad—but then we might see lyric sheets to the wind like these:
Oh where are you now
Pussy willow that smiled on this leaf?
When I was alone
You promised the stone
From your heart….
Brandish her wand
With a feathery tongue
A mien to move a queen
Half child—half heroine
An Orleans in the eye
That puts its manner by
For humbler company
When none are near
Even a tear
Its frequent visitor
If you were a bird and lived very high
You leaned on the wind as the breeze came by
Say to the wind as it took you away
“That’s where I wanted to go today”
Bedouin tribes ascending
From the egg into the flower
Alpha information sending
States within the heaven shower
From disciples, the unending
Subtleties of river power
The chorus sings: “OK Boomer,” and you can ascribe all of these to chemical traces, wonder about their authors consequent mental damage, or coldly appreciate them as word music, but I’ll come at you from a minority report: the trip’s in your head, not in the drug. I gave up stuff you can smoke (mostly nicotine) around the time I passed the trustworthy border age of 30. I never spun the pill roulette wheel. Needles are for records or loose buttons.
Next stop for the psychedelic bus is some credit for those lyrics above. The first is from Syd Barrett’s post-Pink Floyd song “Dark Globe.” The second is the beginning of an arresting if mysterious poem by Emily Dickinson. The third is by children’s writer, humorist, and WWI vet A. A. Milne quoted by songwriter Paul Kantner to begin the Jefferson Airplane’s “Ballad of You and Me and Pooneil.” And the fourth is the start of “Slip Inside this House” from the 13th Floor Elevators’ Tommy Hall and Roky Erickson.
A little day glo paint or patchouli and Emily Dickinson fits right in when she writes in this mode I think, even if she’s a century too soon, “The Eighteen-The-Sixties.” When I ran into that first stanza of her 1861 poem known by it’s first line “A Mien to Move a Queen” earlier this month, I was immediately captured by its strange mystery, so much so that I worked out the music you hear today without even knowing that the poem was longer than that one stanza, and I was so entranced by it that the piece you hear today uses only the first and last parts of her poem because I think the middle parts break the mood that first stanza gave me. Want to see the entire poem? The link is here.
The omitted middle section seems playful to me—even as the British would say, twee, but I am of course editing a genius here. I still like my selection as I hope it adds some weight to the whimsey. What was Dickinson on about in this poem? Even living with it for a few days, I’m not entirely sure. The opening stanza is often read as connecting to Joan of Arc. Some read the poem as Emily reflecting on herself and constructing her own persona, and the middle section I omitted gives some evidence of that. Beside it’s general mysteriousness, there are to my mind two pieces of particular heightened sensitivity or even hallucinogenic imagery: the “Orleans in the Eye” line and the sensuous and heard quiet of the “Like Let of Snow” image.
So, we started with musty cardboard squares and moved through two steps of an era of wilder and wilder metaphors sung to music, and finished with Emily Dickinson, sewing 1861 fascicles by whale oil light while listening to Syd Barrett or A. A. Milne feedback on her record player long into the night. In between songs, the needle stops shimmying and she can hear the sound of snow moving across snow outside, filling, and not, summer’s empty room.
The player to hear my musical performance of a selection from Emily Dickinson’s “A Mien to Move a Queen” is below. Thanks for reading and listening!
*Yes there are examples that made it into popular or semi-popular music pre-Dylan. Modernist poetry had already done all of these things earlier in the century, and in addition, a big part of what Dylan used in creating his work were the un-acknowledged Modernists who created the Afro-American blues. None of that disproves the point that Bob Dylan showed that you could do that sort of thing in a proximate way that led to a revolution in the possibilities of song lyrics.
Today Emily Dickinson is going to show us how not to write a poem—and how to make it work anyway.
This piece combines two different poems she wrote: “Forever—is composed of Nows” and “Crumbling is not an instant’s Act” in a way that I hope lets each poem reflect on each other. Both speak about time and the universe’s track along it, and that’s part of Dickinson’s substantial task as the poet here: these things are abstract. The Modernist experiment, which Dickinson in many ways presages, would generally try to represent even the most abstract, contradictory, and elusive things as images, palpable things. When that tactic works, it lets us find a shape, a sensual feeling, a weight and color to things we otherwise cannot behold.
Dickenson can do that. Forgotten Imagist Carl Sandburg* even called her an Imagist, just as Imagism’s call to Modernism was emerging a few decades after Dickinson’s death and posthumous publication. But here, in these poems, she predominantly avoids that tactic.
I can think of a few reasons she might do what she does in these poems. If you’d like to follow along, here are links to the text of “Forever..” and to “Crumbling…”
First, she received a science education. This may seem odd, even though some time back we learned that Percy Bysshe Shelley, the uber-romantic poet knew how to calculate the distance between the Sun and the Earth, but Emily Dickinson was a woman as well as a poet in Shelley’s 19th century. Science? My 21st century child goes to a high school with a substantial STEM program. “It’s all guys, and they act like it too” is the report about the Engineering class here in 2020. But in Emily’s New England, science, the humble mechanics of the universe, was actually considered a safe subject for the hampered female brain. Politics, theology, fine arts would all be fields walled off from women anyway, but they were also considered inappropriate for the lady-brain.
The second is that she grew up in a household steeped in the legal profession. Her father, her grandfather, and her brother were all prominent lawyers. Though I’m not a full-fledged Dickinson scholar by a long-ways, I’m not aware that this substantial fact is much discussed as potentially formative in how Dickinson saw and thought about things. Yet, here by her poetry we can see that she was possessed of a mighty intellectual engine, one whose genetic blueprints and environment would be tailored to express things as lawyers might: in sharply defined abstract legalities.
Lastly, 19th century poetry was comfortable with abstraction of the sort she exhibits here, though few could match her compression of expression. We still use much abstract rhetoric in general discussion, but our poets generally recognize the danger of taking the specific vividness out of verse.
In the first piece of our dual Dickinson presentation today, she makes a statement about the nature of time: that it cannot be experienced relatively other than as an infinite series of nows. She cannot find a physical image for this, and so uses abstract scientific and legal language to describe this mystery: “Composed…Infiniteness…latitude…remove…dates…dissolve…exhale,” and the near-enough Latin of “Anno Dominies.” This, the language of a contract or scientific paper. That said, a phrase like “Years—exhale in Years” is palpable.
The second piece, “Crumbling is not an instant’s Act,” could be read as a tiny summary lecture on entropy. In the middle stanza of this three-stanza poem (‘Tis first a Cobweb on the Soul…An Elemental Rust,”) Dickinson moves from abstract summary to imagery, but even here, her knowledge of botany, both empirical and academic, is deployed. “Cuticle” is not some chat over a manicure—it’s a distinct feature of plants. “Borers” and “rust” likewise would be familiar to Emily as the dedicated gardener of the Dickinson household.
Emily Dickinson, science nerd:. Hosta’s cuticle protects it from dust, Dickinson’s self-made herbarium scientifically categorized a host of plants, and Rudolf Clausius considers entropy and whether to grow a mustache or not
The concept of entropy was only first posited in 1850, and I don’t know if Dickinson had any access to discussions of what would have been a fresh scientific concept. Some read “Crumbling is not an instant’s act” as a reaction to medical or psychological issues Dickinson was personally facing rather than musings on the formal structure of ruin and the universe’s law of return to equilibrium. That reading works too. This old guy may not study thermodynamics, but I can personally recognize the states in this poem without measuring instruments or a blackboard of equations.
If you or I were to try to write either of these poems, we’d risk failure. Our abstractions might seem enervated, while the compressed energy of Emily Dickinson carries me through her argument, even where one cannot follow its intellectual thrust easily. In the middle of these abstract arguments, in the second stanza of each three-stanza poem, Dickinson lets in enough imagery to pull us in.
It may seem odd, now, in this month, as the nation stands at a crossroads to present these two poems today. Frankly, as I looked for any poem in the public domain that wouldn’t seem beside the point or merely pander to it, I failed.
Dickinson wrote in the midst of the greatest crisis, moral and physical, that our nation ever faced. In 1963, in a critical year of struggle against Afro-American civic oppression, John Coltrane released four records. In 1863, in the midst of the turning point year of the American Civil War, Emily Dickinson wrote 295 poems. Coltrane was a musician, not a poet or singer. I can’t fault him for not giving us words when he gave us “Alabama” and “A Love Supreme.” Emily Dickinson’s poet’s words don’t address the Civil War directly, we can even doubt that she understood the situation of Afro-Americans and slavery’s advocates significantly, however sharp and searching her mind was. So, check your privilege Emily? Sure. But her poetry is about—no not just about, is —freedom, a searching, seeing mind. Our caring hearts take us partway there. Our minds must journey too.
In combining these two poems I wanted to put them in a context that rings for me, in our present moment, however abstractly. We are in our forever nows, as we always are. Ruin is not a now, but a formal process, consecutive and slow.
Thank you for reading and listening. The player to hear my performance of two poems by Emily Dickinson should appear below.
*In looking for the next piece here I must have read or re-read over a hundred Carl Sandburg poems this past week. He’s often remembered as the 20th century’s first great inheritor of Walt Whitman, with great spanning catalogs of Americana in rambling free verse. But early Carl Sandburg is full of attempts and successes at concise Imagist poems that work like his contemporary pre-High Modernism Imagists’ poems did.
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.
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?”
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:
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.