Yesterday I said poetry isn’t just beauty and wonder. Well, sometimes it is. Like this recasting of an Emily Dickinson poem into outright 1960’s wonderment.
I carried around a copy of the original text of “May-Flower” today for Poem in Your Pocket Day, but alas I wasn’t assertive about it. Should I have been?
The staff at the café I biked to were maybe my best chance, but I was still waking up. Then at the bank, my own variation on Miss Stillwagon had needed to take several helpful minutes to go over questions from an African immigrant accented small businessman before I stepped up to her window, and I didn’t know if she wanted to know about Dickinson’s spring flower just then. Instead, we exchanged the brief small talk about how cold this April has been.
Then at the grocery store I always take the human checkout line, thinking that that supports someone’s job in this scanned beep and bloop age. The cashier in the lane I picked must have hit her off-switch for the Lane 8 sign simultaneously as I plopped the first bag of cherries I’ve seen this season on the belt.
“Didn’t you see my light was off?” Which I hadn’t, probably looking down in my cart for the next item to unload. “Well, that’s OK” she said as she efficiently rung up my small batch of items in a dozen seconds. Still, she didn’t seem all that open to Emily Dickinson’s offering of the aspects of a flower. Out in the parking lot, as I packed up the groceries, a pickup truck pulled in and had, I noticed, a “Media is the virus” Alex Jones bumper sticker. I was putting my N95 mask back in the envelope I pocket it in. I didn’t think it worth putting the mask back on to ask him about “May-Flower.”
So, you are left to hear it.
I sometimes sense when reading a certain kind of Emily Dickinson poem that she’s in a visionary or unusual state of perception. The various theories about her mysterious illness including vision symptoms are one level of explanation, but then I also suspect her cast of intellect and a dose of Transcendentalism could explain some of it. So it is with “May-Flower,” which is ostensibly a riddle for which the reader is to guess the particular type of flower. That may be her intent, but the scattered aspects of the flower she reveals, and her trademark specific originality of word choices* are as full of swirling fluorescents as any psychedelic poster or LP cover.
Was it the pinkness of the flower that made me think of Syd Barrett era Pink Floyd?
In this classic performance from our archives, I decided to further unravel the poem she wrote — and then re-weave the words in a variety of orders and alignments while playing electric guitars, bass, and combo organ in my best rock ballroom approximation of Sixties’ amazement. The 1960s — not Dickinson’s 1860s.
You can hear it three ways. There’s a player gadget below, but some won’t see that and can then use this highlighted link instead. And as we’ve done for almost every post this National Poetry Month, there’s a fresh lyric video above too.
*I recently read a short piece on Dickinson by Alexandra Socarides. In it she reveals a poetic mentor, Carolyn Williams, had taught her an interesting way to appreciate Dickinson’s originality. She calls the exercise “Dickinson Mad-libs.” Here’s how she describes the exercise best done with lesser-known Dickinson poems: “I choose a line, a stanza, or a whole poem, and I take out some of its words (usually nouns and adjectives, but sometimes verbs as well), and I simply leave blanks where those words were. Then I ask the students to fill in the blanks. I tend to switch up which poems I use, even though I know several that work particularly well. I’ll never forget the time I used “Grief is a ________.”
If you don’t know “May-Flower” and haven’t listened to today’s piece, or if you want to try this exercise with another poet, here’s the Mad-Libs game for the poem’s first stanza:
Pink, small, and [ADJECTIVE].
[ADJECTIVE] in April,
[ADJECTIVE] in May,
Give anyone, even a poet, guesses — a dozen or a hundred — to what Dickinson would use in those three blanks, and what would be their batting average? And here’s the even better trick: because of the sound of those words, I don’t have any sense that their author is over-trying to be “original.” The sound attracts you to them, however rarely you’d expect them.
Today’s piece for National Poetry Month is another Emily Dickinson: her gothic aubade “Ample make this Bed.” Word-music is subjective, but I find this one of the most poignant and lovely of her poems.
As with many Dickinson poems the meaning tantalizes, at once clear on the surface and tangled beneath. The trope it’s using, the aubade, is highly common in love poems. In the aubade, the lovers are faced with the dawn and do not want to leave their night. The poem’s loveliest line “Let no sunrise’ yellow noise” is as good as a line as ever graced this poetic form. Yet, Dickinson’s stance has a twist in that there’s an implication just below the surface* that the “bed” is instead a buried coffin, which the voice of the poem declares will not be occupied for a lover’s single night, but until the Last Judgement at the end of time (as per some Christian doctrine). Stop though, and consider — which is the metaphor and which the actual moment being portrayed? Is the bed our life, or our time after life?
I think this is another example of a gestalt drawing as a poem. We’re to behold either and both.
The classic gestalt face/vase drawing asks us to alternate “figure” and “ground.”
The paired bedding metaphors of the first two lines of the second stanza may be overlooked on one’s first or second, or even further readings, so audacious is that overall bed/coffin in the grave pairing. So, let’s examine them for a moment. How often have we tossed and turned in a restless night? Nothing is right. The mattress is too firm, or swayed and too soft. The gentle corners of the pillow jab us, and it’s neither high or low enough. The mattress/pillow lines remind us that contentment is like unto the grave.
Can we make the bed of our lives ample — or the sum of our lives totaled at final judgement? Are the lovers ever fully ample when judged at end? Oh but it is beautiful and poignant to think they might be, and honorable to try.
As National Poetry Month continues for this week, we have three ways again to enjoy this re-release of one of my favorite audio pieces from the six-year history of the Parlando Project. There’s our graphic player gadget below in many cases, but I’ve provided this highlighted link as an alternative since some ways you can view this blog won’t show the player. And there’s our poetry month bonus: the lyric video above.’
Just suppose that back in the 1920s someone wanted to record a Blues song based on Emily Dickinson’s “A Soul selects her own Society,” and so they waxed a 78 rpm platter at Paramount records “New York Recording Laboratories,” located back then in, well, Wisconsin.*
If they did, it might sound a little like this.
We offer this sort of nonsense as part of our celebration of National Poetry Month. Then again, maybe it’s not nonsense. Dickinson’s poem does fit into “Old Weird America” and its music shockingly well. Why’s that?
As best as can be determined, Dickinson wrote “A Soul selects her own Society” during her highly-productive mid-19th century, but for a variety of reasons, this poem, like almost all the other poems that she wrote, wasn’t published until near the end of that century. Somewhat “regularized,” Dickinson’s poetry was bound then into book-length collections that sold well for poetry by an otherwise unknown author, partly due to the myth of her eccentric later-life used as hype for the verse, and because some of her poetry was disarmingly informal and approachable — at least on the surface.
Literary poetry gradually began to take notice of her. I presented Sandburg’s audacious mention of her in 1914 as an “Imagist” earlier this month, and over the course of the 20th century her work has eventually been judged as important as Whitman’s in presaging 20th century Modernism. Now, I daresay that if one was to survey living poets in 21st century America for what 19th century American poet they read, admire, and use as an influence, Dickinson would beat out Whitman — and those two would leave the rest of the field far arrears.
What else happened around the beginning of the 20th century, but took serious critics and culture a while to notice? Afro-American secular music — Blues and Jazz — which would come to significantly define American music internationally and become the dominant strain of our country’s music ever since. Americans were highly important in English language poetic Modernism.** Afro-Americans had their Modernist revolution to offer too, and a great deal was musical in this era.***
So, in another way, this unlikely pairing of Dickinson and Blues isn’t as odd as it seems.
Three ways to hear this performance of speculative fiction: a graphical player is below for a portion of you, but if your way of reading this blog doesn’t show that, this highlighted link will also do the job.And the new lyric videos we’re doing this month is the third way to hear “Soul Selector Blues.” Oh — it’s not your speakers or computer — it’s supposed to sound like a Paramount 78 RPM record!
*Port Washington Wisconsin to be exact. I’m not entirely sure why Paramount Records wanted to make it sound like it was in New York, perhaps for prestige, and despite the name they had no connection with the motion picture company Paramount either. What was a record company doing in Wisconsin anyway? Well, they made furniture (the upper Midwest was a timber source) and that led them to make cabinets for the new entertainment device, the phonograph. And if they made phonographs, why not seek another income stream from the “software,” the disks to be played on them?
If you choose to view today’s lyric video you’ll see a sampling of how they marketed to Black Americans variously (I can hear the meeting: “Who really knows what they like and will buy…”). High culture to gut-bucket, spirituals to sexual rebels (Ma Rainey’s “Prove It On Me” is about exactly what the illustration on its Paramount ad might lead you to think it was about). They had a pitch for your money and ears.
**Curiously, almost exactly 50 years before the “English Invasion” brought British rock’n’roll bands to the U.S., a small but influential group of Americans were over in England evangelizing poetic Modernism. Were The Beatles payback for Ezra Pound and T. S. Eliot?
***Even literary minded Afro-American writers, critics, and poets weren’t necessarily ahead of the curve in seeing Jazz music and Blues lyrics as an authentic Modernist revitalization of tired-out existing tropes at first. Langston Hughes and Carl Sandburg were exceptions a century ago in seeing this.
How has it been this far into National Poetry Month before featuring Emily Dickinson here? Well, no matter, time to get onto that today, as a number of our most popular pieces over the years have been related to Dickinson. Today’s piece is one of my personal favorites, our orchestral setting for her “We Grow Accustomed to the Dark.”
When I did this setting and then its subsequent performance back in 2017 I went intuitively with a contrary reading of this poem. Generally, Dickinson’s poem is read as saying that when we reach a point of uncertainty bordering on no knowledge whatsoever, we may still press ahead, and if we don’t exactly find our way, we may find a way.*
But that message is delivered in a vivid little parable whose details can undercut that “persevere” moral — and those images’ undercurrent, along with some American cultural dread from that time, led me to make it more dismaying. The sense I was communicating in my music and performance was more at that we may become accustomed to the dark, but that’s not a good thing.
The lyric video
If we view this as a poem of voyaging mysticism or stoic perseverance — or if we view it as us no longer noticing that we’ve left the comity of friends and turned our back on knowledge — the poems finest choice in imagery is both odd and comic. Emily Dickinson seems to be something of a Transcendentalist, the insurgent “New Thought” movement of her era, and one that held that the universe’s highest knowledge and truth were to be found in the book of nature. Dickinson’s poem does meet nature partway in: a tree. Such reverence for nature eventually birthed an epithet: “Tree Hugger.” Dickinson doesn’t go with that exactly. How then? You can find out three ways. There’s a graphical player below for some, but for those who don’t see it, this highlighted link will open a backup player in a new tab. And as we’ve been doing during this National Poetry Month, we have a lyric video with a thumbnail picture link to view the video above.
Given the everything I’d rate between losses, troubles, and mere distractions I’ve gone through since late last autumn, I’m not in a mood this week to do the traditional Parlando Top Ten list for the past season. These are the same issues in repertory that have reduced the number of new pieces I was able to present here during that time. You, the audience for this Project, have stayed with this: readership to this blog is growing, overall listenership to the audio pieces is slightly up. Thank you. Thank you. Thank you. There’s more than three of you — I mean to thank all of you three times.
I know some of you do like these quarterly Top Tens, and I enjoy them myself — if only just to see what pieces from the variety presented here got the most response. That said, let’s rush through the numbers 10 up to 6 for the record:
You can see in those five pieces two from my memorial observance for the Irish-American poet McKiernan who I had the privilege to know and examine poetry with, and one from my February Black History Month celebration of Langston Hughes’ first poetry collection The Weary Blues. There in the middle, there’s one by long-time Parlando Project favorite Emily Dickinson. And my own piece in that group talks about the loss of Ethna and also my March memorial subject who Dave Moore and I also knew and worked with: Kevin FitzPatrick. If you missed any of these, each of that above list is a link to my original blog posting and the audio performance of it, just as the following ones bolded titles are.
We join the countdown to the most listened to and liked piece then at number 5.
Spring, a rebuttal.
5. Velvet Shoes by Elinor Wylie. A lovely, graceful winter poem by a too-often-overlooked poet from “The Last Twenties” in our previous century. I like the music and performance I created for this one just as much as I did when I created it back around the beginning of 2022.
One would think I’d be through with snow experiences this far into spring, but my morning bike ride today was in big wet flakes and a cold enough north wind. Wylie’s velvet snow is more the dry January sort, but then appreciating snow for its beauty qualities may be best done in past-tense. If so, you may enjoy listening to this one in what I hope is a pleasant spring.
4. Lenox Avenue: Midnight by Langston Hughes. “The rhythm of life is a Jazz rhythm” says the first line of Hughes’ poem. I did my best to honor that injunction from one of the first Afro-American poets to unabashedly celebrate that musical form. Although I’m a vary unskilled keyboard player I was able to compose a satisfying two-handed part using MIDI as a scoring tool. I wanted a saxophone solo too, which you can hear a bit of in this performance, but I just couldn’t score or execute enough articulation to “make it.” The piece’s final horn section flourish is one of my rare surrenders to using a sampled musical phrase.
Of course, motif sampling is now an oft honored tactic in the ongoing Afro-American musical tradition, so perhaps I shouldn’t view it as a failure on my part. On the audacity front: I decided to extend Hughes’ lyric which ended with “And the Gods are laughing at us” with a newly written affirmation from after the poem’s time of 1926, one that says that the young art of Jazz and of young writer Langston Hughes’ has answered those gods.
3. Sonny Rollins, The Bridge 1959. Staying with Jazz for this one, though with my own words straight through. There are beliefs — some sincere, some insincere — that Afro-American history is but a sorrowful tale, a grievance and a pandering response. If you can heartily do so, I ask you to improvise your own expletive response to the call of that fearful theory, one with as much eloquence and melodic force as you can deliver. Now our response may not be Sonny Rollins level improvisation. That’s not a reason not to — after all, Sonny Rollins wasn’t sure his improvisations were Sonny Rollins’ level improvisations. That’s the story in this piece.
I seem to lack the concentration, or the assured concentration of blocks of time, to do arrangements as full as the one I created for Frost’s poem right now. But you can still enjoy this one.
1. Stones by Ethna McKiernan. One answer to lack of compositional time is to write solo instrument pieces, which for me usually means acoustic guitar. Of the several pieces I did to introduce more of you to McKiernan’s range of poetry, this was the one that by far got the most listens this winter — in fact, more listens than any piece has received for more than a year during its first season after posting.
Before I leave you to listen to it, I want to say that beyond soothing my grief at Ethna’s death, that performing those pieces which used her words this winter made her seem closer than our too casual life connection sometimes had us. Wherever we voyage, the same waves lap the same sounds on the walls of our boats.
I’m nearly over the bout of upper-respiratory crud that has laid me low this month, so I felt it time to see if I could test the dulcet tones of my voice again with a new audio piece. Today’s is one by Emily Dickinson: “I died for Beauty — but was scarce.”
This poem is characteristically short, and “I died for Beauty” has long been one of Dickinson’s “better known” poems. Let’s do what I often like to do with one of Poetry’s Greatest Hits here and see what we may have missed, and why I might archly put that “better known” in quotes. Here’s a link to a blog post that starts with the full text of the poem in case you’d like to refer to that as I discuss it.
Let me get this out first: to certain sensibilities this is a poem that’s easy to find infused with a kind of corny gothic pretension. It’s got all the counters, common already in Dickinson’s mid-19th century, only more so now: graves, decomposing tragic corpses, sad death, and the world’s disinterest in earnest souls. And on top of this: it’s got capital letter Truth and Beauty. Even a school child who’s read and adored some Keats* will see Dickinson as dropping a shout-out to the doomed garageman’s son.
What can we infer about what Dickinson intended here? I’m no Dickinson scholar, but what I’ve gleaned from reading some of her letters as well as her poems is that while she had those gothic urges, she fiercely wielded a skeptical eye and a satirist’s pen. My guess is that she believed in capital letter Truth and Beauty, and Poetry for that matter, but she also knew the comic limits of humans dealing with them. I could be wrong, or projecting, but that’s the Dickinson I “read.”
The poem’s opening line, with its concluding start of a broken phrase “I died for Beauty — but was scarce” lets one suspect that the tomb is not exactly overflowing with heavenly beauty. So, our dead-in-the-tomb “died for beauty” narrator here finds death (like life) is asking for our narrator to become “adjusted.”
But wait there’s another voice! One equally devoted to capital letters! One who died for Truth! In case one thinks those capital letters are shouty, his voice is soft, somewhat defeated, and is asking about failure. Note that the died for Truth voice is male —we’ll have more to say regarding gendering in the poem soon.
Here’s how Dickinson wrote down this poem of hers in one of her sewn-up fascicles.
Dickinson either makes an odd choice or is just awkward in the Truth guy’s opening question.** She writes it as he’s asking “Why I failed?” in quotes. In ordinary writing this would indicate that the voice is asking: “Why did I, the Truth Guy, fail.”*** However in the context of the poem the Beauty voice, our narrator, answers back as if they were asked why they died. It’s hard to convey in a single-voice performance, but if Dickinson intended this awkwardness, it’d be a demonstration of Beauty being consumed by their own state and so thinking the question was to them.
The conclusion of the 2nd stanza, Truth Guy’s reply to our Beauty narrator is stilted, even by mid-19th century formal speech standards. I don’t know if this is intended or simply a failure in Dickinson’s prosody. If intended, Truth Guy’s speech is demonstrably meaningful (truthful) while not being beautiful. I think of my thought about Dickinson growing up in a household consumed with lawyering and contracts and being genetically related to lawyers.
I’m indebted to Oliver Tearle in pointing out something else in Truth’s little speech: he calls our narrator “Brethren” which is continued in the summary of the next and final stanza as “Kinsmen.” Now if we are to assume that our narrator is Emily Dickinson, a woman, then she’s just changed gender or has been miss-gendered by Truth Guy. Now of course even though the poem begins with “I” we can’t be sure that Dickinson — even if consumed by the beauty of poetry and multiple times in her poems apt to cast herself as writing of herself after death — intends that I who died for Beauty to be herself.
This may be leading to the final two lines, where truthfully and beautifully the omnivorous (even consuming mineral!) moss consumes their bodies and eventually their grave’s marker stones, leaving nothing gendered, nothing specific, only their essences returning to our shared essence: the truth and beauty available to us all if we seek it, to borrow and use it, to find comfort with, and to comfort by.
I’ll pause here to note that poet Ethna McKiernan died this past Sunday. I worked on this Sunday and Monday before I heard the news.
I’ll offer my own tentative and inconclusive possible inspiration: It’s thought this poem was composed in 1862, and while we don’t know the particulars of Dickinson’s intent, there’d be this possible even more contemporary influence: the folk hymn adaption “John Brown’s body (lies a moldering in his grave/but his soul is marching on)” which was transmuted into a more grand literary composition with the chorus of “His truth is marching on.” As “The Battle Hymn of the Republic” Julia Ward Howe’s poem was published in the February 1862 number of the Atlantic Monthly where Dickinson surely would have seen it. Literally, the antecedent to “His” in Howe’s poem is the godhead, but folk-music-process wise, the antecedent is John Brown.
Posthumous editor and sought-out living “preceptor” (in her words) of Dickinson, Thomas Wentworth Higginson, was a backer of John Brown’s raid.
**Original Dickinson editors Mabel Loomis Todd and Thomas Wentworth Higginson removed the quotes Dickinson put around Truth Guy’s question, making it clearly a question to our died for Beauty narrator in their version. So “He questioned softly ‘Why I failed’?” in Dickinson’s hand then became “He questioned softly why I failed?” on first printing.
***”Failed” here is meant also to have a double meaning as in dying, but the fail in failed is too prominent. As this voice was first introduced, “One who died for Truth” is more noble sounding, as in martyrdom, than failed in truth.
Earlier in the history of this blog I did a series called “The Roots of Emily Dickinson” talking about some influences that helped shape her poetic originality, but in that series I missed running into this ecstatic poem known by its first line “I think I was enchanted.” Scholars are fairly certain it’s the American poet’s elegy for British poet Elizabeth Barrett Browning.
Actually, it’s one of three Elizabeth Barrett Browning elegies Dickinson wrote, evidence that she truly wanted to record her appreciation for this poet. In my casting about for interesting material to perform and present here I came upon today’s piece only after finding another of the three, “I went to thank Her.” I had gone so far as to start writing music for the Parlando presentation of that poem, when, in looking for information, I came upon this other one via Susan Kornfeld’s fine blog on experiencing Dickinson’s poetry. You can use this link to read that post and today’s poem as she presented it. Kornfeld says “I went to thank Her” pales in comparison to “I think I was enchanted.” It’s certainly more intense — intense to the point I began to question my initial readings of the poem, as I often do with Dickinson.
One of the challenges with Dickinson’s poetry is that I have little sense of exactly what the author intended. We have no readings of her performing her own poetry written in the 1860s of course, and despite some saved correspondence, those letters seem to me to show a person who presents different personas in what for others would be casual prose.
I said this poem is often considered as an elegy, a poem of praise written after the death of the subject, but while “I went to thank Her” speaks of EBB’s grave, there’s no direct mention of her death in this one. Furthermore, “I think I was enchanted” has moments I read as humor, even satire, mixed with what could be read/heard as outlandish but sincerely intended Blakean visionary experiences.
Dickinson opens her poem with a distancing frame: she tells us this is how she responded to EBB’s poetry as a “somber girl” — and in one of her alternative notes in manuscript she considered “little girl.” Here’s she’s recounting how the younger goth-girl Dickinson encountered EBB, and I love Dickinson’s concise entry into that gothic outlook: “The Dark — felt beautiful.”
What follows is the Blakean part, an outright visionary state: time has no meaning, logic and proportion have fallen sloppy dead*, butterflies have become as large as swans. Dickinson has other poems that portray such states, and in some of them here I’ve mused that she had either/and visual disturbances like migraine/epileptic auras or full-fledged mystical transport where ordinary reality dropped away. But then observe how this vision recounted from childhood trails away. In our somber young girl’s vision, the older Dickinson says the sounds of bees and butterfly wings are audible but that they were little tunes “Nature murmured to herself to keep herself in Cheer — I took for Giants — practicing Titanic Opera.” I think the older Dickinson (she probably wrote this poem in her mid-30s) is allowing she was a little over the top in her feelings then. That she calls the sounds in her vision “opera**” is easily read as being over-dramatic in feeling by moderns, but I’m not certain how Dickinson would have viewed opera from her mid-19th century seat.
Emily Dickinson performs her tribute to Elizabeth Barrett Browning — wait that can’t be right! Well, it’s analogous, or psychedelic, or something.
The second half of the poem becomes more abstract, though opening with the metaphoric claim that ordinary days, even the “Homeliest” of them, are now transformed after reading EBB into a fancy-dress “Jubilee.” Another unusual word choice there, not prompted by rhyme. Did Dickinson mean something exact with “Jubilee?” Would she have been familiar with the Hebrew tradition*** from which the word derives? Possibly from Old-Testament sources.
The poem’s 6th stanza seems satiric to me. One of the most well-known examples of Emily Dickinson’s stubborn individualist character was her steadfast refusal to declare herself as “saved” by being reborn in the Protestant religious revival tradition of her time and place. That issue was part of what ended her formal education, and it set her apart from friends and family members. This stanza says, in my reading, that “What happened to my mind back then, I can’t really define and explain — but it’s not some simple declaration or decision, you have to live/experience it.” Thus sticking it once again to the just publicly accept Christ’s grace and be saved crowd. She continues the satire in the following stanza, in effect saying “You think I was out there, what with my butterfly bees beating opera tunes — well, your sanity without that luscious visionary intensity is dangerous to me! And if I ever get poisoned by that, well I have the antidote…” and she launches into a final stanza.
That stanza says EBB’s books of poems are “Tomes of Solid Witchcraft” — a phrase which slots right into a pagan-feminist bookshelf doesn’t it! And then a lovely fade to end: “Magicians are asleep” (the only possible reference to EBB’s death in this putative elegy) but she will remember the magic of that “somber girls” experience of EBB’s poetry, and the possibility of its creation by a woman, like as the religiously faithful remember the godhead/universe-creator.
In that reading I’ve outlined, I enjoyed this poem’s passionate mix of possible reflected youthful visions and the more mature satiric comparisons to a certain kind of religiosity. I did find it somewhat difficult to perform, as the syntactical jumps are hard to fit to breath and natural expression.
One thing still leaves me puzzled: Yes, I understand that Dickinson could easily feel that EBB was groundbreaking in her expression of woman’s ability to write and think and desire — and while that’s no settled notion even in our current age, it must have been even more striking in 1860. But even allowing for the framing device that Dickinson uses, the visionary experience engendered by encountering the poems as a young girl, I never have received that kind of jolt of new perception from reading any Elizabeth Barrett Browning. Maybe I haven’t come across the right poem? Maybe I can’t quite read them as Dickinson did from her situation?
Which is another reason to be grateful for Emily Dickinson, because in poems like this and others, this mid-20th century guy living in the 21st century can get that jolt from Dickinson.
To hear my performance of “I think I was enchanted” you can use a player gadget below if you see it, and this highlighted hyperlink if you don’t. Today’s music resulted from me specifically wanting to combine a variety of non-obtrusive percussion sounds (percussion being those pure “you hit it and sound comes out” instruments) with swelling synthesizer sounds that have no struck attack in them at all.
*Grace Slick riffed on a number of authors, not just Lewis Carroll, but I can’t think of an instance when she quoted Dickinson. Maybe she (like I) grew up in a time when Dickinson’s poems were thought and taught as simpler homely oddities. Grace, if you’re reading this blog, let me know what Dickinson meant to you.
**Like Dickinson I’m attracted to close, near, and slant rhymes, and when reading and performing this piece I was surprised that she missed the near-rhyme that “Titanic Overtures” would be in place of “Titanic Opera” with “To keep herself in Cheer.” “Opera” is a more strained rhyme, so maybe that exact word was important to her intent?
***Every 7 times 7 years farmland was to lay fallow and slaves were to be set free. This relationship to slavery led the term to be adopted by Afro-Americans in connection with the ending of slavery, a process that began in the United States around the time this poem was written. I have not solved to myself the mystery of Emily Dickinson’s opinions on American chattel slavery and Afro-Americans. Her father’s known political opinions on slavery (a huge issue when Dickinson was writing her poems) was as a “moderate.” But her Massachusetts had significant and militant abolitionists (including the Dickinson associate Thomas W. Higginson). Abolitionist positions are not synonymous with belief in the full and equal humanity of Black Americans; and it would not surprise me if Emily Dickinson, like Whitman, could hold racist opinions about Blacks while intellectually being whole-heartedly committed to freedom.
It’s also possible that Dickinson may have known of Roman Catholic Jubilee years; and in the context of a poem about a poet who lived in Italy and was connected with the turmoil there (which cancelled the 1850 Catholic Jubilee Year) this term could have been brought to mind.
Let’s continue or count-down to the most listened to and liked Parlando Project piece over the last summer. Today we move to the half-way point, numbers 7 through 5.
Wait, maybe you’re new here. Parlando Project — what’s that? Well, for a little over five years I’ve been presenting combinations of various words (mostly poetry) with original music. The words are mostly poetry not just because poetry has musical elements built into the form, but because I like compression of expression. Typical Parlando pieces are 2 to 5 minutes in length. You may notice that I’m generally not doing poetry written during your lifetime or even mine, and that’s not by choice. American copyright law puts up heavy barriers to reuse of copyrighted work; but on the good side I happen to like some of what went on in the first quarter of the 20th century, and so you’ll see a lot of work by the pioneering Modernists here. One of the benefits of this Project is that I’ve been rediscovering in public what they did to “make it new,” and finding some of their ideas worthy of being revived today.
What kind of music then? I like to think I vary that, composing and arranging for different instruments and sounds. Some pieces are just voice and acoustic guitar (my first instrument), some have fuller arrangements using orchestral instruments, and some pieces use an off-the-cuff rock band. And some pieces use instruments you don’t hear all that often in America, or synthesizer sounds created or modified for the composition.
7. Answer July by Emily Dickinson We left off with Dickinson’s childhood classmate and “You should really publish your stuff Emily” friend Helen Hunt Jackson. So, it’s a natural segue to this piece that was a bit more popular last spring.
What was I saying about unusual instruments? The main motif in this one is played on a sitar, the South Asian instrument that had a short vogue in The Sixties. Some composers and musicians who encountered sitar took the rich musical heritage associated with it to heart and incorporated, and still incorporate, elements there into music played on other instruments, but unless one wants to invoke a “Don’t be late for the Human Be-In” soundtrack vibe, the sound of the sitar isn’t something Americans get to hear much now, but it’s still a beautiful sound.
I’ve never actually owned one of the complex and somewhat fiddly sitar instruments, though I’ve used more than one “electric sitar” approximation over the years. The practical compromise I’ve come to favor is to use MIDI “virtual instruments” where I can play my guitar with a MIDI pickup and the sounds that come out are decent approximations of the real acoustic instruments playing that note.
Dickinson’s poem I used here is one of my favorite expressions of the ineffability of the summer season, and it seems a lot of you agreed this summer. To hear it again, (or for the first time) you may see a player gadget below. No gadget? Then this highlighted hyperlink is another way to play it.
6. Over the Roofs the Honey-Coloured Moon by Bliss Carman. I had fun last month riffing on some late 19th/early 20th century poets’ names, but Canadian poet Bliss Carman’s name easily equals Algernon Charles Swinburne in promising the most in Yellow Book Aestheticism of that period. His audaciousness in the collection that introduced this piece Sappho: One Hundred Lyrics was to “Imagine each lost lyric [of ancient Greek poet Sappho] as [if] discovered, and then to translate it.” The first part of that description, which hints at mediumship is outrageous enough, but even the second clause reminds me of my own audacity in avidly translating work from cultures and languages I’m not native or intimate with.
His synthetic results still have their attractions. Sappho — however real and in what particulars she was, thought, and created in her reality — hardly exists. We have but two or three mostly complete poems, and a scattered field of quotes and fragments. We have thick books binding up Shakespeare’s works, and facsimile editions of Emily Dickinson’s manuscripts with every alternative and scratched out word, and yet we reinvent those authors and their work every generation or so, using such ample literary evidence and fresh insight. Carman was more cavalier with Sappho, and the best historical studies and literary scholarship can point out what are likely errors or mere imagining in this man’s early 20th century Canadian Sappho — but Sappho was a lyric poet, and lyric poetry exists in charged moments that seem as present. Lyric love poets may lie, may often prove untrue even if they are sincere during their moments, but isn’t it also so that we may accept those momentary lies if they are beautiful enough?
Taken maybe 80 years apart, three poets, their collars and neckwear. Each have their mouths basically in a neutral state though Carman’s is somewhat downturned and Millay has just a hint of a knowing smile. Dickinson seems to be looking right into the colloidal silver on the plate and saying, “I know, I burn you.”
5. Recuerdo by Edna St. Vincent Millay Speaking of lyric poets able to interrogate romance, let’s move on to Millay. Each of the bolded listings in this Top Ten is a hyperlink back to the original post when I discussed the work in somewhat greater length, and with this one I compared Millay’s impact in her time to Joni Mitchell 50 years later.
I also wrote about the ambiguity I sensed in the tale of the infatuated young couple and their interaction with the old woman on the ferry. In that reading the old woman is meant to stand, imagistically, for economic and social inequality coexisting in the romantic night within the last time we called a decade “The Twenties.”
Maybe I’m reading too much in this, but it’s as if a great portion of the whole of the novel The Great Gatsby was condensed into this poem that I can sing in four minutes. Well perhaps the 20th century cared more for novelists than lyric poets, but both Fitzgerald and Millay went through a period before their deaths when they were down-rated and thought too tied to now irrelevant past decades. Fitzgerald got reassessed in the second half of the 20th century while Millay’s examination of society and literary value continued to languish. Now our own Twenties can find its own reading of that previous Twenties. Reading, or listening? Here’s my performance of Millay’s “Recuerdo” available with the player gadget where present, or with this highlighted hyperlink where it isn’t.
Let’s start another roundabout Parlando story. We’ll move from one less-famous poet to another lesser known one through a third one. You’ve heard of the third one.
When I was a teenager and started writing poetry I was quite surprised that I did that. Surprised, and impressed with myself. Writing poetry wasn’t something anyone else I knew did; that meant that the nature of my achievement was clouded, obscured. That singleness added to my sense of achievement with those first poems. I recall sending off a poem to something that presented itself as an Iowa poetry contest. My expectations with that weren’t clear either, but eventually I noted that I wasn’t contacted as the winner.
I considered that result. I thought I was writing poetry and was therefore in the cohort of the greats in poetry anthologies and textbooks. Yet, apparently, I wasn’t even the best poet in my small lightly populated state in a random year. Puzzling.
Well, I was in the cohort of those that wrote poetry, I just didn’t grasp then how large the numbers that unusual choice would total up cast against the population of the world. I have the same blank opportunities to solve when writing a poem — then as well as now — as prize-winning poets, or those who have reached the minor levels of success poetry is allowed in our culture. What achievement the result reaches — or the different, more quantifiable, question of what level of recognized achievement it reaches, that’s what differs. Still, I’m their equal before I begin.
Emily Dickinson may have had similar questions. When she reached out to Thomas Higginson, the Atlantic magazine contributor, with her packet of verses, she presented herself as wondering about the level of achievement she had reached. Many wonder now if she was being coy, but do we know what she knew, or what she suspected about her poetry? Dickinson’s situation was different from mine* in that though she lived in a smallish town, it was a college town, and so we know that some others in her circle had literary interests, even if her immediate family apparently didn’t. Her friend, eventual sister-in-law, neighbor, and increasingly suggested love interest Susan Gilbert wrote poetry and read Dickinson’s verses. Dickinson also made a habit of sending some of her verses in letters and with gifts to others, though I don’t know enough about how they reacted to that verse. Higginson testifies that she tended to wear people out.
But Emily Dickinson was not the most successful poet from her small town during her lifetime. Another woman, almost exactly the same age, eventually became a well-known writer and poet in her time.
That writer, born Helen Fiske, was a grade school classmate of Emily. Unlike Dickinson she fell into the usual path of marriage and motherhood, marrying at 22. Her first husband Edward Bissell Hunt may have been a remarkable person himself. Dickinson herself thought so. Dickinson wrote in a letter after meeting her friend’s husband that he “Intrigued her more than any man she had ever met.” Edward Hunt was a military engineer, and when the Civil War came, Edward Hunt set to developing some sort of self-propelled torpedo. It was while working on that secret weapon he was killed in an explosion at the Brooklyn Navy Yard. Eventually she remarried, adding the second married name as Helen Hunt Jackson, and became a successful writer. Among those that spoke well of her poetry was Ralph Waldo Emerson and that same Thomas Higginson who Emily Dickinson reached out to.
Wikipedia says that Louisa May Alcott, Sidney Lanier, James Russell Lowell, and Christina Rossetti all had poems anonymously included in this collection too.
In 1876 while visiting Amherst Fiske sought to encourage her childhood friend to submit a poem to an anthology she was working on that was to be called “A Masque of Poets.” This anthology had a gimmick: none of the included poems was to have an identified author. The reader was going to have to encounter the poems each without the authors reputation or a preconceived notion of what that author would be on about. As it turned out, Helen Hunt Jackson had to work hard at convincing Dickinson to allow one of her poems to be included. In the end, Dickinson’s poem was given a special place in the order of this book, as the last poem in the collection (other than a long verse novel that makes up the last half of the book).
We leave this part of our story with an oddity: Emily Dickinson almost never saw her poems in print while living. Perhaps the most widely seen exception to this was her poem that appeared without her name in The Masque of Poets, and this happened because of the efforts of her friend and successful poet who we now have forgotten. What Emily Dickinson poem was it? The one that begins “Success is counted sweetest/By those who ne’er succeed…”
Here is Emily Dickinson in print. But no name.
So now let us return to Helen Hunt Jackson and her poetry, now little known and even littler read. Today’s audio piece, “August” is from her sonnet sequence containing a poem for each calendar month. Here’s a link to the text of the sonnet.
Jackson’s view of August is distinctive, and it’s far from upbeat for this last month of summer splendor. She starts by calling it silent** (save for the somewhat sinister connotation of insect hums). She calls what color August has “pathetic,” “vain,” and “artifice.” And loss of summer is at hand. Besides being widowed at a young age, Jackson had more than the usual 19th century history of young death of siblings and children. Perhaps that undercurrent of loss informed this cold pastoral of a warm month.
Content aside, this poem’s sound is exquisite, with assonance and internal rhymes richening it. Many lines break, or can break, in the middle, which I decided to accentuate in my performance. I found it a better poem than its forgotten status and elements of 19th century poetic diction would have it be.
The player gadget to play my musical performance of Helen Hunt Jackson’s “August” is below for some of you. If you don’t see that player, this highlighted hyperlink is another way to play the performance. I’ve been working with some larger arrangements and noisier stuff in the past week, so it was a nice change for me to perform this piece with only acoustic guitar and a little subdued bass. Besides my music, I added one extra line of my own at the end of Jackson’s sonnet, my small exchange writ in water from one unknown poet to another.
*Oh, there’s those little matters of differences in talent and level of innovation. But let’s leave that off for now.
**I am noticing much less birdsong in this dry August from the dawn choirs of let’s say June.
It’s time once more to perform the brilliance of Emily Dickinson. Today’s text, “Answer July” is Dickinson in her seeming simple mode. Read quickly, it might strike one as almost a nursery rhyme or maybe as one of those playful listing or counting folk songs. Here’s a link to the full text of the poem.
But when I looked again, “Answer July” appears to be a debate or interrogation between nature’s seasons and the consciousness of souls, a rather strange thing to put into such a brief and unfancy piece of poetry. Emily Dickinson loves strange, and if you’re a reader or listener who’s stuck around here, you’re comfortable with it too. What’s being debated here?
It starts with the poem’s speaker — let’s call them Dickinson, though obviously, it’s a creation of Emily Dickinson, and as its creator she knows more than this character — demands of nature’s mid-summer month of July just where certain summer things are. July, like a party in a legal dispute or sidestepping debater replies that the things that would allow it to produce those summer things are not in its control. There could be a supply chain issue, and maybe the real problem is with its supplier: the spring month of May.
Where is the Bee — Where is the Blush? Got it right here Emily.
May is called in. “Nay,” says May. Tell me about supply chain issues! I’ve got suppliers too, like winter. Subpoena the jay, a winter bird.
The jay is sworn in. Look I need food in the winter they testify. Where’s the leftover autumn corn, the periods of hazy-thaw less-severe cold, and those burred seeds still in their protective casing? The implication here is that we could next look to question fall, though by now we suspect fall will blame summer. And round and round we would go.*
Dickinson gives us two lines that may be a break in the circle. When July, the first month/season to be questioned ends their reply, I think July suggests that May/spring is not a calendar month, but instead a creature of the questioner in the poem. The syntax is broken and unclear here, so who speaks each word is uncertain — but at the time I performed it, I went with this understanding (in paraphrase): July replies (answering to Dickinson’s opening line of questioning) “You’ve called on me to answer. Well, I’ve got one for you, ‘Where is May?’ Come on, you (thee) answer! Because I know what you should answer when asked about where things spring from: ‘It’s me.” That is, Dickinson, July questioner, is responsible.
I could be wrong on that somewhat convoluted reading. It could also be July saying “If May was here, they could answer your question for you (thee) and for me too.”
And then again, as the poem ends, the jay has a cryptic answer to where it can find its winter sustenance: “Here — said the Year.” Unlike summer, winter seems like a time of scarcity, but nature provides the jay what they need. There the implication is that Dickinson’s original complaint to July about where are the summer things she wants is being answered by the jay saying that nature will provide, if your soul seeks for things rather than asking for it to be summer ample and at every hand. This reading of the last line is what drew me to my more complicated reading of the earlier “Answer Thee — Me —” line. The poet Dickinson is telling the character of the questioner in her poem that it’s not the seasons that provide, it is the soul that seeks that finds. She is her own spring, summer, harvest and survival.
Musically I had some fun with this one. On one hand the harmony is simple, a I V progression, but I used some less-common voicings for the Ab (it’s an AbMaj13) and Db (a DbMaj7) and I played sitar.** Why not! Emily loved strange, and if you’ve stuck around here this summer, you have to have some tolerance for that. The player gadget will appear below for some of you, but don’t ask July where it is if you don’t see the player. Instead, click this highlighted hyperlink, which will open an new tab-window and play my musical performance of “Answer July.”
*Once again, I’m working on my theory that Emily Dickinson’s sharp intelligence was surrounded by a family that worked as lawyers, and that may have provided a frame for some of her poetry. As I write this there happen to be many supply chain issues ascribed to the impact of the Covid-19 pandemic and other causes, but neither legal precedents nor logistical savvy is the real subject for this poem, rather it’s about a Transcendentalist understanding of how the soul must partner with nature.
Emily Dickinson herself was also a gardener and the Dickinson household raised a wide variety of food and feed crops. Any farmer or gardener knows that it’s not just the calendar page that brings in food and crops, but effort and seeking.
**Well, not exactly. I’ve never owned a real sitar. I have owned an electric sitar with a plastic rounded bridge that sought to emulate their buzzy sound. I’ve used MIDI “virtual instruments” that allow a guitar or keyboard to play sitar notes with attempts at following sitar articulations. Today’s piece uses a Line6 Variax guitar that has a sitar sound setting, and it tracks guitar string vibrato precisely, a necessity for this piece’s main sitar line motifs.