A Murmur in the Trees

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

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

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

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

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

Fairy Birds or Tiny Gnomes

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

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

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

The Emily Dickinson Tell It Slant Festival

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

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

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

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

Tell It Slant 1

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

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

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

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

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

Abbreviated Summer 2022 Parlando Top Ten

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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don't underestimate 800

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

From Us She Wandered now a Year

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

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

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

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

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

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

From Us She wandered

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Freya

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Dickinson’s “Bloom”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Prowling Bee by Heidi Randen

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

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

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

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

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

See Emily (Dickinson) Play — I recast her poem “May-Flower” for National Poetry Month

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?

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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.

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*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:

May-Flower

Pink, small, and [ADJECTIVE].
Aromatic, low,
[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.

Emily Dickinson’s “Ample make this Bed”

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?

Here’s today’s lyric video. I found the picture of the note at the end of the video in a post by Martha Ackmann of New England Public Media.

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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.”

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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.’

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*As usual, pun intended.

Soul Selector Blues for National Poetry Month

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.

Paramount’s “race records” ads scattered in this video, like other white-owned firms marketing to Black listeners, ran often in Black publications like the Chicago Defender. Outside of these ads, the Defender of the ‘20s largely ignored Blues as problematic. From examples I’ve seen the Paramount ads were less stereotyped than other “race records” companies’. Paramount did hire a Black consultant, Mayo Williams, who may be partly responsible for that.

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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!

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*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.

We Grow Accustomed to the Dark for National Poetry Month

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 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

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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.

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* It occurs to me that Dickinson’s “We Grow Accustomed to the Dark”  is in some ways a pair with Robert Frost’s “Stopping by the Woods on a Snowy Evening”  as both are poems about being disoriented in darkness. My parody of “Stopping by the Woods”  was re-released here last week, but if you’d like to see what I did with Frost’s original, here’s a link to that.