4. Tell All the Truth but Tell It Slant words by Emily Dickinson. It should be no surprise that Dickinson turns up often here. I’m attracted to short poems that have a word music of sound or thought, and Dickinson has both in abundance in this, another very short text: 41 words.
This poem is often read as Dickinson’s private artistic credo. In summary paraphrase: “I’m going to write about things obliquely, because you people can’t handle the truth.” Still, I think there are other elements here, other harmonic overtones. One is the human tendency to slant the truth. In the poem’s one simile, she likens this slanting to the pleasant myths told to children threatened by lightning, and I don’t believe that’s Dickinson’s goal in her writing.
Another aspect, reflected in another Dickinson poem, “There’s a Certain Slant of Light,” is the Transcendentalist outlook, one that she seems to have been aware of. In that other poem there’s that word “slant” again, but here we are to know it’s nature itself that’s slanting reality. The transcendence in Transcendentalism is the belief that the surface of reality is not all there is, that study and insight and a visionary approach can reveal a deeper reality.
In that harmony, Dickinson isn’t saying “Hey poets, just do what I do! Obscure your real thoughts and insights so the non-hip won’t gather what you’re talking about until someone takes a post-graduate course a hundred years from now.” Rather she’s saying “Reality will seem to tell you children’s-story myths. Get around them. Keep looking, and gradually the blinding surprise will come.”
My soul’s been Transcendentalized!
3. Crepuscule (I Will Wade Out) words by E. E. Cummings. More slanted light here, as Cummings meditates on the arrival of a sensuous night. If the 19th Century American Transcendentalists were the ancestors of the 20th Century American beats and hippies, Cummings here seems to be heralding the Surrealists that would soon emerge within a decade in the dreams of a European night.
With much extravagance of language, Cummings risks ridicule without a care.
I’m quite fond of the music I wrote and played for this one. The acoustic guitar is tuned in “Pelican tuning” which is named after a piece by John Renbourn that used it.
“I will rise after a thousand years lipping flowers.” No, I’m not covering Björk Guðmundsdóttir, I don’t have enough diacritical marks or musical genius.
2. Cold Is the North Wind words by unknown. This is a piece taken from the Confucian anthology of ancient Chinese poetry titled variously in English The Book of Odes, The Classic of Poetry, the Book of Songs, or just Poetry. Since the collection’s poems date from deep antiquity, perhaps as far back as 1000 B. C., authorship is unknown, though not a few of them are written in a woman’s voice, and the subjects of the first section, The Airs of the States, are often everyday people and everyday activities, not Emperors or scholars, not heroes and their great battles.
The reason for collecting the poems and making them required reading is also hard for history to remember. The consensus over time was that in studying these poems an understanding of the Chinese empire’s subjects and concerns would be engendered. In England and its colonies, it was contrastingly once assumed that its future leaders would study ancient Latin and Greek poetry as a core subject.
Weighing something as large as history is hard, and I can’t say if either of these two traditions helped much. Evil and ignorance, mendacity and violence—how far can we range in history without running into lengthy annals and imposing monuments to those things? We can’t avoid these monsters, and yes, and so, we must study them. Yet, yet, what if our leaders were expected to study a song such as this? I can’t believe it would help most. I also believe it would help some.
Cold enough that some hot tea would be good, but Gong have flown off with the teapot.
We have just one more number in our countdown of the most liked and listened to audio pieces this past Fall. We’ll be revealing Number One in our next post.
Last time I talked about how hard it is to be sure how Emily Dickinson meant her poems to be read. Some poems seem gentle, some fierce. She sent some to her more conventional friends enclosed in letters or gifts—but some she never shared, and puzzle even hard-core literary critics to this day. When is she applying a clarifying simplicity to complex or profound subjects and when is she undermining simple statements or homey images with subtle side-glances? She’s a small-town 19th Century person, a stalwart reader of the book of nature—and yet she sometimes reminds me of later 20th century urban wits, like Frank O’Hara or even Dorothy Parker as much as she reminds me of Ralph Waldo Emerson. Am I reading this into Dickinson, or is it already there?
Well, I take today’s Dickinson piece pretty much as it seems, a humorous conspiracy with someone, perhaps the reader, wherein lack of credentials or claims to the podium/lily pad are brushed aside. This is a good place to begin observation and then art, or the circle back from art to observation of it, perhaps the best place.
So here’s Emily Dickinson’s “I’m Nobody Who Are You?” as I performed it, available through the player below. And not to shout from the lily pad, but the only reward I get for the time and effort of doing this is you, the audience who listens to these various words from past nobodies who want to talk to us. Thanks for doing so, and if you find something here you like, please let others know about it.
What was Emily Dickinson’s personality like? Biographers have tried to line that question out from the available evidence filled in with supposition; but then none of us present exactly the same face, the same sensibility to all people and at all times. And any of us who are writers may also know that what we write and how we live can differ, even if only in expression.
This is partly why we have so many Emily Dickinsons, not just over time since her emergence on the page in 1890, but now in the present days, depending on reader’s framing. Today’s piece, “Tell All the Truth, but Tell it Slant” can be read as a playful and humorous observation, as a serious artistic credo, as a secret diary of non-conformity, or as a dark observation of human fearfulness. How many Emily Dickinsons had how many intents as she worked out this little poem?
Her dark materials. A silhouette of the teenaged Emily Dickinson.
As I often do with Dickinson performances, I leaned a bit more to a serious mode of expression, which doesn’t preclude the thought that Dickinson would be internally chuckling. I tell myself I’m just trying to channel something I feel as I experience the poem, but I may be also trying to overcompensate for the Dickinson widely assessed in my youth as an eccentric dealer in homilies, a naïve artist without the depth of metaphysical thought that mid-20th Century High Modernism adored. It seemed then to have been an unspoken assumption that Emily suffered from “lady brain,” that imagined biologically-stunted inferior organ with sentiment where exploratory thought would be. Sure, her syntax and imagery had some originality, so we’ll allow her into the anthologies with the serious poets.
My model of humanity is more androgynous than most, but let us allow female associated elements in her artistry, just as we should be sure that there are experiences from gender and class roles in her time and place. But let’s not overdetermine what she did, what she can still do, when we read, perform or listen to her poetry.
As I said, “Tell All the Truth but Tell it Slant” can be read as a light-hearted jape. I even remembered the first line taken for the title on publication as “Tell the truth but tell it slant,” forgetting the “all.” Is that “all” there just for metrical reasons? Because, if that “all” is meant, it changes things doesn’t it. It goes from a reading of “Well, it’s not polite or advisable to go around spouting the whole truth at every occasion” to a more general statement, that the truth is never told directly. And then the second line and its “lies”—surely one of the most punned-on words in English. It that just an easy rhyme? The next line, “Too bright for our infirm Delight” could have been in a William Blake poem.
The second stanza* starts with some inverted order poetic diction, but it may be forgiven, as we finally get to a physical image: lightning and frightened children. Dickinson appears to be siding with the filters, the myths, the accepted consolations of fibs and filigree we buffer the truth with. And perhaps she is. It may come down to how much or how often Dickinson, or you yourself, look away from the truth, how often the wisdom of your fears can help you survive.
In the end in this performance, I thought it might be key to consider who is charged with—or to—“Tell all the truth but tell it slant.” Is it society, or those who speechify to us as if we’re frightened children, who slant the truth? Or is it us, who should tell all the truth, even if we need to put it indirectly so that our audience can discover it, as the world gradually discovered further Emily Dickinsons, for ourselves, in our own time?
Musically, I return to my weird folk-rock sound and I choose to make Dickinson’s first line into a refrain to stress its ambiguity and centralness to the poem. Hear it with the player below.
*One joy of the poem comes in the end of this stanza’s third line: “dazzle gradually” where the meter and consonance of the chiming d and l sounds enchants.
Since I’ve been keeping track, one thing has been consistent with the most popular piece each season: it’s been by a poet not widely known or read in the United States. So previously we’ve seen on top after a season of your listening: my translation of Dada principal Tristan Tzara’s “The Death of Apollinaire,” the better-known-in-the UK Edward Thomas’ “Adlestrop,” the too-often overlooked Chicago Modernist Fenton Johnson’s “The Banjo Player,” and “Frances,” the teenage love poem by George Washington, whose career as a poet never really took off.
This has happened even though I’ve featured (multiple times) most of the popular canon of pre-1923 English-language poets touched by the Modernist movement of the 20th Century: Frost, Yeats, Sandburg, Millay, Pound, Williams and Eliot.
Pat yourself on the back: the listeners here are open to a variety of writing, and they don’t necessarily need to have a name they already know attached to the words.
Still, it’s surprising that it’s surprising that we have Emily Dickinson coming in at the top spot this past summer.
Dickinson (along with Frost and Yeats) seem to be special cases with The Canon, in that all three have retained some level of popular readership and presence in that still-existing oral-tradition of memorization, even into our current century, without being denigrated into the bin of “not-great poetry.”
Our Summer 2018 most liked and listened to audio piece is “Ample Make this Bed.” Like many Dickinson poems it’s extraordinarily compressed, just eight lines—and like so many of her poems it invites us in and then mystifies us. Most of us have made a bed, and some of us have even been instructed in how to complete that task correctly. Here, with “Ample Make this Bed,” we may get six lines into the eight and we haven’t left domestic normality other than the ironic satisfaction with a job, that if done excellently, will stand forever. Ah, if only any domestic housekeeping task can stand ‘till judgement day, rather than the few hours until it needs to be done again!
The poem’s final two lines are so modestly telling and beautiful. Until them, no rhyme—and then internal rhyme and end-rhyme rush in! And the synesthesia of “yellow noise,” an image which could have been informed by Dickinson’s mysterious medical syndrome which included photophobia, but needs no biographic detective work to strike us boldly.
Is “Ample Make this Bed” about death, domestic drudgery, love, or the unstoppable passage of time? Emily Dickinson seemed to have taken care with her poetry, to make it ample and arranged to last until judgment day, so it’s likely intentionally undetermined—or mystically, exactly, all of those things united.
Musically, I’m quite proud of my music and performance of all the various parts with this one. If you missed it last July, why not go ahead and listen to it now. And if you like it, please let others know about what we do here.
It was an odd summer traffic-wise for the audio pieces of the Parlando Project, with listens quite slow in the first half of the season, and then picking up to the point that August listens were a near record. That increase in traffic (new listeners?) may be why we had no older, pre-summer audio pieces that made this season’s Top 10 (though one, “Poetry,” made a valiant run at it).
As we’ve done the last few Top 10 lists, we’re going to count down in trios until we get to number 1, starting with number 10.
10. Crushed Before the Moth. The Bill James style stat-freak in me has threatened to do a poet/listener batting-average post on which writers seem to get the most and least response. Without really running the numbers, my impression is that Emily Dickinson, who like Frost and Yeats retains a general readership as well as scholarly cred, still doesn’t always hit it out of the park in listens when the audio pieces use her words.
I’m reminded here of one of my favorite bits of baseball trivia, what pair of brothers hit the most major league home runs? The true baseball fan will have many candidates to choose from. The three DiMaggios? (Dom was a very good player, and some have heard of Joe). Or the Alou trio (who once made up an entire outfield of brothers). Or Boyers, Boones or Alomars. But the answer is Hank and Tommy Aaron. Hank had 756 home runs, Tommy crushed only 13—but add it up, and the Aarons come out on top not just alphabetically.
Emily Dickinson’s sister-in-law and confidant, Susan, is not a famous poet, but she shows a bit of the same Emily Dickinson flare in her poem we used for this. Emily has that Hank Aaron level achievement, but Susan had her at bats too.
9. Seventeen Almost to Ohio. In the several years I’ve been doing this, I still love how pieces arise obliquely as I look for material and research its context. At the end of July, I was looking for more info on Mina Loy, the fascinating Modernist whose work was forgotten for decades and now seems to be attracting increasing scholarly interest. This led me to a tape made in 1960 of Loy being interviewed about her work. The interviewer, Paul Blackburn has now entered that vale of forgottenness himself, but besides being a serious poet with a strong interest in the audio value of poetry, he was a promoter of other poets, so I naturally feel an affinity for him. The Loy interview tape has moments of interest, even though Loy seems distracted and at times uninterested in her own long-past work, and Blackburn, true to our Other Peoples’ Stories ethos, encourages her, but doesn’t fill the gaps by yapping-on himself about, well, himself—as I fear I would have done. Yet, for a minute or two, he does do that, and this ad lib description of hitchhiking trip from his own youth was so striking I had to form it into what it sounded like to me, a beautiful little poem. It’s one of my favorite pieces from last summer as well as for the listeners here.
8. Plum Tree Blossoms on 40th Street. The vast majority of the words used here for the audio pieces are not mine. That’s by intent. Both Dave Moore and I have written since our teens, but when I started the Parlando Project I thought that the special jump, the bridging of a gap, that occurs when you perform a piece and others listen may be intensified if the performer too is making the jump across the gap to the writer, just as they are asking the audience to do. This summer’s top 10 will violate that principle three times, probably more than it should.
A number of things I’ve written this year have focused on memory and time, and how they can be experienced in odd ways. How we can intensely experience a past event as if it’s still going on in its full dimensionality, or in “Plum Tree Blossoms on 40th Street,” how we may fill in sensory information and intensity in remembered events long after they have happened, even though at the time they were occurring they seemed mundane. The routine of biking to school is to my son is just another day to him now, but it can be transformed into something else much later. Artists believe they can access that special intensity and meaning instantly, without nostalgia and the confining frame of memory, and that may be a necessity for their work to be created—but in another sense, what’s the hurry?
Increasingly, I am comprehending the miracle of Emily Dickinson. Fifty years before Ezra Pound and T. E. Hulme constructed a compressed modern poetry replacing conventional imagery with fresh and direct observation, a woman in a rural town in the woods of Massachusetts had already practiced their innovations over a thousand times.
Through a series of happy accidents, Dickinson’s poetry was preserved and published at the end of the 19th Century, just before the Imagists launched their Modernism—but even then, she was still like one of those unexploded bombs dug up by a construction crew decades after the war. Even after publication, the framing of her poetry still obscured it. Her posthumous editors cleaned up her punctuation and gave the poems titles, and on the page they looked so normal. As these were poems by an Emily, they were clearly the work of a woman, and so they were read as women were generally understood, even when not pressed between the boards of a poetry book. And Dickinson herself designed her poems to draw you in with their modest length, their frequent use of pious hymn meters and stanzas, their homey rhymes. Even into my mid-20th Century lifetime, it was perfectly possible to be aware of Emily Dickinson’s poetry and not be awed.
“Hey Joe, there’s a big chunk of metal buried way down in the mud! Here, listen when I give it a bit of a whack with my pipe wrench…”
They still run across stuff like this from WWII around Europe. Decades old, and they can still go “Boom!”
Some early 20th Century Modernists looked more closely, and maybe saw some of what was there. Carl Sandburg straight-out called her an Imagist in a poem. I am unaware of how much attention the other early Modernists gave to Dickinson, but just on a promotional level, it might not be advantageous to talk much about poems written decades ago when your brand is “Make it new!” Remember too how Pound jabbed at Walt Whitman in his tribute poem: Walt Whitman you were a hacker out there in some unharvested forest, I’m a fine wood-carver able to bring out the finest detail. Dickinson’s near-rhymes and loose but familiar meters may have been read as imperfections to Modernism.
It took the last quarter of the 20th Century for Emily Dickinson to finally be seen, and we are still seeing more now as we look closer. What if, back in the mid-19th Century when Dickinson was creating this unprecedented expression, one had been able to talk with her about it? The value of writers’ groups, seminars, and MFA programs is not universally acknowledged, but most think these things at least have some effect on those who participate.
It just so happens, that occurred. Dickinson’s letters to Thomas Higginson give us some of her ideas, but as I read that correspondence I see Dickinson adopting masks, some playfully, some for protection. And Higginson, as varied as he was, was not, as far as I know, a poet, and therefore there was no chance that he would use Dickinson as a model for his own writing. But Dickinson’s long-time friend, neighbor, and sister-in-law Susan Gilbert Dickinson was a writer who dabbled in poetry.
Like Emily, Susan Gilbert was smart, was allowed some access to education, and wrote poetry
No other person saw as much of Emily Dickinson’s poetry while she was still alive as Susan. It’s also probable that no other person other than Emily Dickinson’s sister Lavinia (who seems to have had no artistic interests) was as intimate with the author. There is even speculation that there was an erotic bond between Susan and Emily. Besides the pant, pant passages in the letters between them, Emily praises Susan’s intelligence and cultural companionship. Given what must have been the loneliness of Emily Dickinson’s creative innovation, amplified by the cultural limitations for women in her time, we may all owe a debt of gratitude to Susan Gilbert in helping sustain Emily Dickinson.
Today’s piece uses a poem by Susan Gilbert Dickinson that shows some of the same elements one finds in Emily Dickinson’s poetry. Given that the prolific Emily Dickinson experimented with her expression, if “Crushed Before the Moth” was slipped into some complete poems of Emily Dickinson volume it would not seem entirely out of place.
What elements of “Crushed Before the Moth” are Dickinsonian? A short line length (six syllables, though not Emily’s familiar 6/8/6/8 hymn stanza). Alternating rhymed lines with unrhymed, though here first and third not second and fourth, and the rhymes are all perfect rhymes except the final “moth.” Even the use of a Bible verse (Job 4:19) is not unprecedented in Dickinson, who though a religious dissenter, was steeped in a Christian religious culture.
The poem begins, just as many of Emily’s poems will, with a close observation of nature. In Job, the moth is only a passing metaphor, in Susan’s poem it’s an actual moth, looked at closely enough to see the texture of its body in the evening. The moth is treated here as an Imagist would. It’s not some intellectual counter, a rote symbol only standing for something else, but an actual animal in an actual evening. The second stanza continues in the same vein, the moth the morning after, though with more characterization.
The concluding three lines, though they contain the only Emily-like slant rhyme, are the least like Dickinson’s poetry. That kind of envoi ending with a clear and orthodox moral lesson is not something Emily would write in her mature poetry, and the “Is this thy stronger host” line sounds unnatural and stilted.
Still, this might be the first poem ever written that imitates Emily Dickinson’s strengths and innovations. That Susan Gilbert Dickinson was a more orthodox Christian than her friend, and like all of us, not the genius that Emily Dickinson was, doesn’t keep her “Crushed Before the Moth” from being an effective poem.
I’m back to acoustic guitar for today’s performance of this piece, which is available using the player below.
You may have noticed fewer new pieces posted here over the past month. There are a variety of un-interesting reasons for that, but one cause is worth a post, even if it’s not representative of what you usually find here. Think of it as a “make up post” for the missing activity this July.
This month I traveled to Massachusetts with my family and some friends. My concerns with this project have lead me to cast some recent trips as literary pilgrimages. Since our expedition was a mixed-age group of five, that wasn’t all that we did of course, and many of my memories of this trip are more about fellowship with the rest of the travelers, and not just with the connections I sought with long-dead writers. But let me focus on the literary highlights of this trip today.
We stayed at the Parker House hotel, which was well situated and has a long history connected to the culture of the city. Operating since before the Civil War, it was the meeting site for the Saturday Club, where the region’s considerable 19th Century culture elite met. And for desert, the Boston Cream Pie was developed there too! The current hotel building doesn’t go back to those days, it dates to the 1920s, but since two of our party were 21st Century people, there was plenty of historic charm along with a good night’s sleep to be had there. Alas all that masonry or other infrastructure issues meant the WiFi service was at 1920s level too, so my blog activity was minimal during the trip.
My companion book for this trip was Matthew Pearl’s The Dante Club. I was delighted to find our hotel and the still-standing (though it’s a Chipotle now) Ticknor and Fields publisher and bookstore building just down the street were locations used in the book. The book is ostensibly a mystery novel, but what it actually does is attempt to recreate post-Civil War Boston and Cambridge as it would have been experienced by the prominent local poets of the time. Particularly in the opening chapters this requires the reader to struggle with their 21st Century sensibilities. Pearl uses excerpts from these authors’ books and letters repurposed as spoken dialog to convey that time’s sensibilities, and I found that slow going. Not only am I a 20th Century Modern in my own literary sensibilities, but I also believe that their ordinary conversational speech would not be the same as those fountain pen strokes. In the course of the book, Pearl violates every one of Elmore Leonard’s rules for good writing—though they were only the rules that worked for Leonard, and even he admits exceptions. The plot too is somewhat creaky, though that’s a common fault for mysteries.
Am I not tempting you to read this book? On the contrary, I eventually found it captivating. As we moved about Boston and Cambridge, and as I read more of the authors it references, the level of historical research Pearl put into this became apparent. I now want to try his current book, a sequel, that is apparently set among the Pre-Raphaelites, to see if his magic works when you aren’t walking around in the characters’ footsteps.
Henry Wadsworth Longfellow’s oh so modern standing desk. The small statue on top? Goethe.
Pearl’s book is largely responsible for our visit to Longfellow’s house in Cambridge, and for me taking the time to check out Longfellow’s now unfashionable work. We walked through the room there where Longfellow’s beloved wife was sealing envelopes containing locks of their children’s hair with help from her daughters one summer’s day when the sealing wax melting candle caught her dress on fire. The room where Longfellow rushed in and tried to smother the fire engulfing his wife with a rug and his body. He suffered burns from that fire, painful and life-scaring (that bushy beard wasn’t just a fashionable affectation), but not fatal as were the ones that took his wife’s life by the next day. The room he rushed from? His writing room, with it’s nowadays in-fashion standing desk (a tactic he shared with Hemmingway), a room decorated with carved Goethe, Dante, and Shakespeare, all looking at him, asking him to “Let us, then, be up and doing.” I now read his work and think of what it does not say in what it does say.
When told we planned to go to Provincetown, someone asked my wife “You know how wild it is don’t you?” Well, yes, it’s extraordinarily crowded on a summer day with people from other New England places looking for a change of scene, and gayer than a Pride parade. The main street is full of establishments that cater to the not-quite-needs of no-purpose-but-the-change visitors, and the milling throngs are deep in thought of how good a time they are having verses their expectations.
We got off the ferry and had a tasty early lunch of hip-casual fusion food in a place with a patio covered in sand that had a view of the beach, and past that to the ocean that which can’t be bothered with time, which is always visiting, and therefore isn’t a visitor.
We then picked up rental bicycles, and after reminding one brave member of our expedition that riding a bicycle is, well, like riding a bicycle, we took off on a five-mile jaunt up to the highest point on this area of the cape. There’s a widow’s-walk porch atop the visitor’s center at this high point, full of fresh breezes and a view of that ocean again, beside which lie grassy sand dunes that meet that wind with ardent curvatures. I’ve read that the higher water levels and fiercer storms of our human-heated climate have damaged these features, but to us, visitors, it still read as wild and timeless.
After a good long meditation with wind and outlooks, I was reminded of my reason for going to Provincetown, and we set back on bicycles for the town again too look for the house once owned by Susan Glaspell and her husband George Cram Cook. My paternal grandparents are from the same south-eastern Iowa location that Cook and Glaspell grew up in, and though as far as I know they had no direct participation in The Davenport Group, Glaspell was a cousin of my grandmother.
Back in 1915, Provincetown was what was called an artist’s colony. That term is now somewhat outdated I think, but the concept is timeless. Artists, writers, musicians, and the like look for somewhere unfashionable, perhaps a bit run-down, with cheap rents to reduce their overhead while they work on things that won’t bring in a steady cash-flow. These artists naturally knock into each other, igniting collaborations and idea sharing. Often those unfashionable areas gather value, and before you can invent the term gentrification, the upmarket consumers, who though they might bring disposable cash to spend on art, bid up the rents and crowd out all but the most financially successful creators of art.
But all that hadn’t happened yet. Cook and Glaspell settled in a house on the main street, the street we now find full of folks looking for a good day or weekend, walking and driving fender to footsteps so thickly that it was hard to even walk our bikes up to the address. Back in 1915 the couple had redecorated the house’s interior with bright colors and Charles Demuth had sculpted them a sundial for the yard held skyward by a nude statue of my cousin Susan.
Here’s where things get uniquely interesting back in 1915. What could this little group of artists do while waiting for the paint to dry, or while you waited to afford a replacement for the worn ribbon in your typewriter? They decided to put on plays. Whose plays? Well, they were writers, weren’t they? Let’s write them. A stage? Look, we have artists, they should at least be able to wrangle some lumber into a set. They were given the lower floor of a former fish house that was situated on the end of a dock out over the timeless ocean to use.
What did they know and didn’t know, and did that matter? Theater in the United States was a commercial enterprise, exclusively that. This was before broadcasting, and a huge enterprise existed, with theater chains from Broadway to the small cities across the country to supply those things that could make money by presenting live entertainment. In one way, theater was tremendously broad, but it was also predicated on presenting what was going to work for that big audience. In poetry, music, and art, the Modernists were experimenting, trying things that weren’t supposed to work to see if, in fact, they could. Driven by Cook and organized by Glaspell, this little cadre of artists began trying to do that with drama, but I doubt they had any idea of what would happen when they tried this, way out on the Cape, with at first only their friends in the audience.
A disheveled man who shared a rented room in the town, down on his heals and with an already well-established reputation for alcoholism claimed he had a bunch of plays in his trunk. “Trunk plays” is theatrical lingo for old work that might be revived if a need arises, but this was an actual sea trunk he was hauling around with him, stuffed with unproduced work. In an artists colony, many writers would claim they had good stuff already written, just waiting for the world to discover, but then as now, some of this would be an empty boast useful to get someone to pay for the next round.
It fell to Susan Glaspell to arrange an informal table reading of a play from that trunk. Worth a chance, since the new company was short of material and game for anything.
Remember it’s 1915. Europe had Ibsen and Strindberg, sure. The Abbey Theater in Dublin had started a few years before. Some around the table would be well-travelled and would even know their work. But this is America, and this was a hanger-on in a little beach town artists’ colony. The author with the trunk was too shy to read his own play, someone else was deputized, and the author sat in another room as the reading commenced. The guy’s name was Eugene O’Neill, and the play, Bound for Cardiff.
Glaspell wrote about this more than a decade later, but she recalls that right away they knew they had something. Bound for Cardiff, a play set on a tramp steamer, was performed in their makeshift playhouse at the end of a pier that year. The sound of waves, wind and gulls, the murk of fog and evening chill did not have to be added with theatrical tricks. The smell of the sea wafted up through the cracks in the dock floorboards.
The Provincetown Playhouse had its first star playwright, and Modernist American drama had its starting point. And in Glaspell and Cook, they had the organizers who could keep the artistic cats herded and pick up new strays. Within a year Glaspell, who had co-written the first play the Playhouse had produced, wrote Trifles, a seminal work of Feminist drama.
I believe this remaining sign is from a later theater, not the rustic fish-house. However when I was taking this picture a charming older lady walked up and asked if we knew what it meant, and was pleased and surprised that we knew about Susan Glaspell and the original Provincetown Playhouse.
That weathered makeshift theater building on the end of the dock could never have timelessness, though it apparently stood for some years after this. Cook and Glaspell took their organization to Greenwich Village and continued with seasons there as the Provincetown Playhouse for the next decade. There’s more to this story, but I bring the curtain down by noting that while scanning a book of plays the Provincetown Playhouse produced in the towns wonderful small library, I saw that two poets from this month, William Carlos Williams and Mina Loy, once performed on stage in a two character play there.
This was my prime target for this trip, as the Parlando Project has lead me deeper into not understanding Emily Dickinson, which I’m still finding an interesting place to be. Emily Dickinson spent almost all of her life in Amherst, much of it living in her family’s house. Not being a Massachusetts native I had no idea where Amherst was, or any sense of what I’d find. My first surprise was how rural the region seems to be. We entered into the town on a winding two lane road that reminds me of those paved highways that followed what were once wagon rutted dirt roads and before that indigenous footprints.
The Dickinson Homestead. Emily’s front window is the one on top floor left.
The two neighboring houses that make up the Dickinson site are imposing as you pull up to them, reminding you of her family’s prominence in the town. Early on in our tour I learned that the present lot is actually smaller than the holdings in Emily’s time. Across the road running past the house’s front door and under the sight of Emily’s room’s window, the Dickinsons had a hayfield that they cultivated. And the garden that Emily tended, the accomplishment that she was most recognized for by her peers? It was much larger in size and scope than I had imagined, though only a conventional, more modern, grass lawn grows there now. There were flowers, though not in an organized English garden sense, but also a large vegetable garden used to feed the household and a remarkable orchard which the guide told us included fig trees—trees way outside the zone that should survive New England winters due to some ingenious horticultural tricks. Although they were Puritan stock who thought household servants would be a stain on a family’s industriousness, the Dickinsons did hire some garden and field help due to the size of the holdings. None-the-less it was the household’s women who managed the gardens, first Emily’s mother and then Emily herself.
Not only the grounds, but the house’s interior has been redone and revised since her lifetime, and our guide was scrupulous in describing what parts reflected the original arrangements. Emily’s bedroom, where she did much of her writing, and where she stored the hand-made booklets that became the prime source of her ground-breaking poetry, has been recreated in considerable detail however. It’s a bright room in the daytime, and the table by the window where she wrote and revised at night, has a whale-oil lamp that would have been a luxury in her time, but must have facilitated her incredible productivity during the 1860s.
The biggest surprise was the second house, built for Emily’s brother and his new wife next door at the behest of Dickinson’s father. That sister-in-law, Susan Gilbert Dickinson, should not be overlooked as a factor in Emily Dickinson’s genius. They had a close friendship from the time Emily’s brother started courting her, and like Emily, Susan was unusually well educated for a woman of her time and place. Besides emotional bonds deep enough to cause modern speculation about a sublimated or overt lesbian relationship, Emily seems to have used Susan as one of her trusted readers to give her feedback on her revolutionary poetry. For a woman so far out on her own avant garde as Emily Dickinson was in the middle of the 19th Century, Susan may have been indispensable.
This second house, “The Evergreens” remained more or less as it was in the late 19th century, and to a large part has not been restored. It’s spooky, you feel almost like you’ve broken into an abandoned house with wear and lack of maintenance left intact. That feeling is even stronger when the tour takes you to the floor where the bedroom of Gib, Susan Gilbert Dickinson’s youngest child was located. In 1883, at age 8, Gib died of typhoid. Afterward the room was locked and kept closed by his distraught mother. Decades later, when the house was finally turned over to the group that now conserves the site, the room still contained a small boy’s toys and his clothes still neatly tucked away in the dresser, some of which are now tenderly displayed as you walk past the door.
I could speak of more, but those were the literary high points of my trip. I hope to return with normal service in August, combining various kinds of original music with various words (mostly poetry). To tide you over here’s the most popular Emily Dickinson audio piece with listeners here so far, “We Become Accustomed to the Dark.” Use the player gadget below to hear it.