We’ve reached the top of our seasonal top 10 covering the pieces you most liked and listened to over the past three months, but before I reveal the top piece, let me cover one other area.
I know from growth in the audience that some of you are new to the Parlando Project. Because of that, every so often I should explain what this project does. We take words, mostly poetry, mostly other peoples’ words, not our own, and combine them with music we write and perform ourselves. Sometimes we sing the words, sometimes we don’t, sometimes we split the difference somehow.
By intent the poetry we use and the music we create for it varies. Most texts are used under public domain rules.* What kind of music do we use? I try to make it a whole lot of different. I’ve never been able to answer the simple-sounding question “What kind of music do you like?” because the idea of liking one kind of music is just not in me. So be aware that you may run into music here that you don’t care for, either because of our limitations as musicians or your own tastes and expectations—and that may happen right after a piece you liked. The same applies to the words we use. There are over 400 examples of what we do here in our archives, so you can move on and look at another one anytime. If you wonder if we’ve presented a poem or author, search here and see.
OK, so who sits atop our Autumn 2019 hit parade? William Shakespeare that’s who. That’s no surprise considering that it’s his Sonnet 73 which begins “That time of year thou mayest in me behold” (but which I’ve always thought of as “Bare Ruined Choirs” for its most famous image)—one of the longest-famed “autumn of one’s years” poems in English.
Let England Shake-Speares. The title page of the first printing.
I wrote at some length about my experience of the poem in my original post here, but I’ll reiterate only one point: even though this poem resonates with many older people and older lovers in particular, it was written by a man in his early 30s. Consider all the exegesis of Shakespeare’s sonnets that seek to tweeze out his sexuality, incidents to fill out his biography, or the identity of the fair youth, the dark lady, or “who really wrote Shakespeare,” and consider that they were written after all by an actor and a famously prolific creator of opposite and varied characters. I too want to invest those sonnets with his experience, to believe that this great artist is letting me see his heart. How much is intentionally or unintentionally “real,” and how much is a good illusion? We may never know, but we have the art none-the-less.
Here’s the player to hear my performance of Shakespeare’s Sonnet 73 “Bare Ruined Choirs.” And a sincere thank you for listening and reading this fall. I hope that some of the pieces we’ve presented have pleased you and illuminated some matter or another.
*This means that the poetry is usually from before 1924. I happen to like (and have grown to like even more via this project) a good deal of early 20th century Modernist poetry, but we’ll jump around to older stuff than that too. While we’ve done many of “Poetry’s Greatest Hits” over the years, I’ll use lesser-known poets and poems when they strike me as interesting.
It’s time to look back on the past season and to look once more at the most listened to and liked pieces over that time. We do this in the classic count-down method, moving from the 10th most popular to the most popular piece.
This time I’m going to link to the original post each time so that you can read the longer discussion of my encounter with the text, but if you’d just like to hear the recordings of the performance of the poems, the player gadget following each listing will do that.
10. October by Paul Laurence Dunbar. When something makes these count-down lists it’s often hard to know if it’s the inherent interest in the author, the things I wrote in the post introducing the poem, or the qualities of the musical piece and its performance that account for that. In this case I think it could be a bit of all three. I wrote in my post about what I thought was an undertone in this seemingly happy autumn poem. Was that a misreading? I’m not sure, but it informed my solemn musical performance which may work even if you don’t share my sense of this supple poem.
I highly recommend translation as an exercise for poets. Not only do you need to achieve a Vulcan “mind meld” with another artist when translating them, but the mental muscles activated to find the best English word in sense and sound are great ones to develop for one’s own writing.
Three poets awaiting the invention of the MacBook and the modern coffee shop with WiFi: Rilke, Mallarmé., and Dunbar.
8. Autumn Day by Rainer Maria Rilke. Another translation that received good response this fall. Here I ascribe a substantial portion of that response to those looking for and appreciating Rilke poems, and finding some here. Of course, there may be many reasons for that desire to seek out Rilke, but I’m under the casual impression that he’s treasured for what seem to be life lessons to his readers. I noted in my post on this poem that it’s been a particularly popular target for translators, but you still may want to look at mine, or hear the way I performed it.
This poem of his is also an example of a theme: gardens and small agriculture, that I returned to again and again this fall. Perhaps it’s my own position in life’s passage that caused that, but there are a good number of autumn poems that are both about the experience of “cultivating one’s garden” and the valence of the ending of a growing season. Such is Rilke’s.
Today’s post includes the 400th audio piece since this blog officially launched in August of 2016. For such round numbers it seems appropriate to use a representative selection, but then the Parlando Project’s aesthetic is to avoid formula. So, the text for today “Doubt Brings Autumn” is from my own poem. Long-time readers/listeners here know that’s not my usual practice.
When I started the Parlando Project I hoped to create 100 to 120 of these combinations of various music with various words. The music would test my limits as a musician and composer, and the words would be focused on “Other Peoples’ Stories,” an emphasis on other writers and artists rather than my own life.*
I had no idea how enriching it would be to encounter the work I would turn to, looking not just at “Poetry’s Greatest Hits” but also at the lesser-known poems and poets. That choice made around four years ago largely by intuition and confoundedness still seems to be the right one.
I started with some pieces already done, and some already expected. Not nearly 100, but once this project ignited it was hard to put the fire out. Now at 400, the natural urge is to press on to 500.**
One key to keeping this process going and to avoid the formulaic is to introduce random or coincidental elements into the making of these things. One favorite toy of mine to play with is to intentionally seek out and explore misinterpretations of sentences. Syntax and context is a slippery thing after all, why not have some fun with it? Until last month I didn’t know what to call this kind of language play, when it suddenly occurred to me where I must have picked this concept up.
There was once a great comic duo called Burns and Allen, whose career spanned the later vaudeville stages to radio to early television. The act’s trick was for George Burns, the straight man, to report some mundane event or judgement and for the comic, his wife Gracie Allen, to then find some confounding misinterpretation of that statement. Hilarity ensued, as any attempt to put the Dada spring-snakes back into the can was met by more sproinging twisting of the otherwise obvious meaning.
Poetic license: I couldn’t find any short clips of the classic double act, but the concept extends to this scene
That realization led me to name this kind of language play a “Gracie.”
“Doubt Brings Autumn” began with a Gracie. A blog I read regularly written by an Iowan, Paul Deaton, had in series discussed the seasonal cycle of his food garden and an orchard he works at over the past year. His posts, as well as alternative voice and keyboardist here Dave Moore’s garden probably led me to use more stuff related to gardens this past year. In one post this fall Deaton remarked that frost and even some snow had come and that “If there is any doubt, autumn has definitely arrived.”
We all know what Paul meant, but if one takes this as a Gracie, it could just as clearly mean that doubt, even in small doses, causes, brings on, autumn. That became the germ, the seed, of this poem.
It’s been through a number of versions and revisions, and I revised it yet again slightly this morning after the performance you’ll hear was recorded, but the idea, inherent in both Paul’s life (he’s contemplating retirement) and mine (I’m “retired” but working near-constantly on this project, my “garden”) was a rich one. Our doubts, our questions about how to continue and react to our own seasons, are they cause or effect?
This is the current version with a small change in the next to last line
The last line works not just from its sound but gains also from another accident of English. The words unraveling and raveling are not opposites, each form of the word means the same—but raveling is the rarer word and subconsciously adds a paradoxical element that winter could intensify instead of relaxing and untangling our unanswered questions, our doubts.
Another note on this poem in process: when I read an earlier version an accomplished poet whose work I respect reacted to the pun for frost and Frost*** with dismay. All poems and poets work from their own sensibilities, but mine steadfastly believes that humor, even the coincidental humor of Gracies and puns is unavoidable in the human condition. That other poet’s reaction was likely right, in that many (who knows, maybe most) will find the mood broken by that move in my poem. I do wish I didn’t confound them, but I somehow must.
Musically, I’ve finally been able to play fiddle rather than violin on a piece using the MIDI interface on my guitar. The sound of largo bow work is lovely, but so too are many folk traditions which saw away more insistently. The player to hear “Doubt Brings Autumn” is below, and thanks to all that read and listen here!
*This insight came from a review of a book of Kevin FitzPatrick’s poems, where the reviewer seemed surprised and delighted to find many poems there “with other people in them.” “Why should this be rare?” I asked myself. In a musical metaphor I’d remark that I love solo acoustic guitar—just one set of hands and six strings—but what if all music or even all guitar music was only that or even mostly that? So much we would be missing!
**If I’m able to reach that number, I think that would be a good time to reassess the effort and focus it takes to do this project. If you’d like to help encourage this effort, the best thing you can do is spread the word. I have (too?) little inclination to promote this project on social media or even face-to-face. But even if I had that useful skill, I wouldn’t have time to do it.
***In my awkward defense, I pointed out that Robert Frost likely intended to pun on his own name in his magnificent “October” where the endangered garden grapes have already suffered a leaf-wide incursion of burning frost.
See, just as my son predicted, we’re back with more old dead poets, this time English poet Thomas Hardy. Today’s poem sort of pairs-up with Dave Moore’s piece from last time. Dave directly addressed youth in his song in the context of the cycle of generations, with the newer ones sure they’ve figured out something the old generation hasn’t—which is sort of true, at least enough to allow them the audacity to change things.
Hardy, in this fall poem written late in his life, isn’t so sure, but then Hardy never is. In the Hardy poems I’ve presented he’s very aware of the cycles of things, and he barely accepts that those eternal circles could have any inclined plane to their returning paths.
That’s a prodigious cookie duster you got there Mr. Hardy.
Since we’ve done so many autumn poems this year, we can see Hardy checking in with some perennial fall poem tropes: shorter days, birds leaving, colored and falling leaves. Hardy, whose late career overlapped the Imagists, is immediate and unfussy with his images in a modern manner. The one personified natural image in it: the waving evergreens like waltzers, is still not too far from one used by pioneering Imagist Richard Aldington. Note to, there’s not a single interior emotional term used here. To sense what the poet/speaker is feeling we need to take in the images and events.
The second stanza increases the originality, even while using colored and falling leaves. The light-yellow beach tree leaves floating in the air are like relics of the sun in a gray noontime. And as some old guys will recognize Hardy is saying they are also like inter-ocular “floaters,” tiny clouds that develop in the fluid of some aging eyes and drift across vision. The final two lines tell us that the poet/speaker is old enough that he planted trees in his youth that are now tall enough to block the sky in places. There’s some parallelism here: the leaves, like specks in his vision, block some of the sky like the trees he planted in youth do also. The former is transitory, moving, changing, the later seemingly less so.
The last stanza adds some children, who also are moving through the scene. Here the poem does resort to a internal term, though not an emotional one: the children we’re told “conceive” that those tall trees must have always been there (something the poet/speaker knows is not so—I set those damn trees in the ground myself is the implied thought). So those trees are not permanent things, and so like the leaves, like clouds in an old man’s eye after all.
I at first encountered the last line as puzzling, even awkward sounding. There seems to be two versions of the text. The one I found first and used has the last line as: “That none will in time be seen.” Others seem to have it as “A time when none will be seen.” The second version is less awkward and has a parallelism with it’s preceding line “A time when no tall trees grew here.” I had trouble singing that first version, I might have used the second one if I’d seen it before the performance. But now I’m thinking that the awkwardness, even the sense that the poem has ended on a “What’d he say?” note, may have value.
This line’s “none” has a hazy antecedent. I think we’re to first think it’s the children, who are unaware of the transient nature of themselves (something the poet/speaker knows and they don’t). But in the sentence it appears in, the statement can be referring to the trees (which the poet/speaker knows weren’t there until he planted them) that are not permanent.
In what ways are the trees not permanent? Well the poet/speaker is old, he may expect he will not see either those children or the trees he planted for many more autumns. Nor are the trees permanent to the children, rambling through in play. They will grow up, perhaps not stay there, or be at work inside and not outside in the fall air by the trees. I know little about Hardy’s particular English countryside, but is he even foreseeing a modern future where the trees will be cut down for progress? And by extension, is Hardy, taking as is his wont the long view, saying that any work he did in his long life will be forgotten by those children?
Musically, Benjamin Britten has set this poem to music. I listened to two performances which reminded me the problems I sometimes have with art song settings of poetry as a listener: a complex melody makes it hard to inhabit the words with humanity and feeling, and therefore obscures their meaning and makes everything empty decoration. I persisted and found a couple where the singers somewhat overcame these issues with Britten’s setting. Here’s the best one I’ve found so far.
Of the performances I’ve heard so far, Mark Wilde is best able to illuminate the words through Britten’s filigree.
Now of course I don’t mean to knock the skills of Britten as a composer. I could claim that I write music that has a wider variety in some sense, but let’s be serious: I don’t have 1% of Britten’s musical knowledge, or the knowledge of any other reasonably well-known “serious” composer. And as a singer I have trouble rendering even simpler melodies and for this reason I don’t try to write art-song style settings because I have no one handy to sing them.
So, what’d I do instead with my music for this Hardy poem? A rock band with three cranked-up Telecasters wailing away. I suggest you listen to it loud too. The player gadget is below.
Let’s imagine that it’s 1914, and on both sides of the Atlantic curious short poems with precisely chosen and concrete imagery are appearing here and there. This is Imagism, the premier movement of Modernism in English. Long-time readers here will know* that these small and unpresupposing poems came from several sources: the away-with-19th-century-Romanticism ideas of T. E. Hulme, the promotional verve of Ezra Pound who also set out classical East Asian poetry as an ideal, things apprehended from French poetry by the slum-born F. S. Flint, and the fresh eyes and forms of Americans Emily Dickinson and Walt Whitman.
This new poetry was quite unlike the Tennysons and Longfellows that preceded it, but also it is by and large not Modernist poetry as we’ve come to know it later in that century or in our current one. It seems altogether simpler, pared down. It partakes of poetry’s timeless lyric impulse: the thought that a poem need not be long to be complex if it keeps itself true to the goal that the poem isn’t about ideas but the instantaneous experience of ideas. Nor is it a marathon course of those feelings and experiences, rendered on kaleidoscopic canvases.
To some this new kind of poetry is cheating. Where are the grand themes? If the poem doesn’t develop itself like an essay or history where is the effort or the worth of the effort? The poems often don’t seem to use heightened poetic language, and they may at first seem to have no metaphors—rather, the poem is the metaphor. That these poems often eschewed rhyme or conventional meter added to the “anybody can do this” sense many had.
As I imply above, this is not the Modernism that eventually emerged triumphant. Yes, a “Red Wheelbarrow” and “A Station of the Metro” will be constantly anthologized, but Williams and Pound will become known for their longer more esoteric poems. Even if some WWI poets could use these compressed poetic methods to express horror while the fighting was going on, the post-war world wanted it all expanded on, and the thought that expansive sur-rationality was the appropriate response to world-wide mechanized violence came to the forefront. Art needed to be as big or bigger than the things it was opposed to.
“Reading” pictures is risky, but this photo of Crapsey just seems to say determination.
All this ferment brings us to Adelaide Crapsey, a woman who has been forgotten in all the fuss. First, look at that name. It sounds like a character in a satiric novel. It’s so pre-20th century that you can’t imagine Modernist verse having it attached to it (perhaps Hilda Doolittle was savvy in immediately accepting Pound’s rebranding of her as H. D.). Also, if there was such a thing as Middle School in her youth, can you imagine the trauma of carrying her family name?
In The Year Imagism Broke, 1914, Crapsey was not only writing Modernist verse in the initial Imagist sense, she had made a study of English prosody and had created her own form to put her concise poems into: the cinquain. Just as many of the short Imagist poems owed some of their tactics to classical East Asian poems, the cinquain sought to create an English language equivalent to the understanding of forms like the haiku.
Just as with Amy Lowell from earlier this month, I think it may be worthwhile to not let these two poems of Crapsey’s that I use today wash over you quickly, as if they are essays or narrative personal memoir in verse. Each word was chosen carefully, precisely, to evoke a moment you might choose to share inside of her experience.
Ten lines and two of Crapsey’s cinquains that seem to tell the story of this year’s late fall
Am I setting this method of shaping poetry out as the best or only way to approach verse? No, though I’ve come to believe that we may have lost something when we abandoned it for the new more impressive edifices of post 1920s Modernism.
Musically I was thinking of one of my musical heroes and models, Steve Tibbetts, but alas my deadlines, and my musical and production skills this week produced only a rough approximation of what Tibbetts can do. I really tried to rip him off here: a down-tuned acoustic 12-string with paired unison (not-octave) strings. Lots of time-based effects (like reverb, phasing, echo, and delay). Hand percussion leading off to heavier stick drumming. Feedback-loud electric guitar arriving from off-screen into the landscape.
Yesterday, my disappointment in what I had down was fairly complete. My electric guitar solo could be better, and it’s been too long since I’ve played at that volume. The 12-string wasn’t naked and exposed enough. Where’s the space I keep telling myself to leave in? I had no idea of how to duplicate Tibbetts’ characteristic delay and echo effects. My percussion tracks had nothing like the splendid variety that Tibbetts’ long-time collaborator Marc Anderson routinely achieves.
But my son reminds me that Kurt Cobain thought he was just ham-handedly ripping off the Pixies and still came up with something that was worthwhile, and the Steve Tibbetts’ thing is not something commonly heard—so 20% of Steve Tibbetts level might still be worth listening to for what it is, not what it wanted to be. So, here it is, available with the player below surrounding those two 1914 cinquains by Adelaide Crapsey describing our current November season.
*This is a reminder that since “poetry is the news that stays news” that the Parlando Project has nearly 400 examples of what we do that may be just as interesting to you as the current post. Using the search function or just diving in at random to the archives is worth considering.
To my knowledge, there’s no situation, no case, in the Modernist revolution of English poetry quite like that of Amy Lowell, who for around a decade from 1915 to 1925 made herself a significant force in the popularization and dissemination of short free verse,* yet was often derided by others writing in this style, and whose own concise verse was largely forgotten until this century.
That her name and place in Modernism survived at all, it was largely because of her brief connection with the original Imagists in London which led to a running feud with Ezra Pound. Pound said that Lowell’s promotion of the same poetic principles that he had been propounding was a descent into “Amygism.” It wasn’t just Pound, D. H. Lawrence said of her work “In everything she did she was a good amateur.” Witter Bynner, the literary-hoaxster who wanted to mock this form of Modernism tagged the overweight Lowell as the “hippopoetess.”
The young Amy Lowell. “Does this hat make my…oh, forget it…”
What was their beef? Was it that she was a woman and she was generally considered a lesbian? Even though the early-20th century Modernists often fail contemporary standards for wokeness, the Modernist movement included other women** and gay artists. Likewise, Lowell was eccentric, but that too was no mark of uniqueness in their artistic world.
I should make it clear, that even though I often write here of encountering writers from this era as I present their work, I’m not an expert or scholar on the era, and there’s a great deal I don’t know. But my quick read of the situation is that Lowell was seen by Pound and many of his cohort as a wanna-be. She came from a wealthy and prestigious family.*** She seems to have bought her way into some of her influence—but once again, wealthy arts patronage can’t be what makes Lowell unique. That was common then as it is now.
What made her unique is that she wasn’t content with being a patron, she believed herself a poet and a critic, and worked extraordinarily hard in her short career at exercising herself in those roles. Controversy may be good for short-term fame, but some of the most lauded poets of her time didn’t think much of her work as hierarchies and canons were being formed by those that outlived her death in 1925. Did they make their judgements cavalierly because they didn’t like her as a person or by reputation?
Let me cut to the chase: I don’t know. I’ve probably encountered a few Amy Lowell poems over the years, and none of them left an impression on me. But transient mood and expectation and the randomness of anthologized selections could account for that. As this project has come to use a lot of poetry from Amy Lowell’s contemporaries, I’ve figured that someday I should tackle one of hers if I found something I thought I could do something with. And this fall, her poem called “November” was brought to my attention.****
I can’t find any good Internet links to this poem, so here it is.
What did I notice about it? “November” follows the style of the early Imagists, including the one thing that I’ve come to recognize about early Imagist writing that later Modernism came to reject: the modesty and directness of its statements. You could knock Lowell and say that when she wrote this she had Pound, T. E. Hulme, F. S. Flint, H. D., and so on to model this poem on. But if you believe, as I’ve come to, that this mode of poetry was abandoned too soon for longer, more elaborate and esoteric statements, then continuing to use those valid methods is no crime.
The trick of this kind of compressed poem is how to be simple and subtle at the same time in some way that the reader will find a working expression of beautiful. After finding “November” worthwhile, I quickly looked at a few other shorter Lowell poems and I’m not sure she consistently manages that, but I believe this one does. Even famous and much anthologized poems in the Imagist style can be read quickly as superficial “Is that all there is?” poems. Their simplicity asks for a engaged reader, not one blown-over by some kind of surface filigree.
As with our other autumn poems, this one touches some common tropes: leaves, bare branches, dark, rain. But Lowell keeps this fresh, where many other poems would seem to just be checking off the boxes. The leaves’ color is secondary, we are subtly asked instead to hear the sound of the crisp leaves rattling against the walls of the poet’s house. Yes, there are fallen leaves too, but they gather under the evergreen pines, sheltered there. The lilac bushes sound-move with the rich word “sweep” against the overhead starlight.
And that translates then to an interior scene where the sheltered poet is too under the lights, a lamp, writing, perhaps handwriting with a sweep of the hand. And another unshowy, but well-chosen, phrase says what the subject is: “The emptiness of my heart.”
Let’s pause there for a moment. Is that a simple epithet for longing? Yes it is, but there are others for that too that weren’t chosen, and “The emptiness of my heart” is more ambiguous than most, for it may indicate a feeling of unworthiness and unreciprocity too—but then to think to explore that, to write of it, to experience it in an autumn moment, is a self-reflection that a callused always cold and empty heart will never do.
The poem’s closing image, following up on that, gives us one more sheltered, or barely sheltered thing: the cat who “will not stay with me” and is huddled in a window casement.
In summary, there is considerable complexity of feeling encoded in these images without the emotions being explicitly named and listed, but rather invoked in the Imagist manner. And the poem hides its craft so that one may not notice it reading quickly, particularly the subtle repetitions in the three scenes. I chose in my performance to repeat the writer under the lamp scene once more at the end to emphasize that I heard that key point the other two scenes turn around.
Musically, I worked on this performance yesterday which was Joni Mitchell’s birthday, so I wanted to try something in an unfamiliar alternate tuning. And today is Bonnie Raitt’s birthday, so it was good that the one I settled on (G minor DGDGBbD) worked well when played with a bottleneck slide. You can hear how Amy Lowell worked with that music using the player below.
*A year after her death in 1925 she was awarded the Pulitzer Prize for poetry, and besides editing and helping to publish several anthologies of Modernist verse, she promoted it by popular lectures and articles in mainstream publications. Louis Untermeyer in his summarizing American Poetry Since 1900 published in 1923 says that “No poet living in America has been more fought for, fought against and generally fought about than Amy Lowell.” But to speak about her poetry (which he does praise) he writes first about her work as promoter and provocateur: “Her verve is almost as remarkable as her verse” indicating that the element of celebrity and controversy was already masking her actual poetry.
**Oddly, the path in the 20th century seems to have been to increasingly under-rate, value, and remember women poets of the Modernist era as the century went on. By the time I came along to encounter Modernism in school 50 years later it was a sausage-fest—but the 21st century is working to re-evaluate that. Canons and reputations are one thing, but every poem and its poet lives or dies each time a reader encounters it. That’s always a present act.
***Some of the Modernists came from what appear to be upper middle-class families, though of those, some had broken family ties and their financial support in some way. How much richer was Amy Lowell? I don’t know for sure, but I suspect noticeably so. Wealthy and gay poet Bynner had to reach for the body-shaming to find something to ridicule Lowell.
Today’s text is a poem that works in the common garden using another poet’s central image. Christina Rossetti’s “An October Garden” is three lines in when she reveals that her garden isn’t growing nervous grazing watermelons—that what she observes there is the last rose of summer.
Irish poet Thomas Moore seems to be the writer who first struck that coinage, or at the least popularized it. His 1805 short poem called “The Last Rose of Summer” was soon set to music based on a traditional Irish harper’s tune, and the words and sentiments with the associated music has been sticking around ever since.* Moore’s poem is both dark and sentimental, a combination of ingredients that continues to impress audiences. Summarized to its core outlook, it’s a poem about surrendering (at least metaphorically) to loss.
Writing down to the bones & roses: “When the last rose of summer pricks your finger…”
What distinguishes Christina Rossetti’s use of the image from Thomas Moore’s? Rossetti’s is a bit shorter. It’s an unusual form sonnet, just 14 lines, vs. Moore’s 24. Rossetti’s sonnet form is neat: a pair of equal 7-line stanzas and an ABBAACC rhyme scheme. But furthermore, her take on the image is somewhat ambiguous. For one thing she notes there are other, more hardy flowers still around too, but her eye’s on that last rose, and however puny and forlorn it might be, she’s one for the roses and not them. Although no one would confuse her poem with a Modernist poem in the Imagist style, her presentation of the rose is more objective and there are fewer “feeling” words, and in their place: more observational words.
If one abandoned the structure she used, one could “translate” Rossetti’s poem into a free-verse Imagist poem fairly easily. But let me note one more thing about the structure: one could easily think that a need for rhymes has forced some word choices. The last rose “which cold winds balk” reads to me first and last as a forced rhyme. The literal sense is that the winds are still holding-back against this puny but still budding rose, but that’s not a strong statement (absence of the cold winds is less concrete than their presence). The other possibly forced rhyme is repeated twice:** “rosebud which uncloses.” This one is so awkward that I am still evaluating how it works. What a weird way to say what one could say simply “opens.”
There’s a dirty little secret about rhymes. More times than poets will admit, the need to make a rhyme will force a poet into a choice they otherwise wouldn’t make. There are times that rhyming need works like Surrealist tactics such as “exquisite corpse” or randomization techniques, it throws chaos and noise into one’s intent. When the result fails to set off sparks, it’s experienced as forced, a failure—but when it does work, the poem or phrase takes on a new freshness.
So which is “uncloses?” I’m still not sure. If one allows the oddity of the word, and asks what it could say that’s different than “open,” it’s saying that the last rose is making a choice in blooming, knowing that colder fall and then winter to come will make its feeble bloom even shorter. It suggests it’s choosing to not stay closed or to not close back up against the cold and bleak.
Musically I doubt my setting will do for Rossetti’s poem what music did for Thomas Moore’s, but it did give an excuse to break out the Mellotron sounds again. Musical instruments can accumulate associations, and for me nothing says sitting in an English garden like this wobbly keyboard instrument that tried to imitate orchestral instruments; and while failing in verisimilitude, succeeded in sounding like a memory of them.
My performance of Rossetti’s “An October Garden” is available with the player gadget below. If you don’t see the player, you can find all the audio performances here on Apple Podcasts, Spotify, or most other podcast sources. You can find them at such places by searching for “Parlando – Where Music and Words Meet.”
*In that Wikipedia page that I linked above for the text of “The Last Rose of Summer” I draw your attention to the lower sections where the extraordinarly wide range of use and allusion the tune and the text has had is listed. A personal favorite is Robert Hunter’s grief-filled variation “Black Muddy River.”
**There’s an old Jazz improvisor’s trick that when a player flubs a note or makes a wrong choice when improvising, that a way out is to repeat it, or even make it a motif.
Did Emily Dickinson mistake her tone, her presentation? This question occurred to me as I went off into the deeper, album cuts* of Dickinson’s work looking for autumn poems this fall. Her early poem, titled on posthumous publication “Autumn” is charming and very much in a mainstream short poem tradition of the day. If she was seeking publication or just checking in on an honorable hobby of an upper middle-class** young woman, it would do.
The next Dickinson Autumn poem I found and presented,“Besides the Autumn poets sing” is still charming, if self and otherwise referential in a sly way. If I was to “translate” it into the diction and particulars of New York in the 1950s it could be written by Frank O’Hara. I believe she intentionally means that poem’s opening word: “Besides,” and that is not a careless rendering of “beside”. That little “s” makes it a poem about what the poets of her time did “Besides” (meaning “in addition to,” or perhaps “surplus too”) Autumn, not merely poets rendering in verse the season while metaphorically writing en plein air. That makes the poem an expression of what is other than, or in opposition, to what a leading American poet of Dickinson’s day like William Cullen Bryant was writing.
If I was to read this poem in isolation, if it came to me “over the transom” would I make that assumption? I’ll be honest: I suspect most times I’d miss it. I’d hurriedly read the poem as another simple Fall season lyric. I’d miss that “s.”
Did Dickinson intend this slyness, if I’m right in my more careful reading? My understanding of her character is yes, she did. I could be wrong. If writers, if poets, can misunderstand how their tone will be read, certainly us readers, busy and full of our own prejudices, can also do our part to misread or read ourselves into their work.
But then I came onto this remarkable Dickinson poem, one that’s frankly strange on the surface: “The name of it is ‘Autumn’.” Even now, over 150 years after it was written, this makes no pretense to being a conventional poem.
The first thing I noticed was that as a poem of fall, it doesn’t really work—or work the way we expect a poem on that subject to work. Yes, fall leaf color is a common trope for landscapes that have this event.*** But this poem goes overboard if that is all it’s trying to do. Yes, many of the autumn leaves are red, and yes we can say they are blood red. But if that was what Dickinson was intending, and if repetition of that trope might add to its power, I think many readers would think it’s overdone.
And so my first thought was, that must be Dickinson’s intent—to over-do it—because I now trust Dickinson as an artist, and feel from reading her that she often is seeking some doubleness in her expression.
But before I continue with my sense of the poem, let me alert you to two other readings that have been put forward to explain what this unusual poem is on about. The first is that it’s a poem about a particularly deadly section of the American Civil War in the fall of 1862. Historically aware readers often wonder why Dickinson (unlike her contemporary poetic revolutionary Whitman) doesn’t deal with this deadly domestic war directly. Unlike Whitman she didn’t live in close proximity to the battles, but she was the daughter of a politician who had been caught up in the slide into this war, and an avid reader of the journalism of the day. The Civil War reading says this is her recasting of the slaughter of these battles.
If one accepts that idea the images make sense, a strong argument for it. But I’m unsure how Dickinson, even as an aware news-reader, could have received this explicitly gory battlefield scene. I’m unsure that the Republican newspapers she read would have featured detailed descriptions of the slaughter.**** The only way I can imagine Dickinson having an opportunity to pick up these specifically blood soaked slaughter/war images would be if the somewhat self-sufficient semi-rural Dickinson homestead slaughtered their own animals for food and Dickinson (who came to be responsible for the gardening food aspect of the homestead) observed that.
The other reading is that this is a menstruation poem. Likewise, the images can be fitted to that conception. And while we know nothing of Dickinson’s gynecological history (which as readers we need to know, along with the sperm and motility counts of all male authors) there is no barrier here regarding Emily Dickinson’s experience and knowledge, and so I think this one is more likely.
The third possibility is that Dickinson did intend this to be another autumn poem, just with stronger imagery; and if she may have misread how the poem’s tone would be encountered by others, that by this time in her life she didn’t care. She could intentionally have brought in those things other, modern, readers have seen in it, warfare and menstruation, and created one of those bidirectional images where the thing signified and the images used to illuminate it are of roughly equal importance. One clue to that is that she’s once more making use of quotation marks. “The name—of it—is ‘Autumn—’” the first line seems to say we need to examine that word. What could we find on examination? One thing I, the punster, finds is “Awe-tum.” The other thing she may be saying is: “Well, it’s got a common name we might find unremarkable, a mere label for a season, but it’s serious business to nature.” Then, all that blood—and in my reading, the intimate linkage to human fertility—is to make that case, to drown that conventionality.
In such a case, the imagery takes over from the subject. If in the process of composition, the poem became not about autumn but about menstruation, then autumn becomes an intense outward image for what would have been a private, if widely shared experience.
Given that frankly feminist examination of literature is no longer a rare thing, I wonder how unprecedented this was poetically as a subject? Anyone know of any poem preceding Dickinson’s that has a plausible focus on menstruation? A passing line in the old ballad “Willie O’Winsbury” doesn’t compare to this level of imagistic intensity.
Rather than some colorful fall landscape photo, here’s Anne Briggs whose singing helped bring the ballad “Willie O’Winsbury” to the fore.
Well, all that talk, and the comic incongruity of mansplaining my experience of Dickinson’s poem, but this poem is lovely again as word-music. Dickinson is famously sing-able, so I was charmed to put even my shaky voice on the line here. I keep thinking I’m building up to a big-time orchestral score or a mass of synthesizer lines, but today I’m musically down to just acoustic guitar once more. This past week, I found online an entire 90 minute coffeehouse set by Tom Rapp and Pearls Before Swine, and the melody today is similar to one used in Rapp’s “There Was A Man.” I even planned singing a couple of verses of that song in a sort of a round with Dickinson’s, but I couldn’t make that work.
*(in geezer voice) In my day there were musical collections sold on disks, and they had to have a bunch of songs, not just the hits. A kind of wireless streaming service called “radio” sometimes played cuts that weren’t the ones that you’d pick out for your playlist. It was a primitive existence, but we didn’t know any better back then.
**It’s not straightforward to place the mid-19th century Dickinson household in class hierarchy. Clearly they were a prominent family in their town, so in the context of Amherst, likely the 1% for the latter half or more of Dickinson’s life. But Amherst also wasn’t a wealth center, thus my approximation.
***It occurred to me as I looked at my series of autumn poems I’ve been presenting this month, that there are large portions of this globe that don’t have the “theater of the seasons” that Dickinson’s Massachusetts and my upper Midwest share. The whole leaf-turning fall colors event is a big deal and traveling to rural areas where the largest canvases can be seen is a thing here. One academic paper behind a paywall that I found an abstract for even suggests that fall-colors tourism in the mid-19th century to New England places like the Franconia Notch might have contributed to this Dickinson poem.
****The political career and situation of Dickinson’s father is too complex a subject to detail today. He was a unionist Whig, who supported the compromises with slavery-states meant to prevent the Civil War, while likely opposing the practice of slavery itself. When the Whig party died out it was largely absorbed into the newly founded Republican party, which included those who were more militantly opposed to slavery and such compromise.
Dickinson’s father stood with the compromisers who thought preserving the union primary over the more aggressive anti-slavery factions of the Republicans. It was the election of the first Republican President, Lincoln, who presented himself as unifying those two wings of his new Party which was the proximal cause of the outbreak of the American Civil War—in other words, the slaveholders in slave-holding states figured Lincoln wasn’t serious in acceptance of the ex-Whig and unionist wing of Republicans and that he would allow the more abolitionist wing to take power.
Once the war broke out, there was considerable agitation in the North to settle with the Southern slave states, either to reform the pre-war union or to accept the formation of the new slaveholder Confederate nation. A prime argument for this was the deadliness of the ongoing war. So, in general, Republican papers in the day would not have been in the business of publicizing the grizzly nature of the warfare instead of bloodless gallantry and sacrifice.
Since we’ve re-established that Emily Dickinson can do simple, here’s a lovely poem of hers that introduces more than a touch of “meta” to her poetry.
This poem’s first line starts the meta thing right off. You could quickly read the opening word as “Beside” without the s, and then the poets are singing in the presence of Fall. I suspect Dickinson wished to include that element but subvert it. “Besides” means in this context “beyond that, in addition to.” So, there’s this thing: “Autumn” that poets sing about that is what? Well, it’s prosaic (i.e. prose and routine, not poetry and unique/charged). It’s small: “few,” and “little.”
Next stanza, the song now riffs with “few:” “A few…mornings,” “A few…eves.” Dickenson’s diction is still casual here, but she drops a couple of unusual adjectives with that repeated pair of fews. Unusual adjectives are often a weak crutch in poetry. Throw together some out-of-the-blue random adjective with a noun and you’re suddenly all surreal, poetically mysterious and creative—but more importantly, do these unexpected modifiers create a charged image?
“Incisive mornings,” is a bit of a play on words. Incisive here means not just perceptive, as in the coolness and lack of light predicting winter’s shorter days and lack of warmth: but taken in its other meanings, its winds are cutting and daylight is being incised, removed. “Ascetic eves” also speaks of removal, evenings no longer long with lingering light and it hints at spiritual matters this removal may reveal.
The second stanza ends with two references to poets, presumably examples of the ones mentioned as the poem opens: William Cullen Bryant, an older poet contemporary with Dickinson, and James Thomson, a Scottish poet of the 18th century. Neither are well-known today (though Bryant was a very important American cultural figure in his time). Dickinson mentions them and says that the stuff in their supposed Autumn poems are “gone.”*
In the context of these two stanzas, Dickinson is saying: the existing poets aren’t telling us much about autumn. I think that Dickinson’s sly inclusion of those two concise, precise, and original adjectives is cutting. She’s showing that in two words she can say more about autumn than they can in some long-winded poetry.
Sheaves get mentioned in passing in Dickinson’s poem, so I get to exercise my love for Dutch painting
The second half of the poem has Dickinson unleashing her style of poetry against these musty odes. The third stanza’s word-music is just wonderful. I won’t dance about its architecture today—you can just read or listen to it—I’ll only point out that the end-words “brook” and “touch” have a lovely rhymish echo, even though they aren’t even slant rhyme. This stanza has the superb line “Sealed are the spicy valves” which partakes of the musicality but is an elusive image too. As I read it, I thought of gardeners in our climate planting garlic cloves this time of year, but garlic was not yet a thing in Emily’s New England. After an hour or so of trying to decode the image, to determine what specific spice plant in Dickinson’s time and place is referred to,** I now think this a more generalized image of withered flowers. “Valves” is used only one other time in Dickinson’s poems, in the more famous “A Soul selects her own Society” poem where they appear as “the Valves of her attention.” “Spicy” I’ve judged now is just a biologic/erotic reference to flowers pollination role. We may read the valves anatomically in various ways, but eyelids*** may be intended, as in the closing two lines of the stanza.
The final stanza is Dickinsonian too: nature in Dickinson’s poems is often personified in comical and non-charismatic species, here squirrels. Comically, her thoughts on the matter of autumn and poetry will be of great interest to the squirrel, and in this image she’s pointing out her non-existent status as a literary figure compared to Bryant et al.
It could just be a handy, casual sentiment to finish the poem, but Dickinson may be earnest in her concluding phrase: her mind is the sun that can illuminate the lack of sunlight as Winter solstice approaches.
Mostly acoustic guitar for the music performance today, though if you listen in the background you’ll hear a little harmonium and tambura. You won’t hear it in the rhythm or the instruments timbre, but I put a hidden reference to one James Marshall Hendrix in the music. You can read the full text of Dickinson’s poem here as you listen with the player gadget below.
*Thomson wrote the lyrics to “Rule Britannia,” and Dickinson is likely referring to his long Miltonic blank verse poem called “The Seasons” in her 16 line one. Bryant’s poetry may be largely forgotten, but his former cultural salience is still honored with a lot of school, street, park, and place names in the U.S.
**As an adult, Emily ran an extensive garden in the largely self-sufficient Dickinson family homestead, and in her youth she studied botany and produced a remarkable herbarium book filled with precisely identified plants—so it’s not crazy to think that she could have had a specific plant whose lifecycle she understood. A full-fledged farm field operated right across the road under Emily’s window at the homestead. The “sheaves” in Thomson’s poem wouldn’t have been abstract to her either.
*** If one wants to get more biographical in reading the poem, Dickinson famously went for treatment to Boston for some tantalizingly unspecified “eye problems” a few years after this early poem was written.
I sometimes wonder if I overstress the mysterious, even mystical, element in Emily Dickinson. Perhaps I’m overcorrecting for the too-limiting image of the charming eccentric writer of little poems that was her package-label when I first learned of her in the middle of the last century. I’ve since wanted to put the small print somewhere on the Emily Dickinson carton: contents may be unsettling during reading. Sold by weightiness, not boastful volume.
But Dickinson was at times a writer of lighter verse, enclosing seemingly cast-off poems in letters to friends. Her classmate (and in Dickinson’s lifetime, more literarily successful) friend Helen Hunt Jackson would write and publish casual poems about the seasons or travel. When Dickinson wrote this way, was she bending her art to expectations for women of her time, or was she expressing a playful side of herself? Humor, as in satire and incongruity, is an essential part of Dickinson’s verse, even her darkest verse. When it’s employed without mysterious, ambiguous themes, that same sense of humor can produce a poem like today’s “Autumn” by Dickinson.
Even the part of me that loves to search for deeper meanings and undercurrents has trouble finding them in this poem. If forced to rely on that I could offer that her concluding remark that “Lest I should be old-fashioned, I’ll put a trinket on.” could be read as a comment on the loosening of plain-style 18th century Puritanism in Dickinson’s time. But let’s be serious: this is lighthearted, an example of the “happy Autumn” poem, and such things can make good songs.
Tiny clusters of turning leaves, like splatters on a green drop-cloth.