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.
Now we’re nearing the topper-most of the top in our tip-top count-down of the most liked and listened to pieces this spring. Wait—did I just turn into a mid-20th century radio host? Out! Out! Commercial spirit! Timeless poetry knows no acne creams, Yardley scents, Thom McAn Beatle boots or white Levis. Well, maybe some of the music knows them—but honestly, it interrogates those pop intentions and asks us to re-evaluate that intent in the context of greater artistic accidents consciously or unconsciously evolved from the Modernist revolts of the last century.
No, no. Not that either. I mostly just want to make things that haven’t existed before, mix the known and the unknown, like and contrast the unlike, let poetry talk to music, and let music not shut up but talk back. As I do this, I look at things you and I and many others have looked at before and see if they’ve changed. And then sometimes I look at those poets whose names and poetry were writ in water.
It just so happens that our next three pieces in our count-down are from such writers, poets unknown to me, many literature students, and likely to you.
4. They Say Life is Precious. One of the principles of the Parlando Project is “Other Peoples’ Stories.” I don’t dislike memoir, self-narrative, words intended to establish or confess one’s selfhood. I couldn’t, or I’d have much less poetry to choose from to present here. But I feel that’s well served elsewhere, not just in literature but in blogs, podcasts, and social media. So, if and when we want that, we can find it. In the words of a wise boss I once had, it’s “ubiquitous everywhere.*”
What I do instead here is to encounter some other person’s words, see how they sound in my mouth, and ask myself what I hear, feel, and think when they are enthroned there.
I could suppose it’s a failure of a kind that a performance of one of my own poems is in this Spring Top Ten then. And indeed, I usually fall to using my own words when I find I’m behind in getting things posted because the research into the other writers adds to the tasks of writing, playing, and recording the music. “Well” I say to myself “At least I know that writer already.”
An unsafe assumption. We don’t really know ourselves effortlessly.
My favorite part of the music I did for this was the combination of bowed contra-bass with an upper register fretless electric bass part. What does that sound like? Listen below.
3. Everyday Alchemy. One of the things I love about this project is when I go crate-digging after poets I’ve never read and that I expect you haven’t either. Coming across this poem by Genevieve Taggard was one of those moments.
This is such a poem of sorrowful balance, yet it’s 11 lines contain a piercing analysis of society and its arrangements of obligations that are increasingly out of balance the farther down the chain one goes.
I’ve often spoken about the Confucian Odes here, designated by the Chinese sage and his school as required instructional material for government functionaries. The Odes are not, as educational poetry aids today might be, mnemonics of components, checklists or causes; but like “Everyday Alchemy” they are mostly accounts of daily life near the bottom on the pyramid, a pyramid where the giant blocks of limestone are not lifted by alien magic.
If I were Confucius again, I’d select this poem as required reading. Anthology editors now, or of the future: include this poem! And in the meantime, you can listen to my performance of it with the following gadget.
EX ARBOR, now dead with its ghost-pale sheets under a bookplate
2. Poppies on the Wheat.I reviewed the latest attempt at making Emily Dickinson cinematic this spring. TL;DNR: a mixed bag. The film had a consultant who’s a Dickinson scholar, something I’m not, and it’s likely they’ve read more and know more detail about Dickinson that I do. I wanted to cheer them on (forza Dickinson!) and there were moments in the film where I could. But there were also moments, some of the funnier moments viewed (as intended) as comic bits, that made me feel like they were leading the viewers to misunderstand some of the characters I’ve covered in “The Roots of Emily Dickinson.”
I imagine the film creator’s response: “It’s a movie! Dramatic license! Evenhandedness isn’t entertaining!” Yup. Still felt unfair. It’s only after the movie that I’ve read more about and from Thomas Wentworth Higginson, the literary-connected “Preceptor” sought out by Dickinson who is thought to have misunderstood and underappreciated her genius. He’s used in the movie as a comic personification of The Patriarchy and White Privilege. The author of the second most popular piece this Spring, Helen Hunt Jackson gets one scene in the movie, where she’s portrayed as a vapid sentimental sort who Higginson prefers to the artistic rebel Dickinson.
Yes, that’s one of the reasons we so admire Dickinson, who is never sentimental, even if the 19th century seems to want and need sentimentality so badly. But that charge, of sentimentality, was also a sledgehammer used against most women writers of the age. The same slack I’d expect the film-makers would ask for in presenting their matter in the way present-day movie audiences might absorb it, is what I’d ask them to apply to Helen Hunt Jackson negotiating with her audience in her time.
Jackson’s “Poppies on the Wheat” is a Wordsworthian sonnet whose argument in itself is a debate between practical commerce and the sentiments of memory and semi-wild beauty. Musically, it reflects a mood on my part this spring to put more focus on acoustic guitar. You can hear the result with the player below.
Hard to tell personality from a picture, but those eyes and the start of a smile make Jackson look like she’s about to dispute something or share a delicious secret.
That’s all but the most liked and listened to piece this spring, and I can tell you it was a run-away winner. Words from a famous poet or unknown one? Well, it’s sort of both. I’ll be back soon with that announcement.
*He laughed right after he said it, thinking it a fit pronouncement from the Department of Tautology Department.
I once thought that one of the marvels of Emily Dickinson is that she was able to create such revolutionary poetry without any supporting circle of fellow writers. She had poetic heroes: Shakespeare, Emily Bronte, Elizabeth Barrett Browning, but she never met them. Well, it turns out there’s a bit more to her story.
Last year I followed a thread that her sister-in-law, neighbor, and friend Susan Dickinson wrote poetry, and as a result performed one of Susan’s poems “Crushed Before the Moth.” Interestingly, it sounds a bit like an Emily Dickinson poem. This year, I’m reading Genevieve Taggard’s biography of Emily Dickinson, one of the earliest written—researched in the 1920s when people in Amherst who knew Dickinson and her family were still living. And it’s inside that book that I met up with Helen Hunt Jackson.
Helen Hunt Jackson: poet, novelist, activist.
Helen was the same age and a childhood classmate of Emily Dickinson, but she married a brilliant military engineer and left town.* Taggard’s biography tells me that she returned to Amherst and visited Dickinson several times. By the 1860s Helen too was writing poetry. Like Emily Dickinson, Helen Hunt Jackson was connected with Thomas Higginson, the editor/abolitionist/feminist who Dickinson famously reached out to and corresponded with, and who helped edit the first collection of Dickinson’s poetry after Emily died.
Helen and Emily exchanged work and discussed writing. Genevieve Taggard even says that Jackson was selecting work for her first collection of poetry while visiting with Dickinson. Unlike Dickinson, Jackson aimed to be published, and did so not only in magazines but eventually in over 20 books.** While Thomas Higginson discouraged Dickinson from publishing, Helen Hunt Jackson adamantly urged her to. Jackson midwifed the publication in an anthology of one of Dickinson’s poems “Success is counted sweetest” the only poem of Dickinson’s published in a book during Dickinson’s lifetime.
Did their writing influence each other? It’s hard to say. Jackson certainly didn’t convince Dickinson to become a publishing professional author, but another woman of the same age and town selecting and publishing books of poetry had to encourage Dickinson at least as much as the far-away Bronte and Browning. On the other hand, it seems that Dickinson had already written a great deal of her now famous work before she renewed her childhood friendship with Helen.
I was intrigued to find out that Jackson wrote a novel in 1876 Mercy Philbrick’s Choice which featured a heroine who was socially reclusive, wore white and wrote poetry that some think might be a novelized tale of Emily Dickinson. I skimmed through it this week. At one point in the novel, a friend of the poet character sends two of her poems to a noted editor who responds favorably, and my heart leapt up, as this sounded like a description of Dickinson’s famous letter to Higginson. There seem to be other tantalizing passages that could be a friend roman à clef’ing Emily Dickinson. But one has to remember that the novel’s author herself, Jackson, is a poet, from the same age and home town. Mercy Philbrick could also contain elements of her own life and character. That certainly seems so of the title character’s poetry quoted in the book—it doesn’t sound at all like Dickinson.
So, here’s today’s piece, a poem written by Helen Hunt Jackson about an Italian wheat field. It’s kind of a revoicing of Wordsworth’s famous “Daffodils” poem, but it has its own charm and details. We celebrate National Poetry Month here the same way we present poetry the rest of the year, a mix of the well-known and the forgotten. To hear my performance of Helen Hunt Jackson’s “Poppies on the Wheat,” use the player below. Want to follow along with the text while listening? Here’s the full text of the poem.
*Emily met Helen’s husband Edward Bissell Hunt when the couple visited Amherst and Emily noted that he was one of the most fascinating men she’d ever met. Edward Hunt was killed at the Brooklyn Navy Yard during the Civil War while leading the testing of a top-secret weapon of his own design, a self-propelled torpedo. Helen remarried after Edward’s death extending her formal name to Helen Hunt Jackson, though she often published using the non-gendered pen name H. H.
**While her poetry is not well known today, Helen Hunt Jackson became a campaigner for Native American rights starting in 1879. In 1881 she published her first book under her own name, a book setting out the reasons for her cause A Century of Dishonor which she sent to every member of congress. Three years later she novelized about Native American issues and wrote a best-seller Ramona which has been characterized as Uncle Tom’s Cabin, only dealing with Native American mistreatment.