It Is Not Always May

I cannot start any presentation of a Longfellow poem here without noting his extraordinary fall from esteem and fame. Once, through a combination of the historical moment in the growth of the United States, his talents, and a desire to write earnestly meaningful poems, Longfellow seemed our national poet. Did it seem, when that was so, that this would be for all time—or at least for an age longer than a decade or two short of a century?

Any reading across this project’s nearly three years will show that I find worth in the less-well-known, the overlooked. But nothing that is honestly popular can be unworthy of examination—after all, even manifold problems and failures of art in that which drew a large audience tell us something about that audience, our fellow human beings. Which case now, overlooked or popular, is Longfellow?

Choice Thoughts from Longfellow

Imagine a current poet whose rep could generate a board game where one wins quotes from their poems (image from Maine Historical Society collection)

 

If Whitman, Dickinson and Frost—or their unseen ghosts in our zeitgeist—still motivate our inner singing muses, can we understand that trio—our current national poets—as reactions to Longfellow, making him still a prime-mover of some interest?

So, let’s listen to “It Is Not Always May”  today. Rhymed metrical English language lyric is not easy to do, and harder to do if you want it to sound easy, and this one is pretty good. Yes there’s a bit of “poetic diction” here, words and word-order that we’d never say in actual speech, and I suspect that would be true even in 1842 when this poem was published, but it doesn’t greatly harm the poem.

The imagery is largely conventional, though as a seasonal poem we may expect some of these ready-mades to be checked off: birds, bird-song, budding trees, the young, the frolic. Can one do a winter poem without snow and stasis, an autumn poem without colored falling leaves, and so on? Yes, this is possible, and originality can be a great strength—but there’s a certain resonance with the choir of poets to sing those ancient notes in one’s own song. Conventional and outdated it may be, but I rather liked the clouds as sailing vessels in a river-fed harbor awaiting a west wind to up-anchor from New England for the “Old World.” And the poem’s refrain: “There are no birds in last year’s nest,” which Longfellow identifies as a Spanish proverb, has its vividness too.

Oh in my soul, I think the Imagists were right, that too many poems use conventional images as mere counters, pro-forma symbols, not real vivid objects we can consider as existing outside the poetic line. But I could just see Longfellow and the sea-side clouds as an actual charged moment.

And how about this poem’s sentiment? Well many acceptable modern poems have opinions, outlooks, sentiments, and so the charge against Longfellow isn’t really that, rather it’s sentimentality, the idea that he has no original outlook, no fresh take. What would his readers in the days of his fame have thought? A feature, not a bug? Longfellow was the premier “Fireside Poet,” suitable for reading to the family, suitable for school-books and children’s illustrated early readers. Did they view this poem as a basic truth to be reminded of, or did they view this as sufficient in itself? I assume some thought each.

Yes, I want more than that from poetry. Reassurance and singular conventional answers aren’t even what children want and need exclusively. But this poem is balanced in a way that I can admire. It’s a carpe diem poem without a smarmy pickup line, a song of the life-death cycle that plays the undertones, a poem that asks subtly for youth to be irresponsible, or responsible to their youth not earned wisdom (“to some good angel leave the rest”).

Do we need a new Longfellow today? I’m not sure. I would be pleased if more people appreciated poetry more widely, and as I’ve argued elsewhere here, that “not great poetry” does no harm, and might even do some good for more unusual or challenging poetry. I think I forgot to say clearly enough in my recent series on “Are Song Lyrics Poetry” that to a large degree we’ve asked song-lyrics to fill this role of poetry in my lifetime. But I do believe we needed a Longfellow at least once to establish the ground on which our foundational modern poets erected their structures.

So, it’s fitting that I chose to sing this May poem of Longfellow’s, even given the limitations of my singing voice. Once more I was drawn to using the less and more than realistic Mellotron flute and cello sounds to signify a pastoral scene. Even with my limitations, “It Is Not Always May”  sings well and easily, and I urge you to hear it with the player below. The poem’s text is available here if you’d like to read along.

 

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See Emily Play: May-Flower

The great thing about Emily Dickinson and her around 2000 poems is that there’s always one you haven’t experienced yet—and just this week over at the Interesting Literature blog I saw this Dickinson spring poem. “May-Flower”  has Dickinson doing her most subtle music to accompany her most Blakean attention. Just like it says itself: it’s a “bold little beauty.”

It’s short and compressed, and if you read it quickly and silently it may seem slight and slide right by you. Spring, May, flowers, check. Robins. Yup, spring. Its abrupt ending might stop you for just a moment. It ends: “Nature forswears/Antiquity.”

Oh, I get it, the flowers in early May are new, there isn’t such a thing as antique flowers. Easy enough to see that—but the undercurrent is deeper, because this is another carpe diem poem, though this time without much bombast and no overt hey-baby-what-about… pickup lines. Yes, there are no old flowers, and so this flower will come and go with May.

Not many words in this poetry-machine, but without choosing any esoteric ones, Dickinson has made some choices that may arrest you the second time you read it. “Punctual,” the flowers know right when to be there. “Covert” those early signs of spring, like some advance spies. “Candid” for May, and spring fully here, no need to hide as a generic bud. Even “Dear” in “Dear to the moss” is a choice I wonder about. I’ve even read it incorrectly as “Near to the moss” once or twice, and sound-wise “near” works very well and is clear in meaning.  Does Dickinson want to pun on deer, another spring poem perennial? Does she want to pickup and connect that D sound from “Candid” in the line before it rather than predict the upcoming N sounds of “Known,” “knoll” and “Next?”

Which brings me to this: if you listen to the poem, or plant it in your own mouth, the sound is exquisite. Rhymes and near-rhymes abound without locking down to a scheme: “small/punctual/low/April/knoll/soul” and “every/beauty/thee/Antiquity,” and consonants and vowels are echoing each other too.

See Emily Play Games for May HD

Foreswears antiquity: I’m not sure if anyone who reads this will remember the poster I’m referencing here.

 

To perform “May-Flower”  I made some choices. First, to slow the listener down, and to give extra chances to hear that echoing sound-play, I repeated each line. And to emphasize the moment rather than its passing, I interleaved the first and second stanzas as responses to each other. In the last stanza, the responses are just additional echoes of that stanza’s lines.

For the music, I decided to refer to The Pink Floyd. No, not the auditorium and eventually stadium-filling rock band, but the original 1967 Syd Barrett-fronted line up, which was based more around the sound of that era’s electric organs with a taste of Barrett’s unique take on slide guitar. So, time to dabble and wobble organs and break out the Telecaster and a finger wrapped in a vase of glass.

Emily’s poetry-machine obliviates the need for dodgy recreational chemicals. Attention is the drug. This is not the first time I’ve referred to Emily Dickinson’s visionary side here. I see it coexisting with her skeptical wit. And this poem, for all it’s Blakean a heaven in a wild-flower aspect was also intended by the botanically knowledgeable Dickinson as a riddle, the correct answer is a particular New England wild-flower, the trailing arbutus.  See Emily play. There is no other day. Free games for May….

Here’s the text of Emily Dickinson’s May-Flower if you’d like to read along.

May-Flower text

This is the regularized version with conventional punctuation. Emily’s own was full of her dashes.

And here’s my performance of it with original music. Use the player below.