One day there is of the series: Emily Dickinson’s Thanksgiving, sort of

Did you know that Emily Dickinson wrote a Thanksgiving poem? It’s not one of her “Greatest Hits” or anything, but it does represent a couple of Dickinsonian traits: skeptical humor and puzzling philosophical concision. You can read the text of it here as I discuss my encounter with it.

Dickinson didn’t use titles, and the first line, our entry into the poem, starts off with a strange tentativeness. What’s the series? All the days of our lives, of history? Or a series of holidays? I suspect the last, in that the next line throws up the American holiday inside quotes. It’s hard not to read “Thanksgiving Day” in Dickinson’s text without intonating the words with “air quotes,” that at least slightly dismissive way of saying “Well, you can call it that  if you want.”

I’m not a Dickinson scholar but I get the impression that Dickinson uses quotes literally—that is, when she’s quoting someone*—but there is a sense here of our modern manner in the poems first half. And as the poem continues, its opening comments could be written this week by someone musing on the holiday. Yup, Thanksgiving is a strange mix: part a big meal, a gluttonous celebration; and part memories of worshiping dissenter pilgrims and family. And Dickinson, in her thirties as she wrote her poem, notes she’s not sitting at the kids table nor is she some honored elder closer to the pilgrims than the present. So, outsider in a middle place, she says she’ll post a review, from her “Hooded thinking.”

Maybe you’re visualizing The Handmaids Tale  when you read “Hooded.” I think Dickinson is taking a bit of a religious acolyte’s stance in her review, even if playfully. Her two-word review: “Reflex Holiday.” You’re just going through the motions she seems to be saying.

Emily Dickinson family portrait

One won’t get a turkey drumstick: Emily Dickinson on the left with her siblings.

 

The poem could end there, but Dickinson takes off in the second half in gnomic concision. This is often beautiful as word music, but it’s hard to follow her mind.

What’s the sharp subtraction for the early sum? A falling away from religious immediacy? Mankind’s fall from grace? Forgetting the history or piety of the holiday? The next two lines are even more weird. What the heck does “Not an acre or a Caption/Where was once a Room” mean? This is Dickinson the hermetic riddler. I’ve rolled that couplet around in my head for a week and it always slips from my grasp.

The tossed pebble wrinkling the sea lines have a Blakean tone. Here the mystic Dickinson is plain as any mystic can be in words: our lives, our actions, are small against creation—just visible, just for so long. Her final couplet seems to say that our thanks, our Reflex Holiday, is insufficient to the gift. This realization combined with the reflex action is, in a way, a more sublime and awe-some thanks.

What an odd poem! It starts out witty and lightly skeptical and (as best as I can figure it) closes on a humble mysticism.

Musically, I tried to hew to the mystery, if a strange resonant piano and wavery synth can portray that. The player is below. Thanks for reading and listening!

 

 

 

 

*If she is quoting a person, it may well be Sarah Hale, a New England journalist who campaigned for the importance of a Thanksgiving holiday during Dickinson’s day.

Crepuscule (I Will Wade Out)

Another short break in the Dave Moore series to present an unabashedly ecstatic poem by E. E. Cummings.

The kind of Modernist poetry we often use here rarely presents itself like this, as the early 20th Century pioneers tended to be a downbeat and skeptical lot, even before the great tribulation of the First World War. Cummings isn’t the only exception, but a poem like this is so extraordinary in its exuberance that it will always stand out.

E E Cummings self-portrait

Lipping flowers…the ecstatic poet’s self-portrait in pencil

 

As a page poem, “Crepuscule”  is laid out on the page in staggered lines sans punctuation, something Cummings may have picked up from Apollinaire, but the syntax isn’t as jumbled as some E. E. Cummings poems. It actually reads fairly easily once I lined-out the dismembered sentences. The images are surreal, though written before official Surrealism, and paradoxical sensations and states come one after another. Can one gather what is happening in the poem beyond the welcoming of sensation and exploration?

Crepuscule as a page poem

Cummings’ “Crepuscule” as a page-poem.

 

The title is “Crepuscule,”  an antique word for twilight, and so the poem is set in that proverbial border time. The poem goes on to either explore sleeplessly and fearlessly in the unknown darkness, or launch itself into the imagination of dreams, which surreally complete and supersede the “mystery of my flesh”—at night exploration, or dreams, at once, indistinguishable.

I didn’t see this until after I finished performing it, but I suspect the poem may have bookended images near the start and at the end, the twilight beginning with the swallowing of the sun, the ending with the moon setting the teeth (on edge) with the metallic bite-taste of the moon.

As sometimes happens when I compose the music for these pieces I find out or remember that others have done this before me. As soon as I saw the title I thought immediately of Thelonious Monk’s instrumental compositionCrepuscule with Nellie  and the idea was planted to use piano in my music for this. I did end up with some piano, but I reverted to guitar, my home instrument, to express the unrelenting long line of this poem that leaps into the bothness moment of twilight.

Embarrassingly, I had forgotten that Björk had performed all but the last part of Cummings’ poem as Sun in my Mouth  on her album Vespertine.  Björk brings big time sensuality to Cummings’ words, bringing out the eroticism that was always there, not just by her commitment to the performance, but by ending on and repeating the “Will I complete the mystery of my flesh” line, bringing fleshiness to the mystery. But this is a poem of the borderline, and the flesh is also hymned to complete a change to something else.

My fearless borderline tonight is presenting this music which would have difficulty reaching the level of originality of Monk or Björk. To hear my performance of E. E. Cummings’ “Crepuscule,”  leap into the ripe air by clicking on the player below.

 

Summer For

Here is a short piece about an intense memory experience, where you believe you are fully re-experiencing something from earlier in your life. This is not déjà vu, and I don’t even know if there is any similar widely used term with plentiful accent marks over top the letters for this. And since this is a subjective experience, I can’t say for sure how common it is; but for me it happens fairly often. In these moments I’m not merely remembering something, I feel I’m re-living it, with access to the entire sensory experience—but the experience is felt by a mixture of the past me mixed with the present me.

This can be pleasant or not, but it always feels spooky to me. Subjectively (there’s that word again) it feels like the nature of time itself is being exposed, that the concept that time passes could be an illusion, that all time is happening now. Or that time may move in a boustrophedon manner wrapping back and forth next to itself.

as the oxen turns

Boustrophedon writing runs left to right, then wraps back right to left and so on “as the oxen turns” when plowing. Conceptually, what if time doesn’t run forward, but wraps back next to itself, or even over itself? Cue the hippy-trippy background music now. Also, be careful about stepping in the bovine exhaust.

 

I suspect some of you are going “Oh wow, that’s heavy.” Some “That’s some mystical B.S. there!” Others may wonder if chemical intoxicants are involved (short answer: nope). Some of you may even be puzzled about what I’m talking about, not having had the experience, or having had it and not stopping to fully encounter it.

Still, this is a subject that poetry allows, because, like all arts, poetry is about sharing the subjective human experience. Now-a-days this sometimes goes by the rubric “sharing one’s own truth.” I’m not fond of that phrase, though I believe compassionate people use it with good motives. Somewhere I’ve picked up the first principle of objective truth, even though that cannot be knowable out to all its edges, even if it must be handled with approximations.

So, I will make no Blakean claims of mystical revelation with “Summer For,”  but you may still find this an interesting experience to share for three minutes, along with some skittering acoustic guitar accompaniment. The player to hear it is right below.

America, A Prophecy

July 4th is celebrated in the U. S. as Independence Day, the day that our congress signed a declaration of independence from the British Empire. I know this project has an international audience. So, why celebrate a provincial event here?

Because the American Revolution was not simply a patriotic event. Ralph Waldo Emerson said that its initial battle was “the shot heard round the world.” What was so singular about it? It was not merely an anti-colonialist act—after all empires have had rebellious provinces forever, and empires always fall—but it was also an act that founded the modern democratic republic. Overthrowing a colonial government, as the American patriots did, is not in itself a remarkable event. I don’t mean to denigrate the sacrifices, the risks, they took. I don’t mean to overlook the evils inherent in armed struggle. I won’t today seek to re-litigate the proximate issues of the Revolutionary War, with its details of commercial interests (including, yes, commercial interests in human properties) and debate the best tactics for redress of grievances. No, those are all important, but they are not what makes the American Revolution worth our unique attention today.

signing the declaration

Silent thoughts in the room: What a fine statement of the Rights of Man we sign today! I hope they wrap this up before traffic on the turnpike gets crazy. None of my slaves have learned to read, right? Why am I the only one wearing a hat? I can’t get tickets to Hamilton? I am Hamilton!  All middle-age white guys, when does the prog-rock concert start?

 

Americans did not replace a king with a president for life. They didn’t exchange one dictator for another. They were not, in the end, interested in only replacing a bad man with what seemed to be a good man, and job-done. They instead instituted an imperfect, constantly challenged and constantly changing structure based on human rights and rule by reason and popular consent. The struggles, the risks of the Revolutionary generation were indeed great, but they pale in contrast to the struggles and risks born by the successor generations who sought to maintain and improve those structures. So, this is not a holiday honoring a person, a generation, or a concluding event, but instead, it is one marking a beginning.

Today’s piece was not written by an American, but by an Englishman who followed those revolutionary 18th Century events, but dealt with them on a spiritual plane: William Blake. The words come from his self-created 1793 book America, A Prophecy,  which he wrote, lettered, illustrated, and printed himself. It’s not an account of the actual battles, and its characters are largely his own imaginary beings, but he never lets his visionary eye fall away from what he sees as the core struggle in the events. It’s spiritual—not in sense of its fantastic stage—but in the sense of its divining the essence of the battle: human beings being held back from their potential and dignity by corrupt structures.

America_a_Prophecy_copy_a_plate_08

A plate from William Blake presenting part of today’s song

 

In our worldly plane, the men who signed that declaration were all men, all white men, mostly men of property, and yes, we should remember that some of those men of property’s properties were indeed other men, women, and children. Blake explicitly understood that. In his prophecy, the essence that they are declaring for, the angelic forces that cry for freedom and dignity are for all nations, for all genders. If the American structure had to struggle for generations to refuse slavery and give full citizenship to women, Blake says that, in essence, and in the philosophy of their republican structures and statements, they have already declared those evils as tyranny, even if they don’t perceive that yet.

It’s almost a reverse Faustian bargain, isn’t it? Instead of the devil tricking them to eternal slavery, freedom’s angels have them agreeing to dissolve their allegiance to a bad king—but the codicils they have signed declare for more than that! They’ve put their lives on the line to declare that humans have inalienable rights and that governments must work with the consent of the governed. How entirely can they understand what that entails? July 4th 1776 is a Thursday. Some are no doubt thinking of Friday; the men of foresight, to the possible course of the rest of the war; the wisest, perhaps, are thinking, of what, a generation ahead?

The sections I use from William Blake’s America, A Prophecy  are spoken by an angelic character he calls Orc, who personifies the overturning of the old tyrannies. With the limits of our short-piece format I’ve tried to give some flavor of what Blake understood was being overturned by the American Revolution. Musically, it’s a simple structure, though not the most common of chord progressions.  I tried to chant Blake’s words with as much passion as I could in this one-take performance by the LYL Band. If you are in the U. S., enjoy your cylindrical explosives and tubular sausages, but do not mix the two things up. Their shapes are similar, but keep your mind on their essences. The performance of an excerpt from William Blake’s America, A Prophecy  can be played with the gadget below.

 

A Dream

Here’s a second poem by Afro-American Modernist poet Fenton Johnson. Like the first piece of Johnson’s that I presented earlier this week, there’s a religious element, but it’s handled this time with a remarkable framing device.

As published in 1921, “A Dream”  is the longer of two pieces which are grouped together as “Two Negro Spirituals.”  What strikes me about them is the extraordinary knife-edge irony held in them between spirituality and reality. If the Language Poets descended from the Modernists will not find in “A Dream”  the novel uses of language and syntax they look for, perhaps the Post-Modernists will appreciate Johnson’s conveying a vivid religious vision framed in a way that causes a reassessment of the foreground material.

That’s more critical theory and bin-labeling that I usually engage in, so let’s move away from that to the piece itself.

Elijah and the angel with a firey chariot

Elijah’s angel-fire chariot. Be sure your seatback is in the upright and locked position.

 

Is this texturally a “Negro spiritual?” Not really, though Johnson significantly chooses to call it that. The vision he presents, after a brief “Oh, my honey” aside, would not seem out of place in William Blake or any of a number of 18th to 20th Century Christian revivalists. The “spirituals” of the title were largely folk hymns, and the language here is more literary. Johnson wants us to know it’s an Afro-American who’s speaking, yes; but also, a man who could read and know these non-folklore sources. Yet, the recounting of the titular dream is not a scholastic catalog of mystical religious elements, it’s a deeply felt vision of a glorious reward. One does not need to be a Christian to feel the ecstasy of this vision, any more than one needs to fully understand all of Blake’s idiosyncratic religious precepts to sense their “thereness.”

William Blake The Angel

Like Fenton Johnson, William Blake frames an angelic vision

 

Johnson concludes the poem with a single line of a contrasting vision that recasts all that has come before it. Listen to the piece with the player below to hear it as it occurs.

Musically, this piece caused me all kinds of trouble, and, to be frank, I don’t think I got all the way to what I wanted to achieve. The difficulties of being my own composer, arranger, reader, ensemble of musicians and recording engineer should cause this kind of trouble more often than it does. However, I did so want to continue to present the things that this too-little-known poet Fenton Johnson did, that I have “called time” on this piece, and present it here now for you to listen to. Use the player below to hear it.