Besides the Autumn poets sing

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.

harvesters by Peter Bruegel the elder

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.

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Pied Beauty

It’s said about significant musicians that a careful listener can tell who’s playing just from their sound. The word-music of poets could be a similar tell, but in the case of poetry we have other kinds of data: subjects, characteristic outlooks, and the kind of imagery they choose to use—and those things often overwhelm the distinctions in the sound of a poet’s poem.

But even 130 years after his death, British poet Gerard Manley Hopkins sounds like no other. The piece I’m going to present today is one of his best known poems: “Pied Beauty,”  and he intended it as a rhymed metrical poem, but Hopkins’ conception of meter and phrasing is so unlike other English poets that it might sound like a piece of free verse.

If Hopkins doesn’t sound like other poetry in English, he does have some similarities to Old English and ancient Welsh poetry, two languages he had some familiarity with. In place of the traditional musical phrases that his Victorian contemporaries might use, flowing lines in regularly stressed feet, Hopkins substitutes shorter, broken and paused phrases and a great deal of word sound echoing beyond just conventional end-rhyme.

Reading Hopkins in the pre-Modernist era at the end of WWI must have been like hearing Thelonious Monk play piano just after WWII. It doesn’t sound “right,” it breaks, or more correctly ignores, rules of how things are supposed to sound. Yes, the phrasing is instantly felt as rhythmic, but that’s no anchor, because the rhythm is part of what’s “wrong.” But also like Monk, to more than a few listeners, it can be arresting, even on first listen. You don’t have to understand the structure, or know how it works differently—that’s not a simple task by the way—to hear something that grabs your attention. You may dig it; but even though we humans are natural imitating machines, you may still not be able to do it.

And so, like Monk, Hopkins doesn’t have as many imitators as he has admirers of his achievement, even today.

Monk Hopkins Genius of Modern Music

His music still sounds more modern than most—both of ‘em.

 

An additional barrier to Hopkins is that his subject matter, though explicitly Christian religious, is also often harrowing. British poets have long explored unrelieved melancholy, but Hopkins doesn’t want to read Job, or understand Job theologically, he wants (or can’t escape) to be Job.*

Which makes “Pied Beauty”  a good introduction to Hopkins word-music, because while it’s making a subtle theological point, this is not a particularly sad, tragic, or even solemn poem. Did Hopkins interject “Who knows how?” mostly to make his rhyme on the 8th line? I don’t know, but I can’t read that phrase and this poem without a little of the feeling of “Ain’t that funny? Unchanging, pure monotheist deity, and yet maker of a world of mixed and changing things.”

Musically, I’m not Thelonious Monk, nor was meant to be—am an attendant lord, one that will do. Still I musically sought to put a certain angle on my usual chords and cadences. Old-time Chicago jazz guy Eddie Condon said the modernist jazz composers flatted their fifths, while his crew just drank them. If so, I caucus with the modernists. Harmony has laws and customs, but the anarchists have melodies.**  The full text of Hopkins’s poem is here. My musical presentation of it is available with the player gadget below.

 

 

 

*Just because he’s so distinctive in his sound and phrasing, we don’t need to overlook the imagery in Hopkins’ poem. Skies like cows? That’s proto-Surrealist, “old bossy in the skies with diamonds” stuff. I have to confess that my eyes once read “brinded cow” as a more conventional if workmanlike “bridled cow.” Brinded means patched patterns as on cows’ hides, it’s an archaic Middle English word, in keeping with Hopkins’ love for the sound of the poetry of the ancestors of modern English. See also firecoal colored tree nuts and painted fish.

**Well this is true at least for me. When I’m not working in drone or heavily home-chord centered structures, I will construct chords and chord progressions based on others’ ideas, or the mathematical commonplaces, testing the results for interest. But for melody, I usually don’t choose to follow rules or commonplaces, and when I find myself approaching those things, I may start to subvert them immediately. Yes, there are pleasures in knowing exactly what note comes next—must come next—but there’s too little music out there that mines disputing that expectation.

I awoke this morning to read that Ginger Baker died, a prime musical iconoclast if there ever was one. I’d read the earlier notes that he was gravely ill and I think I may have tried to imitate some of his playing (those tom rolls…) with the drum track on this.

Edward Thomas’ October

Moving from 17th century Welsh poet Henry Vaughn we’ll jump forward to a favorite of this blog: 20th century Welsh poet Edward Thomas. Thomas is less well-known in the U.S. than he is in the U.K., perhaps because he’s sometimes classed as a “Georgian poet,” a loose classification given to early 20th century British poets who weren’t Modernists.

As far as America was concerned, not being a Modernist wasn’t a good thing as the 20th century continued, particularly given that two Americans (Ezra Pound and T. S. Eliot) were instrumental in the Modernist revolution in English-language poetry. Georgian poets were soon seen as those that hadn’t gotten the news about what sort of topics, outlooks, and word-music was appropriate for the new century. Societal and cultural failures were prime topics, skepticism and a multivalent posture toward agreed-upon premises were expected, and the tight starched collar of strict accentual-syllabic verse music was loosened.

Thomas’ other problem was that he was killed during WWI, and wasn’t published to any degree until after that war was over. In Great Britain, those war poets who held to the pre-war verse forms were given some license because of their service and sacrifice. In the U. S., this was largely a non-factor.

But of course, what kind of word-music a poet uses has little to do with his subjects or outlook. Thomas, like his American friend Robert Frost, was roughly as Modernist as any of his contemporaries, he just didn’t sound like one if you muffled his words so that only the sound and rhythms remained. Like Frost, he never developed a Cubist or Dadaist kaleidoscopic vision, but within the monocular vision by which they squinted at modern problems, their analysis was fully of the new century.

Edward Thomas The Night Tripper

Sun,  Moon, and Herbs; scabious and tormentil, Edward Thomas knows ‘em!

 

Case in point: today’s piece, Thomas’ autumn poem “October.”  The subject of “October”  is depression. Thomas gives it an old name “melancholy,” but depression and existential isolation is its matter. Many of Thomas’ other poems (including most of those we’ve featured here) have him focusing on the decision whether he as an over-draft-age man would volunteer to serve in WWI, a war whose cause he didn’t really believe in. In the end he decided that he would not exempt himself from the human suffering of the war.*  But in those poems, like this one, the other marker that lets one know that we are in an Edward Thomas poem is an almost encyclopedic knowledge of nature. “October”  shows this: the fall plants are specifically named, and the names he chooses for two of them: scabious and tormentil, specifically reference their palliative properties.** And so from the start “October”  features a prime Modernist tactic: the use of specific things to surround the actual, ineffable, topic of the poem. The October day described is altogether pleasant. He remarks it could just as well be spring, and the late fall flowers of the harebell are just as beautiful as the early spring flowers of the snowdrop.

He even muses that at some future time he may be able to see his depression clearly as a finished, or at least understood, thing. Notice: there’s close to nothing in this poem (other than that single “melancholy” that comes in the penultimate line, or that say-what’s-not, not what-is “I might as happy be” statement) that tries to say “I’m depressed and can’t presently find my way out of this mood, to decide my life.” He doesn’t even say “And now it’s fall, and I’ve got a damn winter to live through.” Instead, in “October”  Thomas leaves us in a Buddhist or Taoist moment, able to see the beauty and the sadness, equal reflections of each other. His opening couplet seems to me like it could be a poem by Du Fu or Li Bai, not the poem of an early 20th century Brit, and so I refrain those lines at the end of today’s performance.***

Elsewise in my performance I worked with the new orchestral virtual instruments which have given me more usable staccato articulations, which I’ve put in service of my simple “punk rock orchestration.” My finger strength has returned to a level that I felt comfortable playing the featured fretless bass motif for this.

The full text of Thomas’ poem his here. The player to hear my performance is below.

 

 

 

 

*Thomas’ outlook, his feeling that personal decisions even in the face of doubt and lack of information were critical, were gently chided by Robert Frost in Frost’s famous poem “The Road Not Taken.”  Frost was the stoic, Thomas the existentialist.

**Henry Vaughn, the practicing physician, was more overt about the pharmacology metaphors in his poem about “Affliction,”  but think of Thomas as an herb-doctor as he assembles the formulary of his nature scene here.

***Has anyone tried to translate Edward Thomas into Chinese? Although “October”  is written in English blank verse, so much of it seems like it would sit naturally as a poem in the classical Chinese manner.

For You

Here’s a poem by Carl Sandburg, whose poems can be returned to for their light illuminating justice and injustice, but also because he will give you endurance and compensating love.

Injustice is large, it is ancient. Love is short as life, but nearer to us, and like the palm of a nearby hand it can blot out an immense but distant mountain. If enough hands are raised together, the most foreboding mountain can not only be obscured, it can be leveled.

Carl Sandburg and Marilyn Monroe raising books

How many in favor of more music and poetry?

 

Today marks the third year since the official launch of this project. My goal when I started was to create 100 to 120 audio pieces using various words, mostly other people’s words, and mostly poetry, combined with original music, music I planned to be as varied as I could make it. Today’s piece is the 360th of these.

That number amazes me, even though/because I have been there creating each of those music/words combinations. It means that nearly every day in the past three years I have been—or I have been avoiding—searching for and selecting words, composing music, playing and recording that music and then presenting some thoughts on that encounter with you.

I started as a guitar player, and in this time I’ve become nearly a functional bass player and found ways to allow my naïve keyboard skills to direct music making from that direction too. My abilities to integrate bowed strings and orchestral instruments into these pieces has grown, something that I’ve been indulging in a bit this month.

During this time my son has grown from a grade-schooler to the doors of high school. I think he still finds this activity a little odd, and as far as I know he never reads these posts, only hears the audio pieces in their halting steps of creation. He might recognize it later. Many of the posts here were written with him as the audience in mind.

My wife has been patient and forgiving of the time I spend on this, for which I am grateful. These few words are not thanks enough.

Dave Moore (you’ll hear from him again here soon) has of course been an important inspiration and help in the overall project.

And you, readers and listeners and fellow bloggers, are a large part of why this project has continued. This project has no revenue, no grants, no sponsoring institution. The reason it has continued past the first 120 pieces has been your response and assistance in spreading the word about it. You weren’t the reason I started this, but you’re the largest reason I continue with this project. Your likes, links and sharing help keep it going.

Renee at Powerderhorn

Renée Robbins. A memory too strong to forget and too heavy to carry. “Whisper, Oh beginners in the hills. Tumble, Oh cubs…”

 

So why did I start this project officially in August? I was thinking of my late wife, Renée Robbins, a caring person who helped and befriended many. I lack the personal skills to do what she did in that regard, but I can, in my idiosyncratic way assist the writers I present here. If poetry is a living art, it lives not just in the mind and memory, but in the moment and the ear. Thanks for your moments and your ears.

Earlier this year I presented part of the title poem from Sandburg’s Smoke and Steel  collection, the first poem in that book of his. Today’s piece is the concluding one in the same book. As I mentioned above I’ve been working on larger orchestral arrangements with woodwinds, horns, and string sections lately, and that’s what I’m using here. I’m kind of moving through different orchestral colors in this short piece to match the range of Sandburg’s catalog in his poem.

The player gadget to hear Carl Sandburg’s “For You”  is below. If you want to read the text of the poem, it’s available here.

 

A Song of Change

I’m going to return to an old favorite of this project, a poet who helped change modern English poetry and yet is largely forgotten: F. S. Flint.

Long-time readers (or those of you that have taken a stroll through the archives here) might remember the highlights. Born in 1885 a London slum kid for whom Dickensian would not be a literary adjective but a biographical point. Had to leave school to go to work at age 13. Found a trade as a typist—a male colleague to the bed-sit typist in Eliot’s “The Waste Land.”  Went to night school. Found out he had a knack for languages. By the time he reached his 20s in the first decade of the 20th Century he had read and translated many of the then modern French poets and helped propagate their techniques in English.

By the same time he’d also teamed up with Ezra Pound and T. E. Hulme, the two men who are now largely credited with inventing Imagism, the initial Modernist poetry movement of the 20th century. It’s hard for me to tell, but at the time Flint seemed to be more of an equal partner to those two, though Pound and Hulme had famously extravagant and promotional personalities which Flint may have lacked. I’m not enough of a scholar to be sure of this, but to the creation of “The School of Images” Pound seems to have brought his take on classical Chinese poetry, which he thought was particularly imagistic by typographic definition because it was written in ideograms. Hulme brought a philosophic conviction that existing poetic language and imagery was corrupted by worn out 19th century images and an over-wrought romantic outlook to reality. Flint brought forward the idea of “free verse” or vers libre as the French were calling it. He called his English take on this “unrhymed cadences.”

None of those ideas had to happen. Images in the poetry of the time usually didn’t tell the story, they at best illustrated it and worst decorated it all too conventionally. Reflecting concrete and immediate reality as opposed to a rarified and “elevated” expression of the sublime was not a recognized poetic value. And good poetry was supposed to march to strict meters, uniform stanzas, and generally rhyme.*   I’m not sure what alternate universe could be imagined if these poets hadn’t made their claims for these new ideas as being the way for their new century to go. Quite possibly it’d be a different poetic universe.

The Notorius School of Imagists

Change is Now: Flint, Pound and Hume replace Hillman, McGuinn and Clarke on the Byrds** album cover.

 

Pound gets his due on this, and has the poetic works to be included in anthologies to show his work. Hulme is largely forgotten save for footnotes, but then his entire poetic works could be printed on a postcard. Flint is even more left out than Hulme, but he wrote enough poems to be worth revisiting—so why aren’t they?

I don’t think most academic literary critics think Flint’s poems are very good. Even I, who feels a fondness for the man, is not immediately struck by some of them as I look through his published work. He’s not generally a lush and showy poet. Like Hulme many of his images can be so plainspoken that you don’t notice at first that they are images. And as befitting the man who seems to have brought the sense of a freer music to Imagism, many of his poems work better orally than on the page. That makes him a great candidate for the Parlando Project, even in this early pre-Imagist work of his.

And so Flint also fits in an occasional series I’d like to expand on this summer: “Before They Were Modernists.” My E. E. Cummings piece from last time was the first in that, a Spenserian stanza from the man who eventually spilled the entire font case over his free-verse pages, yet even in that wholly conventional looking stanza form of “Summer Silence”  one can see E. E. Cummings later exuberances in places.

Today’s piece, Flint’s “A Song of Change”  is from his first collection, 1908’s “In the Net of Stars” published while he was helping formulate the “Make it new!” Imagism—yet it’s a rhymed metrical piece. In another way it’s uncharacteristic of any later Modernist Flint I can recall reading: “A Song of Change”  had a very Yeats-like political-mysticism about it. Directness is the point of many Modernist Flint poems, and this one isn’t. One of the virtues of allusive and elusive poetry in the William Butler Yeats style is that we can relate it to various political and social situations, even current ones (and given Yeats’ sometimes troublesome political views that’s a double virtue).

A Song of Change as it appeared in Sept 2008 New Age

Here’s “A Song of Change” as it appeared in a Sept. 1908 issue of “The New Age.”  “German War Scare?” I’m sure that’ll blow over…

 

What was Flint addressing when he wrote this poem? Edwardian erasure of some of the old English countryside and shore? The passing of childhood? Some of the images seem more dire than that. A carpe diem poem about the briefness of life? Some lines can be read as if Flint had a vision of the rest of the 20th century, the two World Wars to come, or even our own 21st century concerns with planetary survival. So, does “A Song of Change”  deserve to be trotted out as often as Yeats’ “The Second Coming?”

That’s probably asking too much, to challenge Yeats outright on the field of lyrical political-mysticism. On the other hand, “A Song of Change”  does have its own beauty and a rich catalog of natural images to decorate it. I performed it with a folk-rock guitar-centered arrangement after spending some of this summer with synths and keyboards. The opening riff is fuzzed out guitar, not a buzzy synth, and two 12-string electric guitars weave through it. Though it reflects my own limitations (particularly as a vocalist) it has a sort of “Notorious Byrd Brothers”  vibe.

To hear my performance of F. S. Flint’s “A Change Song”  use the player gadget below.

 

 

 

*A scattered set of 19th century Americans had already explored deviation from this. Whitman of course, who while still living was translated into French by and influential French vers libre poet Jules Laforgue. Stephen Crane with his own free verse collection of short poems “Black Riders.”  Just-published posthumously Emily Dickinson had her extreme compression and homey images, but still could be read as sloppy with her meter and rhyme, though the first publications of Dickinson tried to regularize those “faults.”

**The unpictured David Crosby was all over the songs on this LP, but he’d just been fired from The Byrds. It’s been claimed that the horse in the 4th window was representing Crosby. One retort to that was if they’d wanted to represent the infamously cantankerous Crosby, they would have used a picture of the other end of the horse.

Thoreau’s June

We’ve already heard from Claude McKay and Thomas Wentworth Higginson on the month of June, and now it’s time to turn to one of the foremost spirits of the mid-19th century American Transcendentalist movement, Henry David Thoreau.

Thoreau is well-known for being in the activist, live-the-ideals, wing of Transcendentalism, though readers here have been introduced to Thoreau’s contemporary Thomas Wentworth Higginson—more than a footnote in the Emily Dickinson story—who also spent considerable time living those ideals.

Henry David Thoreau

Collect the series: Unfortunate Hair Stylings of Important Personages

 

Thoreau and Transcendentalism’s major domo Ralph Waldo Emerson lived in the same town in Massachusetts, and one of the most striking things for me when I first visited that town, Concord, was to think that in a matter of a few blocks there lived Emerson, Thoreau, Hawthorne, Bronson and Louisa May Alcott—all in this place not that much larger than the small farming community I grew up in. What a town that must have been in those years!

Transcendentalism is a little hard to put a finger on exactly as a movement because it was interested in and had change-convictions about so many things. Higginson in his 1899 collection of memoir pieces Cheerful Yesterdays  calls it “The Period of the Newness” and speaks of “The Sisterhood of Reforms.”

My current working-definition of Transcendentalism is it is the belief that there is a primary knowledge to be obtained from the deep study and meditation on the structures and methods of nature, as opposed to the accumulation of received and conventional truths about it. Thoreau the Transcendental activist helped to pioneer this, often writing about his direct experience of nature. His thought process also caused him to develop political ideals, including Civil Disobedience to unjust and violent government actions, famously inspiring Gandhi and Martin Luther King.

Thoreau didn’t just inspire Gandhi and King with his writing. The first story I ever heard of Thoreau recounted the tale of Ralph Waldo Emerson visiting Thoreau who had been jailed for refusing to pay taxes as a protest against the Mexican-American war and its support of slavery.

Henry, what are you doing in there?” Emerson asked across the jail door bars.

“Waldo, the question is, what are you doing out there?” Thoreau replied.

But here’s one lesser known thing about Thoreau, the deep naturalist, writer and political activist: he was also something of an engineer. Between writing and other activities, he was active in his father’s business, a small factory that made pencils. A chief problem at the time was the formulation of the graphite used in the “lead” for these indispensable writing instruments. Thoreau’s father’s pencils, like other American pencils at the time, used a too soft binder that led to a crumbling point and blurry line. Through study of European pencils (and one suspects a little lab time on his part) Henry David Thoreau, Transcendentalist writer, philosopher, and activist figured out a clay formulation to mix with the powdery graphite to produce a much better American pencil. Profits from the sale of these pencils and the underlying technology* were largely what supported Thoreau’s writing career.

Not to make too fine a point of it—and King and Gandhi might have found other inspiration, and Thoreau other funding—but the 20th century Afro-American civil rights movement and the independence of the Indian sub-continent owe something to a thing as prosaic as a better pencil design—monumental things that literally come from a feet of clay.

Today’s piece is a short meditation taken from an entry in Thoreau’s Journals for June 6th 1857. Adding to the above connection, when Thoreau was writing his nature observations in the field, he most likely was doing so using a pencil of his own design. Note too that at one point engineer-Thoreau talks of the revolution of thought connected to the revolution of the natural cycle of seasons as if they are the meshing of a gear train.

Thoreau June 6 1857

Handwriting as bad as mine! The page from Thoreau’s journal containing today’s text.

 

Written as prose, it has a flow that I could find to recite and accompany it with music. The piece’s chordal part I played on an electric 12-string guitar recorded in the manner Roger McGuinn and the engineers on The Byrds recordings devised in the Sixties. Instead of the John Coltrane-inspired lead 12-string melodic line of something like “Eight Miles High”  I played an acoustic guitar with an E-Bow, a magnetic invention that drives a guitar string to vibrate and produce a flute-like sound. As I read a little about Thoreau this week, I came upon the information that he was also an avid flute player, so it seems appropriate.

The player gadget is below. My apologies for being away from this blog and blog activities so far in June—you know, life and things.

 

 

 

 

*Here’s more about Thoreau and his pencils. I first heard the story on the radio series “Engines of our Ingenuity”.

Hitch Your Wagon to a Star

As we continue to celebrate National Poetry Month here, I ask your indulgence—today’s piece isn’t based on a poem. Earlier this week I did use a Ralph Waldo Emerson poem, mentioning then that his poetry often fails. Well, there are compensations—as an essayist, Emerson often expresses himself poetically.

Today’s piece is part of an Emerson essay published in The Atlantic in April 1862 called “American Civilization.”  In it Emerson ranges quite a bit, including some racial and regional stereotyping that may shock some modern readers with its ignorance and prejudice. But rather than concentrate on what Emerson got wrong—after all, I don’t need to go to 150-year-old writing to find that sort of thing, our own age will supply all we’ll ever need—I want to present to you some things that Emerson might have gotten right.

I’ve selected a handful of sections from Emerson’s essay for today, the parts of the essay that strike me as if they were a poem. I call my extracted text “Emerson’s Wagon,”  in that one of the phrases it popularized became a pervasive folk-motto: “Hitch your wagon to a star.”

What do you think that means when you hear it today? Most likely you think it means have high ambitions, aim for success not mediocrity, that if you only make it half-way you’ll still get farther than if you’d set your sites lower.*

If so, you may be surprised to hear how Emerson meant that phrase. Indeed, the whole argument Emerson makes in today’s piece is a subtle and surprisingly contemporary one.

Ralph Waldo Emerson at desk

Emerson wondering if his essay will go viral—wait—can something go viral on the telegraph?

 

“Emerson’s Wagon”  starts by telling a technology story. While he’s speaking about the telegraph, a recent marvel of his time, the metaphor here could just as easily be applied to the Internet on which you are reading this.**  In this metaphor we meet the essay’s first wagon, and it’s, well, stuck and broken down. He points out technology has found a way to get around that.

OK, nice story. Interesting contemporary parallel.

Then mid-19th century Emerson starts considering renewable energy. A couple years back I was talking to someone about that very subject and he mentioned Massachusetts had fewer resources than some other parts of the U.S. for that, which I found ironic, because Emerson’s 19th century Massachusetts was leading the country in exploiting water and tidal energy for industrial power.

Here is Emerson’s second wagon, the first one he hitches to a star. He’s not talking about personal advancement particularly, he’s talking about harnessing nature’s renewable power, and working with it to improve our civilization.

Now his technological story is getting more interesting. How many times have you heard of nature and technology portrayed as opposites? Enough that you may think that technology inevitably destroys nature, or that technology is replacing nature, and so on?

Emerson’s asking you to think of technology (and also nature, as we’ll soon see) differently. Technology comes from close observation of and analysis of the powers of nature. And in concert, the book of nature can tell us something about how to use and deploy technology, and how we should share the bounty of that.

Finally, Emerson goes somewhere you probably won’t expect. His third wagon*** says that moral principles are natural principles (and vice versa). We moderns may have some doubts about this, but it was part of the Transcendentalist ideals that Emerson and his fellows believed. From that equivalence, he says that for American civilization to succeed, for us to fix those broken and stuck in the mud situations like that first wagon, we must align ourselves (if we wish to make change) with the moral principles of a nature that spreads over all and gives benevolently. To do so makes us more powerful agents of change that cannot be defeated in the long run.

An interesting thought for a time of lies and behavior that isn’t pulled forward by the tides of heroic stars, that instead aims at the lower level of personal enrichment defended with the muddy shield of not-quite-legally-indictable.

To hear me perform Emerson’s story of three wagons, use the player below, and electricity will transfer it to you in its invisible pockets. To read all of Emerson’s essay, you can find it here.

 

 

 

*It was a phrase my mother would use, and in this sense too. She raised her large and different family whose members did different things, so maybe it has some value used in this way as well.

**The “invisible pockets” he has the telegraph carrying data in so easily become the “packets” that have flown through TCP/IP routers to bring this post or the accompanying audio file to you. Did you know that some of the savviest conceptual thinking about how the Internet works can be expressed via carrier pigeons?

***As he once more returns to the line “hitch your wagon to a star” Emerson eventually reels off a list of constellations named after heroes. You might be thrown by the first one on his list “Charles’ Wain.” I’d never heard of it. Turns out it’s another name for the Big Dipper. Wain is a Middle English word for, yes, wagon and together Charles’ Wain sort of morphs into the name of legendary king Charlemagne.