Yesterday I said poetry isn’t just beauty and wonder. Well, sometimes it is. Like this recasting of an Emily Dickinson poem into outright 1960’s wonderment.
I carried around a copy of the original text of “May-Flower” today for Poem in Your Pocket Day, but alas I wasn’t assertive about it. Should I have been?
The staff at the café I biked to were maybe my best chance, but I was still waking up. Then at the bank, my own variation on Miss Stillwagon had needed to take several helpful minutes to go over questions from an African immigrant accented small businessman before I stepped up to her window, and I didn’t know if she wanted to know about Dickinson’s spring flower just then. Instead, we exchanged the brief small talk about how cold this April has been.
Then at the grocery store I always take the human checkout line, thinking that that supports someone’s job in this scanned beep and bloop age. The cashier in the lane I picked must have hit her off-switch for the Lane 8 sign simultaneously as I plopped the first bag of cherries I’ve seen this season on the belt.
“Didn’t you see my light was off?” Which I hadn’t, probably looking down in my cart for the next item to unload. “Well, that’s OK” she said as she efficiently rung up my small batch of items in a dozen seconds. Still, she didn’t seem all that open to Emily Dickinson’s offering of the aspects of a flower. Out in the parking lot, as I packed up the groceries, a pickup truck pulled in and had, I noticed, a “Media is the virus” Alex Jones bumper sticker. I was putting my N95 mask back in the envelope I pocket it in. I didn’t think it worth putting the mask back on to ask him about “May-Flower.”
So, you are left to hear it.
I sometimes sense when reading a certain kind of Emily Dickinson poem that she’s in a visionary or unusual state of perception. The various theories about her mysterious illness including vision symptoms are one level of explanation, but then I also suspect her cast of intellect and a dose of Transcendentalism could explain some of it. So it is with “May-Flower,” which is ostensibly a riddle for which the reader is to guess the particular type of flower. That may be her intent, but the scattered aspects of the flower she reveals, and her trademark specific originality of word choices* are as full of swirling fluorescents as any psychedelic poster or LP cover.
Was it the pinkness of the flower that made me think of Syd Barrett era Pink Floyd?
In this classic performance from our archives, I decided to further unravel the poem she wrote — and then re-weave the words in a variety of orders and alignments while playing electric guitars, bass, and combo organ in my best rock ballroom approximation of Sixties’ amazement. The 1960s — not Dickinson’s 1860s.
You can hear it three ways. There’s a player gadget below, but some won’t see that and can then use this highlighted link instead. And as we’ve done for almost every post this National Poetry Month, there’s a fresh lyric video above too.
*I recently read a short piece on Dickinson by Alexandra Socarides. In it she reveals a poetic mentor, Carolyn Williams, had taught her an interesting way to appreciate Dickinson’s originality. She calls the exercise “Dickinson Mad-libs.” Here’s how she describes the exercise best done with lesser-known Dickinson poems: “I choose a line, a stanza, or a whole poem, and I take out some of its words (usually nouns and adjectives, but sometimes verbs as well), and I simply leave blanks where those words were. Then I ask the students to fill in the blanks. I tend to switch up which poems I use, even though I know several that work particularly well. I’ll never forget the time I used “Grief is a ________.”
If you don’t know “May-Flower” and haven’t listened to today’s piece, or if you want to try this exercise with another poet, here’s the Mad-Libs game for the poem’s first stanza:
Pink, small, and [ADJECTIVE].
[ADJECTIVE] in April,
[ADJECTIVE] in May,
Give anyone, even a poet, guesses — a dozen or a hundred — to what Dickinson would use in those three blanks, and what would be their batting average? And here’s the even better trick: because of the sound of those words, I don’t have any sense that their author is over-trying to be “original.” The sound attracts you to them, however rarely you’d expect them.