Emily Dickinson: Forever and Crumbling

Today Emily Dickinson is going to show us how not to write a poem—and how to make it work anyway.

This piece combines two different poems she wrote: “Forever—is composed of Nows”  and “Crumbling is not an instant’s Act”  in a way that I hope lets each poem reflect on each other. Both speak about time and the universe’s track along it, and that’s part of Dickinson’s substantial task as the poet here: these things are abstract. The Modernist experiment, which Dickinson in many ways presages, would generally try to represent even the most abstract, contradictory, and elusive things as images, palpable things. When that tactic works, it lets us find a shape, a sensual feeling, a weight and color to things we otherwise cannot behold.

Dickenson can  do that. Forgotten Imagist Carl Sandburg* even called her an Imagist, just as Imagism’s call to Modernism was emerging a few decades after Dickinson’s death and posthumous publication. But here, in these poems, she predominantly avoids that tactic.

I can think of a few reasons she might do what she does in these poems. If you’d like to follow along, here are links to the text of  “Forever..”  and to “Crumbling…”

First, she received a science education. This may seem odd, even though some time back we learned that Percy Bysshe Shelley, the uber-romantic poet knew how to calculate the distance between the Sun and the Earth, but Emily Dickinson was a woman as well as a poet in Shelley’s 19th century. Science? My 21st century child goes to a high school with a substantial STEM program. “It’s all guys, and they act like it too” is the report about the Engineering class here in 2020. But in Emily’s New England, science, the humble mechanics of the universe, was actually considered a safe subject for the hampered female brain. Politics, theology, fine arts would all be fields walled off from women anyway, but they were also considered inappropriate for the lady-brain.

The second is that she grew up in a household steeped in the legal profession. Her father, her grandfather, and her brother were all prominent lawyers. Though I’m not a full-fledged Dickinson scholar by a long-ways, I’m not aware that this substantial fact is much discussed as potentially formative in how Dickinson saw and thought about things. Yet, here by her poetry we can see that she was possessed of a mighty intellectual engine, one whose genetic blueprints and environment would be tailored to express things as lawyers might: in sharply defined abstract legalities.

Lastly, 19th century poetry was comfortable with abstraction of the sort she exhibits here, though few could match her compression of expression. We still use much abstract rhetoric in general discussion, but our poets generally recognize the danger of taking the specific vividness out of verse.

In the first piece of our dual Dickinson presentation today, she makes a statement about the nature of time: that it cannot be experienced relatively other than as an infinite series of nows. She cannot find a physical image for this, and so uses abstract scientific and legal language to describe this mystery: “Composed…Infiniteness…latitude…remove…dates…dissolve…exhale,” and the near-enough Latin of “Anno Dominies.” This, the language of a contract or scientific paper. That said, a phrase like “Years—exhale in Years” is palpable.

The second piece, “Crumbling is not an instant’s Act,”  could be read as a tiny summary lecture on entropy. In the middle stanza of this three-stanza poem (‘Tis first a Cobweb on the Soul…An Elemental Rust,”) Dickinson moves from abstract summary to imagery, but even here, her knowledge of botany, both empirical and academic, is deployed. “Cuticle” is not some chat over a manicure—it’s a distinct feature of plants. “Borers” and “rust” likewise would be familiar to Emily as the dedicated gardener of the Dickinson household.


Emily Dickinson, science nerd:. Hosta’s cuticle protects it from dust, Dickinson’s self-made herbarium scientifically categorized a host of plants, and Rudolf Clausius considers entropy and whether to grow a mustache or not


The concept of entropy was only first posited in 1850, and I don’t know if Dickinson had any access to discussions of what would have been a fresh scientific concept. Some read “Crumbling is not an instant’s act”  as a reaction to medical or psychological issues Dickinson was personally facing rather than musings on the formal structure of ruin and the universe’s law of return to equilibrium. That reading works too. This old guy may not study thermodynamics, but I can personally recognize the states in this poem without measuring instruments or a blackboard of equations.

If you or I were to try to write either of these poems, we’d risk failure. Our abstractions might seem enervated, while the compressed energy of Emily Dickinson carries me through her argument, even where one cannot follow its intellectual thrust easily. In the middle of these abstract arguments, in the second stanza of each three-stanza poem, Dickinson lets in enough imagery to pull us in.

It may seem odd, now, in this month, as the nation stands at a crossroads to present these two poems today. Frankly, as I looked for any poem in the public domain that wouldn’t seem beside the point or merely pander to it, I failed.

Dickinson wrote in the midst of the greatest crisis, moral and physical, that our nation ever faced. In 1963, in a critical year of struggle against Afro-American civic oppression, John Coltrane released four records. In 1863, in the midst of the turning point year of the American Civil War, Emily Dickinson wrote 295 poems. Coltrane was a musician, not a poet or singer. I can’t fault him for not giving us words when he gave us “Alabama”  and “A Love Supreme.”  Emily Dickinson’s poet’s words don’t address the Civil War directly, we can even doubt that she understood the situation of Afro-Americans and slavery’s advocates significantly, however sharp and searching her mind was. So, check your privilege Emily? Sure. But her poetry is about—no not just about, is —freedom, a searching, seeing mind. Our caring hearts take us partway there. Our minds must journey too.

In combining these two poems I wanted to put them in a context that rings for me, in our present moment, however abstractly. We are in our forever nows, as we always are. Ruin is not a now, but a formal process, consecutive and slow.

Thank you for reading and listening. The player to hear my performance of two poems by Emily Dickinson should appear below.




*In looking for the next piece here I must have read or re-read over a hundred Carl Sandburg poems this past week. He’s often remembered as the 20th century’s first great inheritor of Walt Whitman, with great spanning catalogs of Americana in rambling free verse. But early Carl Sandburg is full of attempts and successes at concise Imagist poems that work like his contemporary pre-High Modernism Imagists’ poems did.

Sadie and Stephen Hawkings

It’s leap year, and the last time there was one of those, Dave Moore wrote this song about the mysterious cosmologies and quantum physics of love.

We’ve already met Stephen Hawking here, though in a roundabout way, as the universe may be. When Hawking died a couple of years ago, at his public memorial an astronaut read a passage about the cosmos from a Percy Bysshe Shelley poem to eulogize the great cosmologist. Coincidence? Well I looked, and I was surprised to learn that Shelley, that early 19th century romantic poet, could write on the physics of light and calculate the speed of a light-year. Not quite quantum theory, but a better performance than many poets today might do. Romantic wonder and physics may be objects that are closer than they appear.

I suspect Sadie Hawkins is a more obscure star in our firmament these days than Stephen Hawking. Dave would know Sadie first-hand because he’s much more knowledgeable than I am about what once were comics and are now whatever they are fancied as an art form. Back when they were funny papers Sadie was created by cartoonist and satirist Al Capp.

The Montgomery Story comic book

Al Capp ran a comic book company too. In 1957 he published a comic book about the Montgomery Bus Boycott, which helped bring to the fore Martin Luther King. The story in Dave Moore’s family is that his mother typed MLK’s thesis in Boston. Like I said, objects are closer than they appear.


I can’t quite fathom how to condense Capp into a short blog post. I proudly thought I could come up with two or three sentences to sum up Capp’s career—but that’s impossible. His Wikipedia article covers the high points I guess. I will say that by the time I was reading comic strips the Al Capp mythos was probably past its prime and unappealing to me. But that didn’t mean that I didn’t know Sadie Hawkins. Schools still had annual “Sadie Hawkins dances” where young women were licensed to ask men to a date or dance, and all this (along with some legends about Irish Saint Brigid) got melded into a tradition that women could propose to men on Leap Year day.

That’s enough to get you into Dave’s song. As long as you’re willing to entertain a song about a once highly popular cartoon strip and theoretical physics, you’re the audience for this one. I don’t know if that’s enough to fill a Sadie Hawkins Dance floor, but the wallflowers are more interesting there I’d think.

How do quantum forces work? I doubt I know more than Percy Bysshe Shelley. I planned to present this piece for leap year day sometime back, but what did I think two years ago when I heard Shelley’s poem? That he had written of a mazzy  heaven, and that flavorable word brought me to think then of Mazzy Star, an indie rock group that can trace its way back to Minnesota about the time Dave and I started to make music together. Now as I write this post this week, I read that the person whose particle path made that traverse, Mazzy Star principal David Roback, has just died.

The player gadget to hear the LYL Band perform Dave Moore’s “Sadie and Stephen Hawkings”  is below.


St. Francis Einstein of the Daffodils

Metaphor, that stuff that helps make the music of thought in poetry, is the linking or liking of things. This is like that. This stands for that. The sensation of this is like the sensation of that. This reminds us of something else. The way I say this recalls the way one says that. Metaphor recombines the stuff of our world even though it’s a combination that only exists in the imagination.

Metaphor can make something clearer to an audience. It’s so useful in that way that one can barely explain anything challenging to an audience, even in the most prosaic day-to-day business world, without falling into metaphor. In poetry however, the bounds of increased clarity can be stretched, broken, and abandoned. Depending on one’s mood as a reader, this can be frustrating or a pleasing play of the mind. With the Parlando Project we perform the poems with music. One hope from this is that you can relax and let the beauty or strangeness of the words carry you over gaps in meaning. Sometimes you can enjoy a poem before you understand it.

William Carlos Williams who wrote the words in today’s piece, gives us Spring weather with Spring flowers and fruit blossoms, gardens and orchards, and all under a title that combines a famous saint with his era’s most famous scientist. He gives us almost no help in combining that title with the poem, other than yoking them together. The linkage of metaphor is much strained here, even when he further explains his title by adding a sub-title: “On the first visit of Professor Einstein to the United States in the spring of 1921.”

How are we to make the connection that will construct the metaphor?

William Carlos Williams with typewriter

Just another hipster with his typewriter. William Carlos Williams throws off his covers.


My best understanding so far is that the connection is wonder and change. Recall our last post, where in his “Queen Mab”  Percy Bysshe Shelley, the Romantic early-19th Century poet, gave us a vision of the wonder of an immense cosmos, which Shelley’s own notes tell us he could also sense through the poetic/mathematical meter of the speed of light. The theoretical scientist and the visionary poet each seek to grasp some new metaphor of the world. Einstein was changing physics in the time that Williams and his fellow Modernists were seeking to change the apparatus of art. Williams elaborates on this theme mostly by vivid descriptions of the change of Spring. In the only mention of Einstein in the body of the poem, Einstein is “tall as a violet.” He is the Spring’s new growth.

There are a couple of obscure literary references in one section, the sort of thing T. S. Eliot or his imitators would have used. Who is “Samos, dead and buried?” I’m not sure, but my guess is that it’s Pythagoras of Samos, the famous classical Greek philosopher for whom science and the arts were one. And Lesbia? Catullus’ Roman poetic beloved, who we’ve met here in Elizabethan guise. It may be enough that they have ancient sounding names, and of such ancient classical modes, Williams, who is in some ways the Anti-T. S. Eliot, says “Sing of it no longer.” He moves right back into a present day of Spring. Pythagoras is dead, Catullus’ Lesbia is dead, and so is a black cat buried in a newly planted garden. Awhile later in the poem we may get one more connection to that cat part of this buried trio. A chicken-raising man who puts out poisoned fish-heads to keep the cats from his chickens. That man becomes like the Modernists, needing to kill the ancients to protect the new flock he’s raising.

As a side note, this poem’s chicken farmer, the white-haired negro, was quite likely the man whose rain-glistened red wheelbarrow sat next to the white chickens in William’s famous poem of admiration.

The poem closes with a sensuous image of Spring change, a night that grows warm as an orchard owner opens his windows and throws off the covers that were needed in the cold. In an earlier version of the poem, Williams had woven Einstein by name in and out of those Spring images explicitly, including this last one where Einstein was named as that man with the blossoming orchard, another grower of renewed things. In this later version, all these stated links to Einstein are removed (save for that one Einstein as a violet).

Professor Einstein Narcissus

Not a violet, but the “Professor Einstein Narcissus.” Has “great curb appeal” and “deer won’t eat” says this garden center.


Was that a right choice? The resulting poem is shorter and more mysterious, but it also doesn’t make it easy to see what Williams is getting at. He’s using metaphor, but he’s removed all the connections. I decided to perform the later version. I think it performs slightly better, and perhaps the music makes the obscurities less taunting.

A simple musical arrangement this time, just acoustic guitar and subdued electric bass. To hear my performance of William Carlos Williams’ “St. Francis Einstein of the Daffodils,”  use the player below.


From Queen Mab Canto II

It’s not often that we think of English Romantic poets along with science. We tend to think of them as pure examples, an engraved picture of an enraptured youth subject to the throws of inspiration, to be found next to the words “poet” or “fool” in a dictionary.

Percy Bysshe Shelley is no exception to this. In my mid-20th Century American school-days he was seated with the Romantics, and biographically some mention would be made of his notoriety during his lifetime, the matter of which would be ascribed with a summary of libertine sexual behavior in the Byron and Shelley households. I suspect many of those descriptions, brief and bloodless as they might have been, were attempts to woo additional interest in poetry from otherwise little-interested adolescents.

Part of the joy of this project is finding surprising things in poetry among the accidents and intents of looking for material. At the end of last week, I read of the memorial service held for physicist Stephen Hawking at Westminster Abbey.

Vangelis is going to stream a musical piece with Hawking’s famously synthesized voice out to the galaxies! Somewhere out there, the odds say, a curious alien will detect this light-years from now; though probabilities also say they will have likely forgotten to bring earbuds along on their saucer-ride.

And there were celebrities! Elgar, Stravinsky and Holst got played! The ticket application form allowed future birthdates, in case time-travelers wanted to apply to attend!

But reading on I find that astronaut Tim Peake read a bit of, what, Shelley. From “Queen Mab”  accounts said.

I find a copy of “Queen Mab.”  Turns out it’s another kind of Shelley from the school-book aesthete. “Queen Mab”  is a fairly long blank-verse epic, but I didn’t have to read far to find the parts you’d want to read for a cosmological tie-in. Right there in Canto II, Mab, the queen of the fairies, has Uber’ed up a human soul to her palace, which is more or less an atheist’s heaven, which is to say a philosophical location above the cosmos—and there, the human soul gets to observe the wonder of this perspective. Mind-blowingness ensues.

This is the kind of thing which visionary poets and scientists share, and that thing is wonder. Stacks of SciFi books would lift one nearly that high; but why couldn’t poetry, the literary artform best-suited to grasp tiny pieces of the un-graspable do that too?


What if instead of sitting at a cave entrance, I was at a place of immense gravity, where even light falls into it? If I ever go back to England that’ll make a good bedtime story for little Ada, who’s always too busy using her wooden blocks to solve equations.


Here’s something else I found remarkable, a series of notes on the issues in the poem, written by Shelly, a young man of 18 in the early 19th Century. Here’s a portion of the first one:

Light consists either of vibrations propagated through a subtle medium, or of numerous minute particles repelled in all directions from the luminous body. Its velocity greatly exceeds that of any substance with which we are acquainted: observations on the eclipses of Jupiter’s satellites have demonstrated that light takes up no more than 8′ 7″ in passing from the sun to the earth, a distance of 95,000,000 miles.—Some idea may be gained of the immense distance of the fixed stars when it is computed that many years would elapse before light could reach this earth from the nearest of them; yet in one year light travels 5,422,400,000,000 miles, which is a distance 5,707,600 times greater than that of the sun from the earth.

I was an English major, I had to look this up. Shelley, or early 19th century science, was off several billion miles on the length of a light-year, and a couple of million miles off on earth-sun distance—hey, I knew that last measurement, though from an early-childhood advertising jingle. However, ask yourself, how likely would it be that the most facile poet in any first-year college creative-writing class be conversant in those measurements, and how they are empirically proved?

So, thanks Stephen Hawking, Tim Peake, and whoever planned that part of the Westminster Abbey internment service. I now think of Percy Bysshe Shelly differently.

Musically, I started by noting in Shelley’s poem the description of deep-space orbs “in mazy motion.” I thought immediately of Mazzy Star, that late 20th Century indie band. Does mazzy/mazy go back that far? Turns out that the word mazy was something of a English Romantic poet favorite. Wordsworth, Southey, and Keats all used the word. Coleridge used it in “Kubla Kahn.”  Mazzy Star is a band with a predominate sound, and though they have some great cuts with wild electric guitar, there’s more often a strummed acoustic guitar, a droning organ, and some occasional violin, all the songs are taken at a slow tempo and modest volume. The band’s lead singer,  Hope Sandoval, has a style that superficially sounds easy to do, but in practice isn’t, and so my singing skills deferred trying.

So, it’s spoken word, not sung, but here are those words of Shelley’s used this month to memorialize Stephen Hawking. Use the player below to hear it.