Answer July

It’s time once more to perform the brilliance of Emily Dickinson. Today’s text, “Answer July”  is Dickinson in her seeming simple mode. Read quickly, it might strike one as almost a nursery rhyme or maybe as one of those playful listing or counting folk songs. Here’s a link to the full text of the poem.

But when I looked again, “Answer July”  appears to be a debate or interrogation between nature’s seasons and the consciousness of souls, a rather strange thing to put into such a brief and unfancy piece of poetry. Emily Dickinson loves strange, and if you’re a reader or listener who’s stuck around here, you’re comfortable with it too. What’s being debated here?

It starts with the poem’s speaker — let’s call them Dickinson, though obviously, it’s a creation of Emily Dickinson, and as its creator she knows more than this character — demands of nature’s mid-summer month of July just where certain summer things are. July, like a party in a legal dispute or sidestepping debater replies that the things that would allow it to produce those summer things are not in its control. There could be a supply chain issue, and maybe the real problem is with its supplier: the spring month of May.

Bee in Flower by Heidi Randen

Where is the Bee — Where is the Blush? Got it right here Emily.

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May is called in. “Nay,” says May. Tell me about supply chain issues! I’ve got suppliers too, like winter. Subpoena the jay, a winter bird.

The jay is sworn in. Look I need food in the winter they testify. Where’s the leftover autumn corn, the periods of hazy-thaw less-severe cold, and those burred seeds still in their protective casing? The implication here is that we could next look to question fall, though by now we suspect fall will blame summer. And round and round we would go.*

Dickinson gives us two lines that may be a break in the circle. When July, the first month/season to be questioned ends their reply, I think July suggests that May/spring is not a calendar month, but instead a creature of the questioner in the poem. The syntax is broken and unclear here, so who speaks each word is uncertain — but at the time I performed it, I went with this understanding (in paraphrase): July replies (answering to Dickinson’s opening line of questioning) “You’ve called on me to answer. Well, I’ve got one for you, ‘Where is May?’ Come on, you (thee) answer! Because I know what you should answer when asked about where things spring from: ‘It’s me.” That is, Dickinson, July questioner, is responsible.

I could be wrong on that somewhat convoluted reading. It could also be July saying “If May was here, they could answer your question for you (thee) and for me too.”

And then again, as the poem ends, the jay has a cryptic answer to where it can find its winter sustenance: “Here — said the Year.” Unlike summer, winter seems like a time of scarcity, but nature provides the jay what they need. There the implication is that Dickinson’s original complaint to July about where are the summer things she wants is being answered by the jay saying that nature will provide, if your soul seeks for things rather than asking for it to be summer ample and at every hand. This reading of the last line is what drew me to my more complicated reading of the earlier “Answer Thee — Me —” line. The poet Dickinson is telling the character of the questioner in her poem that it’s not the seasons that provide, it is the soul that seeks that finds. She is her own spring, summer, harvest and survival.

Musically I had some fun with this one. On one hand the harmony is simple, a I V progression, but I used some less-common voicings for the Ab (it’s an AbMaj13) and Db (a DbMaj7) and I played sitar.**  Why not! Emily loved strange, and if you’ve stuck around here this summer, you have to have some tolerance for that. The player gadget will appear below for some of you, but don’t ask July where it is if you don’t see the player. Instead, click this highlighted hyperlink, which will open an new tab-window and play my musical performance of “Answer July.”

 

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*Once again, I’m working on my theory that Emily Dickinson’s sharp intelligence was surrounded by a family that worked as lawyers, and that may have provided a frame for some of her poetry. As I write this there happen to be many supply chain issues ascribed to the impact of the Covid-19 pandemic and other causes, but neither legal precedents nor logistical savvy is the real subject for this poem, rather it’s about a Transcendentalist understanding of how the soul must partner with nature.

Emily Dickinson herself was also a gardener and the Dickinson household raised a wide variety of food and feed crops. Any farmer or gardener knows that it’s not just the calendar page that brings in food and crops, but effort and seeking.

**Well, not exactly. I’ve never owned a real sitar. I have owned an electric sitar with a plastic rounded bridge that sought to emulate their buzzy sound. I’ve used MIDI “virtual instruments” that allow a guitar or keyboard to play sitar notes with attempts at following sitar articulations. Today’s piece uses a Line6 Variax guitar that has a sitar sound setting, and it tracks guitar string vibrato precisely, a necessity for this piece’s main sitar line motifs.

Nothing Gold Can Stay

Here’s one of Robert Frost’s well-loved poems that has managed to penetrate into popular consciousness in a way that few modern poems have. “Nothing Gold Can Stay”  is therefore found anew inside of S. E. Hinton’s novel The Outsiders  and the resulting movie and Stevie Wonder song, or via the 21st century song by First Aid Kit.

Often when I present Robert Frost poems here, I ask your indulgence to point out that what is often drawn from them doesn’t represent what Frost seems to be trying to impart. The Road Not Taken”  isn’t about the critical importance of taking the “road less traveled,” but about the irrelevance of choice and dangers of “analysis paralysis.” Stopping by Woods on a Snowy Evening  isn’t about tarrying by a beautiful winter scene instead of getting on with life’s duty, but about someone lost in rural darkness. Even this month’s Acquainted with the Night” —while, yes, frankly dealing with despair—is about living with depression rather than dying from it.

But “Nothing Gold Can Stay”  does seem to be saying what most everyone draws from it—and so, unlike these other Frost poems, it’s loved for exactly what it is saying: that certain kinds of beauty and states of grace are transitory; and then by implicated extension, that to hold them inside a memory or a memorable poem is our consolation. So, what’s left for me to say then?

Well, maybe there’s this element: that a catch phrase drawn from it, “Stay Gold,” is not in Frost’s poem, and his poem indicates that will not happen even if wished; but I’m willing—as was Carl Sandburg in our last post “Monotone” —to cut humanity a little slack here. Sandburg in his middle stanza of “Monotone”  tells the same story as Frost’s more famous poem, though more of us remember Frost’s expression of the idea, which may be testament of the power of Frost’s rhyme in memorability. Sandburg’s point however, the one I subscribe to, is that there’s something to be admired that is left after the loss of moments of perfection or passion in both memory and the continuing changed moments.

One other thing I’ll admit I hadn’t noticed until preparing this piece this month: “Nothing Gold Can Stay”  is a spring poem about tree blossoms as much as it’s an autumn poem about falling leaves: “Early leaf’s a flower.” The tree blossoms on my bike rides this spring are, it seems to me, more numerous, fragrant, and beautiful. Is this a side-effect of the closed in spring of our current epidemic? I think too, not only of Sandburg’s “Monotone,”  but of Meng Haoran’sSpring Morning,”  and my own Plum Tree Blossoms on 40th Street.”

Early one morning this month, I rode my bike down 40th street to the now closed schoolhouse, the route I rode a few years back with my child in “Plum Tree Blossoms on 40th Street.” I remembered one fine tree full of blossoms there a block before a bicycle bridge that crosses the then busy freeway, and the flowers’ smell that day that told me the tree was louder to my nose than the traffic under the bridge. This morning, this month, I was surprised to see not one, but a whole row of trees, all in bloom.

Plum tree blossoms on 40th Street

Blossoms revisited. The other side of the street from the rusty camper was a tattered car with blankets blocking all it’s window glass, evidence that some of the cardboard sign beggars at the nearby freeway entrance may have slept there the previous night.

 

A few words on the music before I ask you to listen to my performance of Frost’s “Nothing Gold Can Stay.”  The music I created for this is based on my appreciation of South Asian music, a style that I refer to sometimes here. This is a complex musical tradition of which I have little knowledge of other than as a listener, yet like some others I’ve been drawn to its tactics from the first time I heard it.* Oddly, the top line musical instrument I used for this is a uniquely American one: the mountain dulcimer, a small, fretted, plucked string instrument.** And the percussion instruments here do not include the tabla drum sets used in South Asian music because I don’t have access to them, but are instead approximated with a mix of “Latin Percussion” drums and rhythm instruments, like congas, bongos, and small rattles, bells, and such. I do have good tampura and harmonium virtual instruments that I can play with my MIDI guitar and little plastic keyboard, so I did use those traditional South Asian sounds.

I like how this turned out. Why this music for Frost’s “Nothing Gold Can Stay?”  There’s no harmonic progression to it. I don’t notate this sort of composition with chord symbols the way I might a rock music piece. If I did it would be sort of Dsus4, D, D5, Dsus2—so really it’s just about the drone center of D and how one steps out and back to the D note in a rhythmic/melodic dance. Nothing gold can stay, but the D drone reminds us musically that change is return, that return is change.

Here’s the player gadget to hear the performance.

 

 

 

*Like many Americans it was Ravi Shankar LPs on the World Pacific label, reinforced by his appearance in rock concert films like Monterey Pop and Woodstock, and other audacious appreciators who (like me) started to drop in things they drew from these performances into their own work.

In the early 70s in New York I worked in an E. R. with an Indian surgeon who would sing melodies acapella while suturing away. Those melodies would keep us going during long nights.

In the Twin Cities area we are lucky to have some South Asian tradition performers, and westerners like Dean Magraw, Marcus Wise, Steve Tibbetts, and Greg Herriges who incorporate this tradition into their playing.

**The mountain dulcimer has a mysterious past. It’s like and then not like a lot of other instruments from around the world. It seems to have been played by rural Appalachian mountain country settlers, often from Celtic backgrounds where harp instruments and drone wind instruments were common, but it’s not a harp. What it is though is an instrument that was relatively easy to make at home without complex tools or fixtures. In quiet times in those night-time hospital E.R.s I would sometimes quickly construct a rough fretless one out of a cast-plaster box and rubber bands.

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”.

Theater of the Seasons

Monday night here in Minnesota it snowed. As I took my pre-teen son to school in the morning, he looked at the inch of fresh snow on the spring ground and said “Mother Nature is drunk. Shut her down!”

I rode my winter bike to breakfast that morning, and the trees overhanging the street were shedding overnight ice chunks that their budding branches were rejecting in the morning. As this shrugging hail fell on my ski helmet, it bounced off with a “ping!” like marbles or ping pong balls, and popped onto the icy street like broken ornaments.  A few hours later, in the late afternoon, I rode again to the grocery store in considerable sunlight. The streets were dry and I was in shorts and a T shirt.

studded tires and slush on the patio tables

Plenty of patio seating available for Tuesday breakfast

 

Minnesotans have a well-worn phrase for our edition of the book of nature. It’s not a hand-bound collection of poems like our New Englander Emily Dickinson’s, but a play script. “The Theater of the Seasons” we call it. Famously, we try to hide emotions here, but we sure do enjoy a little drama with our weather forecasts, keeping an eye peeled for news of storms that can kill or injure you. Sitting in the upper Midwest we can receive weather sweeping up from the Gulf of Mexico or dropping down from the Northwest Territories. So, particularly in Spring and Fall, the Theater of the Seasons plays in repertory here in Minnesota.

Today’s audio piece is short, less than 2 minutes long, and it’s called“Theater of the Seasons,”  expanding on that phrase a bit. I think you’ll enjoy it. The player gadget appears at the end of the post, as usual.

As part of this blog’s participation in National Poetry Month, we’re trying to provide even more audio pieces like this that you can stream. If you know someone who might enjoy words combined with music like this, why not take this month to let them know about us and our Parlando Project, or share this or another favorite on your own blog or chosen social media site.