Here’s a sonnet of my own about the oncoming spring. I live in Minnesota, and here that season’s arrival is something of a lottery ticket. Oh, it’s likely that by sometime in February a Minnesotan is tired of winter, and we know that somewhere around May Day we’ll not have snow or cold to deal with for a few months, but when today’s high got to 40 F, we know no more than that. When I moved here, I was told that on days like today we might see folks wearing T-shirts outside — and yes that’s so. We are so in a hurry for spring that what would be a 5-degree Celsius winter day in more temperate regions seems time to ditch the jacket. Yet we are still likely to have more cold, and even more likely to get substantial snowfall, particularly in March.
So it is, from late February to late April is a two-month season of “what d’ya got” in our state. That’s what my poem performed today deals with.
Things are still snow-covered around here, but it’s not fluffy, Christmas-card snow— more at rugged crusts. I still ride a bicycle nearly every day year-round, and so winter means that I pay special attention to the surface conditions of the side-streets that I most often ride. You know the old factoid that Inuit peoples have a multitude of words for snow in their vocabulary? A day or two after a snow what’s often found is compressed and polished snow with some patches of white glaze where tires’ friction has buffed a gloss.* A few days later there will be areas where that surface further abrades and patches of dull-brown porridge-like snow aggregates are scattered on the roadway. I call the later “brown-sugar,” and the earlier hard white surface looks to me like the smooth inside of a shell.
Spring-time bike rides in Minnesota aren’t necessarily what you think.
Low-pressure studded bike tires work pretty well on the hard shiny stuff, and large knobby treads are the thing for the loose brown sugar. My deep-winter bike’s tires are a pair of Venn diagram hoops circling both.
That’s a poet’s bike ride for you: metaphors per hour.
The meter’s a bit loose, yet not loose enough to cry “Kings X — Free Verse!” either.
Does any of this help “translate” my poem for those without my climate? That’s my hope anyway. Though the title of my poem is “Unrequited March,” my wish for you, curious or stalwart reader/listener, is that spring will love you back this year. The player gadget to hear about the uncertainty of that is below for many readers, and for those whose way of reading this blog won’t show that graphical player, this highlighted hyperlink will open a new tab to play the performance just as well.
*The large, knobby, low-pressure tires are also capable of riding on fresh snow before cars get to it. Un-rutted light and granular cold-weather snow is kind of fun to ride in. The wetter and clumpy snow that will likely come in any heavy storms for the rest of the season is much less joyful. That stuff is like riding in deep mud. The tires’ knobs will get traction — it’s not the tires, it’s an old out-of-shape guy like myself who’ll get tired quick riding through that.
I’ve got a gorgeous song for you today, despite a difficult week for new work. I’ll try to get to it shortly, with only a little throat-clearing first.
It was 18 degrees F below zero* this morning. Oh, there was probably some wind chill too, but let’s not put too fine a point on temps like that — Minnesota January winter certainly doesn’t.
Our winter, to speak broadly, isn’t just cold. There’s also ice, snow, and winter cancellations and rescheduling. If that sounds grim, well, somedays it is — but then there’s a little something else about this sort of winter when you run across others out in it. Early this morning I saw another bicyclist with full face mask and goggles sawing their bike over the packed snow pavement. Before that, a woman walking her dog, each of them concentrating on getting such business done. In other duties, some school kids were walking to school. Every one of those fellow citizens are dealing with this shared winter too, and despite not being able to see much of their faces, you can likely feel something of a common cause.
But winter can also be experienced without even such scattered crowds. I used to commute around midnight on a bicycle, and the urban streets on rough winter nights would be the same as some new nowhere, like unto a SciFi paperback cover of the astronaut gazing through alien ruins. My wife sometimes runs just before dawn to a park that has no others but her and the existential animals.
Today’s piece is a winter poem by American poet Elinor Wylie, who wrote absolutely lovely short lyrical poems around 100 years ago. Hers is a slightly different winter. First, she’s walking with someone else. She doesn’t mention the temperature, but I doubt it quite as bitter-brittle as my morning. Hers is explicitly windless, but there is snow, the kind of loose powder that tends to fall when it’s colder than the soggy wet flakes.
Wylie’s reputation dropped fairly rapidly after her premature death in 1928. One knock against her pretty poems was that they were that and nothing else but attractive pictures drawn in word music. Well of course music itself doesn’t task itself with more than to be attractive, and visual art doesn’t need to support a philosophical argument or insight explicitly.
Sure it’s a pretty line: “I shall go shod in silk,” but damn it, open the door, it’s seriously winter out here!
I rather like this poem’s picture, because it’s something of a white-space void with just scant details coming out of the snow, like a Whistler painting. But it’s not even visual clues for the most part — the details are textures, feel images: veils, silk, wool and fleece, feathers and down, and then the velvet of the title. There is testimony that there is no noise, much less talk. Indeed, her partner in the walk is near-totally obscured, and this choice —conscious or unconscious — seems striking to me. Is she alienated from them, or so close that there’s no novelty in mentioning? The sensuality of the imagery may give undercurrents of erotic love, but the obscuring of the partner makes that reading stranger.
Though it’s freshly done, I’m fond of the music I came up with for Wylie’s poem. Maybe you’ll like the little song they make together when I performed it this morning. The player gadget is below for some of you, and if you don’t have that, you have this highlighted hyperlink that will also play it.
Today’s report on the most listened to and liked pieces featured here over the past quarter will show three experiences of the mystery of winter. So, let’s return to our countdown:
4 Twilight Fallen White and Cold by Joseph Campbell. I seem to have become something of a promotor of this little-known in the United States Irish-born poet who I still know little about. He published a series of poetry collections before the end of WWI, and then his poetic output dropped off, for reasons I’m not yet clear on, though the politics of his country’s decolonization struggle may have contributed. This piece using his words that a lot of you liked and listened to may be the most mysterious of today’s trio.
Best as I can figure it, this winter nature landscape poem may be an expression of his nation’s detracted state and situation, particularly in the invocation of ancient earthworks (raths) and burial mounds — but I cannot plumb the entirety of the refraining line of “wounds of Eliom/weep on me” that I feature in my setting of Campbell’s poem. Eliom is a plural word for gods, sometimes used for polytheistic gods, sometimes used for the singular monotheistic diety, and as it may be here, used for angels. If that’s so, then the starry constellations, the winged vampires, the curlew birds, the floating mists, the carrying sound of the ocean are all the Eliom, the angels in this changed winter nighttime vision.
To hear my setting of Campbell’s poem, you can use this highlighted hyperlink which may open a new window with a player, or in many cases, you’ll see a player gadget below to directly play it.
It’s been too long since I’ve said this: thank you for coming to read or listen here. It’s become harder for me to respond to comments or properly promote this project, but I appreciate so much those who come here, listen, and let others know what the Parlando Project does.
3 The Snow is Deep on the Ground by Kenneth Patchen. Lawrence Ferlinghetti, whose words we met earlier in this countdown, would sometimes remind folks that he wasn’t really part of the Beat Generation, even if he was associated with others who might have been so thought. Patchen is a similar case, or perhaps more so, in that his poetry career started in the 1930s,
As with many of the best Patchen poems, even the political ones, this is a love poem, delicately poised between the enchantment of love and the world that allows the shattering of it. If one can fully absorb the illumination of this poem, as with some of the best of Patchen, you would cry tears of joy and sadness at the same time.
You can hear my performance of Patchen’s “The Snow is Deep on the Ground” with this highlighted hyperlink, or if you see it, with a player gadget below.
You can read, or listen to my performance, of “The Sky is low” and find a whimsical nursery rhyme, and find enough enjoyment in that — but let it stick in your memory or repeated ear and a little dialog about predestination, first causes and fate is discernible. To listen, use this hyperlink, or you may see a player gadget to directly play it below.
One more post in the Top Ten countdown to go, and then we can move on from the mysteries of winter to the mysteries of spring.
This little poem by Emily Dickinson seems at first so slight, little more than a tiny winter nature lyric using the risky literary trope of the pathetic fallacy* deftly enough that it doesn’t cloy. The language is almost entirely simple and plain-spoken, but in such a short poem the words that aren’t entirely clear may reward further attention.
Dickinson’s handwritten manuscript for today’s poem from the collection of Amherst College.
The Imagists that came decades after Dickinson’s work weren’t much for the pathetic fallacy, but if one ignores that element— something possible to do because it’s so swift and unpretentious about it — this poem does work like an Imagist poem or like one of the models Imagism sought to emulate, the classical Chinese short poem.
Let’s start right at the first line, and the first word that requires some figuring out. “The sky is low, the clouds are mean” sets our stage. A “low sky” and “clouds” would indicate that this poem’s day-moment is overcast, but what does “mean” mean? It would be easy to think it’s saying, pathetic-fallacy-wise, that the clouds seem angry and spiteful. I think many modern readers will hear this sense primarily, and I cannot eliminate that Dickinson intended that at least as an undercurrent, as it seems a pair with the complaining wind we meet in the second stanza. Yet, in the context of the sentence that makes up the first stanza, my best thought is that she is presenting the clouds as a secondary definition of “mean” (now somewhat obsolete) as shabby or stingy. The image she’s setting up is that it’s overcast, but it’s not a snowstorm, there’s only a modicum of that mentioned: a specifically singular “flake of snow,” so that may be all these clouds are producing.
Our snowflake does have feelings. From its actions, aflutter in the wind and singular enough for the eye to want to follow it as an individual, it seems indecisive about what route to take over the landscape. It might fly high (“across a barn”) or low “through a rut.” It’s frozen (sorry, can’t help myself) in a moment in the poem and we never find out. In its concise way, Dickinson’s snowflake is like Robert Frost’s chiding portrait of his friend Edward Thomas: two possible roads, and the snowflake thinks it’s important to choose one.
The pathetic fallacy gets stronger as the second stanza begins. A cool or cold gusty wind is presented as if it’s complaining for hours on end. For an old/weak bicyclist like myself who tires of headwinds that seem to always be in my face no matter that one has changed direction, this is an ascribing of malice and forethought that I can appreciate. If you look at Dickinson’s own manuscript, you can see that she considered using a legalistic term** “some parties,” but “some one” seems the broader and better choice. Here, in a different aspect from the snowflake who thinks it has at least a binary choice, it appears the wind is saying it’s been diverted or prevented from something.
In this small poem’s presentation, these two things are joined. The snowflake thinks it can decide, but we know the wind will send it where it directs, but the wind thinks it has been in someway enjoined. Pathetic fallacy aside, it cannot choose, meteorological forces and barometric lines will send it where they will.
In the last two lines, Dickinson doesn’t tell us how it comes out — she refuses to leave her poem’s lyric moment. Her final line brings one more uncommon word choice. It has it that “Nature, like us, is sometimes caught/Without her diadem.” A diadem is a ruler’s crown, worn to signify that the wearer, well, rules, decides. Once more, the pathetic fallacy is invoked: nature is the decider, but for the poem’s moment they have momentarily forgotten to put on the device that lets them take on that power — but in a tiny aside (“like us”) Emily Dickinson says we actual humans, who can actually think, feel, decide are sometimes also in this situation, we may blithely follow what seems like a free will choice or complain that we are forced into our directions. Which is it, really? Did you forget your diadem?
Read this poem, or many an early Imagist poem or classical Chinese poem, and it may seem a miniature painting of a mundane scene. We may be charmed briefly, or we may think, “Oh, that’s too slight to be a thoughtful poem.” Did Dickinson consciously or unconsciously intend what I see here? The number of times she was able to pull off effects like this poem can produce, and the subsidiary writings demonstrating how she thought*** indicate that even if she didn’t consciously work out the complexities underneath her simplicities in some grand and lengthy inner symposium, she put herself in the place where she could receive and express these charged moments.
*The pathetic fallacy is the tactic of ascribing human emotions and thought to inanimate objects or forces. Despite the literal words of this poem, it’s not debatable that snow does that, and the wind doesn’t really have some angry dispute.
**I’m not sure how many scholars have considered that Dickinson grew up in a family of lawyers, and even though as a woman that field was not open to her, it’s likely that some of that was picked up by her avid mind.
***Long footnote ahead! What can we gather from how Dickinson used this poem that might indicate how she considered it? This poem was “published” in a personal letter to the wife of a couple that were long-time friends of Emily. The husband in the couple was Josiah Holland, a medical doctor and lay preacher. By the time this poem was written in 1866, Josiah had become a well-known journalist, lecturer, poet, and author. He was a principal in the Springfield Republican newspaper which famously published seven of Dickinson’s poems during her lifetime. He had just published one of the first full-length biographies of Abe Lincoln, and would a few years later found and become the first editor of Scribner’s Monthly. His wife, to whom the letter with the poem was addressed, Elizabeth Holland, has no known literary work — but read the letter by following this link. Here one may get the sense of how another important literary personage who Emily Dickinson interacted with, the formidable Thomas Higginson, remarked about how Dickinson wore him out. The amount of philosophical legerdemain, reference, and zen parable in this short letter is striking to me. Did Dickinson expect Elizabeth Holland to understand that letter?
Emily Dickinson’s correspondence and friendship with the Holland couple seems to have been one of the most stable and ongoing in her life, equal to those who were Dickinson’s blood relatives. Whatever bonds were between them, this letter shows the expectation of considerable intellectual understanding, and for “The Sky is Low” to be enclosed indicates that Dickinson had goals beyond the simplistic for it.
Today’s piece is a winter poem for troubled lovers, but in the wandering tradition of this project, we’re going to go somewhere else on our way there.
Next week there is to be an inauguration of a new American President. It’ll be the 13th new President in my lifetime. Though I remember witnessing all these inaugurations in part through news reports, photographs and recorded footage; to the best of my recall, I have only watched two as they happened. Which ones? Most recently, I watched Barack Obama’s first inauguration in 2009 while working in a place with a newsroom; and then, before that, as a schoolchild I watched John Kennedy’s inauguration.
I believe this is so because in our democracy we have a tradition of our Presidential terms ending and beginning uneventfully and with a comforting regularity. It’s not that we citizens ignore that there’s a new President, but the event itself happening is largely unremarkable.
Kennedy’s inauguration in 1961 was contemporaneously recognized as a post-WWII milepost, the Presidency passing to a young former enlisted man in that war, moving us beyond a country ruled before by 19th century men. As I said, I was a schoolchild. My class watched it on a single gray TV set placed up high in front of our schoolroom instead of our usual lessons. I don’t think I was alone in the audience for that event in thinking it was important to pay attention to what was said, watching for news of a new era we knew was new.
Obama’s election and inauguration said something about America recognizing it had changed its evaluation of people of color.* It’s become a mark of sophistication and analysis to say that was an illusion, disproven by everything wronged people and close examination brought forward then, and since then. I thought, and think, we’re in the midst of things. If more know that now, the marker post of Obama can still tell us where we’ve come from and where we can go.
Is it a coincidence that both of those Presidential Inaugurations had a poet read a poem as part of the ceremony? That’s not a common choice: Kennedy was the first President to ever do so, and only one other President, Clinton, did so besides Obama.
Now, as it happens, I hope to watch the Inauguration next Wednesday, because this one seems more precious to me, more extraordinary, something not to be taken for granted. I will not watch it expecting or requiring great words — no need anyway, because the event alone now has a greatness thrust upon it. Yet coincidence or not, there will be a poet, a particularly young one, reading next week: Amanda Gorman, all of 22 years old.
There are several videos of Gorman reading on the web, but I wanted to bring forward what she says here about her poem for Independence Day, which starts with Phillis Wheatley and mentions that she’s speaking in the Washington-Longfellow house that day. It occurs to me that Gorman seems to be essaying a kind of civic American poetry that Longfellow might recognize.
So, now I’m ready to return to today’s piece, one using the words of American poet Kenneth Patchen’s poem “The Snow Is Deep on the Ground.” If you’d like to follow along with the text, here’s a link to the poem. “The Snow is Deep on the Ground” seems to fit my times, and perhaps it fits yours too, and so we may think of it as my unofficial poem for this January’s Presidential Inauguration.
What did Patchen intend with the repeated image here of deep snow? As a northerner I know one thing it portends, a restriction of movement, and it’s often too a trope of accumulated time. I read something now in the image that Patchen may not have intended, restricted as I am in movement by our current epidemic and having just endured a cloddish act of insurrection deep in whiteness. It seems, or we hope it is, that that “war has failed.”
Patchen says the snow is beautiful though — but specifically it’s beautiful in a fallen state, something meteorologically and theologically true in Patchen’s poem.
The poem’s third stanza has muffled terrors. What a strange and yet strong line “Only a few go mad” is! And the whiteness “like the withered hand of an old king” undercuts any sense of simple winter landscape beauty. To say twice “God shall not forget us” implies this is in question, doesn’t it?
The poem has it what we know more than we know by faith: our love, our lovers. How beautiful it is to be loved, to love. And to know that after talking of politics in a world where lies and flags are used as shields and lances to beat each other with!
My performance of “The Snow Is Deep on the Ground” can be heard with the player below, or if you don’t see that, with this highlighted hyperlink. The musical core today is my naïve piano playing, over some drums and small percussion instruments. To add some character to the string bass part I doubled it with a synth-bass. Thanks for reading and listening, particularly as my ability to produce new pieces is reduced right now.
*There was something else about that Presidency. I’ve lived a long life, and yet in all those years Barack Obama is the only President I’ve ever had who was younger than me.
Let’s begin our celebration of Halloween here at the Parlando Project with a setting of a short poem by Emily Bronte that starts “The night is darkening round me.” What a marvelous short poem it is too.
Halloween here in the northland of Minnesota is in some years an early winter holiday, and this late year’s late October seems one of those. I’ve awakened to temperatures in the teens Fahrenheit already this month, snow and ice are on the ground, and of course it’s already twilight at 6 pm. So, given that the speaker in Bronte’s poem is enchanted by a spell, it’s easy to see this from my landscape as a Halloween poem, but if you are farther south you can consider it a Winter Solstice one. And if you live in the tropics? Well, I do promise “Other People’s Stories” here.
My wife and I live by the Norwegian proverb about there being no bad weather, only bad clothes. Our love gifts tend not to be lingerie or sharp dress duds, but things like merino wool and handlebar pogies*. We each try to keep up outdoor activities in the winter, and as long as you are active, such clothing works well.
But Bronte opens up in a different situation. It’s night. It’s cold. It’s windy. And our poem’s speaker has been spellbound out in it. They can’t leave. The poem, short as it is, tolls a refrain over and over, the speaker “cannot go.”
I played this with the eerie, hook-like appendage guitarists call “a capo,” so it sounds in Bb in the recording.
And the second stanza says the weather is getting, what? Worse! There’s already heavy snow on the tree branches. Where is the speaker bound in this spell in the foreboding night with a further storm coming on?
Not even hunkered down in a sheltered area or behind a windbreak. They are frozen (not soon to be a metaphoric word!) somewhere between the sky’s clouds and the winter, snow-covered wastes below. When I read this poem, I pictured the spellbound speaker held supernaturally some distance in the air (makes it easier to view the snow-load on those tree branches), but if you are less fantastic you could view them on a ridge or hillside and able to view lowland areas below, but still more than minimally exposed to the weather. I’ve even read a reading where the writer thought that Bronte had placed the speaker in Purgatory, and the clouds are heaven and the lower wastes hell. Well, Emily Bronte was a PK** and all, so that’s not impossible, but I’ll still take the picture with what Bronte gives us, stark as it is—and in its moment, without any route to salvation.***
Other close readers note the subtle change in the last “cannot go” refrain. The speaker says “I will not…go” the last time, not “I cannot…go.” Do they want to be in this predicament? Is there a kinky love bond with the tyrant who has them trapped in the spell? Plausible reading. My sensibility hears this “will” as a final realization that there’s no way out from the spell, that the speaker is not just temporarily trapped and cannot go, but they will be so in any future they can see.
So, a Halloween-scary poem. Back in the “real world” that we hope is safe enough to tell each other scary stories, we can reflect how this trope of being in a situation of oncoming dread and not being able to move is a common bad dream. Or if you, or someone you know, suffers from S.A.D. (Seasonal Affective Disorder) you may find the winter darkness brings on a torpor that’s hard to break out of.
A simple setting for today’s piece: guitar, bass, and piano. The weather’s too cold and dark to drag an orchestra outside I guess. I plan to be back with more Halloween spells this week, time allowing, so check follow, or check back. The player gadget to hear my performance of Emily Bronte’s “Spellbound” also known as “The Night is Darkening Around Me” is below.
*Pogies are neoprene hoods that allow one to operate bicycle controls inside their wind and warm shelter while wearing only normal gloves rather than bulky insulated mittens. They are the only solution that really works for subzero F. cold on bikes.
**PK means “Preachers Kid.” A class that Parlando Project alternate voices Dave Moore and my wife share with me. One thing this experience usually leads to is a youthful exposure to a lot of sermons. “Heaven and Hell” may not just be someone’s favorite Black Sabbath LP—or it may be, but one has yet another context for that.
December seems so long ago doesn’t it? More so this spring in our current crisis. Back on the 10th of December I awoke, took my bike ride to breakfast in a pleasantly crowded café, where I read that it was Emily Dickinson’s birthday. While eating breakfast I decided I should try to make a Dickinson piece before the day was done.
This morning in March, I rode to that same café. Normally there are 20 or 30 folks there drinking coffee, eating breakfast, talking, reading or fiddling with notebooks or notebook computers during the morning on a weekday—more on weekends. Today they are to close their dining area for the duration at noon, and the two couples eating breakfast several empty tables apart (along with some not-present more) will need to do what I did and pickup takeout fare to keep this place a going concern.
Cold but sunny morning, and taking their last chance for awhile to have breakfast together.
When Emily Dickinson was a child, her family grew up not in the grander family house her grandfather had built and lost due to debts and business ineptitude, but in another house across the road from a cemetery. Some biographers think this molded the young mind of our great poet, but then the literature of that time had a decidedly gothic tinge to it anyway. And that’s not the place she lived as the poet we know.
Her father worked assiduously to repair the family wealth and regained the homestead. Emily’s room is in the front of the house. Out to her left would be the garden and orchard that she became the master of with the illness and eventual death of her mother. Below her, the kitchen where she and the family’s immigrant Irish servant fixed the family meals and baked. That garden and orchard is now gone as the world of her family and town moved on from its former rural self-sufficiency. Also gone is the 11-acre Dickinson meadow that would have been more or less straight-on in view for Emily at her writing table on one of her December birthdays.*
The famously sequestered Dickinson of her later adult years would have been living our current Covid-19 life of “social distancing” and stay-at-home self-isolation. You might think her poetry would be more solipsistic for that, but she really was a mind forever voyaging. The winterscape she portrays in this short poem is quite likely that Dickinson meadow or her bare garden.
Though the creation of the music and recorded performance of it was rapid even by this project’s quick pace, I don’t think it suffers from that at all as I listen to it again today. The post I wrote about it in December was not one of the most liked or read this winter, but the audio piece was listened to more than any other one during the past three months,** and by enough to score the top spot anyway.
As I consider my sequestered music making today—something I can create even in these times, by myself, playing each part in turn—I feel for those other musicians whose art and the revenue to support it requires a live venue, a paying crowd coming through the door. Of course, cooks, wait staff, musicians—small businesspeople for the most part and only a portion of our world—are not the only ones who will suffer through the duration of our current crisis, but they were in my thoughts as I write this.
Is Dickinson’s poem lighthearted and playful or more gothic in mood? My current reading of Dickinson is that it’s both. She is amazed at the shapes and filigrees of the barren landscape, yes—but it is a place of stilled and departed artisans as she portrays it. She sees an absence, that resonate line: “Summer’s empty room.”
My performance of Emily Dickinson’s “Snow” also known as “It sifts from leaden sieves” is available with the player gadget below.
The cosmos says we need to get a leap year, and extra day, and yet we put it in February. It was a dozen degrees Fahrenheit this morning, and my bike ride back from breakfast was into an insistent north wind that explains to me that we’re in Minnesota and we’ll probably have a snowstorm or two yet before we can see spring—a spring that sometimes seems too short to form memories.
So, before we leave this month and season, I thought it a good time for a short poem referencing a short month from American poet Sara Teasdale. Teasdale is like Edna St. Vincent Millay, a poet that 100 years ago was thought a leading voice in this country’s verse, after which we spent the rest of the century more or less forgetting or down-grading their place.
When such re-evaluations happen, it’s common to assign them to the refined judgement of posterity, the further assay that separates momentarily sparkly stuff from the for-all-time classics. How does that happen?
One could assign this downward path to Teasdale (like Millay) writing metrical and rhyming verse in their prize-winning years early in the 20th century. The evil Modernist free-verse hordes in this view laid waste to all who dare to rhyme or march to a one-shoe-off beat.
There’s a factor there, sure, but this story doesn’t account for two giants whose statues were not toppled: Frost and Yeats. Nor the monuments on many campuses to canon sitters like Auden and Wilbur et al who were not primarily free-verse poets.
No, I think there are more important factors in this determination, one that is currently under revision in our new century. First, both were essentially lyric poets. “Lyric” in this sense doesn’t mean that they wrote song lyrics. Though of course this project finds them sing-able and otherwise suited to presentation with music, “Lyric” in the literary sense means that their poems tend to be set in the impressions and immediacy of a moment, and their final and considered judgement of that moment is not necessarily explicit. Lyric poems don’t usually have great themes developed with long arguments in verse. Nor do they have narratives the way a novel or story does, were we turn the page to find out what happens next. What happens in a lyric poem—happens! Right then. Right now.
The pioneering Modernists in the years before the end of WWI, those that were or wrote like Imagists, were fine with that. Indeed, this was the point of Imagism. Teasdale wasn’t called an Imagist, but she could write like one, albeit with rhyme and meter. The Imagists didn’t call for the end of rhyme and meter, they called for an end of poems that existed to fill out those forms without the vividness of the lyric.
But post Eliot and the Pound of the Cantos, post the sheltering of poetry inside the academic monasteries which could too easily fall into a rout of poems to be taught rather than poems to be experienced, these poems could seem slight. The Imagists were a fine exercise to break from the past, but they were not, in this outlook, the way to write great poetry.
And here’s the other reason. Gender. The academics were overwhelmingly men and were steeped in the things men were thinking about. And the world of the middle of the 20th century had a lot of concerns that made the concerns of Teasdale and other women poets of the early part of the 20th century seem like the line in Casablanca uttered by Humphrey Bogart “The problems of three little people don’t amount to a hill of beans in this crazy world.”
For the first part of our double feature: 90 seconds of cinema that was an emotional touchstone to many. Also, mansplaining.
It took the culture until nearly the end of the 20th century to see that part of the world’s craziness was because men were still explaining how it worked to women.*
All that may be too much of a burden to bear for this short poem by Teasdale. But if “February Twilight” was signed Frost or Yeats, I suspect more attention might be paid to her poem. It doesn’t read much like Yeats, but it could pass for the shorter, lyric Frost.
The lyric impulse in poetry survived the mid-20th century when colored with Dada and Surrealism. “See, it’s not me! I’m a serious poet, but I just chanced into this charged moment.”
What does Teasdale experience in the charged moment of her lyric? That it seems like she’s the only one that views this star, a manifest untruth we could explain to her, but which I think she knows as the final line presents. She doesn’t explain this to us, but we can stand in the cold, snowy February and experience it with her.
I’m choosing tambura and acoustic guitar again for my performance today, this time with an organ keyboard part. Click on that player gadget below to hear it. “If you don’t, you’ll regret it. Maybe not today, and maybe not tomorrow, but soon, and for the rest of your life.”
*Which I’m doing here. Ha Ha! Here’s where one of the principles of the Parlando Project comes in: “Other People’s Stories.” I’m not claiming the exclusive right to mansplain mansplaining, but men speaking up about it has its place and value.
Oh, and explaining has value too. And I happen to like Casablanca as a movie. And defeating fascism might have a value greater than the optimum choice for a snuggle-bunny. And I had huevos rancheros for breakfast. A hill of beans would be meaningful and sustaining to me!
I woke up this morning to learn that it’s Emily Dickinson’s birthday—and I didn’t get her anything. Well, we do know how to do something here at the Parlando Project and that’s create musical presentations quickly, and it’s not like we’ve run out of Dickinson poems to use.
So today’s piece is a Dickinson poem about snowscapes. Having had the opportunity to visit the Dickinson family house in Amherst and hearing there that the area across the highway road was in Dickinson’s time a farm field helps me visualize Emily writing this. I can clearly sense her looking out the window from her bedroom writing table on that road and field that are this poem’s landscape.
This is Dickinson in her playful mode, but that doesn’t stop her mind from creating some exact and fanciful descriptions for the snowscape, starting right out with the snow fall being sifted like flour (do cooks still sift flour?) *
The least playful image in my mind is also the most striking in the poem, it’s a description of that farm field as “summer’s empty room”, not yet filled with snow (the furrows are still visible) and some now deserted plant stalks are jutting through picking up windy veils of snow. This is likely a poem written about an early winter, December, snow fall
In other work Dickinson can be harrowing or she might present us with some concise mysticism or philosophic equation, but that’s as close here to a darker note as we’ll get in this one. She seems content in her vision of a stilled winter and a smoothed and sparkling world—as I was today watching the white outdoors and below-zero temps just the other side of my glass as I wrangled a dense percussion track for this piece. It was afternoon before I moved on to a few keyboards. Then the final musical task was to add the 12-string electric guitar parts.
My electric 12-string, “recordless, but for them”
Long time readers here will know that the Twin Cities is something of a center for the 12-string guitar, an instrument I’ve used since shortly after I arrived here, but the electric 12-string remains a rare instrument here as it is elsewhere. Acoustic or electric, for each of the guitar’s conventional six strings the 12-string adds a paired string right next to it. Most of those additional paired-strings are conventionally tuned** an octave higher than the regular guitar strings, and the two strings when struck never quite vibrate in unison, adding a slight wobble that’s either charming or sea-sick depending on one’s taste and ear. I added to that with a whole load of echo, delay and reverb today, and all this called for the parts to be played sparsely and slowly. Even with an echo effect glitch*** that ruined the first couple of takes, I was able to lay down the parts quickly enough that you can hear it tonight with the player below. If you’d like to follow along with today’s poem (sometimes cataloged under its first line “It sifts from Leaden Sieves”)the full text is here.
*Emily would have sifted as the household’s baker. The flour in her time was less refined—and sifting also removes things like bugs or foreign matter that might be mixed in with the flour. And sifted flour is more suited for blending with other ingredients. Sifting seems metaphorical matter for creating art, doesn’t it?
**Conventionally the high B and high E strings are tuned in unison and the bottom 4 in octaves, but some players tune additional strings in unison rather than octaves (Steve Tibbetts and Huddie Ledbetter/Leadbelly for two unlike examples).
***User error on the part of the producer, engineer and musician, which is easier when they are all me. I also make the tea, so there’s no one else to blame.
Let’s imagine that it’s 1914, and on both sides of the Atlantic curious short poems with precisely chosen and concrete imagery are appearing here and there. This is Imagism, the premier movement of Modernism in English. Long-time readers here will know* that these small and unpresupposing poems came from several sources: the away-with-19th-century-Romanticism ideas of T. E. Hulme, the promotional verve of Ezra Pound who also set out classical East Asian poetry as an ideal, things apprehended from French poetry by the slum-born F. S. Flint, and the fresh eyes and forms of Americans Emily Dickinson and Walt Whitman.
This new poetry was quite unlike the Tennysons and Longfellows that preceded it, but also it is by and large not Modernist poetry as we’ve come to know it later in that century or in our current one. It seems altogether simpler, pared down. It partakes of poetry’s timeless lyric impulse: the thought that a poem need not be long to be complex if it keeps itself true to the goal that the poem isn’t about ideas but the instantaneous experience of ideas. Nor is it a marathon course of those feelings and experiences, rendered on kaleidoscopic canvases.
To some this new kind of poetry is cheating. Where are the grand themes? If the poem doesn’t develop itself like an essay or history where is the effort or the worth of the effort? The poems often don’t seem to use heightened poetic language, and they may at first seem to have no metaphors—rather, the poem is the metaphor. That these poems often eschewed rhyme or conventional meter added to the “anybody can do this” sense many had.
As I imply above, this is not the Modernism that eventually emerged triumphant. Yes, a “Red Wheelbarrow” and “A Station of the Metro” will be constantly anthologized, but Williams and Pound will become known for their longer more esoteric poems. Even if some WWI poets could use these compressed poetic methods to express horror while the fighting was going on, the post-war world wanted it all expanded on, and the thought that expansive sur-rationality was the appropriate response to world-wide mechanized violence came to the forefront. Art needed to be as big or bigger than the things it was opposed to.
“Reading” pictures is risky, but this photo of Crapsey just seems to say determination.
All this ferment brings us to Adelaide Crapsey, a woman who has been forgotten in all the fuss. First, look at that name. It sounds like a character in a satiric novel. It’s so pre-20th century that you can’t imagine Modernist verse having it attached to it (perhaps Hilda Doolittle was savvy in immediately accepting Pound’s rebranding of her as H. D.). Also, if there was such a thing as Middle School in her youth, can you imagine the trauma of carrying her family name?
In The Year Imagism Broke, 1914, Crapsey was not only writing Modernist verse in the initial Imagist sense, she had made a study of English prosody and had created her own form to put her concise poems into: the cinquain. Just as many of the short Imagist poems owed some of their tactics to classical East Asian poems, the cinquain sought to create an English language equivalent to the understanding of forms like the haiku.
Just as with Amy Lowell from earlier this month, I think it may be worthwhile to not let these two poems of Crapsey’s that I use today wash over you quickly, as if they are essays or narrative personal memoir in verse. Each word was chosen carefully, precisely, to evoke a moment you might choose to share inside of her experience.
Ten lines and two of Crapsey’s cinquains that seem to tell the story of this year’s late fall
Am I setting this method of shaping poetry out as the best or only way to approach verse? No, though I’ve come to believe that we may have lost something when we abandoned it for the new more impressive edifices of post 1920s Modernism.
Musically I was thinking of one of my musical heroes and models, Steve Tibbetts, but alas my deadlines, and my musical and production skills this week produced only a rough approximation of what Tibbetts can do. I really tried to rip him off here: a down-tuned acoustic 12-string with paired unison (not-octave) strings. Lots of time-based effects (like reverb, phasing, echo, and delay). Hand percussion leading off to heavier stick drumming. Feedback-loud electric guitar arriving from off-screen into the landscape.
Yesterday, my disappointment in what I had down was fairly complete. My electric guitar solo could be better, and it’s been too long since I’ve played at that volume. The 12-string wasn’t naked and exposed enough. Where’s the space I keep telling myself to leave in? I had no idea of how to duplicate Tibbetts’ characteristic delay and echo effects. My percussion tracks had nothing like the splendid variety that Tibbetts’ long-time collaborator Marc Anderson routinely achieves.
But my son reminds me that Kurt Cobain thought he was just ham-handedly ripping off the Pixies and still came up with something that was worthwhile, and the Steve Tibbetts’ thing is not something commonly heard—so 20% of Steve Tibbetts level might still be worth listening to for what it is, not what it wanted to be. So, here it is, available with the player below surrounding those two 1914 cinquains by Adelaide Crapsey describing our current November season.
*This is a reminder that since “poetry is the news that stays news” that the Parlando Project has nearly 400 examples of what we do that may be just as interesting to you as the current post. Using the search function or just diving in at random to the archives is worth considering.