In a sharp turn-about that shocked many in our nation’s capitol, the President today declared that poetry is an essential service that must remain open during the current pandemic emergency.
“People tell me, that may surprise you, but they do, they say, you know Mr. President your speech is very poetic. I’m told I’ve been compared to the great French poet Ubu Roi, and you know that’ll surprise a lot of the so-called elites who look down on the way I talk straight in several directions. And I hear that Andre Breton had some very good things to say about my campaign. That Andre Breton is a smart guy, and I hear he’s a doctor too, so it’s especially good to hear that he supports me these days.
The President also demonstrated there are plenty of ventilators, tests kits, and protective masks and gowns available.
Now this is odd, because I’ve been involved in other things, but I think I could have been a poet if I’d wanted to. A great one. Maybe I didn’t because I don’t have a big ego like a lot of those poets do. Someone showed me some poetry today, and it didn’t seem to get to the most important things. It seemed to be mostly about the poet themselves. I don’t know if I could do that. But poetry seems to be like that, so maybe I could. I dunno—poets look to what I do, and do the opposite maybe.
Oh, some folks are telling me that I need to get back to the declaration. All right. As you know, our country is going through some tough times. Sometimes they are in little rooms, not fine rooms like this one here, or the ones that you could write in at my hotels or resorts by the way. Great rooms. Big ones, you could put a lot of poetry in there. Stuck at home, and I hear that some of them write and read poetry in those rooms. So, it’s an essential service to social distancing. Even in the earliest days of social distancing I’m told poets across the country were happy to comply with the earlier, looser crowd size regulations of 50 people—some of them even asked if the authorities could go further and require 50 people to attend their readings.
The declaration. It says here that:
Read poetry out loud, at full voice, often, until this emergency is over. It’s good for your lung function. Sad poems will tell you your sorrow is not all the sorrow in the world. Love poems will tell you there is an invisible web of desire as important as gravity. Poems of joy will make you leap like Carl Sandburg’s goats in pastures of plenty. Poems will turn your eyes inside out so you can see with another heart, and hear its strange burbling music.’
That’s the stuff here they want me to say, but I suggest you wait until after I’m done talking to start with the poetry. Oh, and this guy tells me it’s National Poetry Month. Yes, I think so. I hereby declare poetry an essential service today, and every April 1st.”
Reached for comment, Andre Breton suggested that he could not comment at this time, being dead and all. But he referred us to this section of his Surrealist Manifesto as performed in English by the Parlando Project. He further added “Vous pouvez cliquer sur le gadget du lecteur ci-dessous pour l’entendre.”
This may have been one of the first poems I fell in love with: the richness of the language, some sense of strangeness, the exoticness of the depicted setting–all enough for a young teenager. I did not mind the often outdated language then—less then than I do now—as I expected poems then to be written in an old and alien adult literary language.
If you’d asked that teenager what it meant, I would have probably stumbled out something to defend my appreciation of it—but what I did know was that “Ode on a Grecian Urn” is just flat-out lovely word music.
One could go on about that, but no technical analysis will increase or decrease a listener’s appreciation for that element. Music has a structure, theorems and practices, but it remains subjective and it is not engineering. My performance of it today may not do it justice either, let your own ear or voice be the judge.
You don’t need biography to feel this element in the poem, but Keats wrote this in the spring of a year in which he had cared for his brother Tom as he died of tuberculosis that previous winter. In around a year, the medically trained John Keats would notice symptoms that he well knew were from his own infection. Another year from there he would be dead from the feared infectious respiratory disease of his time. So I read it differently today in our time of the pandemic Covid-19.
But “Ode to a Grecian Urn” isn’t poetry as memoir, a common genre in our time. Instead, despite its failure as an example of pared-back language avoiding words describing emotions, the concept of the poem is not unlike that of Imagists nearly a century later.* Keats looks at a thing, a decorated classical Greek vase,** and records that moment.
I’ve figured out why it’s hard to create this week—the muses are sheltering in place. And it ain’t mine.
I’ll resist the urge to go through this poem line by line, but as the poem’s speaker approaches the titular urn he wants to interrogate it. One could draw a cartoon where the vase is in a police station room and the poet-detective is trying to tease out the details of the caper, while we the audience look on. The vase ain’t talking. The detective says that you were seen with that couple at that musical party, would you like to tell us why she was running? OK, so who were the musicians at the gig? You don’t know! Whatd’ya mean?
But let’s return to that almostness, that never. The lover and the beloved are palpably close, yet they cannot touch. The musicians are playing, but it’s somewhere out of ear-reach. Are they all six-feet, a social distance apart? What’s avoided by this freeze, this lock-down? The sorrow with a “burning forehead, and a parching tongue.” Keats seems to intend this as an illness metaphor.***
The poem tells us this vase includes another scene, a cow being led to a ritual slaughter. A vegan, Hindu, or animal-rights advocate may cringe, but the scene is one of an entire town wishing for this consummation, and we may conclude the scene is “You will die so that we may live or prosper”—which after all is the belief of all such rituals. I’m not supposing that Keats was Joaquin Phoenix, however we may view this sort of thing; and most readers have historically taken the poem’s characterization of this as pious at face value. But Keats could have imagined his urn with another religious scene, and chose this one.
If he doesn’t want an element of dread in the sacrifice scene, why does he choose to add the detail that the pious morn has left a town with eerie deserted streets?
At the poem’s end, Keats places the famous couplet “Beauty is truth, truth beauty,—that is all/Ye know on earth, and all ye need to know.” As well-known as these lines are, they’re the source of some controversy. Some think them profound, some glib. They are meaningless babble or a concise summary of Keats’ aesthetic.
The urn, this mesmerizing object, has artistic impact, and that means it’s beautiful in an aesthetic sense. It doesn’t mean it’s clear in its message. It doesn’t mean it’s a simple comfort. Yes, Keats says near the end, the urn is “A friend to man.” But friends are friends partly because they will tell us things that mere sycophants or acquaintances won’t, and friends will be there when things are not all wonderful and happy. It’s true too in this sense: that it is not telling itself with ulterior motives or self-interest.
The experience of the two scenes that precede this summing up are not happy ones. Even the consolations of artistic immortality are slight: we know nothing about the end of the lover’s pursuit, the musician’s tune, the name of the village or if it prospered, or if the sacrificial cow had a soul that was reborn.
As I performed it I decided to downplay what that past teenager would have read as a ringing conclusion. After all, whatever Keats’ sweet unheard intent might have been, his object that we can see and puzzle over tells us that the urn is saying this to him, not some “deity or mortal, or both.” A piece of art says what it says in ways its creator cannot control, as the poem predicts it: “In midst of other woe than ours.”
So, I read it today as that weak voice that says, from when this poem was written, from this time when I performed it, in a time of contagious illness, in a time when caretakers were at risk, to a time when our streets are silent, at a time when some pious ready sacrifices instead of remedies, a time when music is silences and lovers parted—that there is somehow something beautiful to be discerned that is still as true as our living moments.
Speaking of musical engineering, I decided to keep the music silent or very minimal for the first part of this one, even though this project is all about combining music with words—the text’s “unheard music” was just to powerful to contradict. I also chose to keep everything in a major key/major chords, because that too is how I read the text: the urn’s subjects think they are in joy, though we see them, like re-viewing films and video of past happy social crowds today, in a different frame. To read the full text of Keats’ “Ode on a Grecian Urn” go here. The player gadget to hear my performance of it awaits you clicking on the player gadget below. Stay well. Take care.
*The idea of poetry expressing the experience of another piece of art, particularly visual art, ekphrastic poetry, long predates Modernism and Imagism. By using this approach to the everyday encounter with the world, the Imagists extended this technique.
**There is wide agreement that there is no singular vase/subject to discover that Keats actually encountered in a moment. Britain had recently absconded with “The Elgin Marbles” from Athens, a series of marble sculptures that Keats viewed in London, and he had seen period vases, even making his own drawing of one.
***In Illness as Metaphor, Susan Sontag spent a good deal of time on the historical ascribing of tuberculosis to a dissipated or too passionate life-style in pre-germ-theory times. Currently, lovers may be close but separated precisely by our knowledge of microbes.
Given the times we live in and the current virus-crisis, can I be excused for being a little bit late with an audio piece for World Poetry Day?
It occurs to me that if World Poetry Day was some kind of Olympian-Olympics or the World Cup in Verse, and the United States had to look over its relatively short history on the literary scene and pick it’s most powerful and representative champion, Dickinson could be our choice, even though she spent her writing career not really having one.
Indeed, when I was introduced to Emily Dickinson as a teenager back in the middle of the last century, that was the inevitable, subtitled fact about her: a recluse, a nun of poetry in effect—self-isolated in her room, scribbling odd little poems which are now seen to have at least some middling value because, well, they’re so unusual and such.*
For a century and a bit more, past-through that time when I first read her, and over our new century line by a couple of decades, readers, critics, and listeners still discover that there’s as much there in her little poems as we seek to look, and look again, for.
Take today’s spring poem of hers “A light exists in spring.” It’s as simple and complicated as a William Blake song of experience. It’s as metaphysical as a poem by Donne. Yet it doesn’t push me, or (I think) many other readers away. It draws me in to this mystery of what it is describing. Dickinson confides in us: we are likely to feel/see this too.
I compared her to Blake with consideration, because poems like this strike me as describing some kind of mystical or limerent moment. Dickinson has a strange effect often, she can be a cold romantic, a skeptical seer, as I read her.
Something in spring almost speaks to her, and that “almost” in her poem seems powerful—a present absence. I question my musical setting once again today. I’m not sure if I have mistaken a playfulness in this poem as a meditation upon a mystery.
Perhaps it’s my time, and much of the other world’s, this World Poetry Day that leads me there. Many of us are taking Emily’s vows this March, this spring: sheltering in place, practicing social distancing, pondering perhaps a mysterious illness’ distance short or near—and whatever our usual disposition, we may be now far from even lonely crowds in our homes and rooms. This spring is visible as a distance as far as we can see.
Shelter in place: Emily’s room was on the 2nd floor behind the trees in the front-left of this picture.
The player to hear my performance of Emily Dickinson’s “A light exists in spring” is below. Thanks for listening, reading, and sharing the existence of this project.
*Scholarship has shown this blurb-level summary of Dickinson’s life was misleading. For a woman of her time and location, she was above the average line in experience (Some college! Visited other cities. Privileged and connected family in a college town located in the region of America’s greatest intellectual ferment at the time). But by her middle age the burden of a woman’s domestic role and a much speculated-on illness tied her down to the homestead, and only then, in her later years, did she become the recluse of legend.
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.