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.

Cucticle-Herbarium-Clausius

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.

Acquainted with the Night

A few posts ago I said I was holding back some material, going instead with other pieces that weren’t quite as dark. One of the pieces I was holding back was this one: Robert Frost’s “Acquainted with the Night.”

This is often thought of as Frost’s most harrowing poem, even though it achieves that effect descriptively, largely without explicit emotional terms. Some of its tropes have become standard “Noir” features since the poem was written making the nighttime despair, loneliness, and alienation especially easy for modern readers to “read.” Here’s a link to the full text if you’d like to read along.

Frosts Acquainted wit the Black Parade

Representative of Frost’s emocore period? Or if you’d like to see a video making the poem more Ascenseur pour l’échafaud, try this link.

 

So, we have the poem’s speaker (let’s call him Frost for the rest of this) walking alone at night in a city in that time which is past late but too dark to be early. It’s raining. He meets only one other person, a watchman, and avoids him. He hears but two things: his own steps, and at the poem’s high point, someone else’s voice. The poem ends with him noting a “luminary clock,” and a remark casual or crucial he says it indicates “the time was neither wrong nor right.”

The incident of the cry in the third stanza is the key moment in the poem, the most telling. It’s so quiet in the rain (so not a full-on stormy gale or thunderstorm) and the cry is so far away that Frost stops walking because the sound of his footsteps is the loudest thing in the night city. He wants to make out that cry, which I think is “interrupted” by his own solitary footsteps. And what does he discern in that cry? That it’s not calling him back or bidding him leave either. Whoever he’s walking to get away from, it’s not their voice, but he wants to know if it is.

This incident is highlighted too because the poem opens with the idea of constant walking: Frost says he walked past the city limits and back. I’m hitting a muted low string on the guitar in my accompaniment to try to suggest that footsteps effect, that Frost is in motion even if he doesn’t know where he’s going.*

The last external thing Frost notices in the poem is the incident of the clock. Interestingly he uses an odd adjective for the lighted clock: “luminary” rather than “lighted” or “luminous.” I assume Frost would like us to think of the clock as an auspicious authority, a luminary, not just lit. I should also note that some see the clock as the moon in this poem. I don’t. I think if he’d wanted to depict the moon he’d say so. The lit clock face is  moon-like, so I can understand that alternate reading, and what with its “unearthly height” Frost likely intends that overtone at least.

The poem is often read as a depiction of depression, and there I’ll agree as well. Depression is experienced by different people in different ways, but the situation here is familiar to me. Depression can confuse your judgement and ability to weigh things. Frost can walk all night because he is in some dispute with someone else (that voice he interrupts his steps to hear) but he’ll never figure it out even if he walks the entire dark city. He may step between self-pity and wanting to be seen as right, and self-abnegation and judging himself irrevocably wrong, but that only gets him out and back again. The luminary clock hands down it’s judgement: Frost, you’ll not figure it out tonight, which means you could return again to this night walk some other night—but it means also that one will be able to return, or turn elsewhere. Over time one may come to understand better that old acquaintance, the night. Roughly 30 years after writing this poem, Frost as a then old man said this to an interviewer “In three words, I can sum up everything I’ve learned about life. It goes on.”

In three words, I can sum up everything I’ve learned about life. It goes on.”

Some see today’s poem’s luminary clock moment as an existential consideration of suicide. The clock (or moon if that’s your reading) somehow prompts or symbolizes the decision that this night is not the time for that decision. There’s another way to read “neither wrong nor right,” that the clock** indicates only a moment as time, and Frost’s realization about life is that it goes on, that it moves like this poem’s night walk, that that is its meaning: it’s movement.

Let me just say a bit about the poem’s beautiful structure. It’s a sonnet, and it’s a format I’ve used a bit myself lately: four tercets and a concluding couplet rather than the Shakespearean three quatrains and a couplet. But Frost has used Dante’s terza rima scheme of interlocking rhyme in the stanzas, and this knotted interlocking reinforces the endless walking and knotted thinking. And as one more music-of-thought feature, the poem ends with the first line—it walks out and back again just as the poem’s Frost does.

The player gadget to hear my performance of “Acquainted with the Night”  is below. I wouldn’t decorate such a lonely poem with anything more than a single electric guitar this time.

 

 

 

 

*This is also the eventual decision in his famous poem “Stopping by Woods  on a Snowy Evening”  where I believe it’s key to that poem to recognize that he’s not considering tarrying there for some pleasant winter sight-seeing, but that he’s likely lost in a entirely dark rural road and he only thinks/hopes he knows whose woods he’s spotted as a waypoint in the darkest night.

**Yet another plausible meaning for “neither wrong nor right” would be that the traditional clock face might say half past four in the most deserted time of the night, just as it will say the same half past four when 5 PM quitting time approaches in the daytime afternoon. The clock’s face is ignorant or unreliable in that regard. It may be saying it’s time to end this night walk as the night is ending and life and people will return soon at dawn, in the same way it would be saying that it’s time to leave the work of trying to figure out the knot of the dispute before the poem starts, to clock out of the work of the night-office where that question was being worked on.

Frost’s poem doesn’t identify the city the walk is taking place in. For those that hold to the clock theory, London’s Big Ben has been suggested as the clock tower. John Timberman Newcomb in How Did Poetry Survive?  suggests the clock tower of the Metropolitan Life Building, which as the tallest structure in New York City when completed in the early 20th century was a lighted timepiece of unearthly height. Many smaller cities of this time would have had prominent courthouses or main transportation terminals with lighted clock towers too.

For the moon theorists, the time is usually assumed to not be the time of day but a more general “time,” though it’s fairly easy to tell the time at night with a full moon (it’s overhead at midnight, like the sun is at daytime noon). However, “high moon” midnight would not likely be as deserted as the night walk time described in the poem.

Birds Busking

This project doesn’t operate by some master plan, but it does operate keeping in mind a number of principles. I want to explore various ways to combine words with music. There’s a long tradition of setting poetry to music as Art Song or Lieder. While elaborate melodic contours can sometimes detract from the expression of the text, I have no objection to that tradition, just a feeling that there are other approaches.*  I want to vary the music used, as much as my resources and skills allow. I would like the texts to vary in expression as well, so much so that even though this project started with the help of a fellow poet and musician, Dave Moore, it doesn’t use our own poetry or writing for text to connect with music much here. I like to honor “Poetry’s Greatest Hits” but I also like to go crate digging for overlooked writers and poems. And unlike most of the modern web, this blog and this project isn’t out to sell you anything. I’m well past my sell-by date as an indie music act.

I’ve been at this for around five years and presenting things here at this blog for nearly four. Today’s piece makes the 450th combination of various words with various music. My current expectation is to continue this project to the 500th piece. The audience continues to grow, which is gratifying and motivating, but this project takes a tremendous amount of effort. How can one weigh these things? My own subjective feeling right now is that the continued amount of effort involved would make more sense with a larger audience than I’ve been able to attract, even now as this thing nears its fourth-year anniversary.

Parlando 450 Chagall

the 450th audio piece since we launched in August 2016

 

There are ways that might increase that audience that are somewhat known. Most of them have costs in money, time, focus, and complexity that are daunting to me.**  The introverted, heads-down composer, researcher, writer, and musician for whom those efforts would be undertaken is likely incapable of sustaining that and continuing to do as much creative work as this project has become accustomed to. Other than the rewards of perseverance, much of the growth that motivated me in the past few years has been due to the efforts of readers and listeners to spread the word. If you’ve done this, even a little bit by telling a friend or linking a piece, particularly on those social networks that I don’t have time to participate in, thank you!

I should reach 500 pieces sometime later this year. I continue to think on these things and what to do about this project as I continue to work on new pieces.

Today’s piece violates that principle of featuring other writers. I may bend that way a bit more in the coming weeks than in the past, as I have a few pieces I wrote that I want to present. But it does speak to my thoughts today about this project at piece #450. “Birds Busking”  is about that music offered every morning by those exiled dinosaurs. Oh, they have hopes too, if not actual open musical instrument cases with a few bills salted inside. Maybe some territorial claim, mating opportunities, or commiserating calls to like birds-of-a-feather. But one can think, as poets do as they continue, that they might sing anyway.

Birds Busking

I may have invented a word (“eached”) in the 12th line.

 

How many poets have listened to that birdsong? I cannot count and neither can you. The countlessness of that is magnificent! The wonder of all those poets and all that music is what this project is about. And so I write and post this new piece here this morning, tenaciously.

The player to hear “Birds Busking”  is below.

 

 

 

 

*In fact I enjoy Art Song, and just because the style has its characteristics doesn’t mean it doesn’t have its worth. But I can’t sing elaborate melodies successfully (my tune bucket’s got a hole in it). Similarly, I think hip hop can do remarkable things, but the fast rap flow is something my voice can’t quite hack.

**I’m not even good at following up and acknowledging your comments on these pieces. It’s not something you said! I’m just writing another piece of music, or recording it, or researching or looking for a new poet or poem.

Some Rainbow coming from the Fair

There I was, thinking it’s been over a month since I’ve presented an Emily Dickinson poem here. I didn’t start this project thinking that Dickinson would be so prevalent as a source for texts, but that’s what happened, and during the past four years my appreciation and wonder at Dickinson has increased greatly.

One thing I came to sense in her poetry that I had not noticed before was an air of the mystical combined with an almost psychedelic playfulness. This can be dark or light depending on the poem, but since many of the things I’ve been working on lately have been in a darker, more gothic vein, I thought I’d look more to the lighthearted side. I started a search for Dickinson and spring, and while I’m not sure exactly what keywords I used, this poem turned up very near the top, and it immediately captured me. I had thought I’d be searching for a while but found my next piece in less than 10 minutes.

“Some Rainbow coming from the Fair”  is not one of the most famous of Dickinson’s poems, nor has it been commonly set to music (unlike many other Dickinson texts). Here’s the full text and a picture of the manuscript in Emily’s own handwriting if you’d like to follow along.

It opens with two remarkable and attractive lines that don’t present a distinct image. I’m not sure which meaning of the word “Fair” we’re to understand in the first line. Fair as in a celebratory meeting or market (like a county or town fair) or fair as in beautiful, but rainbows and fair in the first line and we could almost be in My Little Pony land if Dickinson doesn’t launch us further out quickly into a “A vision of the world Cashmere.” I first thought of the luxurious wool,*  but she also could be using this word as an alternate name for the Asian region called Kashmir. Peacocks complete the luxurious imagery of the first stanza. In later context we’ll see that this is an image of wildflowers, but at this point we’re still in mystery and allure.

Next stanza is lovely in sound and more specific in what it pictures. Butterflies are butterflies, ponds have insect sounds again, and in an image that might make one laugh out loud, bees are “barons” out of their castles and on the ambling march.

Third stanza, robins have replaced the enrapturing snow that Dickinson so ably described in a poem many liked here last winter. She next gives us an orchis flower prettying up for an old lover, the exotic Spanish nobleman “Don the Sun” who is revisiting her in her swamp.**  The sensual and the silly playfulness keep mixing it up.

In context we now suspect that the poem is describing wildflowers in its more impressionistic and feathered images. And the final stanza marshals the spring blooms into an army. And then, like it started, the poem departs with two lines that end in mystery. What’s up with the flower children of “turbaned seas” and the “Circassian Land?”

Well first, flowers again.*** The spring flowering tulip’s name is derived from the same word as the Turkish word turban because the bud’s shape is of a like shape to the head covering. The Circassians and their native region in the Caucasus mountains were in the news at the time this poem was written. Imperial Russia had invaded the area, and the Circassians were fighting back.**** Some of the coverage dealt with atrocities including the enslavement of Circassian captives and captured Circassian women being held in Turkish harems. As we’ve discussed before, this last trope was an exotic/erotic fixation for some westerners. Circassians were geographically “Caucasians”—and in the archaic understanding of ethnicity of this time, Caucasians were held to be the prototypical white race. Therefore, beyond the usual fascination with underdog fighters against Imperial forces and humanitarian concerns with displaced refugees, there was this additional element of “White Slavery” and a frisson of the forbidden.

So this is a very particular and odd way to end the poem—but even if you know nothing of the current events of the mid 19th century, it does still convey that exotic flavor. A reader reading this without context may still find it an enjoyable spring celebration poem. It certainly captured my interest at first reading. But wait, there’s one more bit of context!

It may well have been intended to capture it’s reader, as it did me, in that it’s one of the poems Dickinson sent in a letter to her friend, sister in law, neighbor, and possible lover Susan Gilbert Dickinson in 1859. If you look at the end of that handwritten manuscript, it ends with this note:

Emily's Dear Sue Note

Dear Sue, I haven’t “paid you an attention” for some time. Girl.

 

 

As with all things Emily and Sue, there’s a gathering amount of modern speculation and scholarship to these matters. Just a little friend to friend note or a bread-and-butter obligation repaid to a sister in law? Or is this poem meant to be an encoded mash note to a romantic crush?

If it’s consciously or unconsciously erotic, one may be able to see that reading without strain. Cashmere as fabric for a vest or blouse. The pervasive flowers now as the beautiful reproductive organs of plants. And butterflies. The bees, are they singing Slim Harpo’s “I’m a King Bee”  from a hundred years after Dickinson’s poem? That Orchis waiting for a lover? Oh, for certain. Sensuous feathers. The whole captive in a harem as role-playing. It’s not just the spring wetlands that are getting steamy in here!

In the end, the poem may stand either for spring’s desire and delight or the poet’s. And as I said last time, it captures you with it sound of thought either way. The player gadget for my performance is below.

 

 

* Dickinson might have had it in mind, as this textile from Asiatic goats had been introduced to western countries, and Massachusetts in her time had mills that wove it into fabric.

** The informal British English meaning for “bog” was not likely on Emily’s mind. However, one of Dickinson’s poetic heroes Elizabeth Barrett Browning had helped propagate the Latin lover trope with her publication of her love poems Sonnets from the Portuguese in 1850.

***Emily Dickinson was an avid gardener, and as a young woman compiled an elaborate herbarium classifying a great many flowers in her region. Whenever Dickinson mentions a flower you can be sure she knows more about it than the average person.

****These overseas battles were covered in the Springfield Republican,  a Massachusetts newspaper that was read in the Dickinson household and which was one of the few places that published an Emily Dickinson poem while she was alive. Alas for the Circassians, the final outcome of this invasion was diaspora and what in a quaint 20th century euphemism was called “ethnic cleansing.” And to think that I sought out this poem because I wanted contrast to other, darker stuff I was working on.

Stones Under the Low-Limbed Tree

Today’s piece has an eerie history. It started as a poem by Robert Frost, but I think four years ago I turned it into a song. I had more or less forgotten about it, but this past week I found it in some past work that I had separated out to work on for this project.

Looking at it, I put it near the top of the pile. I thought it representative of the best of early Frost, when he was a supple lyric poet. “This’ll be great. So clean in language. So concise in his laying out of the story.”

The process of producing the performance and recording that you can hear below went well enough. So today I was getting ready to write about my experience of Frost’s poem after going through this project’s process. As usual, I wanted to find a location for the original text for those that want to read along. I found a good link to Frost’s poem. It’s here.

Surprise! Turns out I had modified Frost’s poem much more than realized. I had recalled only that I had repurposed a pair of Frost’s lines to create a chorus/refrain—but when looking at the original poem I hardly recognized the text I had been working on during the recording of the performance this month. It turns out, “Ghost House”  (as he titled this piece) was an early poem of Frost’s, written in 1901 and included in A Boy’s Will,  his first collection of poems published in England in 1913. Unlike most of the poems in that collection, “Ghost House”  had been published, back in 1906 in a magazine. The reason A Boy’s Will  was published in England was the Frost had made little headway as a poet in the United States. At that point he was nearing 40 years old, so it’s possible that if Frost hadn’t traveled to and succeeded in England, this greatly loved American poet would be nearly unknown.

I stress the actuality that I had no recollection of recasting the poem extensively when I say that I prefer “my version” to Frost’s original. The lack of any memory of the work I did means that this judgement is rather impersonal. Frost’s “Ghost House”  isn’t bad, but it’s not as distinguished as other poems in his early work. It seems more 19th century for one thing. It also overdoes it, seeming to confuse more elaboration and details for more impact and substance.

Stones Under the Low-Limbed Tree

Here’s Frost’s poem as revised for singing.

 

When I briefly try to reconstruct what I did to make the text for today’s piece, I see I used his lines for the most part, but I trimmed out much. My lyric is essentially 17 lines. Frost’s is 30. I dropped entire images, some inconcrete and a bit trite (“I dwell with a strangely aching heart”—you’ve shown us that mood Robert, telling us that is less vivid), and some redundant (we’ve got raspberries and grapevines, we don’t need the apple tree* too). Then too, I chopped the entire whippoorwill stanza, which some argue contains the key image in the poem.**

I also may have just been trying to make it more sing-able.

These two things are lessons. First, poetry often gains power by saying something in its most striking, sensual, and strong way—or even when it’s being less direct, by combining a few things (perhaps only two things) in an unexpected but powerful way. Everything beyond that may detract. The second-best or third-best image subtracts by its addition. Frame your best images, don’t embarrassingly hide them in clutter. And secondly, at least with lyric poetry, when it sings it means.  Poetry works through the music of thought. Even something that clarifies the meaning or explains further a point may sometimes be dispensed with in order to make a poem a musical statement that will lodge in the reader/listener’s ear, and via that canal to their brain. In this case I don’t think I sacrificed clarity, but also I don’t think I could sing Frost’s version—and at least in my case, I didn’t remember his.

Did what I do mean I think I’m a better poet than Robert Frost? Nope. I also may not be a better poet than you. But on any one day, on a particular task, with a particular aim, I might be. Frost was a famously grumpy personality, but perhaps his ghost has mellowed with immortality. If so, I hope he might think I served the inspiration of his early poem by trimming it back. Or maybe I didn’t make these changes, since I don’t remember? Perhaps Frost’s ghost came by and made the revision?

To separate this version from the canonical Frost version I call it “Stones Under the Low-Limbed Tree.”   The player gadget for my performance is below. Oh, and do follow at least one of the links in the first footnote below. You’ll visit other ghost farmsteads in search of fruit still yielding outside fallen cellar walls.

 

 

 

*This morning I read this fascinating story that went out on the AP wire. It covers something called the “Lost Apple Project” which is haunting abandoned farmsteads looking for old varieties of apples that sustained—or tried to sustain—homesteaders. Oh man did this resonate when working on this piece!

**I didn’t know, but some readings of “Ghost House”  say the whippoorwill is known as a bird foretelling death or other disasters. News to me. Even if I knew that, foretelling seems to blunt the impact of the poem as I cast it. In my mind the point is that the death/disaster has already occurred. Yes I know, some readings say that the poem’s speaker is either dead or gothically welcoming death for himself. I don’t disagree with that, but it doesn’t change my view. Even if the speaker is still alive but wants death, an omen bird’s warning is gilding the raven.

Corinna, Corinna Let’s Go a Maying

Robert Herrick wrote in the awkward 17th and 18th century era in English poetry where if you aren’t Milton you get tabbed in the minor poet folder. That didn’t stop Herrick, as he wrote a couple thousand of poems without ever achieving widespread cultural impact. There’s likely some overriding reasons why the gap between the inventiveness of Shakespeare, other Elizabethan poets and John Donne; and then Blake, Wordsworth and the Romantic movement was a fallow period for innovation in English language verse.

What poetry of Herrick’s I recall from my youth had a chaste lustfulness about it—a difficult combination to make work. I haven’t thought much since then about refreshing my experience of his work until I came upon this May Day poem looking for material this spring: “Corinna’s going a Maying.”  It’s yet another carpe diem poem, a genre that can’t escape the imprint of the patriarchy on it.*  But Herrick doesn’t really launch into the hard-core let’s get it on before we die argument until after a fair number of stanzas that are so much “Spring! Time to get outside and enjoy that frostbite is no longer the charm that nature has on offer.”

And yet this May, a springtime carpe diem poem has a different cast. We didn’t really folk-dance around maypoles much in our century, but this May we know we can not do what we didn’t do. Even the poem’s warning that our days may run out before we know our liberty, dark as that thought may be, is more present.

And yet this May, a springtime carpe diem poem has a different cast. We didn’t really folk-dance around maypoles much in our century, but this May we know we can not do what we didn’t do.

So mopey guy that I can be** I zeroed in on the final stanza, which seemed to have by far the sharpest lines, and if performed alone wouldn’t tax my listener’s patience. Herrick’s “Corinna”  is written in rhyming couplets, which was in fashion in his age (as it is for Hip Hop now). Since carpe diem tropes go back to Roman poets, Herrick adopted to his English poetry some verbal riffs from Latin.

Which is when I flashed on the idea for how to present “Corinna’s going a Maying.”  It’s easy to adapt rhyming couplets to the Blues Stanza (two repeated lines completed by a third rhyming one that often surprises in its completion). And then the name of the woman addressed by Herrick is the same addressed by an American folk song “Corinne, Corinna”  or “Corinna, Corinna”  that’s been recorded by dozens of blues, folk, country, and rock artists. I knew it mostly from Joe Turner’s blues version from the 50s and Bob Dylan’s mildly electric cover from his  Freewheelin’ Bob Dylan  LP.

So, the die was cast. I would try to perform Herrick’s closing section as a set of blues stanza adaptions. The feel I fell into was my approximation of the Vee-Jay*** records of my youth that featured Jimmy Reed or John Lee Hooker. Unlike ex-big band blues shouter Joe Tuner, Hooker made his early mesmerizing recordings with just voice and electric guitar, but by the time he was recording for Vee Jay they often added drums and sometimes a second guitar to make the records more palatable to the R&B audiences of the late 50s and the early 60s. Which leads to a remarkable thing about Hooker’s Vee-Jay recordings: the singer/guitarist at the center of those recording dates wasn’t the most regular in his song structures. Rather he was steeped in the drifting Delta style where the little breaks and asides were thrown in at various times depending on the feeling he was building in any one take.**** This meant the drummer had their work cut out for themselves in those days before everyone would be asked to sync to a click track and verses are expected to snap to a fixed grid. That “backwards” style where the drummer follows the guitarist has a certain charm to it, and you can see its rock’n’roll descendants in the Rolling Stones and The White Stripes.

Hooker 'n' Herrick

“Let that girl go a Maying. It’s in her, and it’s gotta come out!”

 

All that is to say that it took some precise work to do the loosey-goosey May Day take of what I call “Corinna, Corinna Let’s Go a Maying”  even if I don’t sound much like Reed or Hooker. I doubt Herrick would mind too much, after all he was adapting Catullus and Ben Johnson for his times, just as John Lee Hooker was adopting his style to the space and tail-fin age. The player to hear my performance of the final section of Herrick’s poem is below. The full text of the Herrick poem is here. Just jump to the final stanza if you want to read along to my performance.

 

 

 

 

*Are there any poems written to men from a woman’s perspective that make the argument that they need to get busy with the woman poet because, well, you’re aging and death awaits all? There are male to male poems that fit this genre (some of Shakespeare’s sonnets are examples), but I can’t think of an example by a woman off hand.

**Sometimes I wonder if I hold with songwriter Townes Van Zandt who famously stated, “There’s only two kinds of music: the blues and zippety do-dah.”

***Chicago-based Vee-Jay preceded even Motown as a black-owned record company, and besides recording R&B, jazz and gospel they were the American label that cut a deal in early 1963 to release records by The Beatles. You’d think that would be the beginning of a great success story. That’s not how the record business works.

****Lightnin’ Hopkins was another. Jas Obrecht in his book Rollin’ and Tumblin’  quotes ZZ Top’s Billy Gibbons with this tale of a recording session: “We were playing a traditional blues and we all went to the second change, but Lightnin’ was still in the first change. He stopped and looked at us. Our bass player said, ‘Well, Lightnin’, that’s where the second change is supposed to be, isn’t it?’ Lightnin’ looked back and said, ‘Lightnin’ change when Lightnin’ want to change.’”

Death by Water

Long-time readers here will know that the Parlando Project has been performing a section of T. S. Eliot’s “The Waste Land”  each year to celebrate National Poetry Month.*   It’s been a major task, and if one were to listen to all those past sections, you’d get a fair sample of the variety of original music we create for these performances. Similarly, the amount of work that goes into all of the Parlando Project has been huge (we’re rapidly approaching our 450th piece), but this year’s section of “The Waste Land”  is small—the smallest section of Eliot’s Modernist landmark.

I recall when I first encountered “The Waste Land”  as a teenager how puzzling the whole thing was. Right from the start it was confusing, with allusions and foreign language phrases that I had no way of decoding. It was said to be important, and it certainly seemed to be quite the accumulation of something,  but its hard to grasp nature didn’t make it easy to like. I could understand only a little about what Keats was saying in a poem like “Ode on a Grecian Urn”  back then too, but the essence of that poem’s longing and attractive mystery was there from my first reading. Eliot’s poem? It just seemed complex, even in an off-putting way.

But when my past-times teenager got to his year’s section, “Death by Water,”  I found poetry I could take in immediately had slipped into the much larger corpus of this poem. “Death by Water”  is a small elegy, and what allusions it had (like Keats’) were alluring. “Phoenician,” even at that age, had the right kind of mystery, what with the seafaring and alphabet. That feint echo of Shakespeare’s “Full fathom five” sea-change coral-bones. The straightforward sense of mourning.

For all its shortness, I doubt I was alone in finding it one of the most impactful parts of “The Waste Land.”  If you’d like to read this short, 10-line section by itself here’s a link to it.

Teenaged T S Eliot
The teenaged T. S. Eliot before he adopted the Harry Potter eyewear.

 

In 1952, decades after “The Waste Land” was written, this section took an important part in a literary controversy. A Canadian critic, John Peter, published an article that year claiming that the key to understanding “The Waste Land”  was that it was almost entirely a disguised elegy to a French medical student who Eliot knew in Paris before the war: Jean Verdenal. The strong inference in this theory was that Verdenal and Eliot were gay lovers. In 1952 this was not only sensational to the degree it might still be today, it was outright dangerous. To be homosexual was more than a notional criminal offence—and furthermore by this point T. S. Eliot was the living model of a religiously conservative Modernist and a Tory in his politics.

Eliot was furious at this article. Lean solicitors were called in. Retractions were demanded. In the end, Peters not only apologized, the magazine that had published the article tried to round up all extant copies and destroy them.

A couple of decades later, after Eliot had died, this reading was raised again, and this concept of the poem is still being explored in our century.

On one hand, Eliot made no secret that he admired the young Verdenal. They shared a love for the poetry of LaForgue and Mallarmé and acknowledged times together as college students in Paris. Eliot opened his first published poetry collection Prufrock and Other Observations  with a fond dedication to Verdenal.

“Death by Water”  was a key exhibit in this reading of “The Waste Land.”   In late April of 1915, Verdenal was serving as a medical officer in the doomed WWI Gallipoli** campaign with the French army fighting along with British and ANZAC forces. Accounts written afterward said Verdenal was heroic in trying to deal with the mass carnage on the Allied side as they tried to gain a beachhead at the edges of the Middle East. He was killed, and there was little ability to bury the dead on the beaches as the invasion failed. They were left to the tides or thrown in the water. A cruel month indeed.

Flea Bass

Now to press levity next to death: I used to mispronounce Phlebas as if it had three syllables. Apparently it’s pronounced with two, phoenicianally/phonetically, close to “Flea Bass”—though I think with a short, not long A sound. The next time you see RHCP, you’ll enter the whirlpool and think of T. S. Eliot.

 

Knowing this, it’s easy to see Phlebas as Verdenal. But I knew nothing of this when I first read “Death by Water.”  And you don’t have to know it either to have the words work for you in some way. Eliot had a theory for that, a well-respected theory back in mid-century: “Objective Correlative.” Eliot, by his own theory then, would hold that it makes no difference what the relationship was for him to this other young man in pre-WWI Paris. Subconscious? Sublimation? Closeted? Self-protection? Platonic, or Dionysius denied? No matter. You consider Phlebas or you don’t. Their bones are picked in whispers now anyway.

So, here’s my new addition to the Parlando Project’s ongoing serial performance of “The Waste Land”  available with the player gadget below. Perhaps another one where a legitimate singer might better serve my composition, but I like the current of the acoustic guitar music enough to submerge you in it.

 

 

*You know: “April is the cruelest month….” That one. No one has said as much, but between the opening line to “The Waste Land,”  the prologue to Chaucer’s “The Canterbury Tales,” and Shakespeare’s birthday, April seems like a logical choice for National Poetry Month.

**Another casualty of that campaign, a young British poet-soldier who died of an illness on a ship headed to those beaches: Rupert Brooke. One of the most popular pieces ever presented here is my recasting of a piece Brooke wrote on that troop ship heading to Gallipoli.

Song of Myself (I Contain Multitudes)

Is he joining me in celebrating National Poetry Month? Last week Bob Dylan released a new song called “I Contain Multitudes.” It’s pretty good, mixing the elegiac mood and the bittersweet blues. Like Dylan’s other new release, “Murder Most Foul”  from earlier in the month, folks quickly swept through the lyrics to collect and note the allusions. They found that “I Contain Multitudes”  has literary references mixed in with the musician and cultural touchstones. Poets William Blake and Edgar Allan Poe get name-checked.

But for some reason, the main poetic link Dylan seems to intend was missed in most of the early write-ups I read. The song’s refrain, which also supplies the title, is a line from Walt Whitman’s “Song of Myself.”  We’re going to fix that today.

Over the years of this project I probably haven’t presented enough Whitman. He’s the indispensable ice-breaker of poetic Modernism, even for those that didn’t attempt to closely follow his style. By writing in free verse with no set line length, irregular meter, and no need to make the rhyming word, he freed poetry to be infinitely expansive and did for poetic music what Ornette Coleman and John Coltrane did for instrumental music. Once this idea of freedom was demonstrated, any number of other Modernist approaches eventually developed, some of which don’t directly bring Whitman to mind as a model, though that doesn’t mean that they didn’t benefit from his revolution.*  And some subsequent writers did  show the influence of Whitman’s characteristic word-music: Carl Sandburg, John Steinbeck, Woody Guthrie, Allen Ginsburg. Stop for a minute: all three of those writers—all examples where one can trace the lineage of Whitman easily—are influences on the language and expression of Bob Dylan. Whitman, like Dylan, loves the wide-ranging catalog, the linking of things plain and exotic, the workman’s comment and the sage’s koan.

So maybe it was time for Bob to give a nod to Walt—and for me to do so too.

I’ve chosen today to present the last two numbered poems in Whitman’s “Song of Myself.”  Besides the “I contain multitudes” line, this selection also includes some other of Whitman’s most famous proclamations: “Do I contradict myself? Very well, then I contradict myself,” “I sound my barbaric yawp over the roofs of the world,” and “Look for me under your boot-soles.”

Walt and Iggy

Barbaric Yawp in action: “Every atom belonging to me as good belongs to you.” Well, maybe if you take off the hat and remove your shirt Walt.

 

Although I approach Dylan’s age, yet somewhat in arrears, I’m not going for the old-man lope of Dylan’s recent songs today.** No. It’s time to rawk!   My personal index-thought as I composed, arranged, and started to perform this was “Whitman as if done by Iggy*** and the Stooges.” As with many of my index-thoughts in this project, I missed the mark, but that’s OK, maybe I came close to the bulls-eye of another target nearby. Since I long for the sound of a loose and loud rock band in these days of social distance, I tried to make one myself for this piece, even attempting to duplicate the kind of thing my LYL Band partner Dave Moore might have played on piano when that was possible. My shelter in place partner Heidi Randen kicked in some backing vocals on the chorus. It took me to this morning to get a time when I could crank a guitar amp to get the feedback and speaker interaction for the Ron Ashton-style guitar solo, which I scheduled between my high-schooler’s interactive telelearning sessions.

As always, the next audio piece will likely be different than this one, so check back (or hit “follow”) to see what the Parlando Project does next during National Poetry Month.

The full text of the long poetic series “Song of Myself”  is available here, the sections I perform are the last two, numbered 51 and 52. The player gadget to hear the performance is below. Turn it up!

 

 

 

 

*I believe that even poets who chose to write in rhymed and metrical forms after Whitman can benefit from his break. Formalism became a choice not an obligation.

**I do that in other pieces here anyway.

***I note that secret reader Iggy is taking part in an all-star group performance of “The Rime of the Ancient Mariner”  this month. You can check out the readings as they are posted starting at the beginning here.

When You Are Old

A few months back I presented a series of poems about old age that turned out to be written by young poets. Here’s another one written by the great Irish poet William Butler Yeats when he was in his 20s.

“When You Are Old”  is generally considered to be written about Yeats’ love for Maud Gonne, who like Yeats was active in Irish cultural nationalism and their country’s struggle for political independence. Yeats’ largely unrequited love for Gonne has a long and complicated story, the kind I’d often delve into here—but not today. This widely assumed context for “When You Are Old”  makes plain the poem’s historical, denotative meaning. One could paraphrase it like this: “You think I’m just another lovelorn suitor asking for your hand, and possibly other leading bodily parts, now—but someday you’re going to be old, and you’ll realize that the others around you were just after you ‘cause you’re a major hottie who seems to have it going on cultural-politically. I’m not like that. I’m your soul mate, who respects that you’re busy with this, and loves you even though you’re out searching for other things. That’s OK. Just know that someday, like when you’re old, you’re going to miss me. You’ll probably want to google William Butler Yeats some night and see if I’m still alive and what I’m up to….”

Yeats-Gonne

Yeats and Gonne. Yeats may be taking the bow-tie thing a bit too far. Rather than the musical style (or that paraphrase) I used today, I might have gone with this bare-faced expression of the same angst. You’re gonna miss me baby!

 

Did I just loose a bunch of readers* with this base summary of a beautiful poem that is sincerely loved by so many people? Don’t understand me too quickly, I’ll get back to what I think when I encounter this poem before I finish.

Indeed, this poem is especially well loved by older people and by a great many women.** If there’s a greatest hits of love poems in English, this poem is there. And I don’t think they’re wrong or missing some unavoidable explication of the poem’s context. I can’t say Yeats’ intent when he wrote it as a young man, or when he published it still being both of those things; but I doubt it was simply to dis an ex that wasn’t exactly an ex. And those that love the poem Yeats made are experiencing it in other contexts close to their own hearts and lives.

I’m close to Yeats’ age when he died, though still younger than Gonne who lived to be 86. The future mood predicted in this poem written by a twenty-something doesn’t ring false to me. I don’t dwell in the past, but it comes to visit me from time to time, and I’ll think of old lovers and not-to-be lovers absent and missing in time and place. For older people, some of those people remembered are dead, and so their present times and places are further obscured by the crowded stars. We often expect our poets today to write of their experience, but it turns out that we aren’t necessarily going to trade Yeats’ skill with a beautiful line for an authentic memoir-poem by an age-group peer.

One could trash this poem on gender role/sexual politics counts. Fine if you do—art is argument to a large part—but I doubt the women who love this poem do so all because they have self-worth issues. And after all, the poem doesn’t predict crushing regret at not bedding W. B. Yeats, or a reader’s personal equivalent. It only asks for a quantity of “a little sadly,” which doesn’t hurt anybody. Patriarchy aside, I suspect every letter in every acronym can accumulate such thoughts over a life-time. And throw out love, sex, and success, and we still cherish memories of any connection where someone saw and bowed to the pilgrim soul inside us. The youth in us seeks it, the old in us remembers it. Even 20-somethings.

So where does this pilgrim soul stand on “When You Are Old?”   That want for connection it speaks of and the word music it’s sung in captures me entirely. It’s good not to trust poetry and poets entirely, but to give oneself over to this song is worthwhile.

I’m sure this poem has been set to music often, but that didn’t stop me. I used an interesting acoustic guitar tuning that someone said had been used by Mary Chapin Carpenter: C G D G B C for this, and then added another of my simple-is-all-I-can-do piano parts. That’s one of the joys of music: sometimes it doesn’t have to be complicated to please us. The player gadget is below to hear my performance. Here’s the text of Yeats’ poem if you’d like to read along. We’ll be back soon with more of our April celebration of National Poetry Month. Spread the word if you can.

 

 

*I’m hopeful I didn’t, if only because listener/readers here should already know that I’m going to mix things up. If you think today’s music is what I’ll do next time, you should hear the #NPM2020 piece I’ve been working on—and you probably will be able to in the next few days.

**Here’s a 10 minute video where someone old and someone woman both declare their love for this poem.

Disillusionment of Ten O’Clock

As we continue our April celebration of National Poetry Month, here’s a poem by Wallace Stevens. Like Keats, Stevens was another poet I liked as a teenager, and like Keats I read him for his language without having a substantial grasp on what exactly he was getting at yet.

“Disillusionment of Ten O’Clock”  is however fairly straightforward, even if it also exhibits several tactics of early 20th century Modernist verse. For example, it’s crazy for color adjectives. The poem has 66 words, and 10 of them are colors. I don’t know how many other readers* of this poetic era notice this like I do, but that sort of thing was widespread. The Imagists who helped initiate English language Modernism often favored visual images, and color is one way to add vividness without resorting to worn-out metaphors. And painters in England and France had already been using a brighter and more colorful palette for some time, probably influencing the poets.

It’s a subtle point I noticed today after working with this poem, but when Stevens launches into his litany of colors that he imagines would make a more exciting gown, he moves like a color wheel. He starts with green and ends with a robe of yellow and blue—pigments that if mixed, would make green again. Is this an inside painter’s joke?

Re-justifying my teenage love of Stevens, I found this poem, though free verse, does have its word-music. Besides that circling riff on gown-colors, there’s the near rhyme of the litany’s end-word “rings” with the concluding “strange” at the end of the list, and the lovely chime of “old sailor” with “here and there.”

It wouldn’t be a Stevens poem without an odd word or two. “Ceintures,” a French based fashion word which I may have mangled a bit in performance** is a beaded belt. “Periwinkles” does at least double-duty besides being an unusual word choice. In the context of the “old sailor” it may be referring to a small sea-snail, but it’s also a violet-hued flower that has given its name to a color.

Wallace Stevens and night-wear

Couture, rings, ceintures, strange. Wallace Stevens waits to slip into something more comfortable. The long gray trousers could conceal lace socks.

 

The point of Stevens’ poem is the better necessity of imagination and of fancy, set against a fixed early bedtime and bland nightwear. I do think that original color litany is something of a forced march, as if the poems speaker may be trying to break out of that mundane scene in a rote manner, as if reciting colors would bring imaginative dreams as counting sheep might bring slumber. Then we meet up with the drunken sailor who can’t be bothered changing into nightwear: sleeping, dreaming with his boots on of that any-sorts snails and great apes, and chasing, and even more, catching tigers, unafraid.

I wrote this on guitar but decided to play this as a piano trio with drums and bass. The piano is mostly a Fender Rhodes, an early successful electric piano that used amplified tuned-tines rather than strings. It was common back in my youth for these instruments to be run through guitar amplifiers, picking up some grit from an overloaded circuit, and often reverb and tremolo from the amp too. If you listen carefully in the minor chord part of the piece, the pianist is doubling the piano part with another electric piano, which brings in a bit of an amplified string sound to the more bell-like Rhodes. That was my idea to make the major chord and minor chord sections contrast just a bit more.

You can hear my performance of Wallace Stevens’ “Disillusionment of Ten O’Clock”  with the player gadget below. The text of the poem is here if you’d like to read along.

 

 

 

*It was something that the Spectra hoaxers of 1916 picked up on when they sought to parody poetic Modernists, speckling their verse with lots of color adjectives. The name of their hoax movement could even be read as referencing that color fixation.

**I often have trouble with pronunciation of French words, something that I sometimes wonder is similar to those with stuttering or other speech impediments. Well, assuming you don’t know the word, it may be enough for its effect in the poem to just sound exotic!