Parlando Project Summer 2019 Top Ten part 3

Is everyone aligning themselves with autumn already? Here we’re looking back at summer and the audio pieces that the audience made their most liked and listened to, and we’re getting near the top of the countdown, moving toward the most popular single piece of the past three months. Today we look at numbers 4, 3, and 2.

4. Summer Silence by E. E. Cummings. Another one from our “Before They Were Modernists” series, “Summer Silence”  is an early E. E. Cummings poem published when Cummings was a college sophomore at Harvard. One doesn’t usually associate Cummings with constrained poetic forms, but “Summer Silence”  was written in 1913 in the Spencerian Stanza form, long before he could have learned from Hawk or Susan.

I try to do the best work I can with recording the music compositions here within the rapid pace I’ve accustomed myself to with this project. My equipment is modest, and my recording engineer’s skills are too, but I make the effort. That said, this one was recorded on a cell phone sitting in a cabin on the North Shore of Lake Superior: just me, an acoustic guitar, and a few summer birds that you can hear at the very end that wanted to enjoy July there too. The text of Cummings’ poem is available in the original post linked in bold above.

 

 

3. Higginson’s June by Thomas Wentworth Higginson. From another series, one that started before this summer but carried over into it: “The Roots of Emily Dickinson.” Higginson is essential to the Emily Dickinson story, the literary insider who Dickinson sought out in what I think was an attempt on her part to verify the worth of her unprecedented poetry. They met at least once, but the rest of the relationship was carried on via letters, of which we have only Dickinson’s side of the correspondence.

From Dickinson’s replies and Higginson’s later recounting, it’s been summarized that Higginson “didn’t get it,” thinking that her work needed some further polish to appeal to the mid-19th century public. Here in the 21st century we feel pretty smug about Higginson, thinking him like the infamous record exec who passed on the Beatles.*

Higginson had a highly eventful life outside of the Dickinson connection, as I’ve talked about in another post, but one thing I discovered this year was that Higginson at least dabbled in poetry himself. I can find no context for the poem of his I used here, but I speculated that it could be something he wrote in his youth. Whenever and for whatever reasons he wrote it, it is a good short summer lyric. And coincidentally it’s opening two lines could stand as the better judgment of Dickinson’s genius as it does in his poem for summer.

The music for this one is as electronic as “Summer Silence’s”  is acoustic. The text of Higginson’s poem to June is also in it’s original post bolded above.

 

Indian Pipes and 1st Edition of Dickinsons Poems

Higginson wrote the preface and helped edit and promote the publication of the first collection of Dickinson’s poems two years after her death. The flowers on its cover are usually called Indian Pipes and they were said to be a favorite of Dickinson’s. It’s a truly odd summer plant, which my living wife found and photographed in Northern Minnesota this year. The other common name for this translucent apparition: the ghost plant.

 

2. For You by Carl Sandburg. I kept going back to Sandburg this summer, and you the readers and listeners came along with me. Why? I frankly find him healing.

I started off this project in 2016 with a Sandburg-based audio piece which also served as a memorial for David Bowie; and for the 3rd anniversary of that launch I used this Sandburg poem as a memorial to my late wife who died near the beginning of this century.

That either of those Sandburg poems could be used as memorials does not make them passive elegies, and “For You”  is future-focused—just as it is full of ghosts. I’m not familiar enough to say how English speakers in the British Isles, in South Asia, the Antipodes, or elsewhere feel of the current times and challenges; but in Sandburg’s America when I read or listen to “For You,”  I too feel our ghosts and feel our future—close—even if each are unreal as we stand before the great door of a year with great hinges.

The text of “For You” is here if you’d like to read along.

 

 

 

 

*”Guitar groups are on their way out” is the famous rejection phrase, attributed to Dick Rowe of Decca Records. In Rowe’s defense, Beatles producer George Martin has been quoted that the Decca audition performance was not very good and that he wouldn’t have signed them on the basis of it either. A few months later, Rowe took a tip from George Harrison and signed another of those guitar groups, The Rolling Stones. Sometimes you get a second chance.

I Had a Terror Since September

How much do we know about Emily Dickinson as personality, as a living person? I can’t say that we know much at all. Originally, she was marketed as cypher, an enigma, a hermit/shut-in, and this reflected a valid aspect of the later parts of her life. The self alone is not a no-place, but it’s a hard-to-know place. In my lifetime there’s gradually been an understanding that it’s not the whole picture however.

Her youth seems to have included an above average circle of experiences for a woman of her class, time, and place. And her most productive writing years, those of her early thirties, seem a middle ground, with some travel amid mysterious and undetailed accounts of illnesses.

Her poetry, still revolutionary, no longer needs the biographical mystery to market it, but that doesn’t stop us. Its domestic strangeness makes some of us look for a Baedeker to help figure out the sites and landscape.

I say this because it appears that yet another attempt to portray a living Emily Dickinson is upon us. In 2017 we had A Quiet Passion  portraying an intellectually vital person dealing with a rigid society, and only this year we had Wild Nights with Emily  which tried to illuminate Dickinson’s emotional life and the revolutionary artistic aspects of her work. Both of these films have to deal with issues that any biopic about an author will: watching people write is boring second-unit stuff, connecting written work designed for the page to a visual performance is not straightforward, and what writers record in books is not a one-to-one reflection of their own personality and character. I’m willing to cut filmmakers some slack because of these unavoidable issues.

None-the-less, Dickinson,  one of the tentpole series that Apple TV+ has announced for its nascent Netflix/Amazon Prime/Hulu streaming video competitor this fall, is raising eyebrows and guffaws. Here’s the trailer.


Midway through Emily and Lavina rock-out in their underwear on ukulele and banjo.

 

 

Let me summarize some comments the trailer has drawn:

“That’s crazy pants”

“Instead of the classy story-telling Apple has promised for its new video service, this looks like a CW* series.”

“What were they thinking?”

“Portraying a famous recluse as a wild child? Really?”

Well I’m not going to predict anything (I’m bad at it). The hyper-fast cutting of the trailer should almost come with a strobe-light seizure warning and makes it even harder to determine how the series will work than a run-of-the-mill promotional clip, a form already infamous for misrepresentation. I’m not going to throw stones at the EDM soundtrack of the trailer though. Indeed, I’d hope Dickinson is as audacious as I’ve been here in mixing “wrong” music with older art.

A worry is that if it tries to modernize Dickinson without comic awareness and savvy, it could be unintentional comedy that goes nowhere. As with previous Dickinson movies, I suspect it will give in to the dramatic temptation to compress and confuse the time-line of Dickinson’s life. I know nothing of the show-runner’s previous work, but title-role-actor Hailee Steinfeld was great with vitalizing 19th century dialog in the Coen Brothers’ version of True Grit.

A list of recurring characters gives hope that the show will try to deal with some of the formative influences on Emily Dickinson: Susan Gilbert, the eventual sister-in-law and possible romantic partner, Benjamin Newton, generally recognized as a mentor to the young Dickinson who died at age 32, and George Gould, who Genevieve Taggard identified as once engaged to Emily and who might have continued to serve as a connection to outside literary and cultural forces per Taggard’s biography.

I’m even more heartened by the presence of actor Chinaza Uche in the regular cast, which indicates that Amherst’s African-American presence will be included. How complex will they allow that element to be?

Much of what we know about these people comes from Emily Dickinson’s letters, a form in which Dickinson performed, taking a series of personae. Within a variety of frames and masks understood and puzzling to the recipients, she herself remains unrevealed while revealing. The letters don’t tell us how Emily was like to be around, they tell us the ways that Emily wants to express herself on paper. Tantalizing and frustrating for biographers—when Dickinson writes of her life, the enigmatic poet side comes out.

Today’s piece is an example. Indeed, if one wants to contrast Walt Whitman to his fellow American mid-19th century poetic innovator Dickinson by saying that Whitman was able to write free verse while Dickinson was content to write irregular stanzas with looser than “proper” rhymes, passages like this from a letter from Dickinson to Thomas Wentworth Higginson in the spring of 1862 are vers libre without being published as such.

The first “tutor” she mentions in this letter is usually identified as the doomed Ben Newton, and the second may be Gould, who had to leave Amherst to seek a living, eventually traveling overseas. Other dramatis personae: Emily’s famous dog, Carlo, and her piano, the instrument she was known to have played in the home with some skill. But what is the terror since September? Illness? Artistic sturm und drang? It’s tempting to say that the letter-passage’s sundown and the hills reference another famous Dickinson poem, but what is the noise in the pool? Is it “public—like a frog?”

So, regardless of how entertaining, enlightening, or disastrous Dickinson  turns out to be, there’s evidence for presenting a rather outrageous, self-dramatizing, and rapidly thinking person who relates her own poetry to her life. That is, if the Dickinson of the letters is like the young, living, social Dickinson.

No dance-oriented Dickinson today listeners, and I had to be literal and include some piano due to the reference in the text, though no singing pond-frogs or dogs. The player gadget to hear me perform part of this letter is below. The full text of the letter to Higginson is here.

 

 

 

 

*The CW is a minor American broadcast TV network that targets its programming at younger audiences. Just to go on the record: as long-time readers here might suspect, I’m not immune to meta-rich transformation of historical subjects with references to modern phenomena. I love Upstart Crow  because it sitcom-frames Shakespeare’s life as if it was The Dick Van Dyke Show  (which itself was a Sixties recasting of Carl Reiner working on Sid Caesar’s show in the Fifties) with lots of wink-wink anachronisms. Dickinson may not have yet reached the level of dead-white-male canonization that allows Shakespeare to be deconstructed for laughs though.

A few updates, and why fewer new audio pieces so far this summer

Between revising my recording setup and spaces and some travel, I’ve been away from being able to create new audio pieces for much of the past month. I’ve missed that, and I hope you have too, though I have  been able to put together a few new things in the midst of this.

I was hoping to bridge this gap by presenting some things I have from older recording sessions featuring writing still in copyright, but so far I have received no response from those that seem to be the contact points for that—the usual when I seek to gain permissions. I assume this is just the inevitable result of a publishing industry focused on those business and revenue things they may need for survival. In an ideal world there’d be another me busy banging on the door of rights-holding publishers until they at least told me no or “Go away, we don’t want any.”

For you constant readers, in place of new audio pieces, I’ll leave you with just two brief follow-ups.

I’m reading a couple more Emily Dickinson books so that I won’t be so embarrassingly blank on certain questions. One is Aife Murray’s Maid as Muse,  it’s fascinating premise to look at the lives and possible influence of the Dickinson family’s Afro-American and Irish servants. The book also doesn’t overlook the basic fact that it was the presence of servants exchanging their focus and time that allowed Dickinson to produce poetry that valorized independent thought.

If by chance you read that last sentence and think, well there’s your white privilege and base economic exploitation that I’m too aware of or otherwise inoculated to by family heritage or economic class to engage in, think (as I do) that it’s some Asian factory that allows me a cheap computer* to write this and to create and/or record the Parlando Project audio pieces and someone in another place built the inexpensive electric guitar you hear.

The other Dickinson book is Lives Like Loaded Guns by Lyndall Gordon. Gordon seems to have a more polemical mood so far than Murray, though her wars are mostly laid in books. The book promises to help me understand the complicated way that Emily Dickinson’s almost entirely unpublished work managed to get published and find a considerable audience shortly after her death. Even early on in the book Gordon is presenting an understandable portrait of Mabel Loomis Todd, one of the producers of the first posthumous edition of Dickinson poems. Todd is often painted on cardboard: Emily Dickinson’s brother Austin’s mistress and nemesis of her brother’s wife, Emily’s intimate friend and often interpreted as lover Susan Gilbert Dickinson. A social climbing no-talent who glommed onto a real talent? Todd might be all that, but I’m already finding Gordon’s portrait of her illuminating.

As it seems it always is with Dickinson books I’m frustrated by a lack of chronological clarity. Murray’s book has a great deal on the life and influence of Maggie Maher, an Irish born servant who worked with Emily in the Dickinson house kitchen in the post American Civil War years just after Dickinson had already written the majority of her poems; and the admittedly juicy details of the Emily/Susan/Austin/Mable love rhombus are no doubt material to the way Dickinson’s poems emerged after her death, but the events of her brother’s “betrayal” of her friend/possible lover’s wife happened in the last years of Emily Dickinson’s life when she doesn’t appear to be writing or even collating her poetry.

Dr John Emily D

This is the place were you see pictures of these two together.

 

One last note: one of my personal favorite pieces over the past three years was “Blues Summit in Chicago 1974”  a short narrative of my reaction to watching a video a couple of years ago of a concert combining some pioneering “Great Migration” Afro-American blues musicians with some more likely white “Blues Revival” guys in front of an audience redolent of that titular year. In it I note that both the young guys and the old masters are all dead, and that some of the “young guys” died before their elders—well, except for one guy, Dr. John (stage name of Mac Rebennack) who was still living. “Can’t be the clean living” I remind listeners to that piece, as Mac had a long dance with heroin and other drugs. This year Dr. John in effect asked for a revision of that piece when life finally claimed him for death.

If you haven’t heard that piece, here it is as performed with the LYL Band a few years back, it’s available with the player below. And I’ve just got some good news on another piece that you’ll see here soon!

 

 

*I am moving to a new Macintosh computer for those “in-the-box” musical elements this summer as I want to use more of those tempting virtual instruments that allow me to work up to orchestral levels of scoring. My old computer was still working with occasional needs to account for its capacities, but it’s now nearly nine years old and eventually it won’t work. My hope is the new one will work as long as I do, but alas the “Apple Tax” is real and a few things about the new computer are frustrating despite its considerable cost. Still, I’m privileged to be able to afford it, and it’s so hard to find good help these days….

The Parlando Spring 2019 Top Ten Part 3

Now we’re nearing the topper-most of the top in our tip-top count-down of the most liked and listened to pieces this spring. Wait—did I just turn into a mid-20th century radio host? Out! Out! Commercial spirit! Timeless poetry knows no acne creams, Yardley scents, Thom McAn Beatle boots or white Levis. Well, maybe some of the music knows them—but honestly, it interrogates those pop intentions and asks us to re-evaluate that intent in the context of greater artistic accidents consciously or unconsciously evolved from the Modernist revolts of the last century.

No, no. Not that either. I mostly just want to make things that haven’t existed before, mix the known and the unknown, like and contrast the unlike, let poetry talk to music, and let music not shut up but talk back. As I do this, I look at things you and I and many others have looked at before and see if they’ve changed. And then sometimes I look at those poets whose names and poetry were writ in water.

It just so happens that our next three pieces in our count-down are from such writers, poets unknown to me, many literature students, and likely to you.

4. They Say Life is Precious. One of the principles of the Parlando Project is “Other Peoples’ Stories.” I don’t dislike memoir, self-narrative, words intended to establish or confess one’s selfhood. I couldn’t, or I’d have much less poetry to choose from to present here. But I feel that’s well served elsewhere, not just in literature but in blogs, podcasts, and social media. So, if and when we want that, we can find it. In the words of a wise boss I once had, it’s “ubiquitous everywhere.*”

What I do instead here is to encounter some other person’s words, see how they sound in my mouth, and ask myself what I hear, feel, and think when they are enthroned there.

I could suppose it’s a failure of a kind that a performance of one of my own poems is in this Spring Top Ten then. And indeed, I usually fall to using my own words when I find I’m behind in getting things posted because the research into the other writers adds to the tasks of writing, playing, and recording the music. “Well” I say to myself “At least I know that writer already.”

An unsafe assumption. We don’t really know ourselves effortlessly.

My favorite part of the music I did for this was the combination of bowed contra-bass with an upper register fretless electric bass part. What does that sound like? Listen below.

 

 

3. Everyday Alchemy. One of the things I love about this project is when I go crate-digging after poets I’ve never read and that I expect you haven’t either. Coming across this poem by Genevieve Taggard was one of those moments.

This is such a poem of sorrowful balance, yet it’s 11 lines contain a piercing analysis of society and its arrangements of obligations that are increasingly out of balance the farther down the chain one goes.

I’ve often spoken about the Confucian Odes  here, designated by the Chinese sage and his school as required instructional material for government functionaries. The Odes  are not, as educational poetry aids today might be, mnemonics of components, checklists or causes; but like “Everyday Alchemy”  they are mostly accounts of daily life near the bottom on the pyramid, a pyramid where the giant blocks of limestone are not lifted by alien magic.

If I were Confucius again, I’d select this poem as required reading. Anthology editors now, or of the future: include this poem! And in the meantime, you can listen to my performance of it with the following gadget.

 

Taggard's Bookplate

EX ARBOR, now dead with its ghost-pale sheets under a bookplate

 

 

2. Poppies on the Wheat. I reviewed the latest attempt at making Emily Dickinson cinematic this spring. TL;DNR: a mixed bag. The film had a consultant who’s a Dickinson scholar, something I’m not, and it’s likely they’ve read more and know more detail about Dickinson that I do. I wanted to cheer them on (forza Dickinson!)  and there were moments in the film where I could. But there were also moments, some of the funnier moments viewed (as intended) as comic bits, that made me feel like they were leading the viewers to misunderstand some of the characters I’ve covered in “The Roots of Emily Dickinson.”

I imagine the film creator’s response: “It’s a movie! Dramatic license! Evenhandedness isn’t entertaining!” Yup. Still felt unfair. It’s only after the movie that I’ve read more about and from Thomas Wentworth Higginson, the literary-connected “Preceptor” sought out by Dickinson who is thought to have misunderstood and underappreciated her genius. He’s used in the movie as a comic personification of The Patriarchy and White Privilege. The author of the second most popular piece this Spring, Helen Hunt Jackson gets one scene in the movie, where she’s portrayed as a vapid sentimental sort who Higginson prefers to the artistic rebel Dickinson.

Yes, that’s one of the reasons we so admire Dickinson, who is never sentimental, even if the 19th century seems to want and need sentimentality so badly. But that charge, of sentimentality, was also a sledgehammer used against most women writers of the age. The same slack I’d expect the film-makers would ask for in presenting their matter in the way present-day movie audiences might absorb it, is what I’d ask them to apply to Helen Hunt Jackson negotiating with her audience in her time.

Jackson’s “Poppies on the Wheat”  is a Wordsworthian sonnet whose argument in itself is a debate between practical commerce and the sentiments of memory and semi-wild beauty. Musically, it reflects a mood on my part this spring to put more focus on acoustic guitar. You can hear the result with the player below.

 

Helen Hunt Jackson defiant

Hard to tell personality from a picture, but those eyes and the start of a smile make Jackson look like she’s  about to dispute something or share a delicious secret.

 

That’s all but the most liked and listened to piece this spring, and I can tell you it was a run-away winner. Words from a famous poet or unknown one? Well, it’s sort of both. I’ll be back soon with that announcement.

 

*He laughed right after he said it, thinking it a fit pronouncement from the Department of Tautology Department.

The Parlando Spring 2019 Top Ten Part 2

Before we continue with our count-down of the most liked and listened to audio pieces this past spring, let me remind newcomers what the Parlando Project does. We take words (mostly other people’s, usually poetry) and perform them along with original music in various styles and sounds.

I really try to honor that intent for variety. My musical and singing limitations cannot be overcome just by intention—but the idea is to test limitations to see what will bend or break, not to treat them as barriers to be looked at from a safe distance off.

7. Water. One of our post series this spring I called “The Roots of Emily Dickinson.” I had the obligatory exposure to Dickinson during my education in the mid-20th century. My impression then was that she was treated as an approachable poet of the second rank. I think the shortness of her poems was part of that presumption of approachability, and that contributed to her subsidiary ranking too. And yes, the filter of gender stereotypes and prejudice had to be a factor. Common anthology poems like “Because I could not stop for death”  added a little gothic touch to our genteel high-school textbooks, and in my college life she got a place in American lit, though much less in more general literature or poetry courses.

But when you dive into Dickinson deeply you may find that the modest surface level of a Dickinson poem, which seems a homey back-lot pond, is rather a deep and mysterious well, and that you’ll run out of breath long before you touch the bottom of some of her little poems. If you’re curious like me, you can’t help but wonder: “What did Emily Dickinson think she was doing?”

So, this spring I looked at some of her models, confidants, and influences, and chief among them must be Transcendentalism, the hard to pin down American movement centered in Dickinson’s own region and time whose instigator and leading prophet was Ralph Waldo Emerson. I had fun in my original post on “Emerson’s Water”  by comparing Emerson’s fame and influence to Oprah Winfrey—but really, you’d have to add to Winfrey, Malcom Gladwell and the Dali Lama to get the range of Emerson’s influence.*  I was going to add some Robert Bly in there too, but though Emerson wrote poetry and influenced poets up to and including Robert Frost and Wallace Stevens, Emerson’s own poetry was not even wholly esteemed by other Transcendentalists.

Emerson’s poem “Water”  is still worth hearing, as many of you must have found here this spring. Back in The Sixties, when I first encountered the Transcendentalists’ story, I could see connections to the Hippie culture, and now in a generally more practical and materialist time I still see linkages. The Midwest had exceptionally widespread flooding issues this spring, and Emerson could have written “Water”  this year to address that. What’s Emerson got to say about water? The player is below.

 

Charles-Temple-Emily-Dickinson-silhouette

I could use this silhouette as metaphor for trying to understand Dickinson from what surrounded her. For the more mid-20th century among us: look at that chin and hear Charles Gounod’s music.

 

 

 

6. He Wishes for the Cloths of Heaven. William Butler Yeats is another familiar word-musician who supplies words to the Parlando Project. Perhaps I came closer to Yeats because I’ve ended up hanging around some Irish-American poets** once I moved to Minnesota, but if one is interested in musical sounding poetry in English, with things to consider beyond the inviting sound, eventually you’ll turn the corner and Yeats will be there.

The poem’s romantic closing lines are among several of Yeats’ that are well remembered by readers—memorability being one of the great tests of poetry. Hear those closing lines, for the first time or again, with the gadget below.

 

William Butler Yeats with cat

It was a classic battle of wills. The cat would not get up until Yeats agreed to get the cat food, and Yeats wouldn’t get the food until the cat got off his lap. Both were found and rescued in an emaciated state.***

 

5. May-Flower. From the roots present in Emerson, to the flower as expressed by Emily Dickinson herself, here’s the fifth most liked and listened to piece this spring.

Let’s return to the question of Dickinson’s intent. There some thought that this was written as merely a riddle-puzzle, that the reader was to guess the genus of the bloom from the clues in the poem. If that so, if that’s all, then it seems to me that Dickinson failed as a riddle-maker, as the clues don’t seem to determine the exact flower (and Dickinson, the avid botanist, would have had the knowledge to have done that). I decided to take her text and drill down to the mystical essentials she wrote of instead.

This is not the first time I’ve written of the psychedelic aspects of Dickinson. I can’t quite do the differential diagnosis on her eye problems (for which we know she needed medical attention) or decide on the theories that she may have had epilepsy or another disorder that could have caused auras and visual disturbances, but Dickinson often seems to be asking us to see differently, more intensely, as I believe she does here.

What kind of singular mind can toss this off as a riddle?

Hear my performance of “May-Flower”  with the player.

 

 

 

*All of these pop-culture comparisons understate the influence Emerson seems to have had in American academic life, also largely centered in New England at the time, but I don’t think they understate that Emerson’s readership in America’s 19th century extended deeply into the general literate class.

**Perhaps the most directly connected to Irish culture of them would be Ethna McKiernan. A footnote is not an adequate way to draw attention to the news that she has a new book, but she does.

***This is a joke, and only this footnote is serious. And don’t link to yesterday’s post for your homework as a cite that Carl Sandburg taught O’Hara, Baraka, and Wilbur about the building trades.

The Greatest Generation, or Thomas W. Higginson lands on Omaha Beach

I appreciate the attention readers here give to what I present, and so I’m going to warn you: this is a longer piece covering some historical topics that have not been as popular here as others. I plan to be back soon with a shorter post and  I promise a love poem set to music. Thanks for your attention and spreading the word about the Parlando Project. I value that!

Today is the anniversary of the WWII allies’ D-Day invasion of Northern Europe, and as each anniversary gets later the tributes to the sacrifices and courage of those who waded onto the beach amid the gun and cannon fire grow more glowing.

As one of America’s diverted poets once said, it is “altogether fitting and proper that we should do this.” And I say this knowing that this will likely be one of the least-read posts here. The audience for a blog about encounters with poetry and music is not a martial audience by and large. Even a poem like Slessor’s “Beach Burial”  recently presented here—a poem that is about war, though not really about battle or courage or warrior feats—will end up being one of the least noticed, read, liked, and listened to.

I speculatively assign that response—and the lessor response other stark war poems have received—to a number of things: that old battles are yesterday’s newspapers—or as we might say these days, just newspapers; that one of the things we might look for in the arts is a respite from, or at least a beautiful decoration for violent and horrific events. I’m casting no shade on you who have paid with your attention to what we do here for that—or your other judgements on the work we present. After all, I make those judgments myself all the time for my own reasons.

So now, having sincerely bowed to both those who were in the water on June 6th 1944 and you, dear reader and listener, I will diverge.

There is no Greatest Generation,* never was. Too much is assigned to generations, and if widely shared experiences and common events current to lifetimes has some glue to hold an aggregate together, extending “generations” to inner character and intrinsic resources of their membership, virtues and vices conferred merely from birth years is simplistic nonsense that should never be relied on.

I suspect wiser users of the term would correct me and say they do not mean that when they use the term, they mean the great things the WWII generation endured and did. Yes, I join them, there is value in noting that.

But one thing that literature teaches us, by doing its basic trick of letting us experience someone else’s life, is that the good and bad in human character and the challenges brought to bear on us are not unique to time and place. Are the challenges of WWII greater than the challenges of those of the trench soldiers of WWI that this project has featured? Are the privations of the Great Depression, followed by another World War and the following challenges of nuclear peace after great destruction worse than the challenges of 19th century American slavery followed by a Civil War followed by the continuing existence of a continent-wide republic after such trauma?

An Internet discussion mentioning these things often leads to claims and counter-claims of greatest evil: slavery, colonialism (which should include our “internal” American colonialism inflicted on our indigenous population), The Holocaust, Stalinism’s mismanagement, gulags and secret police, Pol Pot, and other evils whose incidental lack of notoriety should give them no cover. I’m sure there are appreciable differences in them, things philosophers could construct evaluative frameworks on. Don’t bother to comment or look for a poll feature to vote on the Greatest Evil or any generation associated with it. This will not be my point.

My point is: you, particularly the younger of those that read this, are the only generation that matters. If I need a silly name for you, a souvenir hat to show that you belong to this, then I’ll swallow my pendant’s pride and call you “The Greatest Generation.”

Do I want my own son, or you, to advance into shore batteries over an open beach or to try to hold Little Round Top without ammunition left? Do I wish it to be necessary to risk mobs, the bullies of privilege, or jail to secure basic freedoms? No, of course not. Nor can I be sure you will figure out what level of forgiveness and generosity vs. justice and retribution will succeed in the peace that all wars fail into. I would rather you figure out how to secure the things warriors were putting their lives in bond for without the war.

So why do I include these poems about war here? Here’s one reason, a personal one: I too often hear that arts and poetry in particular are a trivial activity, the first thing to be dispensed with when “reality” comes to call. And the arts in general, it’s said, aren’t they about vanity? Well, some of those warriors wrote, made and listened to songs. There were readers in foxholes. Call it pleasure, hope or need, some will hold onto poetry and music in any extremis.

And even the arts skeptics give us this: they pull those things out, music and poetry, for the funerals and anniversaries. Can we also realize that some of us hold to these things in life as well?

And here’s the more general reason: reading and listening to literature may remind you that those who pushed forward and those who opposed every good and bad thing are not historical figures, they have no powers or weaknesses because of the year they were born, no more than you do. They lived and died in their Imagist instant, just as you do, weighing duty, possibility, weakness, strength, love, hate, pretense, modesty, anger, resolve, justice and mercy. Seeing, doing, maybe not knowing. Literature shows us that all these things existed in each generation, gives us the evidence of what they feel like, how they exist, side-by-side.

That’s sort of like a poem may be. Those soldiers heading for the beach, like the words alone in a poem could not know fully what they meant. I do not mean by this a romantic claim that art or poetry equals their indominable authorial intent. There’s no measure of their last full measure, something we use art to teach ourselves. And anyway, as a working method our diverted poet settled that issue in his Gettysburg Address too, but chose to do it in his orated poem.

That said, now let me justify the post’s title. I’ve continued to read Thomas Wentworth Higginson’s writing this week, particularly his 1899 memoir, Cheerful Yesterdays.  Higginson is mostly known today as a footnote—kind of like the record company guy who passed on signing the Beatles—as the man in publishing who Emily Dickinson reached out to with a handful of poems and who then corresponded with her over a period of years when she was writing her groundbreaking poetry. Why didn’t he know right away what was on offer literature-wise with Dickinson?

I’ll confess I started his memoir in the middle, and I will now go back and read the start. From its “cheerful” title you may not have a good handle on its matter. It’s both breezy and polite and gripping and harrowing, a strange mix. I knew Higginson was (among other things) a slavery Abolitionist, and because of what he calls “The Sisterhood of Reforms” that he was involved in other social movements, including Feminism/Women’s rights. It’s in the middle, where I came in, that I learned about just what kind of Abolitionist he was.

Abolition included Fabian elements that sought to corral this basic evil legally and eventually end it, non-violent radicals and self-described “agitators” who put their lives on the line but would not morally take another’s life, and the “by any means necessary” crowd. The later was were Higginson lived, at least after 1850 and the Fugitive Slave Act. He was part of (seems to have been a principle in, though he characteristically refrains from claiming leadership) the Boston Vigilance Committee that sought to prevent captured slaves from being returned to their masters as that law required, and he grippingly relates his first hand participation in trying to prevent the last government-assisted attempt in Boston to do that, which includes his plan for a lightning strike by a cadre including himself on the city jail, where the enslaved man was held. The plan counted on an agitated mob in the streets as cover—a crowd who would be motivated to cause a ruckus by his own rable-rousing speech at Faneuil Hall, from where he would dash to the jail to lead the break-in!

Following chapters detail his organizing and gun-running during the “bloody Kansas” guerilla war fought around a plebiscite to decide if the new state would allow slavery, and his joining the John Brown/Harper’s Ferry conspiracy that he says was portrayed to him at first as an armed extension of the Underground Railroad, where a coordinated “jailbreak” of slaves would be accomplished, but which due to lack of funds and organizational ability became what was to be the opening battle in a general slave rebellion which disastrously failed. Particularly in the Brown story, Higginson’s quick-moving/hit the highlights narrative style seems an odd fit with the material. He’s sometimes ambiguous about Brown, and from his vantage point decades after the Civil War and Brown’s execution, he remarks that Brown’s outlook and mental state may have been compromised by Brown’s years in the struggle—but the events say that at the time he was putting himself at risk of felony imprisonment or even a charge of treason with only the surety of his faith in Brown and the necessity of his cause. During much of these activities, Higginson mentions that he was armed, and though he never mentions firing at anyone, presumably he wasn’t carrying pistols for sport.

If your vision when you have read the tale of Higginson in the Dickinson saga is of a rarefied literary critic whose wars were “laid away in books” you’ve understood him too quickly.

When the Civil War breaks out in 1861, the 38-year-old Higginson is raring to serve. He begins working to recruit soldiers almost immediately.* Within a year, he’s tasked with leading the first Afro-American regiment in the U.S. Army, which he takes up gladly.

This explains the oddest part of his rambling, Polonius-like  1862 “Letter to a Young Contributor”  magazine article that is often thought to have inspired Emily Dickinson to write Higginson. Near the end Higginson launches into a discussion of war as a subject for writing and a vocation for writers.

No doubt, war brings out grand and unexpected qualities, and there is a perennial fascination in the Elizabethan Raleighs and Sidneys, alike heroes of pen and sword. But the fact is patent, that there is scarcely any art whose rudiments are so easy to acquire as the military; the manuals of tactics have no difficulties comparable to those of the ordinary professional text-books; and any one who can drill a boat’s crew or a ball-club can learn in a very few weeks to drill a company or even a regiment.”

This seems like a combination of distain for the difficulties of military command (from a man who had already risked his own life and engaged in concerted acts which led to the death of others) and a bit of a backhanded and Americanized version of “The battle of Waterloo was won on the fields of Eton” line. But at the time this article was published, that was what Higginson was preparing to do. He was heading to South Carolina to take over that regiment of freed slaves.** Read in that knowledge it seems a bit like he’s trying to psych himself up for the task, or that someone has told him those things to convince him to go forward with the commission.

So, the first thing my wife asks when I tell her I’m reading Higginson’s memoir, is one you may be asking too. “Does he mention Emily Dickinson?” In this 1899 memoir, he does not. Due in some part to Higginson himself, the posthumous 1890 original edition of a large chunk of Dickinson poetry was an unexpected, multi-printing success, but this didn’t make Dickinson what she is today: one of the giants of American poetry. The “unexploded bomb” of Emily Dickinson took almost a century to explode slowly. She’s just one author he worked with, and since he knew many of the literary figures of the day, Dickinson wouldn’t be the only notable to mention. He knew Longfellow and Emerson, spent a day with the reclusive Tennyson, all persons of unfathomable fame then.

Suppose a 20th century music figure who knew Bob Dylan, had met all the Beatles, and worked with Stevie Wonder, while also having run with the Weathermen, the Panthers, fought with Che Guevara and was a co-founder of Ms. Magazine, was to write a memoir in 1999. How assuredly must there be a paragraph in that imaginary book that started. “Oh, by the way, one time, Joni Mitchell*** wrote me some letters. I wrote back asking if all those open-tunings were really necessary?”

But even without hypothetical metaphors, it does say something about the attention Higginson spent on an unknown woman poet’s poems in 1862. We might say, with hindsight: too little. But with the above context, we may be surprised at the attention he did  pay.

Back to metaphor: instead of taking the usual story of the boneheaded critic and the revolutionary artist, we might ask if someone was training to parachute into occupied France in 1944 to work with partisans,**** why would he care about poetry? Higginson apparently did.

If you’re a buff about 19th Century American history and culture, particularly the Abolitionist circle around Boston, Cheerful Days  is a brisk read and is available in the books section of archive.org. As I mentioned in introducing it, its tone is somewhat incongruous considering the deadly American crisis at its center, but no matter how much Higginson may be trying to shape his story modestly and discretely, it still gives insight to the times. I say that even though if you don’t have a basic understanding of the events leading up to the Civil War if may be confusing to you in places, as Higginson assumes some common knowledge of things his cohort lived through.

 

*Military recruitment at the start of the American Civil War was a much more localized and “free-enterprisey” kind of thing, and his connections with armed slavery resistance and the Kansas war meant he already knew who was ready to take up arms.

**Not yet citizens, not yet even really “freed” as the compromise taken at this point in the war before the Emancipation Proclamation was to treat slaves who crossed the lines as “contraband of war,” a term, however dehumanizing, that prevented them from being returned to their masters.

***I use Joni Michell pointedly here. Like Dickinson, she was considered a niche artist held in limited esteem in the 1990s. and only decades later is she more fully recognized for the level of originality and effectiveness in her work.

****Once more, I’m making a considered point here. Officers of Afro-American troops were not to be treated as prisoners of war, but to be summarily executed by decree of the Confederate government. In his memoir Higginson says he didn’t think they’d really do that.

Higginson’s June

Here’s another post in our informal series “The Roots of Emily Dickinson.” Now a title like that may lead some to think I’m some sort of Dickinson scholar—which would be a fine thing to be, but I’m not. Frankly, when I started this project a few years back I assumed I’d present some Emily Dickinson poems. After all, not only do they famously fit well to music, but she was part of the poetry canon that I was raised on. Then something unexpected happened.

When I started to dig into Dickinson poems they grew mysterious, not just the elusive mystery of their intent or even their true subject, but the somewhat more external mystery of how they came to be written in the mid-19th century in a town in rural Massachusetts without any sure models for Dickinson’s new kind of poetry.

We know how many other writers assembled their machines and what fueled them. Shakespeare and Bob Dylan worked within successful entertainment enterprises, even if they were to reshape them. T. S. Eliot had a scholar’s interest in a wide range of art and spirituality across history, and after the trauma of WWI a significant part of the culture was waiting for someone to reassemble it however dolefully, even if it was in his Cubist collage. The Surrealists were crystal-clear about their influences and the impact of Freud and psychoanalysis. The G.I. Bill after WWII and the following post-war American prosperity introduced large numbers to colleges and college towns, including some who would likely not have attended before the war. This fueled not only the Beats, but the more academic-associated American poets of my youth. The 20th Century urban migration of Afro-Americans and the Talented Tenth tactics of the early 20th century U.S. Civil Rights movement encouraged the Harlem Renaissance and similar artists.

Emily Dickinson? It’s just not so clear to me. My best guess remains that she was a Transcendentalist of some sort in a household dominated by a father that wasn’t. Transcendentalism, staunchly individualist in it’s outlook has no mandatory dogma, but the sense that the intense, even visionary study of nature reveals the deepest spiritual truths seem to me to be its core. Received truths, any established customs and traditions, are to fall before this apprehension.

However individualist in philosophy, the Transcendentalists and the Boston publishing and cultural nexus were intimately connected socially in a way that Dickinson was not.

One incident, often judged as a quasi-accident* closed this circuit. In 1862 as the 31-year-old Dickinson had begun her extraordinary five years or so of white-hot poetic composition, she wrote Thomas Wentworth Higginson and enclosed a few of her poems. A string of correspondence ensues, and eventually the two met in person.

Dickinson’s letter is conventionally seen as a “cold call” prompted by Higginson writing a magazine article in The Atlantic “A Letter to a Young Contributor.”  That article is largely unremarkable if sensible, the subject one that is covered over and over wherever there are editors who accept written submissions. Submit clean, legible copy. Re-writing is as important as writing. Remember your audience and take pity on them. Hey, the editor is on your side—they, like the writer, want to produce good work.

And here we come to the next beat in the story as it’s usually told. Higginson is often portrayed as something of a doofus, the archetypal mansplainer who can’t understand Dickinson’s greatness. He suggests Dickinson write more conventionally and doesn’t think her work is suitable for publication. Presented with one of the founding geniuses of Modern poetry, he’s blind and hesitant.

Is that so? Well, there’s a lot we don’t know. First, we only have letters from Dickinson’s side of the correspondence. I’ve delayed this post so that I could at least read some of Higginson’s writing on other contemporaries of his and Dickinson, and one thing stands out from his later 19th century accounts of his life and times: he’s the soul of discretion (obscuring names for embarrassing incidents), generous even to his opponents, and extraordinarily hesitant in claiming credit for any of the things he may have been instrumental in. As an editor and literary critic, he seems to have a fairly good and objective eye, and he does not shy from pointing out shortcomings in writers he admires. I read his essay on Emerson written shortly after Emerson’s death, and his admiration for the man and his intellect does not keep him from agreeing with judgements about the faults of Emerson’s poetry. It therefore seems likely he could have suggested changes to Dickinson in his correspondence.

How artistically wrong would those suggestions have been? How harmful might they have been to the isolated Dickinson? Even if he was “wrong” could he have been tactically right about what mid-19th century audiences would tolerate? Here we don’t know the devilish details, but we know some things otherwise: Dickinson wrote most of her nearly two thousand revolutionary highly condensed poems as this correspondence was initiated. If Higginson squelched her or convinced her to temper her individuality, he must have been bad at it. If, on the other hand, what he said encouraged and kept her going, that would be consistent with what occurred.

Here’s something else we know objectively: in 1890 he was instrumental in getting Dickinson’s posthumous-published-career off the ground.**  He did not prevent and may have agreed with the conventionalizing of Dickinson’s punctuation, adding of titles to title-less poems, and so on—but historically those editions sold well right from the start and gained Dickinson a reading public. He added his prestige to the launch with the book’s introduction where he framed her (not yet knowing how well Dickinson would sell) as a sort of art brut phenomenon:

“In many cases these verses will seem to the reader like poetry torn up by the roots, with rain and dew and earth still clinging to them, giving a freshness and a fragrance not otherwise to be conveyed.”

This may be false, even if it’s an accurate advertisement for the impact reading Dickinson for the first time may have on a reader. Yes, Dickinson was likely a more conscious and careful artist than this impression leaves us with. But it worked! Remember, there was no Dickinson tradition to be misinterpreted when he did this. To a large degree, the reason we have an on-going debate about Dickinson that more than a handful of graduate students and eccentrics like me care about is because of his work in insuring that original edition.

Now for a surprise. I did not know that Higginson had written poetry until I came upon this poem by accident while looking for June poems. I can find nothing about it, but in the absence of knowledge I’ll speculate it might be from Higginson’s college-age youth. Here it is:

June

I may be full of perplexing thought even if this June day isn’t

 

It’s a graceful sonnet. I’m not in love with the slightly over-egged consonance of the “Lieth the lustre of her lovely life” line, but I’d suspect other readers would point it out with appreciation. On the other hand, the vowels of the preceding line “All the long day upon the broad green boughs” are pleasing to me. And the poem’s fine opening line, referring to June’s summer overture, “She needs no teaching,—no defect is hers” is hard for me to not read, whenever it was written, as the proper way to approach Emily Dickinson’s genius. The ending of the octet “While too much drugged with rapture to carouse/Broods her soft world of insect-being rife” is a truly strange one, half awkward “poetic diction” perhaps necessary to make the rhyme, and half a striking William Burroughs a-century-too-early image of June on the narcotic nod as summer’s insect-being is partly suppressed for the moment.

The sestet is not as distinctive, and I wonder if “zone” was chosen for its rhyme rather than being the best word at the end of the 12th line, but overall more interesting than most 19th century American sonnets. In his “Young Contributor”  article Higginson sagely notes that duality of the critic who’ll offer criticism when they themselves are not accomplished in the arts they criticize. “People criticize higher than they attain” he says.

After all that, here’s Thomas Wentworth Higginson’s sonnet “June”  and my performance of it. The player gadget to hear it is below.

 

 

 

*The writer of the standard Dickinson biography Richard Sewell believed that regular Atlantic  reader Emily Dickinson was attracted to Higginson’s nature articles which he’d published in The Atlantic  prior to the “Young Contributor.”  Early Dickinson biographer Genevieve Taggard speculates that George Gould (which she identifies as Dickinson’s ex-fiancé) may have suggested Dickinson write Higginson.

**I’m still underinformed on all the details of how we got to the 1890 publication of the first large batch of Dickinson poems. Originally, Dickinson’s sister looked to Sister-in-Law and intimate friend Susan Gilbert Dickinson to shepherd the publication. Susan Dickinson said (after the successful Higginson-introduced 1890 edition) that she had a big idea for presenting Dickinson in a fuller way from the start, but the project didn’t seem to get off the ground in the mind of Dickinson’s sister who was legally the rights holder. In an example of the multivalent family dynamics of the Dickinson family, the mistress of Susan Gilbert Dickinson’s husband (Emily’s brother, Austin) Mabel Todd Loomis, was then brought in as well as Higginson to edit and arrange for the first publication of Emily Dickinson’s work. Where Higginson comes in within this series of connections and who selected who, I don’t know, but seeing the book to completion and getting it published and launched with notice and eventual surprising sales has to be presumed to be largely Higginson’s work. He was the man with the connections, track record and prestige after all.

Wrapping Up National Poetry Month 2019

It’s been quite the April here as we ramped up activity to celebrate U. S. National Poetry Month. A lot of effort and time on my part, but since this project is based on the joy one finds in looking and listening to something and seeing what the encounter brings out, it’s been fun for me. I hope some of that always self-replenishing curiosity comes across to you as you read and listen here.

Here’s some of what happened this month.

Most blog posts here ever, nearly a daily schedule! There are blogs, ones that try to do different things than this one, that can carry on at that level for an extended period, but it took quite a lot of effort considering this project’s goals.

I completed a #npm2019 goal of performing all of T. S. Eliot’s longest section of “The Waste Land,” “The Fire Sermon,”  this month. I warned readers here that “The Waste Land”  isn’t poetry comfort food, but as I dived in, looking for things I could connect with in order to perform it, I found some unexpected things.

Before I started this serial performance, I thought I might struggle with misogynist/other portrayals of the women in Eliot’s masterpiece, but instead I found more empathetic depth there. Yes, it’s a bleak world for all in “The Waste Land,”  but I also got to experience a surprising amount of gender-blurring in the voices of “The Fire Sermon.”

In researching it this year I finally grasped the level of extensive sampling tactics used, where nearly every line references some prior artistic creation. I love an in-joke, the pendant in me rejoices in odd connections, but even as I came to better understand the sources I’ve left much of that out of my writing about it, because I believe the poem still communicates its experience out of the sound of juxtapositions and the variety of voices without one needing to know who first wrote the words or sang the songs Eliot drops into his poem. Considering hearing it this way: “The Waste Land” is a collage—you don’t have to know where the picture was clipped from to sense that you’re being asked to see unlike things next to each other.

t s eliot micophone

With a T and a S and L-I-@ / Here to rock this mic with my alley rats / Think you’re a sick rhymer with a mad dose / I’ve been to a Swiss asylum and been diagnosed / Dis a soft Thames flow while I sing my song / you might end up drowned like that Phoenician / Peace (that passeth all understanding) Out!

 

 

And lastly, I’m grateful for the broad music-ness of the poem that let me use what I think was a nice variety of musical styles along with Eliot’s words. Eliot wrote “You are the music while the music lasts”  and Stevie Wonder wrote “Music is what gives us memories, and the longer a song has existed in our lives, the more memories we have of it.” Eliot’s immediate experience of music is all over the poem. My task was to take those memories of another poet’s mind and to make them sound again.

Besides presenting a couple of poems by Emily Dickinson, I also enjoyed my “Roots of Emily Dickinson” series this April. Comparing Emily’s Bronte and Dickinson on hope was a great “aha!” moment for me. And Helen Hunt Jackson, who got skewered with a single funny scene in the recent Wild Nights with Emily  film, was a fascinating background character to run across, and Jackson’s “Poppies on the Wheat”  has been one of the most popular pieces here so far this spring.

Wild Nights with a chaperone 600

Would Emily Dickinson’s and family’s wild nights have been tamer if Gloria Bell was their chaperone? Discuss.

 

My own personal questions on what Emily Dickinson’s thoughts were about Afro-Americans and slavery, or even the bloody civil war that coincided with her most productive years as a poet, are still largely unanswered, but if I hadn’t gone looking for them I wouldn’t have run into the remarkable story of her Amherst contemporary Angeline Palmer and the bravery of three servants.

The blog audience has grown in response to this additional content, with April’s unique page views far exceeding any previous month. Listenership to the audio pieces were up too, and this April will likely set a record for the most listened to as well, though by a narrower margin than blog views.

As a practical matter, the amount of time and effort I put into things this National Poetry Month in April can’t be sustained. Unlike most blogs this is a two-pronged effort, with the production of the audio pieces coming first and then the blog post follows. I write almost all of the music for the audio pieces and I play and record the majority of the instrumental parts. But after that’s done, I’ve only started because then it’s time to write something interesting or illuminating about my encounter with the texts. Your readership tells me I’m succeeding sometimes.

This May I’m going to start some work on re-doing my main music production space. This is going to involve a lot of work, much of which I’ll need to do myself. My goal is to make it an even more streamlined, organized and functioning space. This will predictably reduce the amount of new audio pieces here for an interval, but afterward I hope it’ll make it possible to return to our normal 8-10 or so new pieces a month schedule.

However, because we’ve been at this a long time, there’s a lot of material in the archives, over 330 pieces, so there’s things here you may not have encountered yet. I try to mix the well-known with the nearly unknown. You can take a flyer on someone you’ve never heard, use the search function on the blog, or just try a random dive into the archives going back to 2016. Thanks for reading. Thanks for listening. Thanks for the likes, the follows, and particularly thanks for the shares and the links!

The Lamp burns sure

What did Emily Dickinson think about the American Civil War, that great national trauma that occurred during her most productive time as a poet? And what did she think about the great national sin that was the cause of that war, slavery?

Emily Dickinson often writes puzzling poems, compressed like a set of speaker’s reminder notes on an index card. Despite occasional antique words and references to obsolete technology, Dickinson’s poems don’t really seem to dwell in a particular time or have any anchors in a time’s signature events. Instead we are left with the multiple capitalized idealized concepts that in the hands of most poets would doom a poem to vapid incorporeality—but the speed and brio of a Dickinson poem seems like the rush of thoughts, and that and they carry us along. All of this lets us see a remarkable mind thinking, but it doesn’t necessarily tell us the conclusions, only the methods by which it tries to reach them.

With many other American poets of her day we can tell what they thought of the Civil War and where they stood on the issues of slavery. Of course, we no longer read most of them, and we continue to read Dickinson. Even though my curiosity about these matters is personal, and in the end it doesn’t significantly change the originality and attraction of Dickinson’s work, I’ve still looked to see what I could find.

Dickinson’s father, Edward, was a politician, a member of the short-lived Whig party, and so there are political stands associated with him. The American Whig party, particularly for northern Whigs, was a “free soil” party. This meant that they did not stand for the abolition of existing slavery but wished to limit any expansion of the practice. Southern slaveholder interests were not content with that as a compromise. In an era when new territories and states were being added to the Union, they feared that they would eventually be too small a minority in a growing United States. In the 19th century before the Civil War, time and again these interests would come into conflict, and it was generally the Whigs who worked out some compromise that put off the Civil War. Edward Dickinson seems to have been an orthodox Whig, he supported those compromises, including voting for one of the last and most fateful of them, the Compromise of 1850 that gave the slave holders a Federal Fugitive Slave Act, giving license for bounty hunters of dubious ethics to haul escaped slaves back to the South (and financial rewards if they over-reached and just grabbed a free black person “by mistake”) and requiring local state authorities to assist in their efforts.

The injustices of the Fugitive Slave Act enraged Afro-Americans and energized abolitionist sentiments. And in the slave states who would secede at the start of the Civil War one of their chief complaints was that the Federal Government wasn’t doing enough to enforce this Fugitive Slave law against individual states that were hampering rather than aiding these “slave catcher” bounty hunters.

The Whig parties balancing act fell off the high wire shortly after that. It essentially split into two parties, the new Republican Party which was more adamant about free soil with no compromises, and eventually became the “party of Lincoln” and slavery’s abolition. The other part was the Constitutional Unionist Party which wanted to continue the Whig-style balancing act. Edward Dickinson seems to have aligned with the Constitutional Unionist faction, which completed the rapidly increasing progression to irrelevance for the Whigs.

On the other hand, both Edward and Emily Dickinson were on friendly terms with those who went the Republican route and even the more radical abolitionist bent. If yesterday’s story of Angeline Palmer might lead you to see a 19th century Massachusetts casting of To Kill a Mockingbird  with Edward as Atticus Finch and the young Emily as Scout, the reality of the Dickinsons is much more ambiguous.

I’ve found various critics and commentators who have sought to answer my questions about what Emily Dickinson thought on these things. Some point to Dickinson poems and have suggested readings of them, but these are most often unconvincing to me. She does have poems mentioning warrior courage, duty and loss, but none of them seem to say anything about the causes or necessity of the pressing war in her time. Even more rare are references to slavery or people of color in the poems.

The Lamp burns sure

Mysterious and burning. Dickinson’s mind by lamplight

 

The poem I use for today’s piece is one of those rare ones. “The Lamp burns sure”  is Dickinson at her most compressed and ambiguous. The poem’s plot is clear enough, an oil lamp whose oil is supplied by slaves or serfs (the poem says both at first, muddying the waters if it’s talking about slavery) runs out of oil because they have stopped filling the reservoir. The lamp’s wick is so busy burning that it doesn’t notice that it’s out of fuel and would in the normal course of events burn itself out shortly. The poem does not proceed to that end however. It leaves us only with the wick’s obliviousness, and then breaking the tie between the oil bringer’s role as being a serf or a slave, leaves us with the final statement that the busily burning wick is also unaware that the oil is out because “the Slave —  is gone.” We don’t get to find out if the lamp is some Hanukkah mystery that will go on burning longer miraculously.

So, what does it mean, if it indeed means one thing? Some read it as a parable of creativity, that we’ll work ourselves past our resources in our passion. A key word there would be “within” indicating some imaginary inner lamp and the slave is just our body and emotional resources.

Some read it as a comment on the base labors that support a civilization that in turn supports arts, science or spiritual pursuits, and in that reading it’s an acknowledgment of the necessity of those labors—take them away, no light! The confusion of serf and slaves is a necessary confusion as it’s talking generally about civilizations.

And then some think, since this is a poem written in 1861 as the Civil War has broken out, and all the slave labor that has supported a large portion of the agricultural economy of the nation is now in question along with that nation itself, that this is not a generalized metaphor. The slave who’s gone, is an American slave, the light is an American light that will burn golden on.

Emily Dickinson's desk

Emily Dickinson’s desk with a whale oil lamp, a little luxury that could extend her writing hours

 

That last one would make it the closest to an Emily Dickinson statement on slavery and the Civil War. As I burn my own midnight oil tonight and I think of Emily Dickinson who wrote at night by the light of an oil lamp, I lean to the first reading. But some other day I might see something else and read it another way. I’d like to be surprised and to find out that Emily Dickinson’s keen and questioning mind could see what only some in her time could see about people of color and slavery, but that might not be the case. But here’s what I do find when I go to the music of that mind: a mind unafraid to be original and like Frederick Douglass in Robert Hayden’s poem, to believe freedom thought to be as needful as a heartbeat. Even if she didn’t free anyone from slavery like Lewis Frazier and his fellow servants in our last post, or agitate and orate like Douglass, I find there’s liberation there that burns sure.

Here’s my performance of Emily Dickinson’s “The Lamp burns sure.”  Use the player below to hear it.

 

Emerson’s Water

Here’s another post in one of our National Poetry Month series: The Roots of Emily Dickinson. We’ve already touched on Emily Bronte, who’s fierceness inspired the American Emily; and Helen Hunt Jackson, a childhood classmate who encouraged Dickinson to publish her work.*  Today we look at a poem from the foremost public intellectual of her region and era, Ralph Waldo Emerson. We’ll see how it connects to Dickinson, and you may be surprised at how current Emerson’s thoughts about water are.

It’s difficult to think of a modern analog to Emerson. It’s not an exact fit, but Oprah Winfrey could be put forward—but that understates the level of Emerson’s pioneering in the mid-19th century when America was still seen as a backwater. Like Winfrey, Emerson’s approval or endorsement could do much to help a new writer come to the fore. Emerson’s opinions, not just on the arts, but on public culture in general, about how best to live and shape one’s own life, were widely distributed and read by a broad readership. But even if similar in fame and broad impact, Winfrey has never pretended to be a philosopher herself, while Emerson was viewed as a central figure in a movement called Transcendentalism. What is Transcendentalism is a book-length subject, but there are, within its core, beliefs in the powers of individual insight over religious authority and the desirability of a close reading of the book of nature.

Winfrey-Emerson

If it was the middle of the 19th century, the guy on the right might be your Oprah.

 

When I would read Transcendentalist writings more than a hundred years after they were written, in my 1960s, I would be struck with how often (if one gave some allowances for language changes) they sounded like a hippie critique of 20th century culture,** and in the half-century and more since, if I dip back into them, I find some of their focus surprisingly contemporary.

Was Emily Dickinson a Transcendentalist? I can’t say for sure, but it’s near certain that Transcendentalist ideas, particularly as expressed by Emerson, were familiar to her. His thoughts were in the newspapers and magazines she read in her lifetime. We know she had been given a book of his poems by a friend, and we know she read them, and even copied at least one of them in her own handwriting. It’s possible that she attended one of Emerson’s popular public lectures.

Emerson Poem Sacrifice copied by Dickinson2

Part of Emerson’s poem “Sacrifice” copied in Emily Dickinson’s own hand.

 

Emerson’s poetry rarely works well, and Dickinson is a great poet, yet in poems like today’s Emerson selection “Water”  I can see similarities between them. Emerson punctuated his poem as one purported sentence, but its syntax is impossible to follow, and so “Water”  is as fragmented as one of Dickinson’s heavily dashed poems. Incredible leaps occur from line to line with no attempt to bridge them with explanatory connections in either poet’s work. Emerson begins his poem with a striking phrase, similar to many of Dickinson’s great first lines: “The water understands/Civilization well;” but we soon meet a strange homey image of sticking a toe (or foot) in it, and Dickinson too loved to mix the universal and the mundane. Emerson’s poem develops with water personified as not having or having certain feelings, and then with little preparation we’re warned it can be the destroyer.

I think Emerson is making a very modern point here, one that he expressed also in his essay “Civilization.”   When water is respected and harnessed appropriately for its utility *** we are in harmony with nature’s nature. But, if we ill-use nature, we literally go against the tide, and water will be our destroyer.

If Dickinson was influenced by Emerson’s ideas and outlook, and if she picked up his individualist style that dares to be somewhat obscure to stay true to the individual’s perceptions, why is she so often a great poet while Emerson isn’t?

I think Dickinson makes better word choices both for sound and impact. Having “decketh,” “adoreth,” and “doubleth” as three wet dish-rags in a four-word stretch is enough to make Emerson’s poem soggy. And Dickinson has a talent for intriguing mystery that pulls us along even to places we don’t fully understand. She does that partly with her hymn/ballad rhythms which Emerson doesn’t use. Dickinson is usually more immediate too. A few posts back I stated that a poem is not about ideas, but the experience of ideas. In an Emily Dickinson poem, I’m more often able to feel I’m experiencing those ideas as the are perceived, where I feel Emerson is summarizing his thoughts after the fact.

Unafraid, I waded through the -eth words and performed Emerson’s “Water”  with my own music, and you can hear it with the player below. And here’s the text of Emerson’s poem if you’d like to follow along on the page.

 

 

 

*With the exception of one poem, which was published anonymously while Dickinson was alive, Jackson failed at that. Still, I think it possible that having some knowledge of her friend selecting poems for publication could have been motivation for Dickinson to create her hand-written booklets of poems which were found after her death.

**This is for good and ill. Idealistic critiques of society are important, but adventurers often take wrong turns. And idealists have a hard time figuring out viable new structures.

***Emerson’s Massachusetts led the nation in using water power for small to large industry in the 19th century. So, when the city of Minneapolis was founded largely due to it’s exploitable water power, a good portion of the city fathers had New England backgrounds. Many Minneapolis streets still bear the name of 19th century New England luminaries, including Emerson. Alas there’s no Dickinson Avenue, as Dickinson’s poems were not published until close to the end of the century.