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.

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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.

Poppies on the Wheat. Before 1890 the most famous woman writer from Amherst wasn’t Emily Dickinson.

I once thought that one of the marvels of Emily Dickinson is that she was able to create such revolutionary poetry without any supporting circle of fellow writers. She had poetic heroes: Shakespeare, Emily Bronte, Elizabeth Barrett Browning, but she never met them. Well, it turns out there’s a bit more to her story.

Last year I followed a thread that her sister-in-law, neighbor, and friend Susan Dickinson wrote poetry, and as a result performed one of Susan’s poemsCrushed Before the Moth.”  Interestingly, it sounds a bit like an Emily Dickinson poem. This year, I’m reading Genevieve Taggard’s biography of Emily Dickinson, one of the earliest written—researched in the 1920s when people in Amherst who knew Dickinson and her family were still living. And it’s inside that book that I met up with Helen Hunt Jackson.

Helen_Hunt_Jackson_NYPL

Helen Hunt Jackson: poet, novelist, activist.

 

Helen was the same age and a childhood classmate of Emily Dickinson, but she married a brilliant military engineer and left town.*  Taggard’s biography tells me that she returned to Amherst and visited Dickinson several times. By the 1860s Helen too was writing poetry. Like Emily Dickinson, Helen Hunt Jackson was connected with Thomas Higginson, the editor/abolitionist/feminist who Dickinson famously reached out to and corresponded with, and who helped edit the first collection of Dickinson’s poetry after Emily died.

Helen and Emily exchanged work and discussed writing. Genevieve Taggard even says that Jackson was selecting work for her first collection of poetry while visiting with Dickinson. Unlike Dickinson, Jackson aimed to be published, and did so not only in magazines but eventually in over 20 books.**  While Thomas Higginson discouraged Dickinson from publishing, Helen Hunt Jackson adamantly urged her to. Jackson midwifed the publication in an anthology of one of Dickinson’s poems “Success is counted sweetest”  the only poem of Dickinson’s published in a book during Dickinson’s lifetime.

Did their writing influence each other? It’s hard to say. Jackson certainly didn’t convince Dickinson to become a publishing professional author, but another woman of the same age and town selecting and publishing books of poetry had to encourage Dickinson at least as much as the far-away Bronte and Browning. On the other hand, it seems that Dickinson had already written a great deal of her now famous work before she renewed her childhood friendship with Helen.

I was intrigued to find out that Jackson wrote a novel in 1876 Mercy Philbrick’s Choice  which featured a heroine who was socially reclusive, wore white and wrote poetry that some think might be a novelized tale of Emily Dickinson. I skimmed through it this week. At one point in the novel, a friend of the poet character sends two of her poems to a noted editor who responds favorably, and my heart leapt up, as this sounded like a description of Dickinson’s famous letter to Higginson. There seem to be other tantalizing passages that could be a friend roman à clef’ing Emily Dickinson. But one has to remember that the novel’s author herself, Jackson, is a poet, from the same age and home town. Mercy Philbrick  could also contain elements of her own life and character. That certainly seems so of the title character’s poetry quoted in the book—it doesn’t sound at all like Dickinson.

So, here’s today’s piece, a poem written by Helen Hunt Jackson about an Italian wheat field. It’s kind of a revoicing of Wordsworth’s famous “Daffodils”  poem, but it has its own charm and details. We celebrate National Poetry Month here the same way we present poetry the rest of the year, a mix of the well-known and the forgotten. To hear my performance of Helen Hunt Jackson’s “Poppies on the Wheat,”  use the player below. Want to follow along with the text while listening? Here’s the full text of the poem.

 

 

 

*Emily met Helen’s husband Edward Bissell Hunt when the couple visited Amherst and Emily noted that he was one of the most fascinating men she’d ever met. Edward Hunt was killed at the Brooklyn Navy Yard during the Civil War while leading the testing of a top-secret weapon of his own design, a self-propelled torpedo. Helen remarried after Edward’s death extending her formal name to Helen Hunt Jackson, though she often published using the non-gendered pen name H. H.

**While her poetry is not well known today, Helen Hunt Jackson became a campaigner for Native American rights starting in 1879. In 1881 she published her first book under her own name, a book setting out the reasons for her cause A Century of Dishonor which she sent to every member of congress. Three years later she novelized about Native American issues and wrote a best-seller Ramona  which has been characterized as Uncle Tom’s Cabin,  only dealing with Native American mistreatment.

Wild Nights Wild Nights

Thomas Wentworth Higginson may have exaggerated a bit, speaking then of “dread.” But it was 1891, and he had taken on editing the surprisingly vast literary legacy of Emily Dickinson for its first substantial publication. In this task, he was a lucky find, for though he had engaged in a lengthy correspondence with Dickinson when she was still alive—the real rarity was that he was a thoroughgoing radical, a Transcendentalist comfortable with heterodoxy, an uncompromising abolitionist who raised and lead a company of Afro-American soldiers in the Civil War; and rarer yet in his time, a stalwart feminist who knew and worked with pioneering American feminists Lucy Stone and Susan B. Anthony.

Thomas Wentworth Higginson in uniform

Abolition, Transcendentalism, Civil War, Women’s Suffrage and rights
Higginson wasn’t going to keep a little keep a poem about desire bottled up

 

So, fear of controversy was not in Higginson’s nature. Still “dread” was the word he used:

One poem only I dread a little to print—that wonderful ‘Wild Nights,’—lest the malignant read into it more than that virgin recluse ever dreamed of putting there. Has Miss Lavinia (Emily Dickinson’s surviving sister, and the one who found the large cache of poems at Emily’s death) any shrinking about it? You will understand & pardon my solicitude. Yet what a loss to omit it! Indeed it is not to be omitted.

What dread could a little 12-line poem cause? Dickinson’s “Wild Nights Wild Nights”  appears to be a poem about unembarrassed female desire. Even with suggested subtext supplied for for lines like “Rowing in Eden,” it probably seems less shocking today. Still, let’s give Higginson some credit. He not only didn’t want to censor it, he maintained it needed to be included for publication.

Even if we’re not shocked by an erotic element, let’s not forget: it is an Emily Dickinson poem. It’s terribly concise. It sings off the page, yet with such short lines, just three to five syllables long. It’s memorable. When I mentioned it to my wife as the next piece I was working on, she nearly knew it by heart.

But most strangely, though it starts like an ardent valentine, it finishes either in disconnected thoughts blurred by lust, or with something altogether less conventional. Setting humptastic subtext aside, why would one row in Eden? You’re in paradise! Where do you want to go? Do you need to stock your ship up with the fruit of knowledge against the scurvy of faith? And you’ve made it to port in the last stanza. Again, let’s leave the “made it past third base” metaphors behind for a moment. Why are you exclaiming the sea when you’re in port? I even wonder if Dickinson is slipping in a pun here: “Ah! the sea!” sounds like “Odyssey.” Is Emily’s wild-nighter an Odysseus looking to getting back on the boat and back to sea?

I don’t know exactly what Dickinson is getting at there. It’s her characteristic level of concision: pretty, but sharp pieces of glass, leaving lots of slant light to refract.

Veedon DIckinson

Poetic license. Yes, I know “Wild Night” is on Tupelo Honey

 

We’ve followed the Parlando Project goal of varying the music with Dickinson poems so far, even casting her as a classic blues singer. For “Wild Nights Wild Nights” I wrote a more rocking R&B thing this time. I relaxed a bit with the vocal this time too: tossing it off in one take while playing the acoustic rhythm guitar part. The opening lines of Dickinson’s poem reminded me of Van Morrison’s song, and so I slipped a few mutated lines near the end. Play the performance with the gadget below. You can dance if you want to…

 

 

What Is It the Rain Dissolves

Writers often like to compose their written works in their heads while walking, and poets, all the more so. It seems natural—the walking footsteps and the metrical foot compare apace.
 
I too have done this; and with poetry in particular, composing lines while away from any paper or screen may also help winnow out the more memorable flow from forgettable stumbles. But my old joints now rebel more at morning walks, and my later day is filled with daily work on the Parlando Project and the mundane tasks of living.
 
My solution to this is that great 19th Century invention: the bicycle. In wheeled weightlessness, I am able to roll along through nature and the city morning’s opening scenes: the gloved gardeners, the obedient dog owners, the students at their stops, the hopeful sidewalk joggers, the babies held crooked in the left arm as the right sweeps the straps from the child car seat. I do this in all weather, rain and snow included, not wanting to miss one act of the theater of the seasons.

Novara Safari Smaller

Can you fit #npm17 and #30daysofbiking into one post? Sure.

 
It’s April, the National Poetry Month in this country, and I ride in the experience of that Chinese birdsong that Du Fu and Meng Haoran heard once and I hear now, and I know that the birds need no translation.  One Sunday dawn, as rain threatened, the sun shined through the clouds as if they were translucent filters. The steeples of the churches and peaks of houses, illuminated thus, were indeed rose and violet as Emily Dickinson promised to tell us.

April isn’t just #npm17, it’s also serving up #30daysofbiking, and with the two in the same month I’ve said, “Emily Dickinson should have gotten a bicycle!” She could have maintained her thoughts’ enclosure, pedaled surely between the skeptics and the believers, and served her self-reliance within a somewhat broader world. Alas, she was just a bit too early for the modern bicycle—but it was close. Her mid-life “preceptor” Thomas Wentworth Higginson was a proponent of the bicycle and of women bicycling. Higginson, speaking about one of the early long-distance cyclists said:

“We found that modern mechanical invention, instead of disenchanting the universe, had really afforded the means of exploring its marvels the more surely. Instead of going round the world with a rifle, for the purpose of killing something – or with a bundle of tracts, in order to convert somebody – this bold youth simply went round the globe to see the people who were on it.”

Higginson, although speaking about my chosen ride, the acoustic motorcycle, seemed to be foreshadowing Robert Pirsig there.

19th Century lady and bike

A soul selects her own velocipede

 

Once more, a long preface to a short piece today. When I started the Parlando Project I thought I’d avoid that. Is another reason that April is National Poetry Month from the nursery rhyme “April showers/Bring May flowers?” Today’s piece “What Is It the Rain Dissolves”  was written on a bicycle on a morning ride in a light rain. I passed two kids trying to master skateboards and later a woman coming the other way on her bicycle, arms bare except for some elaborate tattoos.
 
Emily, is that you?

To hear the LYL Band perform the song “What Is It the Rain Dissolves”  use the player below.