Fall 2018 Parlando Project Top 10 Numbers 4-2

4. Tell All the Truth but Tell It Slant words by Emily Dickinson. It should be no surprise that Dickinson turns up often here. I’m attracted to short poems that have a word music of sound or thought, and Dickinson has both in abundance in this, another very short text: 41 words.

This poem is often read as Dickinson’s private artistic credo. In summary paraphrase: “I’m going to write about things obliquely, because you people can’t handle the truth.” Still, I think there are other elements here, other harmonic overtones. One is the human tendency to slant the truth. In the poem’s one simile, she likens this slanting to the pleasant myths told to children threatened by lightning, and I don’t believe that’s Dickinson’s goal in her writing.

Another aspect, reflected in another Dickinson poem, There’s a Certain Slant of Light,”  is the Transcendentalist outlook, one that she seems to have been aware of. In that other poem there’s that word “slant” again, but here we are to know it’s nature itself that’s slanting reality. The transcendence in Transcendentalism is the belief that the surface of reality is not all there is, that study and insight and a visionary approach can reveal a deeper reality.

In that harmony, Dickinson isn’t saying “Hey poets, just do what I do! Obscure your real thoughts and insights so the non-hip won’t gather what you’re talking about until someone takes a post-graduate course a hundred years from now.” Rather she’s saying “Reality will seem to tell you children’s-story myths. Get around them. Keep looking, and gradually the blinding surprise will come.”

 

The Emily DIckinson Internal Difference

My soul’s been Transcendentalized!

 

3. Crepuscule (I Will Wade Out) words by E. E. Cummings. More slanted light here, as Cummings meditates on the arrival of a sensuous night. If the 19th Century American Transcendentalists were the ancestors of the 20th Century American beats and hippies, Cummings here seems to be heralding the Surrealists that would soon emerge within a decade in the dreams of a European night.

With much extravagance of language, Cummings risks ridicule without a care.

I’m quite fond of the music I wrote and played for this one. The acoustic guitar is tuned in “Pelican tuning” which is named after a piece by John Renbourn that used it.

 

Bjork Lipping Flowers

“I will rise after a thousand years lipping flowers.” No, I’m not covering Björk Guðmundsdóttir, I don’t have enough diacritical marks or musical genius.

 

2. Cold Is the North Wind words by unknown. This is a piece taken from the Confucian anthology of ancient Chinese poetry titled variously in English The Book of Odes, The Classic of Poetry, the Book of Songs,  or just Poetry.  Since the collection’s poems date from deep antiquity, perhaps as far back as 1000 B. C., authorship is unknown, though not a few of them are written in a woman’s voice, and the subjects of the first section, The Airs of the States, are often everyday people and everyday activities, not Emperors or scholars, not heroes and their great battles.

The reason for collecting the poems and making them required reading is also hard for history to remember. The consensus over time was that in studying these poems an understanding of the Chinese empire’s subjects and concerns would be engendered. In England and its colonies, it was contrastingly once assumed that its future leaders would study ancient Latin and Greek poetry as a core subject.

Weighing something as large as history is hard, and I can’t say if either of these two traditions helped much. Evil and ignorance, mendacity and violence—how far can we range in history without running into lengthy annals and imposing monuments to those things? We can’t avoid these monsters, and yes, and so, we must study them. Yet, yet, what if our leaders were expected to study a song such as this? I can’t believe it would help most. I also believe it would help some.

 

Chinese  flying Teapot

Cold enough that some hot tea would be good, but Gong have flown off with the teapot.

We have just one more number in our countdown of the most liked and listened to audio pieces this past Fall. We’ll be revealing Number One in our next post.

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Her Final Summer Was It

I got to see the Emily Dickenson biopic A Quiet Passion”  this month. I can recommend it with a warning: this is not a work that intends to be friendly or easy to digest. It does present a reasonable estimation of what may have made up Dickinson’s life experience, showing it with enough detail to be (for me) very moving. However, it also tries to show the intellectual ferment of Dickinson’s time in a very strange way, by spending a fair amount of the movie’s running time having people converse with each other in an extended series of Oscar Wildean epigrams.

A-Quiet-Passion

This movie has no car chases or flying magician CGI battles

 
Of course, I have no way of knowing how people spoke in 1860 Amherst Massachusetts, but I doubt they spoke like this: epigram after epigram, back and forth like a free-style 19th-Century rap battle. What I guess the director/screenwriter is trying to do is give us some sense of Dickinson’s mind and the minds of others she paid attention to—Dickinson’s poetry is full of epigrams and busted epigrams after all. What he does is artificial, but then having folks read Emerson or other Transcendentalists out loud would be artificial too.
 
Another part that is harrowing is the time spent on the routines of death and dying in her time. Given Dickinson’s own gothic tendencies, this is not only defensible, it may be indispensable in conveying her outlook. And Cynthia Nixon’s performance as Dickinson is very very good.

So go see “A Quiet Passion”  if you would be interested in a portrayal of a what Dickinson may have been like as a person and what drove her as an artist. But do not go to see it if you want a friendly, straightforward introductory film biography that would introduce you a writer you have not yet committed your interest to.
 
For once I’m happy that this is a long preamble to today’s piece, Emily Dickinson’s “Her Final Summer Was It,”  because I do not really want to talk much about the work itself, as I don’t think I can speak a well as Dickinson’s own sparse words. I found in it great resonance to my own experience, particularly a summer 16 years ago—but as with all things we present here, the intent is not to dwell on my own life, but to connect to and impact yours. I hope I do the work justice.

Her Final Summer was it MS

Dickinson’s own hand-written manuscript of “Her final Summer was it”

You can hear my performance of “Her Final Summer Was It”  by using the player below. If you’d like to hear other Emily Dickinson pieces interpreted by the Parlando Project, we have done four other Dickinson poems with music here.

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.

Winter is Good

Here in the upper Midwest we are now in the middle of winter, and so are in a various ambivalence about it. Part of us doesn’t like the burden of winter, part of us wants to taunt it, and show that we can still have the upper hand over it, and some of us, those who don’t want to stop reading the book of nature, can find a cold, white chapter to puzzle over and admire.

I’ve already spoken here about how Minneapolis was settled as something of a colonial outpost of New England. The author of the words for this episode, Emily Dickinson was a lifelong New Englander, steeped in Transcendentalist thought, so we know she’s read that Winter chapter.

Just before dawn this morning, I jumped on my winter bicycle and took a ride to my favorite breakfast café.  It was seasonable, 20 degrees Fahrenheit and snowing, the streetlight globes surrounded with particulate halos of pelting snow. My tires were crunching the snow, the big knobs of their tread like typewriter keys imprinting the blank pavement’s page. It really was quite beautiful, if obscure of meaning. Summer rain saturates us, inebriates us. Snow surrounds us, but we are never more than a transient part of it, unable to understand its dance.

Roughneck in snow closeup

Winter is good – his Hoar Delights!  Also, there is tea and a frittata involved.

 

Emily Dickinson’s words are featured here a lot because she’s a great lyric poet and her words fit with music almost without effort. I learned decades ago that Dickinson favored “hymn meter,” that 8,6,8,6 syllable verse that makes much of Dickinson singable to the melodies of “Amazing Grace” or the “Gilligan’s Island” theme song. For “Winter is Good” I decided to throw out that pattern, turning some lines into refrains and marrying it to a melody similar to the Christmas carol “Joy To the World” instead.

Dickinson’s second verse is a doozy. Just 17 words in her text, but it twists so wildly. “Generic as a Quarry”—there’s winter’s white page I suppose. “And hearty – as a Rose-“ not sure where we go there. Dickinson was an avid gardener, and she no doubt missed her summer plants, but my best guess is just rosy cheeks.  And finally, the concluding two lines “Invited with asperity/But welcome when he goes.” A jokey finish that seems like it’s singing the old joke about the pleasure of hitting oneself on the head with a hammer because it feels so good when you stop.

Our various ambivalence aside, that’s what the Winter chapter in the book of nature says to us Northerners, our words arise and are recovered over by the white page; our music only the spaces between silence, soon to be drifted in.

To hear the LYL Band play this hymn to winter with words by Emily Dickinson, click on the gadget below.

I Heard of Emerson and Wagons

“Hitch your wagon to a star”. We all know what it means, and we’re wrong.

Well, maybe we’re not exactly wrong: it’s human to draw a variety of meanings from what other humans communicate. The Emily Dickinson poem in the last post is perfect example. I don’t know exactly what Dickinson was trying to say in I Felt a Funeral in My Brain, but the strength of the language and music of her saying of it compels anyway. Poems, particularly short poems, often benefit from this kind of ambiguity. They become, in effect, several poems, poems that are experienced differently—even by the same reader—at each reading. In the end those varied readings become a kind of unstable hologram, a poem that the reader can see around corners in. I think that’s one of the benefits of these Parlando project recordings. You can listen to the words without making singular understanding the all-important goal as you enjoy the musical setting, and you can repeat the process of hearing them. A poem is not an important email from your boss that you must understand correctly immediately.

An essay on the other hand does prioritize clarity. “Hitch your wagon to a star” is from one of Emerson’s essays, and Emerson is a very clear essayist. You can read the published version of the essay, Civilization, where the famous quote appears here.

For the moment, I’m going to pass on Emerson’s racialist and sometimes racist views which saturate much of the first half of that essay. If you are an Indigenous American or a Central African, you may be so revolted by this section that anything Emerson says later may be lost on you. TLDNR: despite some nods to North African, Arabian, Buddhist, and Icelandic (Iceland! Was Emerson predicting Sigur Rós, Jóhann Jóhannsson and Björk?) cultures; civilization is kind of white, temperate zone, coastal U.S./European thing. Gee Ralph, checked your white privilege much lately?

In the second half of the essay, Emerson develops another point. He starts by saying “Civilization depends on morality.” What expectations does that sentence give you? Anytime you read that sentence in the last 50 years, you know what comes next:  a catalog of received, traditional, probably religious, precepts that the author will no-doubt find are being violated frequently by a fallen mankind who is ignoring this at their peril. You expect him to say “Stop screwing around with traditional morality, or civilization is doomed.” Is this what you get?

Nope. He’s soon launching into a rhapsody about the telegraph, and since he doesn’t mention that great mid-19th century technology by name, you could almost dump it word for word into the last part of the 20th century as praise for the Internet. As he talks about the telegraph’s “invisible pockets” you almost think he must be about to invent TCP/IP protocols more than a hundred years early! Instead of the Moral Majority, you get Emerson the Steam Punk.

And then he moves on to describe a then common Massachusetts technology, a mill that was powered by ocean tides, and at his observation of this, he says:

“Now that is the wisdom of a man, in every instance of his labor, to hitch his wagon to a star, and see his chore done by the gods themselves. That is the way we are strong, by borrowing the might of the elements.”

From there Emerson develops the thought that a natural morality of utility, justice, civil order and freedom is—like the geo-thermal power of tides—an undeniable force for progressive change and improvement.

This section of Emerson’s essay is still a complex and novel approach. Emerson’s fellow Transcendentalist Theodore Parker condensed this thought in a way that Martin Luther King often cited:

“The arc of the moral universe is long, but it bends toward justice.”

Is this not proof of the maxim? Emerson in the middle of the 19th century, suffering from the ignorance and misapprehensions of racialism and racism, yet works for abolition of slavery and his philosophy helps inspire others a hundred years later to bring about long-delayed progress?

So that’s why I say we misunderstand “Hitch your wagon to a star.” Emerson would approve the gist of our misunderstanding: that it’s good to set goals high—but that’s not what he meant. What he meant on striking the coinage was more like “align yourself with the natural moral laws of the universe and your struggle for change gains great power.”

Radio Flyer Wagon

Today’s audio piece, I Heard of Emerson and Wagons recounts my mother telling me to “Hitch your wagon to a star” when I was a child. She, like most of us, meant it in the “dream big” way, and in that busy-parent way “yes, that’s nice. Dream big, but I’m busy right now.”  In this piece, the young me is puzzled by just which big dream is the right one—just the thing that Emerson thought he was, in fact, offering guidance on.

To hear the LYL Band perform I Heard of Emerson and Wagons, just click on the gadget that will appear below.

 

I Felt a Funeral in My Brain

Before leaving our Transcendental Trio of Emerson, Whitman and Dickinson, we should feature another set of words from Emily Dickinson, particularly since today is her birthday.

Besides the poems themselves, Emily Dickinson is a series of cracking good stories. One story is similar to guitar poets Robert Johnson, Nick Drake, or Rodriguez, all artists who never made it during their prime, but who get discovered later and find greater distribution and acclaim. In Dickinson’s case, she wrote most of her work in the middle of the 19th Century. After her death in 1886 over 1700 poems were discovered in her papers, and a selection of her work was published in the 1890s. As fortuitous as this discovery was, the process was fraught with complex family dynamics and a decision by the editors to edit the work to make it more conventional for print. All this was not sorted out until the last 60 years or so when readers could finally read the poems Dickinson wrote as she wrote them. So, there’s one good story—one every little-published author can envy.

Then there’s the legend of Dickinson’s life itself, which was in the forefront as I was introduced to Dickinson as young man: Poor Emily, naïve and unlucky in love with a mystery man in her youth, she secludes herself in an attic and spends the rest of her life cloistered like a nun, the patron saint of introverts everywhere. This turns out, like most myths, to be a misleading account.

I’m not a Dickinson scholar, no more than I’m an expert on Blake, Sandburg, Frost, Whitman, or Emerson. I’m a poet who’s worked at that for 50 years, a musician who’s done what he can for 40 years, and for about 20 years I worked in hospitals, mostly in emergency departments. I’ve got my theories, like those that have spent more time on Dickenson. She’s clearly whip smart and no more naïve than Frank O’Hara or Margaret Atwood. When she presents herself as naïve, she’s role-playing. She’s as stubborn about her own theology and philosophy as William Blake, and she’s just as stubborn and original about her musical tactics as Joni Mitchell. She can be as mordantly funny about the human condition as Leonard Cohen.

On one Dickinson question, I wonder about neurological matters. As an introvert myself, I suspect introversion, perhaps even something “on the spectrum” as they say these days. One thing non-introverts don’t understand is that it takes a whole lot of energy for introverts to do what others think of as little things.  Add to that the burden of being an intelligent, free thinking woman with a talent for writing in the 19th Century—well then, choosing to restrict one’s social obligations makes a lot of sense.

A few years back, a Dickinson biography was published that suggested that Dickinson may have been an epileptic. Another theory is that she suffered from migraines. There may be something there, and either could explain her choice in reducing her social interaction. In poems like I Felt a Funeral in My Brain, one can easily see metaphors that could be framed as reports of the pre-event auras that suffers experience, as well as post-ictal, after the event states—but let’s show some respect here. I remember reading as a youth that Monet may have painted his impressionist water lilies because he became near-sighted as he aged, and those ponds just looked blurry to him. Well, I’m nearsighted, and I can’t paint like Monet; and if Monet’s art includes elements of a medical condition, “explaining” it that way is reductionist. Monet would still have to choose to paint those water lilies blending and floating, and if Emily Dickinson had migraine auras and dreadful headache episodes, she’s still have to choose to write so originally and vitally as she does in I Felt a Funeral in My Brain.

Biographical mysteries echo the mystery of the poems, but there are plenty of poets with plain lives and mysterious poems. Dickinson is a master of first lines, as this one has. That first line/title might lead one to expect a Roger Corman directed Edgar Allen Poe pulp movie—and you can enjoy the poem as that. Others see it as a statement of desperation, as a statement of sincere anguish at potential unrealized, “a mind is a terrible thing to waste.”  If one wants to take the migraine approach—or for non-suffers, those who’ve had a really bad hangover—you can read it sardonically, “Hey, stop with that clomping around in your boots. You know what kind of night I had!”  You can read it as a meditation on a death foretold.

To the degree I had to choose as a reader I somewhat favored that last one, but with a bit dark humor underlying it, “Get the damn obligatory service over will you, I’m ready to contemplate oblivion.”  That last stanza may be a change in mood. I was reminded of Roger McGuinn’s fine song 5D as I was reading Dickinson’s poem this time, “And never hit bottom and keep falling through just relaxed and paying attention.”

Musically, I started by aiming for something like John Cale’s arrangements for Nico.  I played all the instruments, and the syth part came out something like that. The piano part was an adventure in that I’m not a piano player, and keeping with the John Cale idea, I tried to channel Cale’s part on Nick Drake’s Northern Sky, though the result is something else. Now if I could just dream of translating a bit of Danny Thompson on bass! Well never mind, no one can listen to intentions, but you can hear the results by clicking the gadget that will appear below.

Eros

Time and the universe are designed to make us disappear. What makes us cry at that? What makes us laugh at that? What is the agreement we can reach with that?

The words in this piece are from Ralph Waldo Emerson. Emerson is another of those 19th century New England worthies that we’ve touched on before. Many other writers were encouraged, promoted, and inspired by Emerson in their day.

Ralph Waldo Emerson

Ralph Waldo Emerson (Lake and Palmer not available)

If Walt Whitman and Emily Dickinson are the father and mother of modern American poetry, Emerson is their common grandfather.

For Dickinson, Emerson’s heterodox religious views seem to have buffered her from her family’s more conventional Christianity. Emerson’s ideas of individuality, of attention to inner voices and discernment, and on the book of nature illuminate Dickinson’s world-view. Some of what is obscure and puzzling in Dickinson (a poet whose music can grab us long before her meaning and vision can become clear) opens up when read in the light of Emerson and his circle.

Walt Whitman, that iconoclast who otherwise defies all authority, promoted his career on the back of an enthusiastic letter of praise from Emerson. He published that letter for PR effect, and then blurbed it prominently in subsequent editions of Leaves of Grass. Never shy, Whitman’s work often trumpets Emersonian ideas and concepts, sometimes taking them farther than Emerson would. Emerson may have written this poem and titled it  “Eros,” but Whitman’s poetic accounts of physical love caused Emerson to personally consul discretion to Whitman.

Dickinson’s personal library contained the Emerson poetry collection where this poem, Eros, appeared. When writing to Emerson’s colleague, Thomas Higginson, Dickinson said this of Higginson’s mention of Whitman:

You speak of Mr Whitman-I never read his Book-but was told that he was disgraceful

However, Emily Dickinson was quite capable of portraying herself to Higginson in misleading ways, so one never knows. Ralph Waldo Emerson visited Dickinson’s hometown. He even stayed next door during the visit. Biographers say she attended Emerson’s lecture but didn’t meet him.

Thomas higginson-cyclist

Thomas Higginson, Transcendentalist and long-tail cargo bike pioneer

So Emerson, Whitman, Dickinson. Each of the poets had seen Emerson, each read him, but the other side of the triangle probably never closed. Dickinson was not widely published in Whitman’s lifetime, preventing Whitman from reading her work, and Dickinson may not have read Whitman. So let’s leave it at Ralph Waldo Emerson, and put it shortly:

Emerson is the theory, and Dickinson and Whitman are the practice.

Emerson also wrote poetry, though his considerable 19th century fame came from other things. As a popular lecturer and essayist, he was able to introduce his ideas widely into American culture. As a scene-maker, he declared American independence in cultural matters roughly 60 years after the political fact of independence, and his school of thought, Transcendentalism, was in America the 1960’s counter-culture of the 1840’s.

For such an influential person, particularly as an influence to poets, his poetry is not always rewarding.

To put it frankly, Eros is strangely worded. It’s rhymed and loosely metrical—but despite the casualness with structure, some lines read like someone trying to contort English syntax to fit a strict metrical form. The next-to-last line “And, how oft soe’er they’ve turned it,” is an abomination. It sort of echoes the meter of the first part of the couplet, but it just doesn’t sound good or make it’s point well. I’m also not clear on the image in that line. Are “men and gods,” or some other “they”, turning love on a lathe and not improving its natural form?

So, regarding that line, good Transcendentalists may well just respond: “OK, Ralph, whatever.”  The strong point in Eros, to put “To love and to be beloved” in the center of existence’s meaning is strong enough to overlook infelicities.

In creating this piece, I did some things to try to convey the poem’s strengths. I turned the separated rhyming lines “To love and be beloved” and “’Tis not to be improved” into repeating refrains to bring out that central thought. Musically I use a favorite tactic of mine: repeated motifs that seem at first to be repeating, but are actually changing. Sonically the guitar part has a modulated echo that adds a bit of microtonal warble, and I treated the vocal with a light “throat singing” effect. My sonic goal there was to tip my hat to Emerson and Transcendentalism’s introduction of Asian religious concepts to America.

To here my music and reading of Ralph Waldo Emerson’s Eros, click on the gadget below.