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.