The only Ghost I ever saw

Here, as promised, is the start of a series of Halloween-themed posts. Today’s audio piece uses words from 19th century American poet Emily Dickinson, and as usual for her it’s titled using the poem’s first line: “The only Ghost I ever saw.”   Dickinson is no stranger to the gothic, but she often approaches it playfully — and that seems to be the case here. Here’s the full text of the poem along with chord-sheet notations for the 12-string guitar part I accompany it with today.

The Only Ghost

Sing along with Emily and the tree ghosts


The surface “plot” of this poem is straightforward, if detail sometimes puzzles. The poem’s speaker (presumably Dickinson) has seen a ghost once. She describes the encounter using some expected and unexpected description, and then closes with a puzzling final line. Since the description of the ghost is most of the poem let’s examine that closely. We first learn the ghost is dressed in “mechlin.” What’s that? A type of Flemish lace. The ghost has “no sandal on his foot.” The ghost moves soundlessly but with some speed, bird or dear-like. The ghost’s “fashions” are “quaint.” It might wear mistletoe. The ghost makes no footfall noises, but is not noiseless either. It’s said to laugh “like the breeze.”

The concluding lines say Dickinson doesn’t want to look behind and calls the day she saw her ghost “appalling.” I’m indebted to the Prowling Bee blog who notes that in Daniel Webster’s American 19th century dictionary, appalling may mean to astonish or to grow white among other meanings that have fallen out of use. Over time that we’ve taken it to mean frightening or disgusting.

This sort of mystery with detail is a format which suggests a riddle to me, and Dickinson did write riddle poems. So, is the ghost a metaphor for something else she’s observing? One could hazard a guess it’s snow, which might sweep in on winds like this with frosty lace, but the ghost is said to step “like flakes of snow.” It could be wind —and cold currents are often felt as “ghostly” — except again, Dickinson spends at least three lines in her short poem describing its actions as like a breeze. Snow like snow or breeze like breeze would be tautologies.

If it is a riddle, my best solution is that she’s viewing a tree in a grove of trees. Bark or moss, or even more likely the light filtering through small branches is the lace mosaic. It has no sandal to walk on the ground, its foot is in  the ground — and note that Dickinson says no sandal on his foot (singular), not feet as in a human ghost. It steps in the wind in its swaying, but the noise in that movement isn’t from the foot of the tree, which stays stationary. And the branches dart back and forth like a deer leaping or a bird hopping. The prime clue is that mistletoe. Mistletoe is a parasite plant, it only grows by embedding its roots in trees.  The branches make noise, the laughter, and in the path of the breeze the laughter would spread to other formerly still and pensive* trees around. Dickinson knows botany, I understand she and her family cultivated trees, and she has written other riddle poems with plants as answers.**

So my reading in summary: Dickinson is viewing a tree, perhaps one of the trees that surrounded the Dickinson homestead in autumn, and those flakes of snow its branches are stepping “like” are also  appearing snowflakes in an approaching cold-front. The “interview” is cut short as the day is appalling — growing pale.

Is that an all-too-much a Scooby-Doo “There’s no such thing as ghosts” ending? I’m not certain of it, and the poem charms without the above, letting it stay in mystery. If that’s your worry, who’s to say — particularly at Halloween — that the trees aren’t sentient spirits?

You can hear my performance of Emily Dickinson’s “The only Ghost I ever saw”  with my own musical setting using a player below if you see it. Is that player an invisible ghost for you? Well, summon it then with this highlighted link that will open a player.


*In the handwritten manuscript, Dickinson shows that she considered “smiling” instead of “pensive” in the poem.

**See this Dickinson flower riddle poem I recast as flower-power.

A Murmur in the Trees

I said, when I was listening to the Tell It Slant Festival’s marathon reading of all of Emily Dickinson’s poems, that I was jotting down lesser-known Dickinson numbers which I might perform in the Parlando Project manner. Well, here’s one of them.

If you’ve followed my various Dickinson performances over the years you may have seen me emphasize Dickinson’s visionary aspects, her outlooks gothic and satiric (often combined), and sometimes her abstract poems of philosophic thought. One thing I noted again during the marathon was that she can be a very acute and intimate poet depicting pain. She’s all that. But sometimes she’s more at playful. Today’s piece, “A Murmur in the Trees,”  for example.

It’s glancingly a nature observation poem, but fancies have taken it over by half-way in, as a fairy tale seems to break out. The opening stanza sets things at night, and perhaps we are in the Dickinson garden (where Emily, predicting an REM song to come, sometimes did gardening tasks at night). There’s a noise, the title’s murmur, in the trees.

The second stanza breaks with a line of alluring consonance that remains a mystery to me, the “A long — long Yellow — on the lawn.” Sunset’s last light beams or dawn’s first ones? Filtered moonlight? And then we are told, something like little footsteps are heard.

The third stanza portrays little fairies or gnomes trooping home, the fourth, robins that could be strange birds who wear nightgowns and sleep in “Trundle beds” or Robin Goodfellow with wings. The poet’s speaker, presumably Emily herself, reminds us these are not metaphors in this moment for normal animals, since what she observes “would never be believed.” She finishes by saying that she won’t test the credibility of her observations anyway because she’s in league with those she’s observed, she’s promised “ne’er to tell” what her night garden contained. The final two lines return to mystery — if nightgown-wearing birds or gnomes, or the both of them hanging out together aren’t ambiguous enough — by saying “Go your way — and I’ll go Mine — No fear you’ll miss the road.” What’s the road? Are they birds seasonally approaching their autumn migration time where Dickinson is famously staying put? If we take that aspect, Dickinson appreciates they know a road away where she may not. Or is the road that other mystery, the “long Yellow on the lawn?” Fairies* are said to have paths (not to be obstructed) that are often difficult for regular humans to detect, but sometimes different colored grass or vegetation is said to be a sign of fairy roads. Is that the long yellow in the grass?

Fairy Birds or Tiny Gnomes

Actual photograph of enchanted birds attempting a marathon reading of all 1789 Dickinson poems. Meanwhile, tiny gnomes have paths and “houses unperceived” if you look hard enough in your night garden.


The little song I made from Dickinson’s “A Murmur in the Trees”  can be heard with the graphical player below. No sign of the player? No fear you’ll miss the road, there’s this backup highlighted link  that will open a player to play it.


*This second reading assumes some understanding of Celtic or British Isles folklore on Dickinson’s part. I’m not sure what is known of that possibility. There were Irish immigrants in Dickinson’s Amherst, eventually some as domestic workers at the Homestead.

She’s so unusual: "The Trees are Down” for National Poetry Month

Americans know little of English poet Charlotte Mew, who wrote today’s poem during “the last Twenties,” but her poetry shows some unusual qualities, particularly for her time.*  For example, this poem starts off off-hand and rises at its end to hearing an angel — so beginning like a reserved Frank O’Hara and ending as if she were Rilke.

Oh, and in the middle of the poem, there’s a short meditation over the corpse of a dead rat.**  Joyce Kilmer must have forgot to add that kind of touch in his better-known Arbor Day connected poem!

Accounts from those who were acquainted with Mew often commented on her eccentricities, and even though Virginia Woolf and Thomas Hardy thought highly of her writing, Mew’s writing career never really gained traction. Over the decades since there’s been some increase in interest in Mew, especially in England. I’d suppose that the eccentricities and tragic arc of her biography help some with interest, but in the immediacy of Parlando’s performances we’re left with just the text of a poem like this. This performance is a live LYL Band take, and like much O’Hara, I found the conversational style makes the text easy to perform.

As with Frank O’Hara, or Emily Dickinson for that matter, just what Mew is getting on about in her poem may not be grasped on one listen or read-through. Yes, the poem’s audacious empathy for the trees comes through easily, but what’s the purpose of that rat? I think Mew is explaining that it’s the absences, the deaths, that more fully convince life into our memory, and that this is so for the “god-forsaken” rat and the angel-blessed trees.

The poem’s Plane tree is a species well suited to urban spaces, able to survive the Victorian pollution of London that Mew was born into.


One last day to go in our celebration here of National Poetry Month, but I’ve got some plans for a big send-off day tomorrow if time and life allows. As with most of the 30 performances of a variety of poems that we’ve re-released this April, there are three ways to hear Charlotte Mew’s “The Trees are Down.”   You can use a player gadget below, this highlighted hyperlink (supplied for those who won’t see the player), and via a lyric video above.

Thanks again for reading and clicking play. It should be obvious if you read or listen to the things here, that there’s a reason I’m attracted to the unusual. You must be too. I’m grateful for that.


*That relaxed  beginning, interrupted by the interjections of the workmen’s voices all related in long prosy lines is still an unusual effect today. Maybe the beginning has some Whitman in there too?

**Without plan, 3 poems in the 30 have had rats in them. T. S. Eliot’s “Waste Land”  river rat in “The River Sweats,”  Du Fu’s scurrying rat in the ruins from “Jade Flower Palace,”  and now Mew’s spring corpse rat.

At Day-Close in November

See, just as my son predicted, we’re back with more old dead poets, this time English poet Thomas Hardy. Today’s poem sort of pairs-up with Dave Moore’s piece from last time. Dave directly addressed youth in his song in the context of the cycle of generations, with the newer ones sure they’ve figured out something the old generation hasn’t—which is sort of true, at least enough to allow them the audacity to change things.

Hardy, in this fall poem written late in his life, isn’t so sure, but then Hardy never is. In the Hardy poems I’ve presented he’s very aware of the cycles of things, and he barely accepts that those eternal circles could have any inclined plane to their returning paths.

Thomas Hardy close up

That’s a prodigious cookie duster you got there Mr. Hardy.

Here’s the full text of Hardy’s “At Day-Close in November”  if you’d like to follow along as I discuss how I experienced it.

Since we’ve done so many autumn poems this year, we can see Hardy checking in with some perennial fall poem tropes: shorter days, birds leaving, colored and falling leaves. Hardy, whose late career overlapped the Imagists, is immediate and unfussy with his images in a modern manner. The one personified natural image in it: the waving evergreens like waltzers, is still not too far from one used by pioneering Imagist Richard Aldington. Note to, there’s not a single interior emotional term used here. To sense what the poet/speaker is feeling we need to take in the images and events.

The second stanza increases the originality, even while using colored and falling leaves. The light-yellow beach tree leaves floating in the air are like relics of the sun in a gray noontime. And as some old guys will recognize Hardy is saying they are also like inter-ocular “floaters,” tiny clouds that develop in the fluid of some aging eyes and drift across vision. The final two lines tell us that the poet/speaker is old enough that he planted trees in his youth that are now tall enough to block the sky in places. There’s some parallelism here: the leaves, like specks in his vision, block some of the sky like the trees he planted in youth do also. The former is transitory, moving, changing, the later seemingly less so.

The last stanza adds some children, who also are moving through the scene. Here the poem does resort to a internal term, though not an emotional one: the children we’re told “conceive” that those tall trees must have always been there (something the poet/speaker knows is not so—I set those damn trees in the ground myself is the implied thought). So those trees are not permanent things, and so like the leaves, like clouds in an old man’s eye after all.

I at first encountered the last line as puzzling, even awkward sounding. There seems to be two versions of the text. The one I found first and used has the last line as: “That none will in time be seen.” Others seem to have it as “A time when none will be seen.” The second version is less awkward and has a parallelism with it’s preceding line “A time when no tall trees grew here.” I had trouble singing that first version, I might have used the second one if I’d seen it before the performance. But now I’m thinking that the awkwardness, even the sense that the poem has ended on a “What’d he say?” note, may have value.

This line’s “none” has a hazy antecedent. I think we’re to first think it’s the children, who are unaware of the transient nature of themselves (something the poet/speaker knows and they don’t). But in the sentence it appears in, the statement can be referring to the trees (which the poet/speaker knows weren’t there until he planted them) that are not permanent.

In what ways are the trees not permanent? Well the poet/speaker is old, he may expect he will not see either those children or the trees he planted for many more autumns. Nor are the trees permanent to the children, rambling through in play. They will grow up, perhaps not stay there, or be at work inside and not outside in the fall air by the trees. I know little about Hardy’s particular English countryside, but is he even foreseeing a modern future where the trees will be cut down for progress? And by extension, is Hardy, taking as is his wont the long view, saying that any work he did in his long life will be forgotten by those children?

Musically, Benjamin Britten has set this poem to music. I listened to two performances which reminded me the problems I sometimes have with art song settings of poetry as a listener: a complex melody makes it hard to inhabit the words with humanity and feeling, and therefore obscures their meaning and makes everything empty decoration. I persisted and found a couple where the singers somewhat overcame these issues with Britten’s setting. Here’s the best one I’ve found so far.

Of the performances I’ve heard so far, Mark Wilde is best able to illuminate the words through Britten’s filigree.

Now of course I don’t mean to knock the skills of Britten as a composer. I could claim that I write music that has a wider variety in some sense, but let’s be serious: I don’t have 1% of Britten’s musical knowledge, or the knowledge of any other reasonably well-known “serious” composer. And as a singer I have trouble rendering even simpler melodies and for this reason I don’t try to write art-song style settings because I have no one handy to sing them.

So, what’d I do instead with my music for this Hardy poem? A rock band with three cranked-up Telecasters wailing away. I suggest you listen to it loud too. The player gadget is below.

The Trees are Down

I indicated when I first presented a poem by Charlotte Mew this month that I’d talk more about her life, but what I know is so limited and sad that I’ll try to condense things.

She was born into a family that had more than its share of illness and mortality. Three siblings died in childhood, two were institutionalized for insanity. Her father died “without making adequate provision for his family” according to the Wikipedia article, leaving her mother and surviving sister to try to scrape by in late 19th Century London. She appears to have been socially awkward and eccentric. Eventually her mother died, and then her sister, with Mew ending up being the final caretaker for both. After the death of that final sister, Mew herself was unable to care for herself. She was institutionalized and committed suicide by the decidedly unromantic method of drinking Lysol.

There is so much unanswered detail in her story. For example, the two surviving sisters are said to have vowed not to marry for fear that the insanity might be hereditary. My now largely forgotten medical knowledge/experience wonders what the exact elements were of these early deaths and the cluster of undifferentiated mental illness. Quick, idle thoughts fall to something like Huntington’s Disease.

Anyway, during her life Mew was something of a writer’s writer. Thomas Hardy and Virginia Woolf both championed her and apparently got her a government stipend for support. She was not prolific, and she didn’t write grand poetic epics or found a new school of poetry or critical theory. Still from the first time I read her poems this year I was easily struck by how different they often were. In her era there were a lot of Modernist poets who were shockingly different then—and who often still retain easily seen uniqueness today. Gertrude Stein, E. E. Cummings, Mina Loy, Tristan Tzara, Marianne Moore, Wallace Stevens, H. D., and William Carlos Williams made individual showy breaks away from fusty tradition in the time Mew was writing her poetry.

But Mew wasn’t really a Modernist as they were, not in any card-carrying sense. Her breaks from poetic orthodoxy were sometimes subtle and sometimes seem artless in both the good and bad senses of that term.*

Today’s piece “The Trees are Down”  is a good example. Although I didn’t include it in the reading, it starts with a biblical epigraph from Revelation:  “—and he cried with a loud voice: Hurt not the earth, neither the sea, nor the trees—” What follows starts off as if it’s miscategorized prose, as casual as a diary entry, a letter, or blog post. But it soon adopts a subtle rhythm, something like F. S. Flint’s “unrhymed cadences,” with a little symphony of sound verbs and some mixed in background sound from the workmen felling trees.

A Plane Tree in London

A London plane tree. Poetic enough…


But Mew will turn from this abruptly, rather than developing that sound and theme, almost literalizing the cliché “red herring.” She recalls finding a dead rat—not at the site of the tree work, not recently—just a rat’s carcass once encountered some “long past spring.” And she remembers thinking that even this “god-forsaken thing” should be alive in spring.

rat carcass

…not quite as romantic as a majestic tree.


Then she leaves this odd aside and begins a passage of irregular rhyme and near rhyme, once more looping in a sample of the workmen’s cries (“Down now!”). Nearly every phrase has end-rhyme, but we are made to wait seven phrases for a rhyme between “fine grey rain” and her return to that seemingly unconnected dead rat with a remark that except for this strange connection with the rat carcass and the death of the trees “I might never have thought of him again.”**

And then she changes once more, back to the unrhymed cadences mode as she begins to introduce her final theme. Her cadence strengthens in her last stanza, and she closes with the introduction again of a series of end-rhymes. She makes her closing case so clearly that I feel no need to make any paraphrase. That case borders on the sentimental I suppose, and I’d guess that any of the few reading “The Trees are Down”  in Mew’s own time would see it as that in their context.

Today, when we encounter those same words Mew wrote, we might contextualize them differently. First, we may not be expecting Mew to sound like a fine regular poet with even meters and regular rhymes. Nor are some of us requiring she make it new in some bold way that makes a revolutionary show of novel ways of speaking and writing. We’re are more likely than readers in Mew’s time to be comfortable with poets speaking in unique and personal but merely human terms about events up unto death. The strange anecdote of the dead rat controls the sentimentality of the death of the great and stalwart trees. We may even see a subtext here, one we’ve come to increasingly realize: that of men callously controlling and seeking to reign over and reign in nature.

In the same way that we now read what had once been seen as inconsequential “relationship issues” in the poetry of Millay or Teasdale and see important social dynamics, we might read “The Trees are Down”  now a hundred years later and see an ecological perspective.

To hear the LYL Band perform Charlotte Mew’s “The Trees are Down”  use the player below.




*Harold Monro, who published Mew’s first book of poetry in 1916, tried to describe this difficulty in Mew’s je ne sais quoi “No argument, or quotation, can prove that the poetry of Charlotte Mew is above the average of our day. She writes with the naturalness of one whom real passion has excited; her diction is free from artificial conceits, is inspired by the force of its subject, and creates its own direct intellectual contact with the reader. Her phraseology is hard and concentrated.” For a modern appreciation of Mew’s style see Molly Peacock here.

**I wonder if Mew, an upright human towering over the dead rat is being compared with the those-who-are-about-to-die trees towering over the humans beneath them.

Plum Tree Blossoms on 40th Street

Today I step aside from our usual practice here, and present words I wrote. With opportunity, next week I should be able to return to “Other People’s Stories.”

“Plum Tree Blossoms on 40th Street”  was written recently, and includes elements of observations I made during a bike ride to school with my son in early May. In the course of writing the poem and revising it, I modified the events of that day. This is not unusual. The events of one’s own life have a fractal branching of meaningfulness that frustrate encapsulation. It may be useful to use those endless edges as perforations to tear away from all things remembered the shape of a poem.

I tested the revision before this one with a group of poet friends, and alas, it didn’t seem to work well for them. They were slightly puzzled why the speaker in the poem didn’t ask the child to stop and smell the blossoms, but altogether bewildered by the question (or the way I presented it) when the speaker asks near the end of the poem about memory being able to remember the smell of something overlooked in one’s past. That was useful information. They also made a very specific suggestion. Originally the blossoms had been tree blossoms, and though they were extravagantly fragrant on the morning that inspired the poem, I did not know in fact what kind of tree was bearing them. No matter, they suggested, it works better if you make them a specific tree.

Blossoming Plum Tree

OK, it was some kind of fruit tree blossoming, let’s make it a plum.


I read something once particularly wise regarding such honest critiques about one’s writing. It may have been from Kurt Vonnegut, or it may have been someone else, but the gist of it was that if good, honest, readers find a problem in a piece they are almost always right, even if they are often wrong about how to fix it. The suggestion to name the type of tree was simply right I thought, but how to deal with what they saw as the troublesome puzzle about memory?

What I was trying to suggest in my poem’s story was that we can indeed remember things retroactively. Things that were not noted at the time consciously, that were not filled out as if a contemporaneous diary as experienced, can still be recalled when we later find them important or precious. We do this partially from our subconscious, perhaps even from what the Transcendentalists would call the over-soul, but mostly this is augmented because our minds are great pattern makers, able to fill in gaps with all the other things we recall.

The readers who noted this as a problem were smart, perceptive people. They likely knew of this, but I still had perplexed them.

I could not remove this, for me it was the point of the poem. Sometimes, what folks most object to in a poem (or other art) is, paradoxically, why it needs to exist.

I made some slight changes in a couple of lines around that concluding question, hoping in this version to make this natural phenomenon of memory clearer, without hindering the “music of thought” as well as “music of words” that I think poetry should have. Maybe it works better now.

To hear my performance of “Plum Tree Blossoms on 40th Street”  use the player below.