We’ve come to the winter solstice, the longest night of the year in the northern hemisphere, much more night than day where we live. But it’s also the season of lights: extra holiday lights decorate homes, Christmas markets, and some streets. Some are the lure of commerce, some the lure of religious worship. Some lights say that the desecrated temple can shine again. Some are an abstract decoration set against the dark and grey.
Dave sings below: “Seen from space the earth is glowing…luminescent as a cinder…”
This has probably gone on at some level since we discovered fire. It could be illusion or illumination, but the lights are our human communication with the dark. We know the dark is larger, we know the dark will return—but we still want to speak our piece.
A few years back Dave Moore and I recorded a performance of a song he wrote: “Lights (There Is No Darkness).” I improvised two longer guitar solos in the performance, neither of which are in any hurry, but I’ve come to rather like them along with Dave’s loping, chiming keyboard part. There’s a longer night to decorate, so why not share it here today I think.
The player gadget for “Lights (There Is No Darkness)” is below.
I’ve not engaged much in re-blogging, but two pieces I’ve read this week really struck me: one for an idea and examples of how it might be executed, and the other for a sharply-written essay on a novel from the same early 20th century era that much of the poetry we use comes from.
The idea? A professor and poet Lesley Wheeler, who teaches a course in American poetry from 1900-1950, gave this assignment in lieu of the conventional essay: “create 8 pages of a little magazine from the period, including a cover, masthead, mission statement, table of contents, and a few ‘solicited’ submissions (mostly real poems from the period, but they were allowed to make up one or two plausible imaginary modernists, too, and write poems in those personas). They also had to write reflective essays explaining their literary and design choices and providing a bibliography of models and other sources they consulted.”
That’s a powerful idea. She shows examples of some of the responses to the assignment, and I’d love to see more of what the respondents chose to do. No one lives in history, even those old dead people were immediate. Here’s a link to her post.
The essay came from an unexpected source. I follow a blog Yip Abides that features unusually framed urban-midwestern street photography, a genre that follows the photographic aesthetic of my late wife. He also likes to feature videos that have impressed him, often animation. Visual art and musically oriented blogs are a large portion of my follow list as my own portion of reading on literature is taken up almost entirely with things that directly apply to material for this project.
But this week, there was a post there about The Virginian, a novel I’ve never read, but one of that helped formulate a genre, “The Western,” that dominated popular entertainment in the mid-20th century much like a certain kind of SF/Fantasy dominated the last part of it and the beginning of our current century.
The blogger, Bob Roman, writing about The Virginian ranges perceptively over the areas I’d want a writer to cover. What’s the connection between the cowboy “necktie party” and KKK style lynchings and murders?* How much does the American frontier underlie some particulars in contemporary libertarianism? And there’s more. Well worth reading, and here’s a link to it.
And before I leave to write another post on a new audio piece, a few miscellaneous follow-ups on things discussed earlier in the year.
I’ve now seen the first episode, and so far it seems to be what I’d hoped it was: a tongue in cheek re-contextualizing of Emily Dickinson’s life which both comments on her actual mid-19th century issues and our own times. Last year’s theatrical film Wild Nights with Emily tried to do something like this and had its moments, but I thought the overall execution flawed. Wild Nights with Emily and Dickinson are both comedies, but it was as comedy that Wild Nights failed, its portrayals of Thomas Wentworth Higginson, Helen Hunt Jackson, and Mable Loomis Todd were all too broad. True, they are peripheral characters in Wild Nights, but that too was a choice. As best as I can tell from one episode Dickinson doesn’t make those choices and is the better for it as a comedy. The characters of Dickinson’s world are more rounded portrayals.
The first episode was full of little footnote-quality accurate factoids about the Dickinson family—the creators apparently wanted to show they had done their research. Two choices Dickinson appears to make could work or fail as the series continues: It may have trouble showing why Dickinson matters and it makes the choice to play Emily Dickinson as younger than she was.
At least in the first episode, Dickinson is represented as being recognized by some in her peer group as “a genius” and a few lines of one of her best known poems are repeated almost as often as the hook in a current pop song, but we so far get no sense of why her poems are crucial. This may change over more episodes of course, but it’s always hard to show what a writer does visually. If you do a biopic about a great performer you show an actor portraying them performing, if the simulation is good you’ve made your case. Watching someone write, or how that writing works inside the minds of readers, is not so easy to act.
The first episode seems to be set in 1852, when Dickinson was the age that actor Hailee Steinfeld who plays her is in real life, 22 years old. But this is before Dickinson wrote most of her poems. Chronology seems to be a difficult issue for filmmakers trying to portray Dickinson’s life, but if the show works, I’m willing to grant them license for being loose with that. More problematic is that they appear to be portraying Dickinson as a teenager rather than as a 20-something, much less the 30-something that apparently wrote much of the poetry. I’m aware that different times had different norms for childhood and youth, but were 22-year-olds acting more like 16-year-olds in 1852? I couldn’t help but think the history they were unintentionally demonstrating was the TV and Hollywood practice of having high-school age characters played by 20-something actors.
I’ve had to live through an era when Dickinson was thought of as an arid eccentric, frustrated spinster, and even as a corrective I’m not sure I want her now to be portrayed as only the hormone-saturated brain of our adolescences either. We’ll see how they deal with that as the show goes on.
The knowing comic anachronisms and indie soundtrack? Bring’em on! The Parlando Project obviously isn’t opposed to purposely doing that kind of thing.
In closing then another thing relating to a recent presentation of a Dickinson poem here. What might be behind that striking image of windblown snow starting to fill a field as “summer’s empty room” in Dickinson’s Snow poem? Well, it was one of those poems she enclosed in letters (one of Dickinson’s contemporary uses for her writing). This one went to Susan Gilbert, the woman some modern scholars posit was her lover, and who was certainly one of the intelligent intimates that helped sustain Emily. I think that was an image of longing in the otherwise “winter wonderland” mise en scène of Dickinson’s poem.
An audio piece? As we approach winter solstice, here’s one of my favorite Dickinson presentations from this project, “We Grow Accustomed to the Dark.” The player gadget is below.
*White-on-white lynchings and extra-judicial killings were a common trope in Western movies and TV shows of mid-century, while terrorism directed at Afro-Americans was almost never the subject of popular entertainment. Consciously or subconsciously, this could have been American culture trying to address that which it was loath to address.
Since we’ve re-established that Emily Dickinson can do simple, here’s a lovely poem of hers that introduces more than a touch of “meta” to her poetry.
This poem’s first line starts the meta thing right off. You could quickly read the opening word as “Beside” without the s, and then the poets are singing in the presence of Fall. I suspect Dickinson wished to include that element but subvert it. “Besides” means in this context “beyond that, in addition to.” So, there’s this thing: “Autumn” that poets sing about that is what? Well, it’s prosaic (i.e. prose and routine, not poetry and unique/charged). It’s small: “few,” and “little.”
Next stanza, the song now riffs with “few:” “A few…mornings,” “A few…eves.” Dickenson’s diction is still casual here, but she drops a couple of unusual adjectives with that repeated pair of fews. Unusual adjectives are often a weak crutch in poetry. Throw together some out-of-the-blue random adjective with a noun and you’re suddenly all surreal, poetically mysterious and creative—but more importantly, do these unexpected modifiers create a charged image?
“Incisive mornings,” is a bit of a play on words. Incisive here means not just perceptive, as in the coolness and lack of light predicting winter’s shorter days and lack of warmth: but taken in its other meanings, its winds are cutting and daylight is being incised, removed. “Ascetic eves” also speaks of removal, evenings no longer long with lingering light and it hints at spiritual matters this removal may reveal.
The second stanza ends with two references to poets, presumably examples of the ones mentioned as the poem opens: William Cullen Bryant, an older poet contemporary with Dickinson, and James Thomson, a Scottish poet of the 18th century. Neither are well-known today (though Bryant was a very important American cultural figure in his time). Dickinson mentions them and says that the stuff in their supposed Autumn poems are “gone.”*
In the context of these two stanzas, Dickinson is saying: the existing poets aren’t telling us much about autumn. I think that Dickinson’s sly inclusion of those two concise, precise, and original adjectives is cutting. She’s showing that in two words she can say more about autumn than they can in some long-winded poetry.
Sheaves get mentioned in passing in Dickinson’s poem, so I get to exercise my love for Dutch painting
The second half of the poem has Dickinson unleashing her style of poetry against these musty odes. The third stanza’s word-music is just wonderful. I won’t dance about its architecture today—you can just read or listen to it—I’ll only point out that the end-words “brook” and “touch” have a lovely rhymish echo, even though they aren’t even slant rhyme. This stanza has the superb line “Sealed are the spicy valves” which partakes of the musicality but is an elusive image too. As I read it, I thought of gardeners in our climate planting garlic cloves this time of year, but garlic was not yet a thing in Emily’s New England. After an hour or so of trying to decode the image, to determine what specific spice plant in Dickinson’s time and place is referred to,** I now think this a more generalized image of withered flowers. “Valves” is used only one other time in Dickinson’s poems, in the more famous “A Soul selects her own Society” poem where they appear as “the Valves of her attention.” “Spicy” I’ve judged now is just a biologic/erotic reference to flowers pollination role. We may read the valves anatomically in various ways, but eyelids*** may be intended, as in the closing two lines of the stanza.
The final stanza is Dickinsonian too: nature in Dickinson’s poems is often personified in comical and non-charismatic species, here squirrels. Comically, her thoughts on the matter of autumn and poetry will be of great interest to the squirrel, and in this image she’s pointing out her non-existent status as a literary figure compared to Bryant et al.
It could just be a handy, casual sentiment to finish the poem, but Dickinson may be earnest in her concluding phrase: her mind is the sun that can illuminate the lack of sunlight as Winter solstice approaches.
Mostly acoustic guitar for the music performance today, though if you listen in the background you’ll hear a little harmonium and tambura. You won’t hear it in the rhythm or the instruments timbre, but I put a hidden reference to one James Marshall Hendrix in the music. You can read the full text of Dickinson’s poem here as you listen with the player gadget below.
*Thomson wrote the lyrics to “Rule Britannia,” and Dickinson is likely referring to his long Miltonic blank verse poem called “The Seasons” in her 16 line one. Bryant’s poetry may be largely forgotten, but his former cultural salience is still honored with a lot of school, street, park, and place names in the U.S.
**As an adult, Emily ran an extensive garden in the largely self-sufficient Dickinson family homestead, and in her youth she studied botany and produced a remarkable herbarium book filled with precisely identified plants—so it’s not crazy to think that she could have had a specific plant whose lifecycle she understood. A full-fledged farm field operated right across the road under Emily’s window at the homestead. The “sheaves” in Thomson’s poem wouldn’t have been abstract to her either.
*** If one wants to get more biographical in reading the poem, Dickinson famously went for treatment to Boston for some tantalizingly unspecified “eye problems” a few years after this early poem was written.
I have an LYL Band song again to share with you for Winter Solstice, but unlike last year’s cover of Robyn Hitchcock’s “Winter Love,” this one is not so hopeful. Still, it comes from a tradition—or rather a revival of a revival of a tradition.
Back in my youth we went through an era that Martin Mull called “The Great Folk Scare,” a post WWII time when something called “folk music” grew to be a significant alternative youth movement. It’s going to be hard for me to mention this only in passing here, because there’s so much to be said about that—particularly if I’d try to explain things to those who weren’t around then—but one intensifier to the humor in Mull’s name for this was that it played on the more or less coincident “Red Scare.” That term too could cause me to break out into explaining. Short version: post WWII, the Communism that was an ally of necessity during the Big War was now a mortal philosophic and geo-political enemy. Each side was armed to the teeth, and some of those teeth held the new Atomic Era’s nuclear bombs.
Post 1948 there was no significant left-wing political party left in the United States. So, what were the lefties to do? Well they picked up string instruments and started singing “folk songs.” What did that consist of? It was a polyglot form: Actual traditional songs brought over by immigrants, including centuries-old British Isles tunes and stories, semi-commercial amalgams like Blues and Bluegrass and Country & Western songwriters’ songs, and newly-written songs composed by the young participants.
A large percentage of those new “folk songs” wanted to make social and political points. Like all genres and social movements, folk music sub-divided avidly, soon developing wings that had no use for others that shared a music store section. Those new political/social comment songs, often written by and sung by those who might also do a Child ballad, a Carter Family song and something learned from a Leadbelly or an Afro-American gospel record, were called topical songs or protest songs. This was a happy accident. If you give a young, inexperienced person the charge to write about something that needs changing, the result may be strident and impassioned, but otherwise ineffective. But if you tell them that it has to fit into a set list or multi-act bill that includes “Mary Don’t you Weep,” “Matty Groves,” “No More Auction Block,” “Keep on the Sunny Side,” “Gallows Pole,” and “Samson and Delilah”—well it can make you step up your game, and give you some moves to help you do that.
For example, in 1961, a 20-year-old folk singer Bonnie Dobson, who’d never considered writing a song before, was struck by the idea to write such a song. She recalls she was inspired by the fear of nuclear war. Judging by the audience response on a recording from a year later, her song worked well. It had a skeletal narrative that gave the song power from its incremental impact, despite saying nothing specific about the title’s “Morning Dew.”
This was recorded by Rudy Van Gelder, the engineer behind many of my favorite jazz records
Another folk singer, Fred Neil, heard Dobson’s song, and in singing it again himself, made an important change. He subtly changed the song’s opening line, mysteriously increasing its power. Dobson had written and sung it: “Take me for a walk in the morning dew.” Neil sung it as “Walk me out in the morning dew,” and the simpler line is now often used as the song’s title.
The song has gone on to a long life, sung by many singers and bands in their own way. I think part of why it worked over time, and works today, is the unspecified nature of the disaster. By not being a topical song, it retains some of its power as a protest song. Do you think that “Morning Dew” not being straightforward helps or hurts it as a protest song?*
Today’s piece then is my own dark solstice song, “Father from the North,” which you can hear performed by the LYL Band below. I was aiming for a first verse as good as “Walk Me Out in the Morning Dew” when I wrote it. Notice that when Dobson introduces her song, she just says “This is a song about morning dew, and I hope that it never falls on us.” In the liner notes she expands that only by saying “this is a peace song and a love song,” and the LP’s notes writer, Arthur Argo, says of the song “Her portrayal of love and peace as dual aspects of a single phenomenon is a philosophical truth of great depth.”
Well, I might not reach that level, or ever have Jeff Beck cover my song, but you can hear the LYL Band’s “Father from the North” with the player below. Happy Winter Solstice. More light is coming.
* There’s more than one way to skin a post-bomb radioactive cat. Here’s a rundown of 20 other songs that deal with the same subject, most of which have had less success over time than “Morning Dew” — which they leave out of their list, along with Tom Lehrer songs like “We’ll All Go Together When We Go.” As Tom says in his intro to that: “Here’s a rousing and uplifting song that is guaranteed to cheer you up.”
Yesterday’s post and audio piece had Dave Moore combining the poetry of William Blake and Christina Rossetti, but today we have him singing the work of yet another English mystic as well as his setting of a lyric by Emily Dickinson.
For those readers and listeners in the Northern Hemisphere, tomorrow is Winter Solstice. I write from Minnesota, fairly far upward and north in latitude. Winter Solstice is the darkest day of the year, with the sun not rising until almost 8 AM and the sunset clocking out of work early at 4:20 PM. Despite our colder climate, that’s about the same as London’s solstice daylight and a hour longer than Edinburgh. Minnesota’s famous Scandinavian immigrants, as one comic once put it, traveled across the whole wide ocean just to find the one place as cold, dark and miserable as the place they’d left—well I checked—they picked up 2 to 4 hours more midwinter light.
Of course the new year is less than two weeks off, and solstice is the shortest day—not the entry into a dark season, but the beginning of a gradual expansion of daylight, cold daylight though it may be. For this reason it’s been a fairly widespread feast day across cultures.
However, for writers and musicians, the cold and the dark is no great hindrance. Sure it may blunt our moods, and stunt some mitigating outdoor activities, but our products are part of the festive in the darkness, and they can be like the shared quilt or blanket on the coldest night. Yes, before indoor lighting technology, scholarly reading was curtailed, but the poets of that dark time could recite from memory, needing no light bulb on their lectern. The sounds of strings, the dunest drum and the golden cymbal, travel without light.
And our partners and families don’t need light either to be known to us. They don’t even need poetry or music, their plainest word in the darkness is song enough, if we can hear that as one note in the slowest song that is our life together.
So, for today and the Midwinter Solstice, here is Dave Moore singing Robyn Hitchcock’s “Winter Love.”
The LYL Band tackles the darkest time of year
And for the short passage of the daylight, here’s Emily Dickinson’s sublime lyric about the transit of a day, “I’ll Tell You How the Sun Rose,” also sung by Dave.
And don’t forget, we have over 160 audio pieces here, available in the archives on the right. Why not check out some from before the time you first heard of us?