Besides the Autumn poets sing

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.

harvesters by Peter Bruegel the elder

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.

Father from the North

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.”

Solstice Featuring Dave Moore

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?