Happy Birthday, Miss Emily

English: A cabinet card copy of a daguerreotyp...

English: A cabinet card copy of a daguerreotype of Emily Dickinson (unauthenticated) (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

I almost forgot that today was Emily Dickinson’s birthday but then I saw this article from the New York Public Library where I learned that Miss Emily was a musician as well as a poet. It’s a great read and I’ll include the audio clip from George Boziwick, the Chief of the Music Division of the NYPL for the Performing Arts at Lincoln Center. The Soundcloud audio is included in the article, which you are going to want to read. It’s from 2014 but it’s full of information that I was not aware of about the musical influence on her work.

You may have heard that many of her poems could be sung to the tune of “The Yellow Rose of Texas,” which is, unfortunately, also metrically identical to the theme song from “Gilligan’s Island.” To get that out of your head, you might try something with more class like “A Mighty Fortress Is Our God,” or “Amazing Grace.” At least then you’d be close to the inspiration from where here rhythm probably originated. In my choir director days, a hundred years ago, I used to enjoy switching popular hymn lyrics with other tunes for the choir to sing. Many hymnals come with a metrical index for that purpose.

But to reduce Miss Emily’s meter to ditties stuck in our heads is to trivialize it. The point is that this is the sort of meter that was probably often in her head, and so for a formal poet it seems like a natural progression to write to that beat.  Of course, she wrote poems that didn’t fit that mold too.

Those of us who have been exposed to half a century or more of free verse may find difficulty in reading her work out loud without it coming off as sing-songy. But maybe that’s okay. After all, one of the few recordings we have of Yeats is of him reading in a very rhythmic manner and what’s more, he explains that he is doing so on purpose. I had a discussion with a friend recently about this and it has me wondering if we’ve missed something to the music when we try to read poetry as we would read prose. Let’s talk more about that soon.

But for now, an important birthday anniversary is slipping away as my clock hurries toward midnight. Below is an experiment that my dear Brian and I conducted just in the last hour while he was recording here in the living room. I pulled my mic and laptop over and asked if he would play a little something to fit this poem by Emily that I had never even heard of until tonight. So he made something up and I read. This is the second take and we enjoyed the spontaneity of it. I hope you do too.

I’ll include the written version below the recording, and after that, the New York Library audio I mentioned above. You might also enjoy this read by another lovely voice here. Oh, and for more information about Emily’s writing style, and especially about the recent, and very visual collection of her scraps and notes and later poems you’ll want to check out this wonderful piece in the New Yorker.

This poem is often called “The Jay” or “The Blue Jay” but our birthday poet never did bother much with titles, so those who cataloged them simply called it #51

#51, “The Jay” by Emily Dickinson

No brigadier throughout the year
So civic as the jay.
A neighbor and a warrior too,
With shrill felicity

Pursuing winds that censure us
A February day,
The brother of the universe
Was never blown away.

The snow and he are intimate;
I ‘ve often seen them play
When heaven looked upon us all
With such severity,

I felt apology were due
To an insulted sky,
Whose pompous frown was nutriment
To their temerity.

The pillow of this daring head
Is pungent evergreens;
His larder — terse and militant —
Unknown, refreshing things;

His character a tonic,
His future a dispute;
Unfair an immortality
That leaves this neighbor out.

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