. . .

Emily Dickinson : The Poet as Selflorist, 1

Rhyme's easily defined so long as we ignore the evidence. As actually deployed, the device is slippery.

For example, people who read silently become confused about what's supposed to repeat: the terminal phonemes or the terminal graphemes? The latter is called "eye rhyme"; when it conflicts with "ear rhyme", it's a mistake. But because English spelling began to standardize before English pronunciation, many apparent blunders were perfectly fine ear-rhymes to their original writers.

Regional and class differences continue to play merry hell with terminal vowels and consonants, as in Bunker Hill's glorious coupling of "The road was muddy" with "My toe was hurting". And so, when poems are transmitted orally (or to a particularly meddlesome editor), adjustments get made. Generally, sound wins over sense, with some startling exceptions, such as the version of "Tam Lin" which rhymed "a snake" with "your baby's father." (The reptile started as "an adder," and that rhyme could have persisted if it had been passed to Allan Sherman.)

At any rate, given free rein, English prosody seems as contented by terminal assonance or slant-rhyme as by perfect dictionary rhyme.

Certainly, I am; and I'm also particularly attracted to ear-not-eye rhymes. Which brings me to an endnote of David C. Rubin's Memory in Oral Traditions.

Rubin and Michael H. Kelly wanted to check their hunch that literate poets would tend (consciously or unconsciously) to prefer eye-rhymes, whereas traditional ballad singers would use rhymes without regard to spelling. They sampled from ballads, and from three poets who used similar rhyme sounds: Robert Burns, Emily Dickinson, and James Whitcomb Riley. The ballads contained the proportion of eye rhymes expected by chance: around a third. Burns used significantly more eye-rhymes than would be expected for the number of ear-only rhymes available to him. Riley didn't; on the other hand, Riley's pool of candidates were more eye-oriented: Burns ended up with 40% eye-rhymes and Riley with 46%.

But in Dickinson's sample, only 17% were eye-rhymes. "This is the largest difference observed, and it is in the direction opposite to that expected. That is, Dickinson matches the spelling of her rhymes much less than would be expected by chance."

... to be continued ...


good methods in aprill

We can only hope, my friend. We can only hope.

. . .

Emily Dickinson : The Poet as Selflorist, 2

I would have no newes printed; for when they are printed they leave to bee newes; while they are written, though they be false, they remaine newes still.
- Ben Jonson, Newes from the New World Discover'd in the Moone
Literature is news that STAYS news.
- Ezra Pound, ABC of Reading

It's traumatic when performed art becomes recorded art. (Gawd, do I really sound that whiney?) And poetry's been traumatized longest. Sure, we have all that noise; sure, we can pattern it. But what's the point post-literacy?

So, there's been the pleasure of showing off, when someone's willing to be impressed, or when we can pretend that someone is. There's been seduction and devotion and advertising, when we want our words to stick and intrude far from support of paper. There've been brief re-marriages of written word with notated music before career ambitions drove them apart again. Pound and Zukofsky sincerely believed that poetry became corrupted as it drifted from song, but that didn't make them want to become Sappho or Thomas Campion or Smokey Robinson: it made them want to become a textual version of Brahms or Bach or Webern.

And then there's nostalgia for the days when sound made sense, because it was all the sense we had, even if we usually couldn't say what it actually meant, Remember the good times? Couldn't we bring them back before they're completely lost? The familiar problem of Ossian and Wordsworth, Olson and Rothenberg....

Traditional ballads and heroic epic didn't play much part in the social life of mid-nineteenth century Amherst, Massachusetts. To take them as role models would have been a purely literary affectation rather than a return to orality.

Dickinson's community did, however, include a lyric form comparable in centrality to (say) folk songs for Robert Burns: the hymn.

Of course the Protestant hymn was a written and notated form, but it was expressed in oral performance in public, in the family circle, and presumably within the concert hall of one's skull. (Limited seating, but excellent accoustics.) Would it be possible for an atavistic poet in a literate society to take that written devotional lyric as an origin for oral composition? What might such a throwback look like?

Well, we might expect a reversal of the written lyrics' preference for eye-rhyme. We might expect a return to assonance and slant-rhyme. We might even expect hypercorrection.

We might expect the formal grammar of written sentences to be replaced by the looser, more dramatic and fragmented syntax of spoken English. Since formal syntactic punctuation then loses its function, we might expect a simpler notation of phrase breaks and emphasis dashes, say, and an occasional exclamation mark.

We might expect the literary meter to revert to some features of traditional ballad metrics. That is, a simple regular form might serve as a reference point for ear-and-mouth, perceived as a default mode even if frequently varied in practice. Again positing hypercorrection, it might be deviated from so often that irregularity became the real but imperceptible rule. (And we might expect a great deal of posthumous meddling from editors who prefer the properly regular.)

Dickinson is mostly thought of as a poet of hymnodic quatrains, and there’s no doubting she was partial to hymn meters. A survey (see appendix) of the first quatrains of the 295 poems she wrote in 1863—her most productive year, in Franklin’s dating (which I follow here), and the year that saw the creation of most of her renowned poems—yields one hundred in common meter (8686). At a distant second, comprising about one eighth (37) of the total, come the short-metered poems (6686). Another familiar meter, long meter (8888), Dickinson used only six times, each time rhyming it as couplets. There are also three poems in the sestet variation of common meter known as common particular meter (886886). But the surprising and wholly unrecognized feature of these celebrated poems is that Dickinson worked most frequently in none of the above, often inventing a meter for a poem and using it just that once. The number of poems Dickinson composed in 1863 in patterns rare or unheard of in religious or secular lyric poetry, including her own, surpasses even those in common meter.
- John Shoptaw, "Listening to Dickinson"

We might also expect a re-re-definition of "verbatim recall".

... to be continued ...


Stand not upon Formality / For it leaves an Imprint

That poet-with-swing Jonathan Mayhew writes:

Some have repeated the claim that all of Emily's work can all be sung to the tune of "The Yellow Rose of Texas." This is clearly spurious, given the number of invented forms she wrote in.

"All" is a great exaggeration, true, but not so exaggerated historically speaking, since Dickinson's early editors mercilessly regularized her into acceptable common meter -- which is indeed singable to "The Yellow Rose of Texas" and probably hundreds of other tunes. (I mean, there's a reason it's called common meter!)

. . .

Emily Dickinson : The Poet as Selflorist, 3

Wallace recorded the same four ballads about ship wrecks from a traditional ballad singer, Bobby McMillon, during two sessions held 5 months apart.... At the level of exact words recalled, there were 29 word substitutions preserving meaning; 4 changes in prepositions, pronouns, or articles that had only a slight effect on the meaning, and 2 changes in verb tense. There were 7 cases of words present in one version, but absent in the other. These cases, which had little effect on the meaning, were a, and, as she, just, only, said, and sweet. There were also four pairs of lines that differed in a way that changed the meaning. For these, the first session's alternatives are shown in brackets and the second session's alternatives are shown in parentheses.

There was another ship [and it sailed upon the sea] (in the North Amerikee)
And it went by the name of the Turkish Revelee

She had not sailed far over the [deep] (main)
[Till a large ship she chanced to meet] (She spied three ships a sailing from Spain)

Her boat [against the rock she run] (she run against the rock)
[Crying alas I am undone] (I thought my soul her heart is broke)

Go and dig my grave [don't cry don't weep] (both wide and deep)
Place [marble] (a stone) at my head and feet

- David C. Rubin, Memory in Oral Traditions
To fill a Gap
Insert the Thing that Caused it
Block it up
With Other and 'twill yawn the more
You cannot [Solder an Abyss] (Plug a Sepulchre)
With Air
- Emily Dickinson

Emily Dickinson's fascicles make tidy manuscript pamphlets, ready to post to your local small press, save for one idiosyncrasy. (Not counting spelling and dashes —) Small crosses are inserted in some lines. At the bottom of the page, matching crosses prefix variant words or phrases.

Early critical orthodoxy took them as eccentric attempts at revision. Even given, though, that Dickinson had no training as a proofreader, plus-signs and footnotes seem vague. Were the additions second-thoughts-best-thoughts? Or contemplated changes for a second edition, but still carrying less weight than the consummated originals? What about the doubled or tripled second thoughts? What's their weight class?

Over time and a lot of heat, more scholars have shifted to admitting that Dickinson's priorities are undecidable.

Scholarly explanations, however and, my apologies, I realize this is a matter of taste have tended to the vaporous:

As Marta Werner puts it, "Writing at the far end of the nineteenth century, Emily Dickinson refused the limitations of a print existence and, in doing so, effectively altered the ways in which we read (receive) her encodings". ... as Sharon Cameron puts it, "variants indicate the desire for limit and the difficulty of enforcing is impossible to say where the text ends because variants extend the text's identity in ways that make it seem potentially limitless".
- Michele Ierardi, "Translating Emily: Digitally Re-Presenting Fascicle 16"

Let's get real. When we have some tune rattling around in our head or in our mouths, it rattles in slightly different ways now and then and later. In oral transmission, the changes might not be noticed, or some might be remembered as potential improvements and latched onto, and no one knows the diff. In manuscript transmission among (for example) the aristocratic poets of Tudor or Stuart England, the "same" poem or joke or rumor might be scribbled out to different recipients in slightly different ways.

In print culture, there's more of a tendency to think in terms of revising towards a final unique artifact which says all worth saying. Variants become competitive decisions. Should I stick with the paisley tie, or does the dark blue deliver the right message? Even believers in some external voice, like Yeats or Spicer, in their different ways treated the Muse as a problem of tuning the dial just right, filtering the static, bleaching out the bones of that amplified signal, any signal like other bards, trying to capture that perfect final take.

Then there's the approach associated with folklorists, jazz fans, and Deadheads. Each take its own thing. Comfortable with a message carried across a range of frequencies.

The poet's job is to listen hard and write it down. But the editorial aspect of that job could just as easily involve collating equally viable variants as arranging a showdown to the death. Who knows, maybe even more easily. To meet the question of lyric method in literate culture, Dickinson may have become oral poet and transcribing collector in one: her letters performances; her fascicles a record of possible performances.

Which drops me square in the middle of the Dickinson editorial wars.

As much as I respect Susan Howe and Jerome McGann, my eyes and ears tell me that not all Dickinson's edge-of-the-page breaks need to be reproduced and that Dickinson's genius doesn't lie in calligraphy. On the other hand, publication of a singular reading edition seems impossible to justify. Even though we only ever read one version at any one time, what we read needs a chance to vary, either dynamically (as in Ierardi's digital edition) or through Dickinson's own end-note approach. We're talking about only an extra line or two for a subset of lyrics; it doesn't have to be a choice between Franklin's three volume hardback monster (including all posthumously imposed variants) or Franklin's one volume of guessed-at "final versions" in a guessed-at "chronological order". The editor's soul shares every soul's privilege to - from an ample nation - choose one, then close the Valves of her attention - like stone. But the editor's Emily Dickinson, and my Emily Dickinson? Hang it all, the Trustees of Amherst College, there can be but the many Emily Dickinsons.

So whether it be Rune
Or whether it be [none] (din)
Is of within.

The "Tune is in the Tree —"
The Skeptic showeth me
"No Sir! In Thee!"
- Emily Dickinson


If he could only find that sound, that ultimate Joe Meek effect, he could wrap up his mortal session--finally get it down, with all the clarity of shattering glass.


Copyright to contributed work and quoted correspondence remains with the original authors.
Public domain work remains in the public domain.
All other material: Copyright 2015 Ray Davis.