Bring Forth the Nobody and Send In the Clowns:
The Wild Spirit of Emily Dickinson’s Creativity and Freedom We Celebrate on Her Birthday “lest any doubt that we are glad that they are born today”
I have come to feel that Emily Dickinson’s Nobody and Clown are Dickinson’s poetic self, her inner heroes fighting what—speaking of heroes—my hero Sir Peter Shaffer has his immortal Lettice Douffet in Lettice and Lovage call “the mere, ” an ordinary somebody.” Lettice is like Dickinson’s clown, perceiving the tremendous: she wants to enlarge, enlighten, enliven, the three E’s she learned from her mother who takes Shakespeare to the French provinces, occupying barns and fields, her own flash mobbery. She defies and defines a way of living and seeing life that is mere—defined as “that and nothing more”. The small, the least. The nobody-ness. There is something in Dickinson’s clown, her defiant re-definition of nobody, that calls to us, something wild and yearning to belong and to be free. To see the world this way is a creative response that is beyond convention, beyond the usual way a somebody or king would look at life. Dickinson’s poems in my brain, as I hurry about my days (“. . . mov[ing] too fast”), busy and distracted, are flash mobs, slow downs, of pondering, wild thought, transforming the moment into a greater consciousness. Her poems are “pop ups” in my mind. As she says of the Poet (in “This was a poet”), they “arrest” us: they stop us, and make us wonder and think and feel, and we go on, as we do after a flash mob, changed and, in computer language, truly re-freshed as we go about our business. That’s what The Poetry Slow Down is all about.
Where you are.
TIME? It’s happening now
IT SOUNDS LIKE A PLAN! COUNT ME IN!
I’m counting you in, welcoming you to our show today, all of us listening right now, assembled for the world’s most famous nobody, we’re perturbing the airwaves, disturbing the peace, disrupting the public space, occupying Prose, with . . . Nobody:
I’m Nobody! Who are You?
Then there’s a Pair of us?
Don’t tell–they’d advertise –you know!
How dreary to be Somebody!
How public–like a frog–
To tell one’s name the Livelong June
To an admiring–Bog!
That’s Emily Dickinson, and she was right, they WILL advertise, and what’s more, become a mob, a Flash Mob, to an admiring bog, that’s us! We’re celebrating a so-called “nobody” who became a big celebrity from tapping into everybody’s inner nobody. We’re disturbing the peace with words of poetry honoring the woman who lived her life unknown as a poet, “shut up” and “shut out” of public life . . . . The legend goes, even her friends did not see her face, but only heard her voice through a door that was ajar: isn’t that a radio-esque way that she communicated? Only her voice? Without any other distractions? It puts the focus on voice.
So I’ll tell you first what happened with a real Flash Mob, bringing Emily Dickinson not only outside, but to the streets!WHAT? Yes, we brought Emily Dickinson to the streets for her birthday yesterday. Have you been in a Flash Mob, sort of like a flash flood of culture, an Instant Scene? You were minding your business, going about your day, your, as Proust scholar Alain de Botton would say, quotidian realities, or actually, you were NOT “Mind”-ing your business, we were just crossing the plaza, waiting in line, on our way to somewhere, a no man’s zone of purpose, nothing planned, no destination, off site, off line, time out, time off, as we scurry and hurry and are OFF to someplace, and suddenly, someone comes ON, someone who seemed at that point ordinary and beneath notice, that is, invisible, and insignificant, and unimportant, and anonymous, right next to you, starts spouting lines from Romeo and Juliet, and up on the escalator, someone answers back in iambic pentameter. All of a sudden, we find ourselves in the middle of Romeo and Juliet, or a dance troupe kicking it up to a Scott Joplin rag or George Gershwin or jitterbugging, and the scene—yeah, it IS a scene, now, literally, is transformed, the nowhere we are, the waiting area, the space we are moving through and waiting in, is a somewhere, it’s a stage, and we’re on the stage, you and I, this is a happening . . . and you know, Poetry Slow Down, I see this phenomena AS a “poetry slow down:” here you are, driving in your car, sixty miles an hour down the highway, or along a business route, strip mall, or on your way to your grandchildren, or you’re at your office computer, paying bills, or at the kitchen table, where I love to think of you, chopping onions, or mixing cookie dough (stay tuned for our show, kitchen poetry), and then, poetry enters the air! And YOU, you good ones, YOU say, bring it on! And I say, let’s—let’s get poetry into our everyday life, it’s good for us, it’s good for us physically, cognitively, spiritually, for our whole brain, whole selves, whole lives! And let’s keep poetry in our civic life, as we travel on buses and trains, walk on stone and take ecalators up granite walls, from Freedom Plaza to Dupont Metro Station in Washington, D.C. Let’s keep it in government: the English-major poetry-quoting San Fransisco Supervisor John Avalos came in second in the Mayor’s race in a field of over 16 candidates, losing only to the incumbent; his reading of poetry gave him an epiphany of kindness of government. Let’s keep it in the White House, at Stanford in the Occu-poem. Coast to coast, board room to civic chambers to walls and sidewalks, poetry is vital for humanity.
And so meanwhile, back at the Flash Mob, our moment has been transformed, and if you have seen some of these Flash Mobs on video, on You Tube, you can see Flash Mobs at Denver Airport where people leave their luggage and join the dancing, enter the frolicsome fray, and there they are, dancing away . . .
So the element of surprise is key, right, and so organizing a Flash Mob for Emily Dickinson was logistically challenging. The invitation was a little tricky: Here is what went out, so weirdly:
Where? We can’t tell you where because a Flash Mob breaks us out of ordinary public rhythms, surprising everyone, revealing space we take for granted as a stage, how we actually do live on a stage or page, but we’ll give you some clues.
YES, Gingerbread will be served!
YES, Poetry will be recited!
This Flash Mob (shhhhh) is brought to you by Team Poetry’s Poet in Residence of Pacific Grove, Barbara Mossberg (“Dr. B), and students of California State University Monterey Bay and Pacific Grove High School, under the direction of Mr. Larry Haggquist and the champion Poetry Out Loud program.
COME ONE COME ALL! COME ON, and bring your favorite “NOBODY!”
I confess Poetry Slow Down I dreamed this up in thinking of a way to ring in Emily Dickinson’s birthday and put it “out there.” And so on the eve of her birthday about fifty high school students and college students wearing purple and white—I’ll tell you about that in a sec–joined me in this tomfoolery truly breaking the public peace.
We did it at an iconic literary site, on Cannery Row, next to where John Steinbeck, who won the Nobel Prize for literature, wrote Cannery Row, with his buddy Ed Rickets, a marine biologist who loved Shakespeare, and Joseph Campbell, the great mythologist (Hero With A Thousand Faces) who loved literature and science, and Steinbeck loved marine biology, so they all hung out right here where the seals bark, and so here we were, and first, I meekly accosted a couple crossing the plaza, saying, I’m Nobody, who are you? They sort of stopped, sort of alarmed, sort of annoyed, on the alert, but polite: at “are you nobody too?” they started to say their names, who they were, and the poem continued, and they stopped walking to listen, realizing, oh, this is something, something happening, looking at each other—I will let you know the link for the video:—and then, a young woman seated on a bench nearby leaped up and announced, I’m Nobody! Who are you! –the whole poem, and then a woman across the plaza leaped up on a bench, and declaimed the poem, and then, two and three people on a balcony held forth, and then people came out of stores, saying I’m Nobody, and then there were twenty people, chanting, I’m Nobody, and suddenly it seemed that EVERYONE was Nobody, and then across the street more, and more of Nobody-ness, emerging from stores and doorways and from all directions, until finally about fifty people were filling the air with chanting, I’m Nobody, who are you, are you nobody too?
First you are thinking, a community, a mob chanting in unison “I’m Nobody!” Um, Dr. B, What is wrong with this picture? Is this not a complete contradiction of the very spirit of Emily Dickinson? Singular, isolate, and alone, removed by choice from the public fray? Ah, Poetry Slow Down, you’re right, Emily Dickinson famously lived her life in seclusion, if not also exile. She wrote, explaining why she would not accept an invitation even by a famous editor of The Atlantic Monthly to visit, “. . . I do not cross my father’s ground to any House or town.” She did not engage the world—in person. She lived a quiet, invisible life. In her lifetime she was virtually unknown as a poet. She knew she was considered a “nobody but she defiantly takes that identity and shakes it, shakes it up, with pride and panache! Like the person you didn’t even notice at first in the Flash Mob, suddenly bursting into performance, her Nobody is not to be underestimated: “How dreary to be Somebody.” “Public” is literally a dirty word here—a bog. As in, mire, stench, quagmire, swamp, as in, getting swamped, getting BOGGED down, as in, the definition for quagmire, difficult situation.
That’s the “public” realm. Rivet. Yet she yearned to be famous, to be immortal, to matter utterly to us, to be “great, Someday,” that is, to be a poet—which would do all of the above, bring her fame, bring her immortality, bring her as a household word to us, to transform our quotidian world like a flash mob, into something momentous, lighting up the insides of our lives with insights into the momentous, precious, significant, comic, tragic, enormously meaningful truths of the dignity and epic struggle of each of our being, alive on this earth, and conscious. That’s her life To Do list, I think. Her poetry chronicles her struggle for an identity of distinction.
Emily Dickinson created an identity and poetry of such distinction and singularity that it took about a hundred years for it to come to us whole and not “fixed up” or “foxed.” She has become known as one of the greatest poets in the English language, beloved around the world, a “somebody.”Nobody: a person of no importance, no consequence, somebody unimportant, “not one person.” So, perhaps, all persons? My freshman students at California State University Monterey Bay have exciting responses to these issues that illuminate Dickinson’s relevance to our world.
And how delicious to celebrate her celebrity, her fame, her public stature, with a mob, disturbing the peace or at least the business as usual! To an “admiring bog!” And to have a crew of Nobodies saying some of her most beloved and famous words. She is no longer “shut up,” “shut out.” She is part of the fabric of our daily lives, her words the spiritual soundtrack to how we live and think about life most profoundly. Her joys and sorrows and insights into the largeness of life expressed on the sidewalk, declaimed in the plaza, pronounced on the street, shouted on a public bench. Yes–in public!
This seems right.
It seems that everywhere in the world I have gone, Dickinson is famous for writing “I’m nobody.” She is a cognoscente of defiant consciousness, speaking for people of every culture.It seems like a paradox, Dickinson as a famous Nobody. And yet I suspect that her fame as a nobody illuminates a truth about all of us—everyone. We each may harbor a conviction that we are a nobody, insignificant, invisible, in terms of our true worth. No one knows us for our true selves, our greatness, our genius. We each yearn to matter utterly.
In our world today, Emily Dickinson’s experience as a defiant nobody who created her own destiny is universally relevant. Her poetry takes us on a journey of self-discovery in which the Nobody within is a cocoon that will transform into a butterfly. I’m Nobody resonates with the secret sharer-self in which everyone, I suspect, considers oneself a “nobody” and yet yearns to matter utterly to our world. In my work as a teacher and lecturer, I ask people to engage with the structure of this poem to open up their own sense of longing to belong and to be known in significant ways to our world. And she recognizes us: are you nobody too? She makes a community of us, fellow nobodies, a mob of us.
Today we’ll hear a companion poem to I’m Nobody, A little madness in the spring, and some of my favorite poems of her wild spirit expressed as Nobody and the Clown, on sunrise and letters and wind and rain and pain and of course wild nights and love and poetry and joy, how to see the world s.c., spiritually correct, why we need her in our mind’s ecopsyche, in our busy days, why she is good on our minds.
The miracle for me, of Dickinson’s life achievement of her poetry, is that despite her own lack of a public opportunity to express her voice, her power, and her genius (a topic that gnawed at her), and despite her loneliness, and ill health, she expressed a brave and indomitable vision both tragic and comic that inspires people of all ages, everywhere. On the one hand, she describes herself oppressed, with a feeling of helpless insignificance; and she describes herself assuppressed, repressed, her voice not wanted, literally, shut up, and shut out. she describes herself left out of life’s bounty, what’s given out for public nurture, like the Little Match Girl starving outside the windows of an oblivious society, unaware of her hunger. We see that she feels she gets life’s crumbs, leftovers, she’s so unimportant and left out and ill-considered. So that’s her pity party, and she really works the violins in our sympathy and compassion for her plight. On the other hand, she is feisty.
I am writing a book called The Power of Nobody to Change the World, on the unlikely role of arts and humanities for public policy and legislation for war and peace, environment, and civil and human rights! I see the impact of Dickinson on my students’ sense of possibility and mandate to speak their truths. Engaging with Emily Dickinson’s astonishing and disarming “I’m Nobody,” my students conceive their own lives as heroic struggles for identity of visibility and significance to our society, their creative response to anything that would discourage their sense of freedom and possibility.
So this short poem “I’m Nobody” is emblematic of a life, confined, compressed, a “calm bomb,” explosive in our minds, illuminating what is there in the darkness of our doubts and convictions of not mattering. The irony of Dickinson’s struggle with her identity as “Nobody” and her transformation of herself into this person invokes a poignant and moving truth about our deepest humanity and needs and longings.
So there we have it, Poetry Slow Down, a life lived in obscurity–no one knew she has this gift, this power of language and expression and thought, no one was receiving her missives, her emails, her texts and twitters and tweets and telegrams and hourly blogs, and yet, she persisted, in her own words, the spider sewing at night, in it for the long-range, long-term, for us, Poetry Slow Down, the hands she could not see, for the news she brought us on the fronts of war and peace, suffering and joy, the weather outside, and inside, frightful and delightful, and her own How to See Appropriately to honor this gift of consciousness, of being alive on earth today.
Emily Dickinson, showing us her poetic moxie, her confidence and authority and. . . joy . . . in being our Anderson Cooper, our news correspondent.
I reflect on the influence of Dickinson on the way I think about the world and the actual language with which my brain conceives thoughts and perceptions about my day and life. I wake up and see the sky and think “a ribbon at a time.” Or on a day like today, seeing “a certain slant of light.” Reading her poetry I consciously have changed the language in which I write and speak about “our” world and “our” earth.
A little Madness in the Spring
Is wholesome even for the King,
But God be with the Clown –
Who ponders this tremendous scene –
This whole Experiment of Green –
As if it were his own!
The Clown may not legally own it: the King does. But—the way HE sees it, earth and he are inextricably related, relations, out of the same cloth, as our own relations, people we came from and who come from us. What if we felt that each other and earth were indeed “our own?” How differently would we behold each other and treat ourcommon shared habitat? (And on that note, stay tuned for our show Dec 25 for John Muir, who made this his strategy for saving the wild outside and in us, honoring him, I’ll be doing the show where he died on Christmas Eve, writing, as he took his last breaths, on beholding the glorious lights of aurora borealis).
I have come to feel that Emily Dickinson’s Nobody andClown are Dickinson’s poetic self, her inner heroes fighting what—speaking of heroes—my hero Sir Peter Shaffer has his immortal Lettice Douffet in Lettice and Lovage call “the mere, ” an ordinary somebody. Lettice is like Dickinson’s clown, perceiving the tremendous: she wants to enlarge, enlighten, enliven, the three E’s she learned from her mother who takes Shakespeare to the French provinces, occupying barns and fields, her own flash mobbery. She defies and defines a way of living and seeing life that is mere—defined as “that and nothing more”. The small, the least. The nobody-ness. There is something in Dickinson’s clown, her defiant re-definition of nobody, that calls to us, something wild and yearning to belong and to be free. To see the world this way is a creative response that is beyond convention, beyond the usual way a somebody or king would look at life. Dickinson’s poems in my brain, as I hurry about my days (“. . . mov[ing] too fast”), busy and distracted, are flash mobs,slow downs, of pondering, wild thought, transforming the moment into a greater consciousness. Her poems are “pop ups” in my mind. As she says of the Poet (in “This was a poet”), they “arrest” us: they stop us, and make us wonder and think and feel, and we go on, as we do after a flash mob, changed and, in computer language, truly re-freshed as we go about our business. That’s what The Poetry Slow Down is all about.
My gratitude for her life is profound. Her words have shaped my life as significantly as a glacier shapes landscape, powerfully deepening my capacity to experience and know what it is that there is to see, to feel. My adult life has been shaped by a woman who stayed in her room and picked up a pen: “I took my power in my hand and went against the world.” And at the end of the day, was she glad that she had committed her life energies to this devotion? “I had the glory–that will do.”
So Emily Dickinson, honoring our inner nobody, our inner clown, I think the Flash Mob is just right for celebrating you. We’re taking you out. Didn’t you say:
Me — come! My dazzled face
In such a shining place!
Me — hear! My foreign Ear
The sounds of Welcome — there!
The Saints forget
Our bashful feet —
My Holiday, shall be
That They — remember me —
My Paradise — the fame
That They — pronounce my name —
We do pronounce your name, and I think, Emily Dickinson, that your news to us, helps MAKE this a shining place, that is your gift to us, lighting and making luminous our world . . . your poetry is the gift that keeps giving. My early morning thoughts–as the sun rises “a ribbon at a time.”
NEXT WEEK: DECEMBER 18, 2011
I’ll be back next week, with rip roaring riparian river
restoration news, poetry of meandering and cascading and light and good news for all of us, here on our earth, this whole experiment in green, it’s still happening, it isn’t done, it’s alive, as Emily Dickinson is, with our reading and hearing her, immortal.
Poetry Slow Down, you are indeed Sweet Countrymen. Thank you for listening and sharing these moments, this flash mob in our day.
Check out Huffington Post and Facebook for images of Flash Mob and my Emily Dickinson play at the Cherry Center for the Arts in Carmel. She was right: they’ll advertise—you know!