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Poetry in 3-D

Singing, to me, feels like walking around inside of a poem. When I perform “At Last to be identified” by Emily Dickinson, set by Richard Pearson Thomas, I feel like I am flying in Dickinson’s imagination. I can feel the expanse of time and universe as Emily flies “past Midnight! Past the Morning star!" I am with her when she lands safely with her God in a new place and becomes blissfully subsumed by the energy she finds there.

Poetry is not a genre to visit once. In one pass it is not possible to comprehend all the potential meanings of a phrase. And then to relate that meaning to something in your own life requires patience: To let it resonate and find a perch from which it might amplify your own unnamed feelings. The task of learning the music of a song provides me those repeated instances of contemplating a poem, eeking out deeper understandings of the prismatic definitions of words and combinations of words. While learning a song, while breathing and struggling through the physical and musical demands, I have so many non-intellectual thoughts and insights about the words. I have come to treasure that deep and messy relationship.

Because “At Last! To be identified!” is musically complex, Nathalie and I spent hours with it before the performance on the video. At first, engaging with it was clumsy, with few glimpses of the magic that exists in the score. Each time we worked, I found a few new relationships and movements and threads, and the song began to take shape, the words becoming three dimensional and swelling with meaning. At some magic point the music became deep and transparent and holy all at once. That’s when I feel I am walking in the words, able to touch them with more than my hand. With my breath.

One other way to understand this is to see that singing a poem takes more time than speaking a poem. Rhythm, volume, pitch and melody lengthen and fill out a previously 2-dimensional phrase. To sing, the words must begin in the mind, grow in the belly and then form in my mouth, and I chew and taste them as they pass through to the room. In this process we are forced to spend time with a word, physically creating its melody and pitch, so the brain has more of a chance to sense the word's meanings. What a gift, forcing a reckoning with a dense, meaning-packed poem.

And then there is intent. Speaking is not singing. Take the phrase “At last, to be identified” by Emily Dickinson. Let’s imagine saying it in different ways: first, read it silently. Second, say it out loud quietly. Third, shout it at an imaginary subordinate. And, fourth, sing it across a valley like you are calling your herd of sheep. When I read a poem silently it feels like walking. Out loud recitation feels like running or jogging. When I sing the words it feels like stretching and flying and reaching through time.

Emily Dickinson’s poem is reaching through time to examine meeting her God. She has been looking for this feeling for her whole adult life. I wonder if you’ll be able to feel the miraculous joy through Richard Pearson Thomas’ composition, like I did. It continues to leave me breathless and spent, thrilled to be alive so that I can imagine death through Emily Dickinson’s words and Pearson Thomas’ music.

This song comes last in this song cycle. Use the link to get there, or choose to listen to the whole cycle.

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