Over the years I’ve developed a tough-enough way to be cheerful and productive, my own “grant heart” to myself. Though on the face of it, it sounds glum, I’ve learned it by reading about artists or from artists talking about their work, and it goes by this cheerful motto: “All artists fail.”
All artists fail more than they succeed. Every. One. No artist is so broadly popular that everyone likes their work. Even those that might gain a plurality of some kind, for some time, that likes their work, will find most of that group “ignoring” them most of their lives, because our attention is so precious and limited as audiences. One’s privilege as an artist is to get to fail again. If you don’t like how you’re failing, fail better, or fail differently, fail more often.
And even those artists we think of as succeeding sometimes, sometime find themselves succeeding in misunderstanding or misapprehension.
How can this knowledge help us, grant us heart, and not crush us? Anyone who makes things should carry in themselves the conviction that the world needs more of what they do, even if they or the world don’t know it yet. We are making more of what needs to exist, though that may fail when the world doesn’t know what to make of it. It may fail because we are wrong about its necessity. And it can fail because of how we choose to manifest our art.
Are we good enough to manifest our art so that it will not fail all the time? If our desire, our artistic conviction, is somewhere around helping heal the world and cleanse it’s perceptions, you may take that as beside the point. Decades ago, in the early days of the modern emergency medical system, I once helped receive a patient in cardiac arrest as they arrived at an ER, delivered by a volunteer ambulance corps. The man in the back of the rig, still in the human heat and confusion of the moment, said that he would have performed CPR, but that his certification for CPR had expired.
Well, you have to try, even though CPR then, as I suspect it does now, mostly fails. Art, even good art, usually changes our perceptions for only moments, leaving us nearly as deaf, blind and numb afterward. If art can heal the world, it’s a long course of treatment, and its healing is imperceptibly slow.
So, if you want to make art, want to write or make music, take heart and make sure your goal is to cleanse perception or heal the world. Add to your goals one more precept, to try to not bore the audience when it grants you it’s precious attention. If you want to create art because you want to succeed, consider a lottery ticket instead.
What a roundabout way to get to Paul Laurence Dunbar’s Thanksgiving poem “Merry Autumn.” How did the poet Dunbar “fail?” The child of two enslaved African-Americans, raised by a mother who learned to read to help educate her son, Dunbar was able by the age of 21 to gather some appreciation for his poetry, which spoke in three voices. Voice one was that of an accomplished 19th century poet who spoke like the East Coast “Fireside Poets” such as Longfellow, using a middle-Atlantic diction that may sound slightly old fashioned to us, but was the established voice of poetry in America at the time. We in the 21st Century may hear the peculiarities of that voice from our vantage point in time, but it would probably have not seemed like a dialect at all to his contemporaries. He also wrote in two other American dialects, and dialects were a great American literary fad of the late 19th Century. We might rarely encounter the remnants of this fad in Mark Twain or some other regionalist writers nowadays, but the idea of using written English to represent the different pronunciation and syntax of a big country before broadcast media was an artistic and commercial success of the time. Dunbar’s poems, then, also “spoke” in an informal, less-educated Midwestern dialect, and in what was considered as the southern black dialect of the time.
It’s hard to say how accurate this black dialect was. Dunbar’s mother likely would have spoken in it. Even though we’re speaking about speaking of just a bit more than a century ago, it may come down to the same informed guessing that allows actors to perform Shakespeare in “original pronunciation” productions. And Dunbar’s transcribed accuracy aside, how it would be read by fellow African-Americans and how it would be read by Americans of European extraction would likely have differed greatly. On the page, his Afro-American dialect poems can look/sound like the black-face makeup minstrel-show dialect performed by successful white entertainers who perfected cultural appropriation for laughing audiences. The humble-brag of the Afro-American dialect poems may be abstractly similar to the tropes of the his Midwestern regionalist dialect language, but in the end, it was not “read” as similar by the predominate culture.
What did a young Dunbar think of all this as he wrote his poems in either of these languages? I do not know, but his dialect pieces were something he was praised for by the cultural critics of the time, and they no doubt aided his marketability. He eventually expressed despair at the concentration of the attention on the Afro-American dialect poems. Perhaps he had wanted to say that he’s all of these things: a black man, a Midwesterner, and a man who could sing a middle-Atlantic song as sweet as Longfellow or Whittier, and instead he was seen as the man to represent only the borough of his race in the eyes of those who did not share his experience. He had to try. He “failed.” Today we may be grateful for his failure.
Today’s piece “Merry Autumn,” doesn’t show Dunbar’s later despair. It’s largely in the “Fireside Poets” mode, though he drops into informal Midwestern idiom once or twice. And following the precept to not bore the listener who lends their attention, he takes a contrarian stance toward the old poetic trope of Autumn symbolizing death and a fall to winter.
I sing it here with a folk-music type melody, an acoustic guitar, and some strings for accompaniment. Use the player below to hear it. Thanks for taking the time to listen!