Kidnaped

I can’t let February and Black History month go by without another poem, so let’s return to the man who could be said to have established Afro-American poetry in the United States, Paul Laurence Dunbar.

Although he lived into the first few years of the 20th century, Dunbar as a poet is fixed in the previous century, and his poetic models are all of that time. He died young, only 33, and who can tell how he would have grappled with the Modernist wave that was starting on both sides of the Atlantic at the time of his death.

While other contemporaries were attending college, racial prejudice and lack of money meant that Dunbar would instead seek to make his way immediately as an author, and that aim shaped his work to meet the needs of the commercial market for poetry then.

He got some bootstrap help from the owner of a bicycle shop in his hometown of Dayton Ohio, a guy named Orville Wright. Orville would later do some preliminary work that eventually led to frequent-flyer miles, but mostly Dunbar had to be good, as the market defined good, and he had to get good fast.

There were no Afro-American models he could look to in this endeavor, but Dunbar could instead use Henry Wadsworth Longfellow and the American Fireside Poets associated with him. Longfellow was less than a decade dead when Dunbar started publishing poetry, and Longfellow was no small thing to aspire to—he was one of the best-known and best-selling American authors of his time, regardless of genre.

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Pride in Dunbar’s poetry created additional markets. Collections of his poems, as the penciled note in this edition reflects, were sold door-to-door, and portrait photos were produced to demonstrate that American people of color could rise to literary fame.

 

Dunbar’s poem “Kidnapped”  could be the sort of thing the market might be buying, with just an extra touch of wit. It opens with the poet boasting of a carefree heart, but by the next stanza we (and the poet) come upon “Learned Dr. Cupid.” Cupid’s not the usual fat cherub with bow and arrow, but a capitol S “Scientist” with a net. What for? Why, to catch butterflies, which metaphorically and metamorphically the poet and/or his heart can be taken for. And cue tidy ending: this captured heart is “passing sweet.”

Simple.

Wait!

Dunbar could be aiming to produce a tidy innocent love poem that a publication would be glad to pay for and publish—something ready to snip out and share with your valentine—but stop and examine that metaphor. Authoritative Science did what? What’s the term Dunbar uses? “Kidnaped.” He says he’s to take it as “sweet” this happened.

Longfellow wrote impassioned anti-slavery poems, but he didn’t write this poem. Paul Laurence Dunbar, the son of two enslaved people did.

As to my music this time, every line resolves up or down to E♭ and I think of it as major key, but that constant return to the key center creates a mood, and the number of minor chords it moves from adds a rub between minor and major. This isn’t conventional western pop-music harmony but give a listen (or two) to it anyway. The player is below.

 

How Do I Love Thee

Here’s the plot of a story. It’s a difficult one to tell without it sounding like a romance novel—yet as best as history knows, it’s what happened.

There was this woman who grew up in a rich family whose wealth came from exploiting slave labor in colonial Jamaica. Shortly after she reaches adulthood the family fortunes take a severe blow as Britain outlaws slavery. The men of the family might think this the work of do-gooders with their onerous regulations ruining their business, but our woman aligns with the do-gooders, holding for the abolition of slavery and writing poems for that cause. In fact, she’s a very prolific writer, and has been writing since she was near Hilda Conklin’s age. In 1840 when William Wordsworth dies, she’s even considered a British poet laureate candidate. Well no, that didn’t happen. Woman and all I suppose.

Now let’s add some more difficulties for our heroine. She’s got a long-standing opiate addiction based on a hard to diagnose and painful chronic illness. And there’s some domestic tyranny to go with all this. Her father has forbidden his children from marrying.

That stipulation seems odd. There’s one theory, one that our heroine had some belief in: she may have been creole, that is, mixed-race.

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Elizabeth Barrett Browning, who believed she had “African blood”

 

None the less, as a woman of letters, her writing was free, and circulated widely. Her poetry found an admirer in another poet, Robert Browning, though he was at that point less successful than our heroine. They began to correspond and fell in love. Eventually there was a dramatic elopement. Her family condemned her and disowned her, but the love match seems to have sustained her for the rest of her life.

Other than her thought that she might have an African ancestor mixed in with the atrocity of slavery*, this story, Elizabeth Barrett Browning’s story, was once very well-known.

As romantic as the Elizabeth Barrett Browning/Robert Browning story was considered in its day, I can’t help but think how a supermarket tabloid or Internet gossip site would treat this today. I can see the blurb:

“Unable to shake drugs, Liz escapes abusive home with stranger!”

 

Shortly after her marriage, she wrote a series of sonnets to the love of her life. In 1850 the love sonnets were published as Sonnets from the Portuguese**,  and today’s piece is the most well-known of them. Indeed, it’s likely the most loved Victorian love poem, and no matter the excess of old-fashioned sounding “Thees” in it, it’s still hanging around as one of “Poetry’s Greatest Hits” as we approach Valentine’s Day.

Clasped_Hands_of_Robert_and_Elizabeth_Barrett_Browning_By Harriet Hosmer

Sculpture of Elizabeth Barrett Browning and Robert Browning’s clasped hands

 

Even if you feel too modern for it, or are concerned that the level of devotion expressed in it doesn’t seem consistent with a healthy independent self-image*** one should still be grateful for Elizabeth Barrett Browning, if only because she and the Bronte sisters were the chief models for Emily Dickinson.

To hear my performance of Elizabeth Barrett Browning’s “How Do I Love Thee,”  use the player below.

 

 

 

*This theory is not universally accepted, and as far as I know was first suggested in 1995 by Julia Markus in her book Dared and Done  about the marriage. As I read of this, I was struck by the coincidence of having just presented Jean Toomer’s striking Modernist love poem, written by another writer with ambivalence about his mixed-race ancestry.

**The collection’s title was first chosen because there were Victorian-era worries that the book, with its somewhat scandalous subject of a woman expressing agency in love, might need to be presented as a translation of an anonymous foreign author. It also referred to Robert Browning’s pet name for Elizabeth, “My little Portuguese,” likely based on her darker coloration.

***By the way, I do not recommend footnotes for any of you who may send someone a Valentine-poem.

Her Lips are Copper Wire

Today’s piece brings the Parlando Project to 300 published audio pieces since we officially launched in August 2016. Is that a small or large number? Both. Certainly, a great deal of effort has gone into it, including effort to not use the same kind of poem throughout, and to vary the music that meets up with the words; but I can viscerally feel the smallness of that number when I come upon another poem, yet another author, I was not aware of, and I am struck by that encounter.

John Keats’ sonnet said this was like seeing an unknown Pacific Ocean for the first time. Emily Dickinson famously said it was that “If I read a book and it makes my whole body so cold that no fire can ever warm me, I know that is poetry. If I feel physically as if the top of my head were taken off, I know that is poetry.” I still get those moments. This project has presented a good number of “Poetry’s Greatest Hits;” and like my last post, even there I’m often surprised at how unfamiliar those “well-known” poems can be when looked at anew. But I so enjoy this when I’m working with a poem I don’t know, one I’ve never seen, one that seems as new as it is new to me.

John Keats’ sonnet said this was like seeing an unknown Pacific Ocean for the first time. Emily Dickinson famously said it was that “If I read a book and it makes my whole body so cold that no fire can ever warm me, I know that is poetry. If I feel physically as if the top of my head were taken off, I know that is poetry.” I still get those moments.

And so it was last month when I first saw Jean Toomer’s “Her Lips are Copper Wire.”  This is not a poem that sneaks up on you, it starts right-out with its audacious title, and then every stanza of it draws you deeper in, until you reach the end and the poem’s tongue is in your mouth, and you are, like it, incandescent.

I knew the name Jean Toomer, but only as a name. I’d filed him away in the mental-drawer “Harlem Renaissance,” and that’s a place that’s difficult to go to with this project because most of the work of this between-the-world-wars blossoming of Afro-American culture is not yet in the public domain. Still, I was drawn in, I had to start looking.

Huzzah! this is another of the works from the year 1923, now freed for other artists to respond to. I then spent some time this month getting at least a shallow grasp of Toomer’s life and outlook, enough effort to say that there’s a great deal more there to apprehend. Toomer himself had an ambiguous relationship with being classified as part of the Harlem Renaissance, or even with being an Afro-American artist, and he may have gone even beyond Robert Hayden’s insistence that he was an artist who was Afro-American, not an Afro-American artist. Modern scholarship has unearthed paperwork where he was classed as white, possibly by his own doing.

Like most Afro-Americans, Toomer was mixed-race. He was light-skinned enough to “pass.” His first wife was white, and after he was widowed, so was his second—and least we forget, many U. S. states held those marriages as a criminal act in his time. And since the first duty of an artist is to survive, I’m not going to rush to second-guess his motives from my ignorance. And after all, a lighter skin tone didn’t immunize Toomer from racism—no American, whatever their ethnic background or genetic mix can escape it.

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American writer Jean Toomer. The typewriter is manual, the poem is electric.

 

For now, let me leave the artist’s life, and those great and momentous social issues, and return to his work.

How does this poem capture you, stop you in your tracks? It starts out in an intermittent state. Is the opening stanza paraphrasing a lover’s soft conversation about lights along a street, or is it a metaphor that the lights in fog have been diffused to be in a synthesic vision like the sound of whispers? I think it’s both. We’re already moving down the dual and parallel lines of a circuit. And the sound! Whisper itself is an onomatopoeic word, the long O sounds of globes and posts sound a misty near-rhyme, and the next line’s march of short E sounds sways away.

Then Toomer adds another strain to the music and duality, the touch of the breath of the close whisperer. We’ve fallen in closer.

The “telephone the power-house” stanza seems to me to be like unto a blues interjection that I love in classic pre-war blues recordings, were the singer tells the audience, breaking aside from his melodic form, something that he wants his audience to know that he’s wise to, before returning to the melody.

And then we return to the ghosts of electricity,* softly howling or humming, in the bones of her face, and the circuit is completed, closed, and we’re there in mouth’s embrace.

What a love poem! I suppose one can step back from that and note that the lover is objectified, that there is a loss of power in that. But the poem’s very conceit seems to answer that objection, with its jolt of that closed and illuminated circuit. In Toomer’s poem, like in Paul Eluard’s great Surrealist love poem, in the end we may be seeking the state where we may speak without having a thing to say.

What a poem for the 300th audio piece here, for Black History Month, and for the month of Valentine’s Day! And so, to hear my performance and musical combination of Jean Toomer’s “Her Lips are Copper Wire,”  use the player below.

 

 

*Bob Dylan couldn’t anachronistically have influenced Jean Toomer any more than he could have done so for T. S. Eliot. But it is possible that Dylan might have known Toomer’s poem when he wrote “Visions of Johanna.”   Michael North believes it possible that Toomer may have got his metaphor from early Imagist Richard Aldington, since Toomer had noted Aldington’s statement that a successful poem elicits “a sudden shock of illumination.”

Residents of crackling-dry winter Minnesota may wonder if Toomer could have had a more direct inspiration. As my wife and I say to each other when our lips touch and a static charge jumps the gap with a cupid-tiny bow-string snap: “Still got that spark.”

Lines to a Nasturtium

As I’ve all but promised, here’s a piece using another poem by the deserving-greater-notice early 20th Century poet Anne Spencer. It may even be appropriate for Valentine’s Day—though if so, it’s a somewhat complicated valentine. If we think of Spencer’s poem as a valentine, “Lines to a Nasturtium”  is a fancy one, but the doily lace on this valentine has strange knots in it.

I was going to present it first, before “Dunbar,”  but I felt I didn’t understand it well enough, and after living with it for a couple of weeks, I’m still not sure I’ve found its bottom. It’s beautiful and more than a bit mysterious. My son caught me laughing today as I read an account of James Weldon Johnson, who helped bring Spencer’s poems to publication in the 1920s, sharing a selection of them with the acerbic critic H. L. Mencken. Mencken’s reply? “Tell that woman to put beginnings and ends to her poems. I can’t make head or tails of them, but they’re good.” Yes, I had to laugh, but that’s sort of how I feel right now in regards to this set of words. It’s as gorgeous as the flowers it uses as images, but there’s a puzzling pair of lines “But I know one other to whom you are in beauty/Born in vain;” I feel I should be able to suss out who the “one other” and the “you” are, and I just can’t be sure.

A sensual but philosophical ode to beauty? An early claim to the beauty of women of color against Euro-centric ideals? A Robert Browning-like soliloquy regarding a potential love rival? For awhile this morning, trying to follow the antecedents to that “one” and “you” in the text, I was leaning on that later, but then I was reminded that Spencer thought the entire last part of her poem, under it’s published sub-title “A Lover Muses,” was decorative enough to have it painted on a cabinet door in her kitchen.

A Lover Muses on her kitchen door

Come on, in my kitchen—Spencer’s poem on the door

 

I don’t want mysteries of meaning to get in the way of enjoying Spencer’s work any longer, so let’s just listen to it today. Use the player below.

 

Dunbar

Here’s a piece using an outwardly modest poem by a modest poet, Anne Spencer. It spoke so quietly to me, that at first I overlooked it when I was reading James Weldon Johnson’s seminal “The Book of American Negro Poetry”  anthology, which included it. Just a few weeks later I saw a small story online about her exemplary life as a behind-the-scenes civil-rights activist, which mentioned that she was also a poet.

From it’s title we know she is following one of the Parlando Project mottos: “Other Peoples’ Stories.” When the poem utters its refrain “Chatterton, Shelley, Keats, and I…” that “I” is to be understood as Paul Laurence Dunbar, who was at that time a decade dead at the age of 33, but who was still the most famous Afro-American poet.

Long-time readers here have already met up with Dunbar, and Shelley and Keats require little introduction to those acquainted with English verse. That first name, Chatterton may draw a blank however.

Thomas Chatterton was the most famous failure in 19th Century English literature. A poor boy with pluck he had tricked his way into a modicum of fame by pretending to be the discoverer of a tranche of medieval poetry by a Thomas Rowley. To keep the pot boiling and to engage in the roiling politics of the day, he wrote journalism and opinion pieces under more than one pseudonym, as well as further literary works. The gig economy of his time was not kind to Chatterton. At the height of his career, he would earn about $9 in current dollars for his longer articles. In contrast, writers of our last post’s Burma Shave’s jiggles were paid over $800 in today’s money.

So how does Chatterton make it onto Anne Spencer’s words for Dunbar?

Chatterton was doing all this as a teenager. Fatherless, broke, starving, seemingly at the end of his resources, he took a fatal dose of arsenic and died in his garret. He wasn’t yet 18.

Death of Chatterton by Henry Wallis

Morbid it might be, but “The Death of Chatterton” was a popular and often reproduced 19th Century painting
Given its time, social media was not blamed for his death, but political and class prejudice was.

 

A few decades later, the British Romantics grab on to Chatterton’s case as the perfect example of rejection of the beautiful by the unperceiving. Keats, who was himself tagged as a low-born pretender writing “Cockney poetry” in “uncouth language,” wrote a sonnet to Chatterton. The too-little-appreciated-in-his-short-life Percy Bysshe Shelley, exiled from his culture for radical political and social views, writes “Adonais,”  the now famous ode on the death of Keats at age 25. In it, Chatterton is met on a heavenly throne “Rose pale, his solemn agony had not yet faded from him” as he greets the now dead Keats/Adonais.

Note here the unperceiving in each case has something to do with politics and class prejudice.

And now we return to Anne Spencer. At age 11, the legend has it she was barely literate, six years later she was the valedictorian of her graduating class. Two years later she married and settled in Lynchburg Virginia. Eventually she wrote while raising children and working as a school librarian. In 1918, she helped found the local chapter of the NAACP. Her home became a waystop for numerous notable Afro-Americans traveling in Virginia (“Jim Crow” laws would have segregated public accommodations). James Weldon Johnson (one of the founders of the NAACP) was one of those visitors, and finding that Anne wrote poetry, he helped her work get first published in 1920.

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Two “Whites Only” signs from the Diane and Alan Page collection.
Homes like Spencer’s were important facilitators for Black American travel.

 

Spencer was nearly 40 years old before that first publication. Clearly not the live fast/die young sort. In 1922 when Johnson published the first ever anthology of Afro-American verse, Spencer was included, along with the obvious choice of Dunbar himself. Concluding his introduction to that collection, Johnson said of Spencer’s verse that she was “The most modern and least obvious in her methods.”

“Dunbar”  demonstrates that. Shelley’s “Adonais”  is hundreds of lines. Spencer’s “Dunbar”  is five. Shelley will tell it, repeating and restating his theme in stanza by stanza of glorious English Romantic verse. Spencer’s “Dunbar”  sits quietly, in the midst of this history of poets who died young, whose voices were muffled by prejudice before they were stilled by death. It’s just one chorus. She groups them, tells us Paul Laurence Dunbar found himself with them, a statement of quiet, powerful, assertion.

Perhaps you need to know this history to appreciate the power of that, that “Chatterton, Shelley, Keats, and I” isn’t some arbitrary listing, a line that happens in a small poem talking about a poet—but it’s good to know history, it’s good to have a Black History month, it’s good to know that Keats and Shelley, who now are hallowed in our textbooks, weren’t greeted as worthy poets by their times. It’s good to know that one woman around a hundred years ago in segregated Virginia, quietly but eloquently wrote, and steadfastly worked, to assert a different world.

To hear my performance of Anne Spencer’s “Dunbar,”  use the player below.