Winter 2020 Parlando Top Ten, numbers 7-5

Back now to our recounting of the pieces that you, our readers and listeners, most liked and listened to this past winter. Let’s jump back in as we count them down.

7. “We Wear the Mask”  by Paul Laurence Dunbar.  This one is remarkable in that it was released on February 24th, very late in the winter season, yet it still racked up a lot of listens to go with the number of likes here on the blog, outstripping the other well-known Dunbar poem I performed and released three days earlier: “Sympathy (I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings.)”

These two poems are the best known works of this early 20th century Afro-American poet directly addressing racial issues, and given the seriousness of racism and the quality of “We Wear the Mask”  as word-music, it’s well earned its current position as a much anthologized poem.

Why did it edge out “Sympathy?”  Who can really say? I liked both performances I did of the Dunbar poems myself. “Sympathy”  has the more complex arrangement, but simplicity that works has its appeal. Or was it something random—did Dunbar’s title put it in search queues connected to world-wide Covid-19 concerns?

 

 

6. “Do the Dead Know What Time It Is”  by Kenneth Patchen.  I was completely enraptured by this poem of Patchen’s because of its complicated paralleled half-conversations. In the previous Top Ten post this week I remarked about how Marianne Moore’s poetic expression seemed to echo the actual syntactic twists of transcribed common speech, even at the cost of being harder to follow on the silent page. In Patchen’s poem, we have the more common “naturalistic dialog” where syntax is complete, where sentence structure is plausible, not the fractured and disagreeing actuality of literal transcribed speech. But Patchen has two speakers totally focused on non-answering halves of a conversation: the old guy at the bar who wants to tell the poem’s persona of a second-hand encounter with the God-head, and the poem’s persona, a quasi-homeless swain in conversation with an unheard and somewhat mysterious woman* at the same bar.

The chemical reaction of these two side-by-side half-conversations builds until one phrase appears to link the two—two loves linked somewhere between desperation and desire.

Patchen All at Once is What Enternity Is

And all our count-downs are happening over and over. Patchen as painter.

 

 

 

5. “The Little Ghost”  by Edna St. Vincent Millay.  So, a comforting God-head appears off-stage in Patchen’s poem. Hugo Ball’s ghost in our last Top Ten post seemed of the malevolent poltergeist type. Now here Millay’s is a much more benign spirit who seems to signify being there after being there.

Regarding the music for this one: like a number of my generation, I encountered Ravi Shankar LP records and performances in the Sixties. For a moment some borrowed sense of South Asian music permeated the culture of popular music groups and their audience. Why did that happen? Has anyone asked, much less answered, that question? Yes, I assume the drug and social stress induced search for mysticism was a factor. Maybe George Harrison and his access to the culture through The Beatles alone was enough. But I can speak for myself: some musical qualities easily discerned in this music grabbed me then as they still do now. The musical structures related to steps in various orders away from and returning to a home drone pitch. The opulence of microtones beyond the conventional 12 notes. The singing rhythms.

In the Seventies, that decade that everyone forgets, I spent nights working in a busy Emergency Room, often with an Indian-born surgeon, who as the evening would wear us on, would suture while hum-singing tunes of his homeland. Every so often, even these decades later, I sometimes find myself singing unremembered vaguely South-Asian melodies when working late on some task.

Evidence of some ghost? I doubt it myself. Not reincarnation—resonance.

 

We’re more than halfway down the countdown. The next three coming up here soon.

 

*Is she a down-and-outer like the poem’s persona just looking for some kind of human connection? A prostitute seeking money? An analog to the God-head, or is the poem’s persona that? By not clearly defining this, the poem gains mysterious power I think.

We Wear the Mask

Today I present the other widely anthologized Paul Laurence Dunbar poem: “We Wear the Mask.”  I was going to put a “now” qualifier in front of “widely” above, but that made for an awkward sentence. I think it’s worth burning at least another sentence to note that.

In looking for some more Dunbar information, I found this story told by Professor Joanne Braxton. Braxton recounts that as recently as the 1980s when she was looking to teach Dunbar poems at her university, that Dunbar’s work was out of print and difficult to find. That’s not unusual. As Donald Hall fatalistically stated in one of his late essays: the majority of poets who receive prizes and ample publication in their time will be unread 20 years after their death. Braxton, who knew Dunbar’s poems from family and Afro-American tradition, eventually saw to publishing of the first collection of all of Dunbar’s verse.

I’m sure I have readers here for whom the 1980s is “a long time ago.” It’s all relative I suppose, but this change in availability speaks to the dynamism of “The Canon,” and which poets we’re exposed to in school or the culture at large. Braxton teaches by her example that we, each of us, shape The Canon,* particularly with poetry, which is in suspended animation on the page and lives only when we read aloud, chant, and sing it. It’s up to all of us to find those poets who split our skulls, open our caged chest bones, and let us animate the slumbering dreams.

Young Negro Poet Dunbar poster

No date is known for this poster, but Dunbar looks quite young here

 

Braxton** and others have written eloquently on the meaning of this Dunbar poem and about Dunbar’s pioneering code-switching project to write in dialect as well as mainstream 19th century poetic forms, so once more I’ll defer to others today in those matters.

On the poem itself, let me praise its word-music. There were occasional words that were hard for me to sing or set to music, but that’s likely my fault as a composer and certainly my fault as a singer. “We Wear the Mask” is almost too pretty for its subject, but then there’s a tradition (I associate it with Celtic folk musics) of setting the saddest stories to the most beautiful tunes. Last time, for Dunbar’s “Sympathy,”  I followed that idea for my music and the fiddle melody. Now, for my explicit music today, I decided to go in a more martial cadence and ambience. Art song (that traditional method of setting poetry to music) usually avoids that mood; but one of my influences, the English language 20th century Folk Music Revival is perfectly fine with that.

We Wear the Mask

Here’s the guitar chords. The piano and bass mostly just play the roots of the chords in today’s performance. That’s a nice thing about music: sometimes simple works just fine.

 

In the Broadside tradition, I’ve included my guitar chords with Dunbar’s lyrics for this one. I played it with a capo on the second fret, so the chords sound a full step higher than the chord forms indicated above. My performance can be heard with the player gadget that should appear below.

 

 

*This leads to complaints that change in The Canon is “watering down,” or subject to special pleading which somehow is self-evidently inferior to one or another objective aesthetic criterion. If there are indeed multiple criteria (objectively, that must be agreed to be so) how else must we decide among ourselves what has worth, but by a dynamic of discussion, debate, disagreement? And will such actions by human minds and hearts ever lead to a static situation? How can it, if for no other reason that we continue to create poetry, music and art. Hall says, correctly on the face of it, that most will be forgotten. But like those that charge, armed or not, against the redoubts, we must move forward even if only a few will reach and cross the wall.

**One fascinating bit in the link has Braxton sharing an account from Dunbar’s widow about a possible specific inspiration for Dunbar’s famous “Sympathy (I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings)”  poem.

Sympathy (I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings)

The last two times I presented poems by Paul Laurence Dunbar here I went out on a limb on subtexts that might be present in those poems. “October”  is on the surface a harvest “Happy Autumn” poem, but there’s an element in it of the personified rich harvest’s carefree possession of wealth. Just a handy poetic metaphor? Perhaps. And then there was his valentine of a poem “Kidnapped”  which could plausibly be connected to the Cupid and Psyche myth, but specifically deals with the narrator being captured and taken from its home. Just another recasting of a widely utilized myth? Could be.

But you see Paul Laurence Dunbar is the first successful Afro-American poet. A man whose parents had both been slaves, whose ancestors would have been very non-metaphorically kidnapped, and a man whose race in his 19th century were the harvesters who retained none of the wealth that accrued to the owners.

Today’s piece by Dunbar carries its subtext clearly—it’s hardly subtext at all! One cannot read or hear it and not see it as a statement about freedom denied. Partly because it can be applied so directly to Afro-American history, it’s become one of Dunbar’s best-known poems.

Dunbar Live!

Dunbar with violinist. Seems like an idea….

 

I don’t need to add to Dunbar’s words today. But since my ego claims I should say something, I’ll note this: Dunbar chose to write his poem as a universalized statement. There’s no lack of Afro-American experiences of freedom limited, other-defined, and outright denied—but the poem he wrote speaks universally of that issue.*  The specifics of racism and economic deprivation would be self-evident to his Afro-American readers anyway.

Was writing about denied freedom in metaphor a commercial choice, in accordance to the poetic style of his time, or an example of a largeness of his soul? Well, now his poem exists, and it speaks to freedom denied to anyone who encounters it.

Levys Ad and Malcom X

I started thinking of wry captions for this. Nope, the picture doesn’t need’em.

 

Another setting from me using violin, cello, and acoustic guitar today. I went out last night after working much of the day on this audio piece and saw songwriters playing acoustic guitar at a local venue. I enjoyed the concert, but also in the background I was thinking: alas, I can’t really play guitar or write songs like they do. I watched them changing chords rapidly compared to what I could do earlier in the day. That’s so useful I thought, recalling that I had had trouble rendering my leisurely cadence earlier.

I’m not sure why I thought that. I’ve been doing both of those “I can’t” things for over 40 years, despite limitations on my part that change over time. When I returned to the piece today my guitar part didn’t sound as wanting as I remembered, and the uncommon “i, III, VI, v, i” hopscotch chord progression of my composition seemed worthwhile to the morning’s ear. My violin line (played on guitar via MIDI) seemed better than I remembered too. I still wish I was a better singer, but I can express my own way with melody on an instrument even if my singing limits me. The piece seemed valid to me again.

What lesson to draw from that? Comparing your art to others can be fraught. Sometimes when you need to improve, observing others can show you the way. Sometimes when you’re different, it’s still good, and not a falling away.

To hear Dunbar’s “Sympathy”  as I performed it, use the player below. The full text of the poem is here if you’d like to follow along.

 

 

 

*A good argument could be made that there is a specific to the Afro-American experience in Dunbar’s metaphor though: the caged bird’s song. American music, that stuff that we (and a great deal of the rest of the world) have come to hear as the strongest part of our American culture is disproportionally Afro-American music.

Fall 2019 Parlando Top Ten, numbers 10-8

It’s time to look back on the past season and to look once more at the most listened to and liked pieces over that time. We do this in the classic count-down method, moving from the 10th most popular to the most popular piece.

This time I’m going to link to the original post each time so that you can read the longer discussion of my encounter with the text, but if you’d just like to hear the recordings of the performance of the poems, the player gadget following each listing will do that.

10. October by Paul Laurence Dunbar.  When something makes these count-down lists it’s often hard to know if it’s the inherent interest in the author, the things I wrote in the post introducing the poem, or the qualities of the musical piece and its performance that account for that. In this case I think it could be a bit of all three. I wrote in my post about what I thought was an undertone in this seemingly happy autumn poem. Was that a misreading? I’m not sure, but it informed my solemn musical performance which may work even if you don’t share my sense of this supple poem.

 

 

 

9. Saint (Cecilia) by Stéphane Mallarmé.  I do generally get a good response to my translations from languages other than English, which encourages me to continue them here. This one was a real bear to wrestle with, and my post on it went into detail with the kind of problems I encountered in that process.

I highly recommend translation as an exercise for poets. Not only do you need to achieve a Vulcan “mind meld” with another artist when translating them, but the mental muscles activated to find the best English word in sense and sound are great ones to develop for one’s own writing.

 

 

Rilke Mallarme and Dunbar

Three poets awaiting the invention of the MacBook and the modern coffee shop with WiFi: Rilke, Mallarmé., and Dunbar.

 

 

8. Autumn Day by Rainer Maria Rilke.  Another translation that received good response this fall. Here I ascribe a substantial portion of that response to those looking for and appreciating Rilke poems, and finding some here. Of course, there may be many reasons for that desire to seek out Rilke, but I’m under the casual impression that he’s treasured for what seem to be life lessons to his readers. I noted in my post on this poem that it’s been a particularly popular target for translators, but you still may want to look at mine, or hear the way I performed it.

This poem of his is also an example of a theme: gardens and small agriculture, that I returned to again and again this fall. Perhaps it’s my own position in life’s passage that caused that, but there are a good number of autumn poems that are both about the experience of “cultivating one’s garden” and the valence of the ending of a growing season. Such is Rilke’s.

 

Dunbar’s October

We’ve had Edward Thomas and Henry Vaughn waxing medicinal about autumn and affliction, and now it’s time to head back across the Atlantic to see what metaphor American poet Paul Laurence Dunbar brings to the season.

By coming to prominence in the 19th century, decades before James Weldon Johnson’s 1922 Book of American Negro Poetry  signaled the tip-off of what became known as the Harlem Renaissance, Dunbar proved to Afro-American poets of the 20th century that it was possible to get over to the culture at large.

Paul_Laurence_Dunbar by Norman Wood

Paul Laurence Dunbar “Let the world dream otherwise…”

 

Like many cross-over artists, he did this by doing the established forms as well or better than the incumbents. One way he did this was by writing in regional black dialect, in poetry that is frankly hard for me to decode from my 21st century location. On one hand, regional dialect was all the rage in 19th century America across various regions and ethnic heritages, and there’s no reason that Afro-American dialect couldn’t be part of this—Oh, wait, there is a reason: white supremacy.*

Dunbar was born near the end of Reconstruction, right as the reaction to the possibility of full Afro-American humanity and citizenship was snapping much of his country back to a feudal system based on presumed, and if not presumed, enforced, inferiority. One can’t avoid the problematic nature of trying to portray a range of comic to simple-wisdom-dispensing Afro-American characters speaking a non-standard version of English in a context of a society that was fairly sure that was the extent of their intellect.**

Dunbar Live!

Fitzgerald’s Auditorium later became Atlantic City’s “Club Harlem” and hosted jazz and R&B acts.

 

But that was only part of what Dunbar wrote. He also wrote supple 19th century lyric poetry in standard English, as good or better than the “Fireside School” of  East-Coast poets that were the standard for American poetry at the time. And it’s that side of Dunbar’s work that I present today with his poem “October.”

“October”  is an extended metaphor nicely developed over 24 lines of rhymed and metrical verse. Dunbar alternates his rhyme scheme of ABAB to AABB to add some delightful variety. The autumn notes of harvest bounty and oncoming winter are struck and sounded cleanly.

It was only after enjoying it as a good poem in this style that I began to notice another context, an undertone. This had happened to me earlier this year when presenting a Dunbar love poem, “Kidnapped.”   After performing that one, I moved on to ask: did the child of two formerly enslaved people write a poem about being captured like a butterfly and being taken far away from some home landscape? Yes, he did. Was he consciously encoding that undertone into a popular poetry form that could have been printed on a genteel valentine? I don’t know. It seemed a stretch as a conscious choice, if only because the undertone/metaphor wasn’t developed as fully as it might have been.

This time, with “October,”  Dunbar does develop his metaphor, and I know of no document where he comments on his thoughts on this poem. Autumn’s harvest is presented as if it were an economic system, and dare I say it: as a feudal/sharecropper system. October is wealthy and in charge, and harvest makes her wealthier. She is presented as foolish with this collected wealth. The poet observer’s persona is not outraged by this however—indeed he portrays her as happy, carefree, joyous, beautiful. And the poem is also unambiguously beautiful. Is this personified red-headed October, collector of the treasure and bounty, deserving of unstated disgust or even envy? Is this an idealized Daisy Buchanan-like character?

Your eye (like mine) as you first encounter this poem may be on the signified season. We can’t be expected to see the fall of the year as a real person, with an actual role and privilege in a system, can we? Is it only unconscious sub-text?

Ambiguous as this is, this is part of the wealth of poetry. It can be enjoyed as word-music. Its metaphors can be admired for cleverness and their own silent music of thought. But it’s also the way for the moving minds and experience of others to be shared. It is the concise literature of the oversoul.

I performed my solemn version of Dunbar with acoustic guitar, piano and electric bass. If you’d like to check out the text of Dunbar’s poem, or follow along as I perform it, it can be found here. The player for my musical performance is below.

 

 

 

*I expect a percentage of this blog’s treasured audience just clicked off when I typed that phrase. If you, indignant, at least followed to this footnote, thank you, I appreciate it. I know that some of you come to poetry and music to escape the turmoil of politics and social problems.

**It’s hard to do, but some Afro-Americans managed to do it. I can trace the musical line of it anyway, from Charlie Patton to George Clinton to the hip-hop movement.

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.

Dunbar book and pencil note insideDunbar portrait smaller

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.

 

Merry Autumn

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.

Dunbar Live!

Ich bin nur einer meiner vielen Munde und jener, welcher sich am frühesten schliesst.”

 

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!