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.
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.
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.”
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.
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!
It’s time to report the most popular audio pieces posted here over this increasingly busy summer. Before I get to this season’s Top 10 countdown, I want to thank everyone who has listened, followed, liked, or shared our posts and audio pieces on social media or on other blogs. I don’t have time (or perhaps the talents) to do all the promotion that some other blogs do, so it’s the kind words and enthusiastic work that you readers/listeners do that has spread the news about this combination of various words with various music.
Lots of changes from our last Top 10, so let’s get started. There should be a player gadget after each piece on the list, so you can easily hear the audio combining those words with music we create and perform as part of the Parlando Project.
10th place? Turns out it’s a three-way tie for 10, and since the three pieces demonstrate the variety I seek to present here, let’s just dispense with tie-breakers and list all three audio pieces that are tied at number 10..
“Sonnet 18” is, so far, our only Shakespeare selection. Shakespeare is, or course, inescapable, and setting Shakespeare’s sonnets to music isn’t a rare thing either, but one of the good things that comes from the Shakespeare phenomenon is that a listener can hear a lot of different takes on one text. I choose to bring out the brag in this one.
“A Summer’s Night” uses a poem by Paul Laurence Dunbar, the first widely published Afro-American poet who died tragically young in 1906. A lot of Dunbar’s success during his lifetime was with dialect pieces which he had ambiguous feelings about. He sometimes said that he wished to be known more for his poetic work in standard English, something that “A Summer’s Night” demonstrates.
“On the Troop Ship To Gallipoli” demonstrates a small bit of artistic courage on my part to pay tribute to the real-world courage of Rupert Brooke, who died in service to his country in WWI. The “Great War” redrew the world’s maps, overturned several empires, and it also drew a literary dividing line, as post-war poetry embraced Modernism which made the poetic stylings of Brooke seem decades old only a few years after he wrote them. Those who lived through that time often adapted to the new ideas of modern poetry, but Brooke never had that chance. So, in this piece I recast a late fragment of Brooke’s words as if it was an Imagist poem.
In 9th place, we have “Zalka Peetruza (who was christened Lucy Jane),” which uses a poem by journalist and poet Roy Dandridge, who coincidently like Dunbar, was another Ohio Afro-American. By evidence of this poem, Dandridge deserves to be better known than he is, as it’s a tart observation of the art of getting over while Black, in this case by passing one’s self off as exotic.
8th place goes to a bit of a surprise, my slightly Beefheartian musical setting of two sections of Gertrude Stein’s “Tender Buttons.” Don VanVliet (Capt. Beefheart) and Gertrude Stein were both uncompromising artists who hoed their own rows, so I viscerally made the connection in creating this piece.
7th is Sir Walter Raleigh’s damning litany “The Lie.” It’s a poem I’ve loved since my youth and I don’t think one has to add much musical vengeance to amplify Raleigh’s words. 400 years old, and still pissed off.
6th slot goes to one of my translations, Rainer Maria Rilke’s “The Dark Interval.” I did this translation a few years ago, and it was intended to be a somewhat freer variation. As I learn more, I think my assumptions on what the poem was getting at were wrong, but this looser version got 20 more listens that it’s more literal translation I also presented here this summer.
Halfway to number 1, at number 5, is Parlando Project alternative reader Dave Moore’s tale “I Was Not Yet Awake.” Dave also plays many of the keyboard parts you hear here, including the organ part on this. “I Was Not Yet Awake” is short for a story, but longer than many pieces we present here. Dave’s story is so well told that it still managed to pick up a lot of listens this summer.
At number 4, dropping down from two straight appearance as number 1, is “Frances,” a teenaged George Washington’s acrostic love poem. That’s still a marvel, as week after week I look at stats and see that it’s still getting listens, long after its appearance here last February.
Top 3 time! In position 3 is “The Death of Apollinaire,” my translation of Dada principal Tristian Tzara’s surprisingly sincere eulogy for the multi-national poet and critic Guillaume Apollinaire, who invented the term “Surrealism” and helped weave together many of the strands of European Modernism before he died from complications of wounds he suffered in WWI.
And in position #2, up one place from 3rd in the last Top 10, is Dave Moore enigmatic song “Love and Money.” It may offer an American answer to the question the Beatles once asked in “Can’t Buy Me Love.”
“The steam hissed. Someone cleared his throat. No one left and no one came…”
Position number 1 is another return, and an even higher rise in the chart due to the large number of listens over this summer: “Adlestrop,” British poet Edward Thomas’ famous moment on train platform on a hot June 24th 1914, were nothing much happens, but everything palpably is.
It’s a much-loved poem for many reasons. Some find extra resonance in the lines describing calmness in the tiny village train stop, the literal calm before the storm of WWI, and that’s a fine thought for those that hold it, but I believe the poem exists beyond those associations. “Adelstop’s” closing lines are sublime even without that particular war, that particular trauma to that specific nation, and as it was, to the ending of the life of its author Thomas, who became another of the poets killed in that war.
A couple of posts back we had a piece with words by Roy G. Dandridge who got called the “Paul Laurence Dunbar of Cincinnati.” Today’s episode’s words are by the Paul Laurence Dunbar of Paul Laurence Dunbar.
Paul Laurence Dunbar. Young, Gifted, and Black.
Dunbar grew up in Dayton Ohio, the Afro-American son of former slaves. In his town’s high school class of 1890, he was friends with another guy, a white guy, one who had varied enthusiasms. This other guy was a snappy dresser for his time, wearing newfangled wing-tip shoes, bowler hats, and a sporting a dashing waxed handlebar moustache. When the mandolin had a popularity boom, Dunbar’s classmate dude had to learn to play it, and he apparently drove his family around the bend as he practiced. Then later, the dude became interested in printing, and so designed and built his own printing press. He got so attached to printing and publishing that he dropped out of high school to start his own print shop with his brother. Then a couple of years later, the modern bicycle was invented, and his mechanical ability branched out to building, selling, and repairing bikes.
Dunbar with his high school class. Dunbar is in the upper left, our mystery dude in the shadows in the back.
And what’s with the guy on the left in the front row, shouldn’t he be in a band or something?
But let’s step back to that printing business. Paul Laurence Dunbar was already writing poetry as a high school student. After graduation, his family’s lack of funds and racial discrimination kept him from going to college, but he hungered to get into print. Our dandy, mandolin playing, designed-and-made-his-own-press print shop guy went into business with Dunbar and printed a newspaper that Dunbar edited and wrote for, even while Dunbar was still in high school–and then he used his connections in the business to get his classmate’s poems collected and published two years after Dunbar graduated from high school.
Dunbar’s books gathered attention. James Witcomb Riley, Frederick Douglass and William Dean Howells reviewed him favorably. By the end of the 19th century he had toured England, gotten a job with the Library of Congress, and written the lyrics for a Broadway musical and collaborated on an operetta, becoming the first widely known modern Afro-American poet before he was 30 years old. The 20th Century awaited him.
Then he contracted tuberculosis. His health declined, and though he tried to continue to build on his career, he died in 1906 at the age of 33.
He should have been one the older generation of the Harlem Renaissance of the 1920s. He could have taken his mastery of the lyrical 19th century style, and like Yeats in Ireland, transitioned seamlessly into the forms and topics of modernist poetry. Alas, none of that was to be.
Dunbar’s “A Summer’s Night” is a lovely, sensuous lyric. If one goes beyond the Victorian-drenched term “maiden” used almost as a refrain in the opening lines, and the slightly precious “perfumed bosom” of the southern breeze that closes the first half of the poem, the flitting last half that closes with carousing fireflies staggering home in the dark is just gorgeous It’s my hope that using our Parlando Project tactic of performing these words with music lets one more easily accept the sentiment of the more archaic words.
So, what happened to our mechanical aptitude dude, the guy who’s printing press began printing Paul Laurence Dunbar while they were High School classmates, helping launch the career of America’s first widely known modern black poet?
This bike looks pretty sweet even today. Dig the mono-tube rear stay, the tri-plane front fork, and the flipped moustache bars.
Turns out bicycles were one of the seed technologies of the 20th century. Our dude knew how fabricate his own stuff, and make it strong and light. The dude was named Orville Wright and he and his brother Wilbur took the modest profits from their printing and bike businesses, and three years before Dunbar died, they designed, built and flew the first airplane. There was a lot of disbelief that a high-school dropout from a hick town could do any such thing. Pioneers like Paul Laurence Dunbar and Orville Wright had to do it, otherwise no one would believe it.
To hear my performance of Paul Laurence Dunbar’s “A Summer’s Night” with music, use the player below. And thanks again for liking, following, and sharing.
Here’s a piece with words by a poet I knew nothing about until this year, and still now know next to nothing about: Roy G. Dandridge. Born in 1882, Dandridge grew up and lived his life in Cincinnati Ohio, and I read that he was sometimes called “The Paul Laurence Dunbar of Cincinnati,” presumably because he shared the Afro-American ancestry of Dayton, Ohio’s Dunbar.
Dandridge was bit younger than Dunbar and he lived and wrote for twenty years after Dunbar’s death, but he remains less well-known and less read today than Dunbar, perhaps because he seems to have never traveled outside of Cincinnati. In his youth, he was partially paralyzed by polio, and he supplemented what he could earn writing by taking orders for the local coal company.
Perhaps Dunbar’s best-known poem is “We Wear the Mask,” a supple lyric that sings the—at the least—duality of needing to present a composed face while living with the realities of racism. Today’s episode, “Zalka Peetruza, Who Was Christened Lucy Jane” is one of Dandridge’s best-known poems, and it also deals with this burden of duality, but Dandridge takes on another layer of intersectionality by making his subject a black woman. Dandridge’s Zalka has found herself, rechristened as a non-American exotic, dancing “near nude” yet wearing even more layers of Dunbar’s mask.
Perhaps Josephine Baker made the exotic mask work for her?
For my performance of Roy G. Dandridge’s “Zalka Peetruza, Who Was Christened Lucy Jane” I fired up a turgid synthesizer patch to carry much of the lead line over a swaggering beat, and you can hear it by using the player that appears below. If you like this you can make use of the social media sharing buttons to let others know what we’re doing here at the Parlando Project.