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.
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.