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.

Maiden with a Lamp

When it was announced that Bob Dylan had been awarded the Nobel Prize for Literature there was a substantial reaction asking if songs could be literature—no, that’s not right, I’m mischaracterizing much of the reaction I read as if it was an honest inquiry into this question. No, the reaction I read was more of a conclusion that songs could not be literature, and so this Nobel award to Bob Dylan was a break with tradition, a loosening of standards.

This is complex subject, one I’ll probably return to, as I have much to say on this; but missed in the hoopla and questioning was this fact:  Bob Dylan was the second singer/songwriter to win the Nobel Prize for Literature.

In 1913 Rabindranath Tagore was awarded the Nobel Prize, the committee citing:

“Because of his profoundly sensitive, fresh and beautiful verse, by which, with consummate skill, he has made his poetic thought, expressed in his own English words, a part of the literature of the West”.

In 1913 when the prize was given, Tagore had only one such work they could be talking about: “Gitanjali,”  a 1912 collection of his song lyrics that Tagore had translated himself from Bengali into English prose poems.

Gitanjali title page 1912

The title page of the original English edition

 

Tagore is a fascinating man and artist, with achievements in so many fields that you might think I’m making him up. He wrote every kind of literature, started a university, seriously pursued modern painting, and gave Gandhi the title “Mahatma.” But he was no dabbler at songwriting, having written over 2000 songs. He’s even the only composer to score a hat trick for national anthems, having written the national anthems of India, Bangladesh and Siri Lanka.  His songs are so pervasive in Bengali culture that his thousands of songs have become their own genre.

tagore with Gandhi

“Let me lay it on you Mohandas: it means ‘Great Soul.”  Also, there’s this girl in Detroit who I’m going to call the Queen of Soul.”

Poet William Butler Yeats wrote enviously in his introduction to Tagore’s “Gitanjali”  of the power of songs:

“These verses will not lie in little well-printed books upon ladies’ tables, who turn the pages with indolent hands that they may sigh over a life without meaning, which is yet all they can know of life, or be carried by students at the university to be laid aside when the work of life begins, but, as the generations pass, travelers will hum them on the highway and men rowing upon the rivers.”

This spring as I read Tagore’s “Gitanjali,”  I hoped to find there on the page what is promised in Yeats’ introduction and what would normally be guaranteed by such acclaim. I failed at this. I couldn’t find it. The English of the prose translations seemed so archaic, the expression stilted, the voice vague. From accounts I’ve now read, this seems to be an acknowledged problem; and it appears that, for whatever reasons, Tagore purposely framed his translated work in an incomplete way. In the longer term, I will seek some of the newer translations. In the short term, I stood back and remembered something.

Song. These are songs.

Not only are they missing their music, but songs, like plays, are works for individual voices and talents to embody. Their creators are not claiming the real, complete thing exists on the page, that they are performing them mutely with ink on the white page. No, they expect, demand, that someone step in them, surmise their meaning, fill the blank white space with emotions, and speak them.

All art is like this really. Songs admit it. Songwriters generously say: I need you to fill these things, your humanity is better than any of my approximations.

So, today’s episode is the second of my attempts to bring something to a piece from Tagore’s “Gitanjali”  using his original prose translations, as that’s all I have for now.  With the last post here, “Light,”  I tried to meet Bengali music partway, but this time I’m staying firmly in the Western side, maybe even a bit on the Country and Western side. As I read this piece on the page I heard it as sounding like one of those weird Lee Hazelwood arrangements from a few decades ago, but since I was producing this myself, I had to sing the Nancy Sinatra part as well.
 
If you wonder about the floating light ceremony mentioned in the song I call “Maiden with a Lamp,”  it may be this one.

To hear me perform my vaguely C&W version of “Maiden with a Lamp,” use the player below.

 

On First Hearing Blonde On Blonde

Earlier here you’ve heard me proclaim that Bob Dylan changed how folks wrote songs. Before Bob Dylan circa 1964, no one wrote songs like Bob Dylan. Afterward, the things he did (portrayal of fragmented personal experience, florid and unlimited imagery, a questioning attitude toward accepted beliefs) were everywhere, until by today we may have forgotten (or for younger generations, never knew) that these things were once “Dylanesque.” And because songs with lyrics were the primary way late 20th century people experienced poetry, that revolution impacted the culture generally.

Of course, page-poets had already done those things. Some European poets worked with these concepts decades before Bob Dylan. American modernists of the first part of the 20th century did these things too, and in American English. And the Beats, Dylan’s slightly older siblings, knew those achievements and applied them to the post WWII American landscape.

So, take away the Nobel prize! Dylan had influences! And his revolution was maybe the fourth time around!

No. First off, the page-poets did not generally ally their words with music. Yes, I know there were exceptions to this “generally” statement—and I think those exceptions deserve more notice and listening—but that’s my point, those exceptions didn’t get much of an audience. As the Parlando project seeks to demonstrate, poetry gains resonance when paired with music. The inherent abstractness of music allows listeners to more easily accept abstractness and difficulty in words, so those producing the more difficult, abstract or hermetic writing needed music even more.  Add to that music’s ability to amplify and re-cast emotions, and Dylan’s linking of those page-poet concepts to music meant his was a new force.

So, I say the very thing that causes some to say Dylan should not be considered a literary hero: that he is a songwriter, is one very good reason he is just such an authentic hero.

And here’s another reason. We sometimes like to pride ourselves in finding what we believe are the first movers of things. In songwriting, Dylan is just such a first mover, but if we take his words or his music in separation, he is not the first mover. However, as to impact, it makes less difference who did something first compared to who got the experience to the audience, the listener, and/or the reader at the time and way they were primed to hear it. So, if we artificially separate Dylan’s words and music we can say they weren’t the first, we can even believe they were not the “best,” however we figure that out, but that combination of words and sound was a revolution that succeeded in ways that previous efforts didn’t. It’s romantic to mourn failed revolutionaries, but let’s not let our mourning obscure the power of successful ones.

While I wrote this post’s audio piece “On First Hearing Blonde on Blonde,” it is not the sort of work I usually put here. It’s a recounting of personal experience, something that is already over-represented in poetry and particularly in spoken word poetry. That can be a valid kind of poetic expression,  but there’s no lack of it elsewhere, and as a creator I’m instructed by my experience as a reader that most poems about the writer’s personal experience fail for several iatrogenic reasons, such as the writer’s inability to fully see and question their own assumptions, an approach to individualization that can cut the writer off from their connection to and balance with the rest of the world,  or even the simple ability to judge what another person will be interested in.

If I work out getting permissions for more current work by other authors, there will be more poems spoken in a personal voice here, but I believe they will gain from being selected by someone else, and spoken by someone else, not by the poet themselves. That’s one of my Parlando principles: “Other People’s Stories.”

“On First Hearing Blonde on Blonde” is published here, not because it’s a tale about myself, but because it tries to convey that listener experience that occurs when the listener is primed to hear something. Will someone who listens to Bob Dylan’s “Blonde on Blonde” record album, as suggested by the Nobel Secretary last week, hear a different album than I heard nearly 50 years ago? On one hand, surely they will. Every ear in every time is always its own. On the other hand, I could give you answers—I just typed and erased some now—but instead I leave you with wishes for more, and perhaps better, questions.

Next post we move on from Bob Dylan. Which is about right. After all, even Bob Dylan got tired of being Bob Dylan, several times in fact.

To hear the LYL Band and the audio spoken word piece “On First Hearing Blonde on Blonde,” click on the gadget that should appear below. We recorded the basic tracks the afternoon the Nobel Prize for Dylan was announced. Yes, the Dave Moore mentioned in the piece is the same Dave Moore whose voice and keyboard playing has been heard here.