Reading Ohio

Completed: Selected Poems by Paul Laurence Dunbar

Cover: Selected Poems by Paul Laurence DunbarSelected Poems
Paul Laurence Dunbar
Edited with an Introduction by Herbert Woodward Martin
Penguin Books, 2004

As I mentioned in my previous post, I struggled with reading Dunbar’s poems. This wasn’t just because of the dialect (that didn’t help, but I usually can understand it by reading how it “sounds”), but also because of my weakness as a poetry reader in general, and I suspect perhaps, that this era of poetry may not be the best suited for me; I reacted better both to the Renaissance poetry of Spain’s Siglo de Oro and to a miscellaneous group of 20th century poems I read a year or so ago. But I did want to try my hand at this, the challenge not just to read one of Ohio’s most prolific writers, but the challenge of reading a genre–lyric poetry–I usually avoid. I opted for a curated collection, so I cannot be sure that my observations, such as they are, are necessarily true as compared to the entirety of Dunbar’s poetic output.

Dunbar seems to return to a number of themes many times–love (of course!), faith (I believe I read that his mother wanted him to be a preacher, so…), plantation life, odes to great African Americans and historical events. While most of the themes might be written in either “standard” or dialect, as suited Dunbar–or perhaps as suited his audience–, the odes were universally written in standard speech. They also seemed, I gather, to be tied to either deaths of great figures or anniversaries. Not all were made to people or events with which I was familiar, and I found myself more than one searching out the history behind the poem.

Dunbar also seems to have, over time, lost the optimism and cheerfulness of his early work, as starting in the selections from Lyrics of the Hearthside, some of the poems seemed to takes a grimmer, more despondent tone. I don’t know if this was a matter of which poems the editors selected for inclusion, if it reflected the natural passage from youth to manhood and the subsequent facing of stark reality we all must endure, or if it reflects an even darker turn Dunbar’s life took, perhaps due to the public reception of his work or a personal loss, or even the downturn his health took (he died young, of tuberculosis). This is not to say that his later poems lost all humor and optimism altogether, just that the later books appeared to include more unhappy poems than the early books did.

“A Career” (Oak and Ivy, 1893)

“Break me my bounds, and let me fly
To regions vast of boundless sky;
Nor I, like piteous Daphne, be
Root-bound. Ah, no! I would be free
As yon same bird that in its flight
Outstrips the range of mortal sight;
Free as the mountain streams that gush
From bubbling springs, and downward rush
Across the serrate mountain’s side,—
The rocks o’erwhelmed, their banks defied,—
And like the passions in the soul,
Swell into torrents as they roll.
Oh, circumscribe me not by rules
That serve to lead the minds of fools!
But give me pow’r to work my will,
And at my deeds the world shall thrill.
My words shall rouse the slumb’ring zest
That hardly stirs in manhood’s breast;
And as the sun feeds lesser lights,
As planets have their satellites,
So round about me will I bind
The men who prize a master mind!”

He lived a silent life alone,
And laid him down when it was done;
And at his head was placed a stone
On which was carved a name unknown!

And perhaps this was simply frustration – early on the poems suggest Dunbar’s ambition, and while he did achieve great success, it was for his dialect work, but he also wanted recognition for that which was more traditional. I was surprised to find that one of Dunbar’s most famous poems, “Sympathy,” from which Maya Angelou took the title for her most famous book I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings, was actually in Dunbar’s first published volume of poems. Clearly–and Williams Dean Howell’s praise for his second volume also points to this–even Dunbar’s earliest published work has merit.

One of my favorite of Dunbar’s poems actually turned out to be one of his dialect poems. It is an illustration that some things never change–I can envision the same argument being made today (I think I’ve heard it!), only perhaps substitute different types of music.

The Ol’ Tunes” (Oak and Ivy, 1893)

You kin talk about yer anthems
An’ yer arias an’ sich,
An’ yer modern choir-singin’
That you think so awful rich;
But you orter heerd us youngsters
In the times now far away,
A-singin’ o’ the ol’ tunes
In the ol’-fashioned way.

There was some of us sung treble
An’ a few of us growled bass,
An’ the tide o’ song flowed smoothly
With its ‘comp’niment o’ grace;
There was spirit in that music,
An’ a kind o’ solemn sway,
A-singin’ o’ the ol’ tunes
In the ol’-fashioned way.

But I think that some bright mornin’,
When the toils of life air o’er,
An’ the sun o’ heaven arisin’
Glads with light the happy shore,
I shall hear the angel chorus,
In the realms of endless day,
A-singin’ o’ the ol’ tunes
In the ol’-fashioned way.

Another favorite poem was “The Spellin’-Bee”, if for no other reason than it reminded me of The Little House books as the sort of event that might have occurred–certainly the time frame is close.  (I believe there’s a spelling bee in Little Town on the Prairie? It’s been a long while since I read these.) That, and a little twist at the end. Dunbar does seem to like a twist now and then.

The Spellin’-Bee” (Lyrics of Lowly Life, 1896)

I never shall furgit that night when father hitched up Dobbin,
An’ all us youngsters clambered in an’ down the road went bobbin’
To school where we was kep’ at work in every kind o’ weather,
But where that night a spellin’-bee was callin’ us together.
‘Twas one o’ Heaven’s banner nights, the stars was all a glitter,
The moon was shinin’ like the hand o’ God had jest then lit her.
The ground was white with spotless snow, the blast was sort o’ stingin’;
But underneath our round-abouts, you bet our hearts was singin’.
That spellin’-bee had be’n the talk o’ many a precious moment,
The youngsters all was wild to see jes’ what the precious show meant,
An’ we whose years was in their teens was little less desirous
O’ gittin’ to the meetin’ so ‘s our sweethearts could admire us.

Fur once within that lighted room, our feelin’s took a canter,
An’ scurried to the zero mark ez quick ez Tam O’Shanter.
‘Cause there was crowds o’ people there, both sexes an’ all stations;
It looked like all the town had come an’ brought all their relations.

In general, the poems I liked the best were the ones that in some way amused me: the observations on English cooking (from “A Letter” – Lyrics of the Hearthside, 1899):


But dese Englishmen is diffunt, an’ dey’s curus fu’ a fac’.
Fust, dey’s heavier an’ redder in dey make-up an’ dey looks,
An’ dey don’t put salt nor pepper in a blessed t’ing dey cooks!
W’en dey gin you good ol’ tu’nips, ca’ots, pa’snips, beets, an’ sich,
Ef day ain’t some one to tell you, you cain’t ‘stinguish which is which.

or the fight in the kitchen:

Trouble in de Kitchen” (Lyrics of Sunshine and Shadow, 1905)

Dey was oncet a awful quoil ‘twixt de skillet an’ de pot;
De pot was des a-bilin’ an’ de skillet sho’ was hot.
Dey slurred each othah’s colah an’ dey called each othah names,
Wile de coal-oil can des gu-gled, po’in oil erpon de flames.

But not all of the poems I liked are humorous. Dunbar had serious poems as well, often stirring. His “The Colored Soldiers” (Majors and Minors, 1895) is both a memorial to those who fought the Union cause but also an argument for equality:

They were comrades then and brothers,
Are they more or less to-day?
They were good to stop a bullet
And to front the fearful fray.
They were citizens and soldiers,
When rebellion raised its head;
And the traits that made them worth,–
Ah! those virtues are not dead.

While “Hymn” (Majors and Minors, 1895) is a poem of great faith:

When storms arise
And dark’ning skies
About me threat’ning lower,
To thee, O Lord, I raise mine eyes,
To thee my tortured spirit flies
For solace in that hour.

The mighty arm
Will let no harm
Come near me nor befall me;
Thy voice shall quiet my alarm,
When life’s great battle waxeth warm—
No foeman shall appall me.

Upon thy breast
Secure I rest,
From sorrow and vexation;
No more by sinful cares oppressed,
But in thy presence ever blest,
O God of my salvation.

And “For the Man Who Fails” (Lyrics of the Hearthside, 1899) stands in contrast to those who deem that the only people who matter are those that are the “best” or “greatest” or “win.”

The world is a snob, and the man who wins
Is the chap for its money’s worth:
And the lust for success causes half of the sins
That are cursing this brave old earth.
For it ‘s fine to go up, and the world’s applause
Is sweet to the mortal ear;
But the man who fails in a noble cause
Is a hero that ‘s no less dear.

‘T is true enough that the laurel crown
Twines but for the victor’s brow;
For many a hero has lain him down
With naught but the cypress bough.
There are gallant men in the losing fight,
And as gallant deeds are done
As ever graced the captured height
Or the battle grandly won.

We sit at life’s board with our nerves highstrung,
And we play for the stake of Fame,
And our odes are sung and our banners hung
For the man who wins the game.
But I have a song of another kind
Than breathes in these fame-wrought gales,—
An ode to the noble heart and mind
Of the gallant man who fails!

The man who is strong to fight his fight,
And whose will no front can daunt,
If the truth be truth and the right be right,
Is the man that the ages want.
Tho’ he fail and die in grim defeat,
Yet he has not fled the strife,
And the house of Earth will seem more sweet
For the perfume of his life.

But perhaps the most appropriate poem to share with bookish people is one simply titled “Sonnet: On an Old Book with Uncut Leaves” (Lyrics of the Hearthside, 1899)

Emblem of blasted hope and lost desire,
No finger ever traced thy yellow page
Save Time’s. Thou hast not wrought to noble rage
The hearts thou wouldst have stirred. Not any fire
Save sad flames set to light a funeral pyre
Dost thou suggest. Nay,—impotent in age,
Unsought, thou holdst a corner of the stage
And ceasest even dumbly to aspire.

How different was the thought of him that writ.
What promised he to love of ease and wealth,
When men should read and kindle at his wit.
But here decay eats up the book by stealth,
While it, like some old maiden, solemnly,
Hugs its incongruous virginity!

 

2/3 posts relating to my spring reading of Paul Laurence Dunbar works. Read as part of my Reading Ohio project and for the category “a classic by a non-white author” for the Back to the Classics Challenge.

Reading Ohio

Paul Laurence Dunbar

This is the first of three posts that I wrote this summer, but for some reason never published to the blog. I’m grateful I wrote them however, as I don’t believe I would have remembered much that I wrote here otherwise.
Paul Laurence Dunbar circa 1890 (Public Domain)I spent a good chunk of my reading time this past winter and spring reading poems and short stories by Paul Laurence Dunbar–for my Reading Ohio project–, a challenge for me, as I don’t often read much of either, especially poetry, and so my reading muscles found themselves severely taxed.

Not making it easier, was Dunbar’s frequent use of dialect, specifically a vernacular meant to represent English as spoken by slaves, ex-slaves, and their descendants (usually–other dialects make appearances). Dunbar himself was the son of former slaves, born and raised in Dayton, Ohio, where he was a classmate of Orville Wright. Dunbar would briefly write and edit the first African American weekly paper in Dayton, with Orville and Wilbur Wright as the printers¹. After high school, Dunbar’s dreams of college and becoming a lawyer were thwarted due to a lack of finances, so he took a job as an elevator operator. During this time, he continued to write poems, and after his first volume, Oak and Ivy (1893), was published, he hand-sold it to passengers on the elevator. His second volume of poetry, Majors and Minors (1895), caught the eye of fellow Ohio-native William Dean Howells, the “dean of American letters,” who wrote a laudatory review in Harper’s Weekly. This review was later adapted as the introduction to Dunbar’s third volume, Lyrics of Lowly Life (1896). But although this praise catapulted Dunbar to fame, it came with a price–Dunbar would find himself in a sort of trap, expected by his white audience to write only in dialect and of the sorts of life experiences of African-Americans they believed to be “authentic.”

Although Howells wrote with the best of intentions, Dunbar’s supposed objective analysis of African American life became, for several contemporaneous literary critics and commercial marketplaces, the standard for determining the realistic nature and aesthetic value of ‘blackness’ in literature. Eventually, this representational category limited Dunbar’s own ability to deviate from the accepted protocols of African American literature, and subsequently reduced the complexity of his legacy to a rigid dichotomy. It has been argued that Dunbar was torn between, on the one hand, fulfilling certain cultural conventions of minstrelsy in order to make money and appease literary critics, and, on the other, heeding personal impulses to write poetry in the style of the Romantics. Dunbar was torn, in other words, between selling out to a racist market for blackface humor and dialect and practicing a sort of literary assimilationism that in itself was racist, because it privileged traditionally white-authored poetry as the best that Western literature had to offer (Jarrett and Morgan, xv-xvi)

And this has seemingly become Dunbar’s legacy: this debate over his use of dialect, authentic or sellout? To what extent should we laud him for his artistic merits or critique him for a continuance of stereotype?

It would seem that for some time his work was mostly overlooked; the Introduction to The Complete Stories of Paul Laurence Dunbar notes that despite his amazing quantity of output–four novels, four books of short stories, fourteen volumes of poetry, as well as songs, dramatic works, essays, and additional short stories and poems–there has not been a commiserate amount of critical scholarship. But perhaps this is changing; the Introductions to both volumes I read from both seek to promote the idea that Dunbar is more than just his dialect poems or his most famous collections. Indeed, Jarrett and Morgan make a point of demonstrating the ways in which Dunbar undermines or otherwise rebels against the stereotypes expected of him, showing specific examples across his many stories.

A victim of his own success, he boxed himself into a literary paradigm that overshadowed the diversity of his literary skills and racial-political thought while offering him the best means of earning money. While Dunbar accepted these terms for the sake of achieving financial security, he was more proactive and subtle about inserting his own political views than many critics, then and since, have given him credit for. (Jarrett and Morgan, xx)

My own approach to Dunbar is as a casual reader–with only a slight acquaintance with the other literature of the time, and only covering a very small quantity of his entire output. Within these limitations, Dunbar’s rebellions were not as obvious to me as those in Charles W. Chestnutt’s Conjure Stories, which always seemed to twist what was expected. Yet, Jarrett and Morgan point out, even something as small as a story depicting African Americans in an urban northern setting, as opposed to the rural south, would be a departure from the expectations of his contemporary white audience.

More obvious to me was Dunbar’s longing for something greater as in poems such as “A Career,” “Sympathy,” or “He Had His Dreams.” It would seem that in his works Dunbar expressed the frustrations of his ambitions, thwarted not merely by race but by predetermined critical expectation and consensus.

And yet, Martin, in his introduction to Selected Poems, indicates that Dunbar was indeed very successful as a writer of dialect, comparable to Mark Twain in his ear and abilities–high praise indeed! He further points out the catch-22: had Dunbar not achieved success in dialect, he would likely have remained in obscurity and one of America’s most prolific African American poets–and the first to achieve national acceptance–would have been lost.

1. Dunbar’s Dayton, Ohio home is now a National Historic Landmark (free admission) included within the Dayton Aviation Heritage National Historical Park along with several landmarks relating to the Wright brothers. 

Resources:
Dunbar, Paul Laurence. The Complete Stories of Paul Laurence Dunbar. Ed. Gene Andrew Jarrett and Thomas Lewis Morgan. Ohio University Press, 2005. Forward by Shelley Fisher Fishkin.

Dunbar, Paul Laurence. Selected Poems. Ed. with an Introduction by Herbert Woodward Martin. Penguin Books, 2004

1/3 posts relating to my spring reading of Paul Laurence Dunbar works

WeeksEnd Notes

Week’s End Notes (30)

Well. It’s been a while. As I sort through photos I’ve taken since I last posted here, I see a visual record of how much time has passed—from long, hot, humid late summer days to the chill and gray of late autumn’s first snow. It is sometimes hard to believe that so much time has flown by, and yet, there was so much packed in those days.

I really didn’t mean to drop off from here, but one week away led to another and a couple weeks led to a month and a month led to…today. And sometimes when you stop doing something it’s so hard to start up again. Indeed, the effort of putting word to screen has seemed extraordinarily intimidating at times. And just for a little blog post.

But though I’ve been busy (work, life) and though I’ve been prioritizing reading over writing, I find I’m not ready to just step back and leave the blogging aside. The task of writing—of ordering my thoughts into a somewhat coherent form—is a good exercise, I think. The recording of my random thoughts on books is a remedy to my forgetfulness—perhaps I may not quite remember a book I read four years ago now, but if I can turn to a post I wrote on it, I have something to hang on to. And of course there are other bloggers—although I am not so good at involvement in the bookish community (and after this lengthy absence may have forfeited what few readers I have), I know that it is so warm and welcoming that with just a little effort I could find myself much more involved.

So I shall try, try, try again.

I started keeping a Bullet Journal this summer, mostly to keep track of work-things—schedules, to dos, and such—but it’s proving instructive in my overall life as well. How many goals/tasks I can set for a week, realistically. How to break up projects into smaller bites so that I can both stay focused on the bigger picture and have small pieces to mark off as “done.” As a record, it’s becoming wonderfully informative, and as a tool, I’ve let it be marvelously flexible. I don’t worry about “mistakes,” or whether or not it’s beautiful (it’s not; I don’t have time or inclination to make one of the wonderfully decorative varieties), I just adjust and alter as I go, learning what methods of tracking and task-keeping work best for me. And I’ve found that just a small record each week of things I’d like to do, be it an overall task for the week or something small to do everyday or every few days, is helping me to keep focused and to not just “have good intentions” but to act on them. It is ever a work-in-progress, but since I added “reading” as a daily goal, I’ve seen my reading rate go up. I can but hope that adding blog-time (reading, writing) to the list will help as well. (Though at some point, it must be admitted, I will run out of time to fill!)

So as the nights grow longer (for just a few weeks more!) and the days colder, it is time for books and words again.  A tentative return, but sincere.

Happy Reading!

What's Making Me Happy

What’s Making Me Happy – Four

So much is making me happy this week! It’s been a good one!

Rose of Sharon (Hibiscus syriacus)

  • Work, in general. I realized this week that I am, at present, completely and totally content with work–and it really snuck up on me. I think it’s in large part down to the people I work for (and with). I get along with them well, and they have really made it an appealing place for me. I really feel fortunate and blessed in this.
  • There was more work goofiness. This time involving jokes about a pig–the local fair is coming up, and they were teasing one of the managers that he was expected to represent the firm and buy us a pig. Verbal madness ensued!🙂
  • The music of Hector Belioz. Specifically, Symphonie fantastique, which I was reintroduced to when I was searching out something instrumental to listen to at work when I needed to concentrate extra on a project. Just simply wonderful.
  • The Olympics! Although not a terribly big sports fan, I’ve always been fond of the Olympics, summer or winter. My favorite summer sports include swimming, diving, and gymnastics of which swimming is my favorite.
  • Rooting for a local-to-me athlete. Someone from my home county, Carlin Isles, is on the US men’s Rugby Sevens team. I know almost nothing about the sport, but sounds really exciting and I’ll definitely be seeking it out to cheer on Isles.
  • Rooting for fellow Kent State University alumni. Two recent students will be competing: William Barnes will represent Puerto Rico in men’s 110 m hurdles and Danniel Thomas will represent Jamaica in women’s shot put. #flashesforever!
  • So…I may be a little busy the next couple of weeks. It should be fun!

And you–what’s making you happy this week?

What's Making Me Happy

What’s Making Me Happy – Three

And here we are at the end of July! I’d say I was unhappy with how fast it’s sped by except that I’m actually rather happy to see the end of it–that much closer to cooler autumn temperatures! (And a September vacation!) Besides the end of a hot month, what’s making me happy this week:

A sunflower - un girasol

  • The sunflowers are in bloom–a very happy-making thing. I also had fun this week learning a new word: a restaurant I pass everyday going to and from work installed signs this week with their new name, Los Girasoles. I already knew il girasole as the Italian for “the sunflower,” so it didn’t take much work to deduce that los girasoles was the Spanish for “the sunflowers” (el girasol, singular). Now, to just remember that they are pronounced differently!
  • Work goofiness. As in, the sight of one of the studio managers working away as if everything were normal despite the swim cap and swim goggles fixed securely on his head. As one does. Or the senior partner making silly faces at the college student shadowing the marking department every time he stuck his head in the conference room. Just an ordinary Wednesday…
  • Reading! Although the book I just finished definitely ended on a down note (as I had fully expected), the actual process of reading it and two other books this week really has been a joy. It’s been a while since I really sunk myself into a book as well as I did this week. Here’s hoping that continues in this coming week!

And you–what’s making you happy this week?

Reading

Completed: The Grey King

Cover: The Grey King by Susan Cooper The Grey King
Susan Cooper
1974, England

I’ve been slowly revisiting The Dark is Rising Sequence over the past year and a half or so, inspired to reread this favorite childhood series by my reading of Maggie Stiefvater’s The Raven Boys. (And after I started my reread, I learned that she was indeed inspired by Cooper’s work.) I haven’t been blogging about these for the most part, but since I’ve included the last two on my 15 Books of Summer list, I thought I’d write up just a little bit.

The series in general–five books in all–is inspired by Arthurian legend, but set in the present day (roughly 1960s/70s, when it was written, though it really doesn’t feel that dated and could equally be now). The first book, Over Sea, Under Stone, was a grail quest, as the three Drew children sought to retrieve the Hold Grail before a group of adult adversaries can. It ends with the Grail in a museum and the tantalizing suggestion that maybe The Merlin has been helping them along the way. And there, I understand, Cooper originally intended to leave it. It was only some years later that she added on the other four books, to round out a series depicting a great battle between the Light and the Dark, a battle ongoing since at least the time of the great King Arthur. The books from this point bounce between protagonists: Will Stanton, the last (and youngest) of the Old Ones, is introduced in book two, The Dark is Rising, where he must search out and retrieve the six signs by Midwinter’s Night. In book three, Greenwitch, the Drews return as protagonists, when they “happen” to meet Will in a small town in Cornwall (the setting of the first book) where they must rescue the stolen Grail back from the Dark.

The fourth book, The Grey King, returns to Will’s point of view. He has been sent to Wales to recuperate after a severe illness. While there, he meets a strange boy, Bran, and Bran’s dog Cafall, and discovers that he will need their help in retrieving a lost gold harp meant to wake the “six sleepers” whose aid the Light will need in their upcoming battle against the Dark. Over the course of the story, Will and Bran will also learn the surprising backstory to Bran’s arrival in Wales and that Bran’s help may be needed for more than finding the harp.

Although commonly classified as fantasy, The Dark is Rising sequence has long felt to me more akin to the myths and legends of long-gone times: of King Arthur, of Brenin Llwyd. Perhaps, in our cynical, rational age, this is a fine distinction. After all, we know that magic doesn’t exist–at least not as defined in fantasy tales. But when I find myself considering what book might most naturally follow next after these, it is the old legends and stories I think of, not more contemporary writers. Cooper, by drawing in bits of stories she only borrows, pushes me towards seeking out stories I don’t yet fully know. And if that is the result of reading one book, to be pushed toward others, I would say that the writer has been successful in their telling.

I read The Grey King as part of my Classics of Children’s Lit project and as #2/15 for the 20 Books of Summer Challenge.

What's Making Me Happy

What’s Making Me Happy – Two

What a fast week! I suppose it was all the busyness at work–so many people are on vacation just now but new jobs just keep coming in. No complaints though; it’s good to be busy. But what’s making me happy this week?

Purple Cone Flower and Brown Eyed Susan

  • My bullet journal – I only just started one about two weeks ago, so I’m still working out just how I want to use it, but both the organizational system and the freedom I’ve given myself to let it not be “perfect” and to experiment are making me very happy. Come to think of it, organization can make me strangely happy, despite how much I hate to clean…
  • As a Northeast Ohio partisan, and ignoring all politics [please don’t air political views here!], all the positive press for the city of Cleveland coming out of the Republican Convention this past week–apparently we’re rather nice in the Midwest, and outsiders are starting to recognize Cleveland’s rebirth.
  • Revisiting the artwork of Beatrix Potter for my final post on her Twenty-three Tales from earlier this week–so delightful!
  • Delicious seasonal peaches (well…imported from the South) and plums.

And you–what’s making you happy this week?