Wednesday, March 26, 2014

I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings--ah, me!

This time of year always causes me to beat my wings against the bars of my winter cage. As a kid growing up in a suburb of Dayton, Ohio I was familiar with Paul Laurence Dunbar and his poem “Sympathy.”

I KNOW what the caged bird feels, alas!
        When the sun is bright on the upland slopes;
    When the wind stirs soft through the springing grass,
    And the river flows like a stream of glass;
        When the first bird sings and the first bud opes,
    And the faint perfume from its chalice steals —
    I know what the caged bird feels!

I also struggled with another kind of desperation. I couldn’t grow up fast enough and get away. Even though I was a good enough student I hated high school. If I had to hear one more fellow student talking in a voice loud enough for all to hear about a weekend party or a “kegger” I’m sure I was going to puke. I was more of an observer. I’d sit back unimpressed, all the while plotting my escape. I would graduate and go as far away from Centerville and whatever the heck a bedroom community symbolized as fast as I could.

I know why the caged bird beats his wing
        Till its blood is red on the cruel bars;
    For he must fly back to his perch and cling
    When he fain would be on the bough a-swing;
        And a pain still throbs in the old, old scars
    And they pulse again with a keener sting —
    I know why he beats his wing!

Paul Laurence Dunbar was from Dayton. I would hear frequently references to Dunbar High School on the TV. Dunbar High was on the “wrong” side of town. There were news stories about gang violence, homicides, etc surround Dunbar.

Recently I went to a program/play at the Poetry Foundation, At Mother Dunbar’s Request. It was a wicked cold night to be out, but inside the small room with the blinds drawn it felt as cozy as Mother Dunbar’s front parlor. It was a small cast—written and directed by Paxton Williams, who also played Dunbar. It was meant to be an evening of poetry selections representing the range and seasons of Dunbar’s work, plus music of the time, all sewed together with stitches of Dunbar’s life.

Some of the poems were painful to listen to. The dialectal ones—of which even as a kid I was aware that Dunbar was not particularly proud of—where Paxton/Paul spoke of darkies, coons, by the back cabins eating chicken and dancing and lawd lawd lovin’ deh master made me cringe. I remember trying to read some of these dialectal ones in high school and without an ear for it, they were a tough read. Hearing them recited there was a musical quality to the poems and a fierceness to the words that bestowed a dignity on even the ones written in vernacular—particularly a GREAT rendition of “When Dey ‘Listed Colored Soldiers” by Lauryn Whitney (Mrs. Dunbar, Paul’s mother). Listening to “Jump Back Honey” was a real treat. Yeah, it had a minstrel flair, but in the mouth of an African-American performer it didn’t feel stolen or co-opted—more like a Harlem display of public affection. Just like how rap can characterize the urban experience. Do I love rap, not always; do I love minstrel, not really, but I can appreciate what’s trying to be said. And, of course, this is how Dunbar made money. His dialectal poems were very popular when he was alive. After his death they sort’ve sunk his reputation. By the time I was reading him he was not taught in my high school.

Of course it was the more lyrical poems that drew me in. “We wear the Mask” and “Sympathy” and “After Awhile.”

It was a great evening and when I left, even though it had begun to snow, my spirit was lifted.

  I know why the caged bird sings, ah me,
        When his wing is bruised and his bosom sore,—
    When he beats his bars and he would be free;
    It is not a carol of joy or glee,
        But a prayer that he sends from his heart's deep core,
    But a plea, that upward to Heaven he flings —
    I know why the caged bird sings!
DEAD at 33!



Lynda Kopacz said...

Love your comments on one of my favorite poems and poets.

Jane said...

thanks Lynda--my college roommate! haha--I didn't pay her to say that--