Where Shall We Meet

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Paul Lawrence Dunbar

On An Old Book With Uncut Leaves

by Paul Lawrence Dunbar (1872 – 1906)

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


I wonder if you have to be a writer to understand the sadness of this poem?  Only writers think about such things as whether the words they put forth are destined to languish, untouched and unbidden, between the pages of a fading dust jacket.  Dunbar is one of the those writers who does everything well.  He wrote beautiful classical poetry, he wrote free verse and he also wrote lyrics to songs and poems in the vernacular of his day.  He just flat out wrote.


 

A Song

by Paul Lawrence Dunbar

Thou art the soul of a summer’s day,
Thou art the breath of the rose.
But the summer is fled
And the rose is dead;
Where are they gone, who knows?

Thou art the blood of my heart o’ hearts,
Thou art my soul’s repose
But my heart grows numb
And my soul is dumb;
Where art thou, love, who knows?

Thou art the hope of my after years —
Sun for my winter snows;
But the years go by
`Neath a clouded sky.
Where shall we meet, who knows?

 

Upward To Heaven He Flings

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Maya Angelou

“The Black female is assaulted in her tender years by all those common forces of nature at the same time that she is caught in the tripartite crossfire of masculine prejudice, white illogical hate and Black lack of power.

The fact that the adult American Negro female emerges a formidable character is often met with amazement, distaste and even belligerence. It is seldom accepted as an inevitable outcome of the struggle won by survivors and deserves respect if not enthusiastic acceptance.”

Maya Angelou – I Know Why The Caged Bird Sings

Sympathy

by Paul Lawrence Dunbar (1872 – 1906)

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 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!

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!


 

Does it surprise you as you read Paul Lawrence’s Dunbar poem Sympathy to realize that Maya Angelou’s brilliant memoir lifts its title from his poem?  Angelou as a human being, writer, poet, political activist and likely the person with the most amazing voice on the planet during her lifetime, consciously connected her story to Dunbar’s. I think all writers recognize that they can not separate completely their own creativity from the art that has inspired them throughout their lifetime.  I applaud it when rather than trying to hide that fact, they choose to do like Angelou did, and make the connection front and center, for their readers to delve further on their own, pointing us in the direction of greatness and letting us discover the very things that inspired them.

Dunbar grew up in Dayton, Ohio.  He was in the same high school class as Orville Wright, who would assist Dunbar in getting his first volume of poetry published. It’s nice to know that one half of the duo that made the first successful flight appreciated poetry. Dunbar’s career as a writer is an inspiration of not accepting the barriers that were in place that seemingly made it impossible.   He died young at the age of 33, after having critical and financial success and utter ruin and critical dismissal, often within a stretch of only a couple of years.   He died of a combination of repeated bouts of what is described as “poor health” but was a combination of pneumonia and alcoholism.

The poet and writer Nikki Giovanni, a Dunbar scholar, says in his biography in The Poetry Foundation that:

….his work constitutes both a history and a celebration of Black life. “There is no poet, black or nonblack, who measures his achievement,” she declared. “Even today. He wanted to be a writer and he wrote.”

Here is a short video of Angelou discussing with Oprah Winfrey her intentions behind her memoir and also a short poem by Angelou that is a reminder of what Audre Lorde said, paraphrasing, that revolution isn’t a one time event, rebellion  and pursuit of justice are every generation’s responsibility.


Caged Bird

by Maya Angelou (1928 – 2014)

A free bird leaps
on the back of the wind
and floats downstream
till the current ends
and dips his wing
in the orange sun rays
and dares to claim the sky.

But a bird that stalks
down his narrow cage
can seldom see through
his bars of rage
his wings are clipped and
his feet are tied
so he opens his throat to sing.

The caged bird sings
with a fearful trill
of things unknown
but longed for still
and his tune is heard
on the distant hill
for the caged bird
sings of freedom.

The free bird thinks of another breeze
and the trade winds soft through the sighing trees
and the fat worms waiting on a dawn bright lawn
and he names the sky his own

But a caged bird stands on the grave of dreams
his shadow shouts on a nightmare scream
his wings are clipped and his feet are tied
so he opens his throat to sing.

The caged bird sings
with a fearful trill
of things unknown
but longed for still
and his tune is heard
on the distant hill
for the caged bird
sings of freedom.

 

The Human’s Higher Right

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Paul Lawrence Dunbar

If

by Paul Lawrence Dunbar (1872 – 1906)

If life were but a dream, my Love,
And death the waking time;
If day had not a beam, my Love,
And night had not a rhyme,—

A barren, barren world were this

Without one saving gleam;
I ‘d only ask that with a kiss
You ‘d wake me from the dream.
If dreaming were the sum of days,
And loving were the bane;
If battling for a wreath of bays
Could soothe a heart in pain,—

I ‘d scorn the meed of battle’s might,
All other aims above
I ‘d choose the human’s higher right,
To suffer and to love!


Slow Through The Dark

By Paul Lawrence Dunbar

Slow moves the pageant of a climbing race;
Their footsteps drag far, far below the height,
And, unprevailing by their utmost might,
Seem faltering downward from each hard won place.
No strange, swift-sprung exception we; we trace
A devious way thro’ dim, uncertain light,–
Our hope, through the long vistaed years, a sight
Of that our Captain’s soul sees face to face.
Who, faithless, faltering that the road is steep,
Now raiseth up his drear insistent cry?
Who stoppeth here to spend a while in sleep
Or curseth that the storm obscures the sky?
Heed not the darkness round you, dull and deep;
The clouds grow thickest when the summit’s nigh.