Friday, October 12, 2007

"Spirit-Wine, A Way of Happening, A Mouth"

Paul Laurence Dunbar was arguably the first Modern African American poet, and it's generally agreed that he was the first African American poet to gain national prominence, partly through poems written in "dialect, " Lyrics of Lowly Life, but also through such excellent non-dialect poems as "We Wear The Mask," which tends to be the one most anthologized now, and deservedly so. It's a terrific poem. In the following poem (far less well known than "We Wear the Mask"), "The Choice," Dunbar (1872-1906) expresses a poet's (guilty?) pleasure over liking "songs"--or the play of words--better than solemn verses that have something to teach, something worth learning:

The Choice

by Paul Laurence Dunbar

THEY please me not--these solemn songs

That hint of sermons covered up.

'Tis true the world should heed its wrongs,

But in a poem let me sup,

Not simples brewed to cure or ease

Humanity's confessed disease,

But the spirit-wine of a singing line,

Or a dew-drop in a honey cup!

I really like the move of turning "simple" into a noun and making it plural--and inducing it to refer to sententious bits of wisdom, bromides. I also like the way he sticks with iambic tetrameter meter up until line six, when he shifts to the more "danceable," so to speak, anapestic (more or less) meter; at any rate, the poem breaks loose in a little dance there at the end.

W.H. Auden, who in poetry played with language in what seems like innumerable ways, came at the issue of what poetry is, does, or is able to do from a different angle in his elegy, "In Memory of W.B. Yeats." Auden writes,

[...]For poetry makes nothing happen: it survives

In the valley of its making where executives

Would never want to tamper, flows on south

From ranches of isolation and the busy griefs,

Raw towns that we believe and die in; it survives,

A way of happening, a mouth.

Poetry for Auden is, momentarily at least, "a mouth," one that drinks what Dunbar calls "the spirit-wine of a singing line," and spirit-wine of a singing line is just such a line, the kind one likes to savor, say, and hear. Poetry makes poetry happen; that's about all we know for sure about poetry, even if we think we know other things about it, even if we expect more from it, and even if we imagine that it can make something (besides itself) happen.
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