“In a well-wrought song, the text is swallowed hide and hair.” — Susanne Langer
Last night, I had the great pleasure of going to a concert by jazz saxophonist Chris Potter featuring his compositions for poetry and big band. The music was complex but accessible, the playing (especially his solos!) virtuosic and extraordinarily expressive, the concert a meeting point of imagination with instrumental mastery, intellectual depth and emotional breadth. The poems were exquisite and eclectic, including the Greek Sappho, the Indian Kabir, the American Edna St. Vincent Millay, the black American poet Paul Laurence Dunbar and even two by Mr. Potter himself.
My one disappointment was that the poems were sung rather than spoken and their power was lost in those long drawn-out vowels and changing tones. I think it would have been more effective to speak the poems accompanied by the music or tuck the lines into some of the silences or over quiet held tones that then flew out after each stanza to re-express the images in sound. One of the band members had sent me the poems ahead of time and had I not read them, I certainly would not have understood them in the singing— and even then, it was hard to follow. As Susanna Langer comments above, "the text was swallowed hide and hair."
But besides the inspired music and the pleasure of simply being out at night and back at the SF Jazz Center, it was good to be reminded of Paul Laurence Dunbar, one of the first celebrated Black poets in our long, twisted history. Born in 1872 of two parents who had been enslaved, he went to high school in Dayton, Ohio, the only Black student in his class. He became class president and class poet and worked briefly for a Black newspaper published by classmate Orville Wright! (Yes, of the Wright Brothers!). His mother could not afford to send him to college and he was excluded from work on local newspapers because… well, you can guess. He had to settle for a job as an elevator operator and wrote poetry, articles and short stories on the side.
His work attracted the attention of James Whitcomb Riley and in 1893, again helped by Orville Wright and also Riley, he published his first book of poems titled Oak and Ivy. Thus, began a career that included giving readings throughout the country and in England, continuing to publish poetry, short stories and novels. He wrote both in standard English and Black dialect and much of his work confronted directly the horrors and abuses of racism. Fellow poet James Wheldon Johnson wrote of him:
“Paul Laurence Dunbar stands out as the first poet from the Negro race in the United States to show a combined mastery over poetic material and poetic technique, to reveal innate literary distinction in what he wrote, and to maintain a high level of performance. He was the first to rise to a height from which he could take a perspective view of his own race. He was the first to see objectively its humor, its superstitions, its short-comings; the first to feel sympathetically its heart-wounds, its yearnings, its aspirations, and to voice them all in a purely literary form.”
He suffered from tuberculosis and alcoholism and died at the tragically young age of 33.
Below are the two poems from last night’s concert. SF Jazz still requires wearing a mask, but this first poem had quite a different meaning! And wouldn't we do well to accept his invitation to love in this time of unleashed epidemic hatred?
We Wear the Mask
We wear the mask that grins and lies,
It hides our cheeks and shades our eyes,—
This debt we pay to human guile;
With torn and bleeding hearts we smile,
And mouth with myriad subtleties.
Why should the world be over-wise,
In counting all our tears and sighs?
Nay, let them only see us, while
We wear the mask.
We smile, but, O great Christ, our cries
To thee from tortured souls arise.
We sing, but oh the clay is vile
Beneath our feet, and long the mile;
But let the world dream otherwise,
We wear the mask!
Invitation to Love
Come when the nights are bright with stars
Or come when the moon is mellow;
Come when the sun his golden bars
Drops on the hay-field yellow.
Come in the twilight soft and gray,
Come in the night or come in the day,
Come, O love, whene’er you may,
And you are welcome, welcome.
You are sweet, O Love, dear Love,
You are soft as the nesting dove.
Come to my heart and bring it to rest
As the bird flies home to its welcome nest.
Come when my heart is full of grief
Or when my heart is merry;
Come with the falling of the leaf
Or with the redd’ning cherry.
Come when the year’s first blossom blows,
Come when the summer gleams and glows,
Come with the winter’s drifting snows,
And you are welcome, welcome.