Thursday, June 13, 2013

Library of America Story of the Week Read-Along 51: Paul Laurence Dunbar, Signs of the Times, Compensation, & When Malindy Sings (#151)

Paul Laurence Dunbar, "Signs of the Times," "Compensation," & "When Malindy Sings" (1897, 1905, 1897) from American Poetry: The Nineteenth Century:

Here's a reality check: Paul Laurence Dunbar was born to two ex-slaves soon after the Civil War--so, not much of a leg up on life--and he died when he was 33, but he still managed to produce some very well-regarded poetry. At least, William Dean Howells regarded it well.

The two poems from 1897--"Signs of the Times" and "When Malindy Sings"--are in black dialect and a pretty thick one too. If you have trouble reading it, I've always found good dialect speaks more clearly. The first poem is a comedic piece with an undertone about a sassy turkey who doesn't know that Thanksgiving is coming, despite all the signs. That undertone--menace, with a touch of cranberry sauce--might be more in my reading of it, since there's really nothing in the bird to make him lovable.

The second poem is not only in white English (I don't like to call it standard, which is a hop-skip-jump away from ordinary, right, and natural--three words I would never use to describe our mishegoss of a language); but it also expresses a very ordinary sentiment.

The third poem is another dialect poem--and why are they arranged like that? This one addresses (first) a Miss Lucy who is trying to sing by the numbers, but can't hold a candle to the untaught spirit of Malindy. Excuse me if that last sentence holds too many cliches, but I thought it appropriate for the "natural genius beats taught skill" setting of the story, especially when it reads to me like a variation on "white people sing like this, black people sing like this." There's a powerful move at the end, when we hear that Malindy is singing "Swing Low, Sweet Chariot," but that's maybe my favorite part.

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