Paul Laurence Dunbar (1872-1906) might have the best poem in Rita Dove’s 20th Century Poetry Anthology
Did anyone notice that Justin Bieber mentioned Phillis Wheatley on Saturady Night Live last night?
The producers of SNL decided to have a little fun with Justin Bieber, who like many pop stars before him (most famously Elvis Presley and British Invasion blues rock bands) is a white person cashing in on a ‘black vibe’ for an exciting (raunchy?) public appeal.
There’s nothing complicated about this.
It’s the combination all of us want: Safe, yet dangerous: I’m actually very nice—but that doesn’t mean you can fuck with me.
Or: I’m blessed with x or y talent—but that doesn’t mean I had it completely easy.
Or, I’m glorious—but love and sympathize those not as glorious as I am.
This is the combining that is at the heart of all social activity and all poetry.
Which is why it never gets old.
SNL wryly pointed out that Valentine’s Day occurs during Black History Month, as they had Bieber, in his SNL introduction, wooing girls in the audience with roses and Black History Month facts: “Did you know Maya Angelou invented the peanut?”
One of Black History’s fixtures, Phillis Wheatley lived and died in the 18th century, was a pre-American slave shipped from West Africa by the British to their American colony, was highly educated and became a famous poet while living in Boston in the care of her affectionate master and family. She wrote poetry like this:
Twas mercy brought me from my Pagan land,
Taught my benighted soul to understand
That there’s a God, that there’s a Saviour too:
Once I redemption neither sought nor knew.
Some view our sable race with scornful eye,
“Their colour is a diabolic dye.”
Remember, Christians, Negroes, black as Cain,
May be refin’d, and join th’ angelic train.
She supported the American Revolution and her work was praised by George Washington. She was emancipated, married a free black, but died, with two infant children, due to poverty and illness, in 1784.
Phillis Wheatley’s story is complex.
There are lives, and even artistic sensibilities, which shame the easy attempt to profit from combinations put together in too contrived and glib a manner.
Rita Dove’s Penguin Anthology of Twentieth Centruy American Poetry has been attacked by Helen Vendler and Marjorie Perloff as being too black.
Vendler complained too many poets—and not enough poems by Wallace Stevens—were included. This is not even worthy of a response, and Dove was correct not to work up any sort of substantial one.
The Perloff camp wanted more experimental poets in the anthology.
But the experimental crowd couldn’t care less for wonderful poems like the one below, included by Dove in her anthology, written by the African-American poet, Paul Laurence Dunbar.
Vendler doesn’t deserve a response; this will do as a response to Perloff:
It may be misery not to sing at all
And to go silent through the brimming day.
It may be sorrow never to be loved,
But deeper griefs than these beset the way.
To have come near to sing the perfect song
And only by a half–tone lost the key,
There is the potent sorrow, there the grief,
The pale, sad staring of life’s tragedy.
To have just missed the perfect love,
Not the hot passion of untempered youth,
But that which lays aside its vanity
And gives thee, for thy trusting worship, truth—
This, this it is to be accursed indeed;
For if we mortals love, or if we sing,
We count our joys not by the things we have,
But by what kept us from the perfect thing.