#4

In music and art, I have always loved great works that reference other great works. Mutual admiration between talented people can fuel some of the best creations in any field. Whether it is a band idolizing a previous band, or a poet taken by a specific painting (this will come up again), creating substance out of thin air is incredibly difficult to achieve. That explains why so many amazing things are influenced by the seed of something that came before.

I would wager that most of you who are at least familiar with poetry know the title and/or first line of Maya Angelou’s most iconic work, “Caged Bird.” It sits atop the pantheon of American poetry with works by other giants such as Frost, Poe, Plath, Dickinson, and their ilk. While I very much love that poem, I decided to select another work that might be lesser known to the casual reader. A work that, had it not been written, might have robbed us of Angelou’s masterpiece.

Paul Laurence Dunbar lived his whole life in Dayton, Ohio. He published 12 collections of poetry, not to mention other literary works, in his short life before succumbing to tuberculosis in 1906 at the age of 33. He had a wonderful command of dialect and many of his works were written in African-American English (AAE). His poem “Sympathy” opens with a seemingly familiar phrase, “I know what the caged bird feels”.

Although the works by Dunbar and Angelou share a common theme and set of ideas, they were published over 80 years apart. Aside from an obvious reading into the immutable situation of African-Americans in the United States this provides, I find the older work interesting as it is a product of a different literary time. Walt Whitman comes to mind when I read Dunbar’s work, and as contemporaries, this makes sense. That era beams with the natural world and how we may fit into it, or not. We are all birds in cages that are sometimes of our own design and often not. This has not changed, only the type of cage and its outward appearance. The poem closes with the seminal line, “I know why the caged bird sings!”

I think that is why Angelou singled out this work which contained the words that would become her legacy. Over a century after they were written, they speak as clear and as true as the day they were penned. Great poetry often has a timeless quality that can inspire others for generations to come.

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Sympathy

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!

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