I’ve been sick. Also it snowed. Life gets crazy. So this week I’ve got a two for one special!
First, I’ll be taking a look at Paul Lawrence Dunbar’s “The Haunted Oak” and this lovely spoken word poem by two teenage girls. (If the video had proper citation, I would love to give credit where credit is due to these two talented young women.)
Both of these poems deal with some serious issues of racism and prejudice, which is why I wanted to compare them. Dunbar uses the voice of a personified old oak used to lynch a black man to bring to light the crimes committed in the name of racism. The narrative voice switches in the first and last stanzas, from a man first questioning and then realizing the horror and injustice that happened at the tree. The somewhat confusing switch in narrative voice reminds me in part of the two young women switching off the duty of speaking their poem, playing off the other for emphasis as much as for meaning. Both poems have two speakers. In Dunbar’s, the speakers are more difficult to identify, while the poem dealing with being Jewish and Muslim in America today makes sure the listener is fully aware of the change in speakers. For the very change brings weight to their words.
For today’s second comparison, I’m dealing with Gertrude Stein’s “Patriarchal Poetry” (Click here to watch some students recite part of the poem) and the following spoken word poem that I will henceforth call “Dear Mr. Anonymous.”
To start with, I’ll go ahead and say that good feminist poetry is one of my favorite things to stumble upon. So I thought I would love Patriarchal Poetry. I thought wrong. Stein’s repetition and total refusal to recognize regular conventions is poetry is off-putting and rough. But Stein’s use of repetition and inversion of traditional standards leaves the reader uncomfortable. And perhaps that is important. We are not meant to read Stein’s poem and get away with a casual enjoyment. We are supposed to think, to question, and to be brought outside of our comfort zones. This mirrors the effect that “Dear Mr. Anonymous” has upon a listener who is not from a background of marginalization. The speakers challenge the way of life and perceived difficulties of those with privilege so as to discomfort the listeners. They use different methods than Stein, thankfully. Where Stein refuses to match a standard, these two poets fit well into the genre of spoken word and use it to their advantage. I found it interesting that in a genre of poetry generally thought to make use of rhyme, rhyme is scares in “DMA” whereas Stein’s unconventional use of words that both rhyme and sound similar to confuse and disorient the reader.
All four of these poems struck me hard this week. Stein and Dunbar wrote in a context of dealing with marginalization at a cultural level. These two spoken word poems bring to light today how issues of marginalization still run rampant in American culture. Perhaps the encouragement is this: Where there is injustice and oppression, there will always be poets fighting back.