Poetic Spotlight: We Wear the Mask

English: Paul Laurence Dunbar (June 27, 1872 –...

Paul Laurence Dunbar (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

This week’s poet was a true milestone in the poetic history of the United States, being one of the first African-American poets to gain national acclaim: Paul Laurence Dunbar.

A native Ohioan, and the son of escaped slaves, Dunbar lost his father at just 12 years old. The only African-American student in his high school, he appeared keenly aware of the pressure on his person–but did not let it, nor the death of his father, hold him back. Rather, he excelled. Becoming the editor of the school newspaper, and eventually, class president (as well as president of the school’s literary society), he proved consistently that a determined soul can achieve anything he wishes, no matter the obstacle.

By the time he was publishing his literature, he was also taking an active hand in the success of his works. Rather than leaving it to the publishers, this was a man that actively hit the streets, earning back his investments and making more than his fair share on the side by selling copies of his works personally. This said, his life was one of financial difficulty as, from a young age, he found himself having to support his mother in addition to himself. Much of his life was spent in debt, even as fellow writers delivered consistent, favorable reviews of each successive new work.

By the time of his death, Dunbar had written a dozen books of poetry, four books of short stories, five novels, and a play. He had even traveled abroad, to bask in the wonder of London’s own literary circuit. He made heavy–and engaging–use of dialect in much of his work, though he also proved over the course of time that he had no trouble conforming to the more picky poetic types’ concepts of poetry either.

He inevitably died, as so many others of the age, of tuberculosis, at the age of 33.

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 overwise,
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!

~Paul Laurence Dunbar

Poetic Spotlight: The Waking and Saginaw Song

Theodore Roethke

Theodore Roethke.

Now today I have to say, our poetic guest star today holds a rather special place in my heart. Not because of any particular blood or spiritual connection between myself and the poet, no, but because of more territorial concerns. This week we’re striking the rich golden veins of the 20th century in our hunt for poetic greats, and the turn of pace takes us to one Theodore Roethke.

Roethke was an American poet, a Pulitzer Prize winner (1954, for his book, the Waking–which certainly adds to the coincidence of discovery here, since it’s a full two thirds of my blog’s name), and a two-time winner of the National Book Award for Poetry. Known for his graceful and varied use of rhythm, rhyme, and natural imagery, his poetry was the very embodiment of American artistry. It also happens he came from my own hometown–a little place called Saginaw, Michigan.

The strong nature imagery that often shows through in his work largely stemmed from his own youthful experiences–a childhood raised in the presence of a 25 acre greenhouse owned and operated by his family. It was home, in more ways than one, but even the serenity of a perpetually green world can be shattered. His father died of cancer when he was just 15, on the cusp of adulthood, and his uncle committed suicide later in the same year–agonies that would haunt him for the rest of his life, in thought and verse alike. Pain he drowned in drink.

Yet he was also a man that pushed through the Great Depression. He earned two degrees from the University of Michigan, and turned to Harvard University–he may even have gone down the path of a lawyer if the Depression hadn’t forced him to abandon it. Instead, he taught English for years at universities across the country, until he began to show signs of manic depression. Yet in that time he taught many students that would, themselves, go on to fame and creative wonder. Inevitably, he died of a heart attack while visiting friends in Washington.

Today, the words shared in his memory will be those of The Waking (the poem, not the book). Also, if you read on here, unlike my earlier post at the dVerse Poetry Pub, you’ll get a second little poem of Roethke’s…

I wake to sleep, and take my waking slow.
I feel my fate in what I cannot fear.
I learn by going where I have to go.We think by feeling. What is there to know?
I hear my being dance from ear to ear.
I wake to sleep, and take my waking slow.Of those so close beside me, which are you?
God bless the Ground! I shall walk softly there,
And learn by going where I have to go.Light takes the Tree; but who can tell us how?
The lowly worm climbs up a winding stair;
I wake to sleep, and take my waking slow.Great Nature has another thing to do
To you and me; so take the lively air,
And, lovely, learn by going where to go.This shaking keeps me steady. I should know.
What falls away is always. And is near.
I wake to sleep, and take my waking slow.
I learn by going where I have to go.

~Theodore Roethke

And as I said, the man and I do hold Saginaw in common, so I think it would be terrible manners of me not to share his work on the city as well. Feel free to think of it as an extra gift for the memorial day weekend too–after all, how many poets can effectively use the word “fart” in a poem, and still have it punch? (And yes, I’m aware some of you are probably now staring at me with quirked eyebrows. Just read on, curse you.)

The Saginaw Song by Theodore Roethke
In Saginaw, in Saginaw,
The wind blows up your feet,
When the ladies’ guild puts on a feed,
There’s beans on every plate,
And if you eat more than you should,
Destruction is complete.Out Hemlock Way there is a stream
That some have called Swan Creek;
The turtles have bloodsucker sores,
And mossy filthy feet;
The bottoms of migrating ducks
Come off it much less neat.In Saginaw, in Saginaw,
Bartenders think no ill;
But they’ve ways of indicating when
You are not acting well:
They throw you through the front plate glass
And then send you the bill.

The Morleys and the Burrows are
The aristocracy;
A likely thing for they’re no worse
Than the likes of you or me,—
A picture window’s one you can’t
Raise up when you would pee.

In Shaginaw, in Shaginaw
I went to Shunday Shule;
The only thing I ever learned
Was called the Golden Rhule,—
But that’s enough for any man
What’s not a proper fool.

I took the pledge cards on my bike;
I helped out with the books;
The stingy members when they signed
Made with their stingy looks,—
The largest contributors came
From the town’s biggest crooks.

In Saginaw, in Saginaw,
There’s never a household fart,
For if it did occur,
It would blow the place apart,—
I met a woman who could break wind
And she is my sweet-heart.

O, I’m the genius of the world,—
Of that you can be sure,
But alas, alack, and me achin’ back,
I’m often a drunken boor;
But when I die—and that won’t be soon—
I’ll sing with dear Tom Moore,
With that lovely man, Tom Moore.


My father never used a stick,
He slapped me with his hand;
He was a Prussian through and through
And knew how to command;
I ran behind him every day
He walked our greenhouse land.

I saw a figure in a cloud,
A child upon her breast,
And it was O, my mother O,
And she was half-undressed,
All women, O, are beautiful
When they are half-undressed.

Poetic Spotlight: O Me! O Life!

Walt Whitman, image care of Wikimedia Commons.

Well, this week’s certainly been an eventful one. In case you hadn’t heard, on Monday I joined the fine folks at dVerse Poetry Pub with a new segment called “Pretzels and Bullfights” – if you’re having a little trouble with the name, just think of Hemingway and all will make sense again. It is, essentially, what I’ve already been doing here for several weeks on Thursdays – Poets and Poems of the week. Good stuff, with what I hope will be a lot of involvement from you, that wonderful poetic community.

But does that mean I’ll stop posting that poetic dose of goodness here? No, sir. Every Thursday, the Waking Den will still play host to a weekly poem, though the readers at dVerse will certainly find them familiar. I’ll be reposting the work here each week, for all those that didn’t catch it the first time around, or for any of you that would enjoy a second chance at the read – or any discussions following.

So without further adieu, I give to you this week’s lesson in poetry, in the form of “O Me! O Life!” by classic American poet Walt Whitman:

“O ME! O life!… of the questions of these recurring;
Of the endless trains of the faithless—of cities fill’d with the foolish;
Of myself forever reproaching myself, (for who more foolish than I, and who more
Of eyes that vainly crave the light—of the objects mean—of the struggle ever
Of the poor results of all—of the plodding and sordid crowds I see around me;
Of the empty and useless years of the rest—with the rest me intertwined;
The question, O me! so sad, recurring—What good amid these, O me, O life?


That you are here—that life exists, and identity;
That the powerful play goes on, and you will contribute a verse.”
~Walt Whitman