Why We Sing

As a child, I hated reading nonfiction. It thought it was ‘boring.’ I have since decided that the real problem is that a lot of nonfiction is mediocre writing, including all of the nonfiction I read as a child. But in tenth grade, through a reading project for school, I was introduced to some very well written nonfiction: Seabiscuit by Laura Hillenbrand (Actually, I had already met this one about a year earlier, thanks to a Christmas present), Into Thin Air by Jon Krakauer, and I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings by Maya Angelou.

Reading this book made me look up the poem to which the title alludes, a poem by Paul
Laurence Dunbar, who Angelou states in her book is one of her favorite poets. I fell in love with the poem immediately, and even posted it on my wall my freshman year at UNM. I am particularly fond of the last four lines, which, though I never felt a strong connection to the sound of the poem, rise up to an emotional peak, similar to the music at the climax of a movie:

By Paul Laurence Dunbar

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!

My poem today comes, perhaps, from why I write. It is a work in progress drawn out of a fictional argument with a fictional character–Kvothe, from The Name of the Wind by Patrick Rothfuss–who loves music and detests poetry. I believe they are two sides of the same coin. You can see how this might cause problems…

The calm before the stage.
Words wait on frozen lips.
Instruments don’t play.
Eyes meet in challenge,
as if to say,
Poetry is music,
let me explain:
Play me a poem, Six String.
And I’ll sing you a story
of wisdom and worry,
of a heart that hummed with words.
It laughed in time to the wishing wind.
Now the laughter dies in its eyes
and it cries into the rain.
The rain pelts down into the wishing wind
wishing it could be heard.
But they strummed the humming heart too hard
until it snapped.
And all that it could play
was the slow pluck, plucking of a single string
ringing out to break
the blue-black

Why do you poet?


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