Sunday, July 01, 2001

Poetry Clinic: Paul Robeson Sings "The Minstrel Boy"

All right, screw it. June’s Poetry Clinic entry was to have been a noble experiment, but I find myself without the skill or know-how right now—so it’s on to July, to a meditation on American freedom as we near our Independence Day celebration, and to another experiment in form: this one’s a gloss, or an extrapolation/expansion of an existing work. Benét’s Reader’s Encyclopedia defines it thus:
In prosody, a poetic composition which is a variation on a theme. A “texte” is chosen from some poetic work, and succeeding stanzas use a line or a couplet of the texte as the last line or line until it has all appeared in the composition.
My texte is a snippet of the Irish folk song that’s quoted in full as the poem’s epigram. This one, by the way, is great fun to perform live, especially with a drum—and every time I do so, I hear Not Drowning, Waving’s “Crazy Birds” in my head.

Paul Robeson Sings “The Minstrel Boy”

The minstrel boy to the war has gone
in the ranks of Death ye will find him.
His father’s sword he hath girded on
and his wild harp slung behind him.
“Land of song,” cried the warrior bard,
“Though all the world betrays thee,
One valiant sword still thy rights shall guard,
one loving heart hall praise thee.”

The minstrel fell, but the foeman’s chain
could not drag his proud soul under.
The harp he loved ne’er spoke again
for he’s torn its cords asunder
and said, “No chain shall sully thee,
thou soul of love and bravery!
Thy songs were made for the proud and free;
They shall never sound in slavery!”

Burned-cork paint
ringed with titanium white
His grin gone faint
away from the sodium light
His tap shoes are sold and his banjo pawned—
The minstrel boy to the war has gone.

In the burning fields
of tobacco and cotton
Virginia reels
Is he lost or forgotten?
The answer comes on the reeking wind;
In the ranks of Death ye will find him.

On bended knee
with a Jolson smile
He has sung “Swannee”
down many a Jim Crow mile
Now no more step-and-fetch, shuck-and-jive begone—
His father’s sword he hath girded on.

His blood run red
of a political hue
but the house that he lived in is the house that we live in
He was bled, in his own way, for me and for you
But he straightened his back for the firing line
With his wild harp slung behind him.

I’m attracted to forms like the gloss and the villanelle—there’s a freedom in the discipline, in the way it forces me to express myself more concisely. A challenge to write, but also a pleasure—prosody as crossword puzzle.

I’ve shown you mine: now you show me yours.

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