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On Pacing

Ludwig Wittgenstein once wrote “Sometimes a sentence can be understood only if it is read at the right tempo.[1] His were to be read slowly. We literary critics who are slow readers may find a compensatory gift, a certain quality of attention, well suited to closely reading poetry. For musicians, the analog, poor sight-reading, could be considered a boon: cautiously stumbling through an unfamiliar score yields a hard-won understanding of the contours of melodic and harmonic lines and details in phrasing and a physical sense of a piece’s range. Along the twin paths of ancient Greek’s lyric into modern poetry and music, meter remains a key common term, with all the dangers of a false cognate. However, another musical measure of time, tempo, is more useful for accounting for the varying paces at which text and music are experienced, and for the gifts that slow, belabored encounters offer scholars. The premise of this essay is that when set to music for the voice, the elasticity of a poem’s time scale surfaces, and that there are valuable critical insights to be gained there.[2]

Arnold Schoenberg’s Pierrot Lunaire is an apt example.[3] The eerie drag of the voice intoning in Sprechstimme turns Otto Girard’s twenty-one brief poems into a recital that can run as long as three quarters of an hour. As a vocal style, Sprechstimme harkens back to eighteenth-century melodrama, but incorporated into Schoenberg’s early atonal musical language its style strains both backwards and forwards into historical time. And obscured in the performance are the hours required of an ensemble coordinating six schedules for rehearsal and retraining musical instincts formed in a diatonic harmonic system. A single art song for voice and piano presents the delights of a more miniature form—often with lyrics only a few lines long, perhaps no more than a stanza or two. While an art song is scored for an intimate ensemble of two, it still takes longer to sing a poem than to read it out loud, regardless of the tempo chosen. Here the inverse ratio of the many hours of preparation and the brief moments musicaux of a performance may be an even steeper gradient.[4]

Attending to the process of composition adds a further dimension. The choices a composer makes about how to handle poetic meter while exploiting the rhythmic possibilities of music, as well as the pitches (dense time-objects whose variances are generated by fluxes in frequencies), demand hours of slow reading. Thus art song layers the durations of several intimate collaborations: the first between poet and composer (who may or may not ever meet, and may, indeed be centuries apart), another between singer and accompanist, and, too, the years of private lessons that shape a composer’s process, a singer’s athleticism of breath, a pianist’s dexterity. This is not to overlook how a poet’s text distills years of erudition, encoding the difficulty that slows down readers of modernist poetry in its experiments, footnotes, and linguistic tripping. Rather, we note that the art song turns a poem into a relational form, one that returns criticism to the scene of public judgment, a collective bargaining over meaning, resonance, aesthetics, pleasure. At compositional, rehearsal, and performance stages, art song entails close study of the poem (with particular attention to diction, meter, phrase, and line) and formal musical aspects (such as melody, rhythm, harmonic progressions, phrasing), as well as the technical and physical demands of performance (breath, vowel placement, register, or fingering). The musical setting may add tension to poetic lines through rhythmic choices at odds with the poetic meter, so rehearsing involves not just close reading, but slow reading, simultaneous reading (of poetic and musical lines), repetitive reading, critical reading. A singer and pianist experiment with different tempi, expressive variations in dynamics, phrasing and the like, basing decisions on understandings of the text negotiated together and on their interpretation of the composer’s musical notated intentions.

On the other hand, individual art songs are often considered minor works, relatively short and scored for potentially amateur ensembles of two, in contrast to the ambitious scoring of a lengthy song cycle like Schoenberg’s Gurrelieder.[5] Consequently art songs by already highly marginalized composers of color are unlikely to be recorded. The paucity of recordings of such art songs has spurred me to build the rehearsal and performance of this repertoire into my scholarship. In studying these songs as a singer my embodied reading practice turns its attention to new elements. I discover multiple occasions where the pace of reading a poem as a literary object must slow down enough to experiment with the minutiae of mouthing the test. I must ask different questions of the poem: whether a plosive consonant attaches to the end of one vowel or the beginning of another, what the difference between the precise pauses permitted for a comma versus enjambment may be, whether a composer’s and a poet’s notated instruction may diverge, and what variant possibilities for scansion emerge in the reconciliation between poetic and musical meter.[6] In sum, thinking through the scalar relationships between poem and vocal setting inaugurates rehearsal for performance as a distinctive methodology for literary study since adopting a participant-observer role unmasks the critical labor normally concealed in the fetishized duration of a performance and demonstrates the analogs between performance, composition, and literary study. In what follows, I will show why attention to race matters here, and specifically how the work of black poets and composers in sounding poetry is especially good to think with.[7]

Dunbar’s Compositions in Black

Paul Laurence Dunbar
Fig. 1. Paul Laurence Dunbar

Suppose we take the poetry of Paul Laurence Dunbar (1872–1906) as an exemplar of fin-de-siècle proto-modernism that invites reading on multiple scales. As Michael North has shown, poets regularly recognized as modernists—Langston Hughes, T. S. Eliot, and Vachel Lindsay—shared a fascination with black vernacular music and dialect, despite their wildly differing aesthetic and political motivations.[8] There is a convincing argument for taking Dunbar’s “When Malindy Sings” as an originary source for this impulse.[9] Black vernacular sound both enabled and vexed Dunbar’s career: he initially gained attention performing his own poems in recitation, and thus they start out embedded in a temporal scaling structure where the tempo of recitation in spoken performances might vary in length according to the public’s attention. Yet recitation placed Dunbar in a bind, and his white audiences’ preference for his performances of dialect rather than his recitation of literary or standard English poetry limited the reception of the latter as surely as the walls of the elevator he operated in his first full-time job constricted his movements.[10] Nadia Nurhussein reminds us of the paradox between dialect poetry’s apparent orality and the demands it makes upon its readers for new and sophisticated forms of literacy. She notes that

dialect appears to have been the main factor in audience interpretations of Dunbar. Listening to dialect poetry, performed well, audiences may identify what they hear as the authentic speech of the poet, coming easily to him. . . . [yet] he cannily manipulated the reception of his split literary personality by performing dialect poems alongside standard English poems in order to demonstrate for his audience the difficulty of dialect poetry.[11]

Such performances could also be read as instances of code-switching, audible moments of double-consciousness where Dunbar exposed the cultural virtuosity of African American speech acts that trafficked across the lines of racial segregation.[12] It is striking that while Dunbar was regularly asked to sound out his dialect poems, musicians seem to have favored slow readings of his poems in standard literary English.

Composers have been setting Dunbar’s poetry to music for almost as long as it has been in print. In the brief thirteen years between the publication of his first volume, Oak and Ivy, in 1893 and his 1906 death, hastened by the decidedly pre-modernist combination of tuberculosis and alcoholism, Dunbar published at least fourteen volumes of lyric poems, along with fiction, plays, and essays.[13] He often worked in miniature, and it is his shortest poems that are most frequently set to music. In some cases, multiple musical settings of a single poem enable a comparative reading among a cluster of critical musical works. These musical commentaries, then, are as susceptible to translation as any other intellection in a foreign idiom.[14] It is not only art songs by black composers that are considered minor. Dunbar’s poetry has suffered from seasons of scholarly neglect, and hence the steady stream of musical settings contribute a valuable body of textual commentary in another medium, one that allows for periodizing critical currents where limiting one’s attention to literary journals would otherwise yield limited data.

Shirley Graham Du Bois’s 1932 setting of a single eight-line poem entitled “Compensation” is a fine example of an art song as an exegesis of a poem.[15] The extravagance in scaling up the word count from Dunbar’s mere eight lines of verse to a three-thousand-word essay is, itself, some compensation for the historic obscuring of black contributions that haunts modernist studies. To trace the way a musical setting might expand a traditional close reading’s insights into a literary object, we could begin with exactly such a reading, and then turn attention to the song.

The poem in full reads:

Because I had loved so deeply,

Because I had loved so long,

God in His great compassion

Gave me the gift of song.


Because I have loved so vainly,

And sung with such faltering breath,

The Master in infinite mercy

Offers the boon of death. (Emphasis added)

Two quatrains, ballad form, in trimeter fluctuating between iambs and anapests. In each quatrain, the abcb rhyme scheme links the second and fourth lines. The rhyme in the first quatrain links long and song, hinting at the lungs’ labor to sustain such song, while in the second breath and death make an ironic pair, even if a familiar one. The near repetition of the first two lines sets up a rhythmic parallel between loving so deeply and loving so long, and in the syncopated parallelism between adverb and adjective, opens the space of vernacular variance in otherwise standard English. Something sounds as if it is missing, but its absence, its aporia, becomes an excess . . . Because I have loved for so long? Because I have loved so longingly? Because I have loved . . . without success, I take my leave with this poem, so long. The second couplet insists on the quality of song as a divine gift—alliteration linking God/great/gave/gift—recalling that old tradition that “voice” is the gift of the muse.

By Dunbar’s reckoning, the poet’s “message,” the semantic content of the voice, is a dead letter: the poet has loved, but in vain. And song is not payment so much as a gift, a consolation prize, a token, compensation, damages, reparation. The poem’s shifting verb tenses make time itself the center of contention, and the subordinating conjunction “because” resonates with any number of ties of subordination, subjection, and hence potentially, subterfuge. The first stanza unfolds in the past perfect “Because I had loved so deeply” and in this fictional time, this perfect past, a simple past consequence follows, “God gave me the gift of song.”

The second stanza, however shifts to the present perfect, and in this here-and-now we hear perfection differently, with a pessimist’s ear for the durable, the Muse’s drudge, the everyday: in this ongoing present, “Because I have loved so vainly,” a God in his infinite, unending, enduring, still present perfect “offers the boon of Death.”[16] The theme of unrecompensed labor bears a peculiar, black weight throughout Dunbar’s oeuvre. Only a generation removed from slavery, he knew well that not even the compensatory gift of forty acres and a mule had been forthcoming. Rather, the poem’s settling of accounts recognizes that the gift of song and the boon of death are never fully extracted from each other. The valences of death as a desired site of fugitivity, even a payment of damages for an always deferred physical liberation linger like a suspended chord. Dunbar’s poem shares the eschatological vision of spirituals like “Swing Low Sweet Chariot,” a fact Du Bois will capitalize upon. Yet a boon is not payment so much as gift of grace, thus it is only in the absence of any true reparation that the sonic scandal of equating song —voice in its most extreme and unrestrained sensuality—with death can be seen as a divine gift. Here, too, Dunbar recognizes the bodily costs of performance, the spectacle of the singer’s body, a singer’s body, a black singer’s body, a unique black singing body that remains haunted by the “scenes of subjection and terror” that Saidiya Hartmann taught us to read in the compelled performances of the auction block and the desperate reach towards freedom encoded in black music.[17]

At Another Pace

Having mined the text through a conventional close reading, what does the reader discover when slowing down to pore over Du Bois’s musical score? In an essay of this length, one can only scratch the surface. First, we see Du Bois intervening as editor with three textual changes. In the opening stanza, the line remains in present perfect “[b]ecause I have loved” and in the second, she inserts “fainting” into the line making it, “[s]ung with such fainting, faltering breath.” This enhances the word-painting, or literal musical illustration, in her use of a falling melodic line with breathy comma between fainting and faltering. She also adds a reiteration of the final line “He offers the boon of death,” but its retreat in pitch and volume from the penultimate phrase makes the repetition more ruminative than emphatic.

Samuel Coleridge-Taylor
Fig. 2. Samuel Coleridge-Taylor

The most significant aspect is her activation of implicit intertextual resonances through the use of quotations from two spirituals in the piano part. “Nobody Knows the Trouble I’ve Seen,” appears in both the piano introduction and the closing coda, and “Swing Low Sweet Chariot” is quoted between the stanzas. Because the vocal line ends each stanza on its highest, loudest, and most difficult sustained notes in the piece, with “song” and “death” both sung on high G, the piano interlude and coda command particular attention.

The African Modernity of Spirituals

Two years after writing this song, she describes how composers of color were adopting distinctively black material as an oppositional aesthetic tactic in her masters’ thesis, “The Survival of Africanism in Modern Music”:

Recently a more mature appreciation and understanding by the Negroes themselves has brought about a different attitude towards the arrangements of Spirituals. With opportunities for wider study and contacts there is the attempt to de-Europeanize this music and produce it in its “pure” form. This does not mean that the younger Negro has any idea of repudiating the study of European music. It means rather that he is attempting to find the original African idioms and to use those idioms for musical development rather than any devitalized imitations.[18]

Her scholarly writing illuminates how her use of the spirituals in the setting of “Compensation” exposes a radical edge in Dunbar. For Du Bois, “Negro Spirituals are not mere songs. They are the products of an age-old wisdom liquefied in the fires of suffering and glorified by the light of Christianity. Truly they are ‘gifts of the Spirit.’” (McCanns, “Survival of Africanism,” 61). It is only through the dissolution wrought by “the fires of suffering” under slavery that the spirituals’ wisdom comes to light in the gifted sight enabled by “faith that the dark past has taught us” (61).[19]

Opening with “Nobody Knows the Trouble I’ve Seen” draws attention to the first lines’ plaint. The sonic topos of slavery is evoked, casting the lyric speaker as (legal) plaintiff and implying that the damages sought are against defaults on emancipation’s promissory note. Du Bois was politically active and would surely have followed the trial of the Scottsboro 9 the year before, so the links between slavery and contemporary oppression were trouble all too easily seen. On the other hand, “Swing Low Sweet Chariot,” quoted at the end of the first stanza, might suggest that the gift of song represents an act of grace, along with the gift of everlasting life in a Christian eschatology. But here, too, grace is precisely where the question of compensation for loss founders. Recall that in legal terms, reparation without admission of guilt is understood as reparation ex gratia, emerging from grace. Thus the complete piano phrase with which the song ends insistently names Christ as an expert witness to suffering, as the melody corresponds to the spiritual’s final lines—“Nobody Knows, Nobody Knows, Nobody Knows but Jesus.” By ending with the repeated statement of damages recognized by the courts of heaven but not the earthly state instead of a chariot back home, Du Bois reads Dunbar’s boon, death, as an unsettled site, and, by extension compensation as an unpaid debt.

Performance Stretches Time

In closing, let us return to performance as another scene of encounter with the literary object. It may be counterintuitive to literary scholars, but the idea of performance as an object of study is not a given within historical musicology. There is, thus, a polemic involved in Vladimir Jankélévitch’s insistence that music exists in time, but also that the transactional dimension of the scene of performance demands attention:

The composer, the performer as active re-creator, and the listener as fictive re-creator all participate together in a sort of magical transaction . . . Music does not exist in itself but only in the dangerous half-hour where we ring it into being by playing it. [20]

Jankélévitch’s translator, Carolyn Abbaté reminds us that

Musical sounds are made by labor. And it is in the irreversible experience of playing, singing, or listening that any meanings summoned by music come into being.[21]

Insisting on listening to the noisiness of musical and linguistic sounds in performance nudges us beyond the paradox of Western philosophy’s tendency to thematize “the voice in general, [rather than] the vocal uniqueness of the one who emits it,” its embodied originator. [22]

Here lies an invitation to let black lives matter, by giving due attention to what a recording of a black performer singing a black composer’s setting of a black poet’s poem represents as an ethical and political avenue for the ongoing work of compensation, or reparation, that iteratively and continually must undo the processes of thingification that Césaire roundly critiques in Discourse on Colonialism.[23] Lawrence Kramer writes of song’s extraordinary capacity to activate meaning:

[a]s the medium of meaningful utterance, voice brings the music into a space of potential or virtual meaning even when actual meaning is left hanging; as the medium of social relationship, voice involves the listener in a potential or virtual intersubjectivity that in some circumstances may be realized in the course of song; and as a corporeal medium, voice addresses itself in its sensuous and vibratory fullness to the body of the listener, thereby offering both material pleasure and an incitement to fantasy.[24]

Given voice in the setting considered here, Dunbar’s “Compensation” becomes saturated with the multiple forms of meaning Kramer describes. Du Bois’s interpretation of Dunbar’s work stretches, amplifies, enlarges, distorts, and infinitely expands the space and time of the black voice. These gifts of song could be profitably extended to other textual repertoires. All that is entailed is to keep up the pace, to read a tempo.


[1] Ludwig Wittgenstein, Culture and Value, trans. Peter Winch (Chicago, IL: University of Chicago Press, 1980), 57. Emphasis in original.

[2] Art song’s large critical footprint lies well beyond the scope of this essay. In addition to those cited here, I have found the work of Mladen Dolar and Edward Cone particularly useful in preparing this essay.

[3] See Arnold Schoenberg, Dreimal sieben Gedichte aus Albert Girauds "Pierrot lunaire" Opus 21, (Vienna: Universal Edition, 1914).

[4] These moments musicaux are my nod to Franz Schubert’s exquisite set of six piano pieces D.780 by the same name.

[5] See Arnold Schoenberg, Gurrelieder (Vienna: Universal Edition, 1920).

[6] The challenge is rooted in one’s audience, and in solving the problem of how to discuss a musical setting that has not been commercially recorded with colleagues versed in literature or notated concert music but not necessarily both. Discussing Shirley Graham Du Bois’s setting of Paul Laurence Dunbar’s “Compensation” required learning, performing and recording her song, and many of the observations here grew out of singing the object of study with my own body and animated discussions with my pianist, Cansu Colakoglu, in rehearsal. It is both composers and performers who enrich, amplify, and add to the possible archives of poetic criticism.

[7] See Claude Lévi-Strauss, Totemism, trans. Rodney Needham (Boston, MA: Beacon Press, 1963), 89.

[8] See Michael North, The Dialect of Modernism: Race, Language and Twentieth-Century Literature (New York: Oxford University Press, 1994).

[9] See Paul Laurence Dunbar, “When Malindy Sings” in Collected Poems of Paul Laurence Dunbar, ed. Joanne M. Braxton (Charlottesville: University of Virginia Press, 1993), 82–83. Originally published in Lyrics of Lowly Life (New York: Dodd, Mead and Company, 1896), 195. One could also note that the taste for Dunbar’s recitations anticipates the early negrophilia often associated with modernism’s emergence, particularly among modernist painters in France. I have argued elsewhere that reading his work as modernist makes sense not merely in terms of our more elastic periodizing conventions, but because his experiments with orthography, dialect, and voicing invite the kind of critical hermeneutics often supposed to have emerged from modernist studies. See Tsitsi Jaji, “Classic,” in A New Vocabulary for Global Modernism, ed. Eric Hayot and Rebecca L. Walkowitz (New York: Columbia University Press, 2016), 59–74.

[10] See William Dean Howells, “Life and Letters,” Harper’s Weekly: A Journal of Civilization 40, no. 2062 (1896): 630–33.

[11] Nadia Nurhussein, Rhetorics of Literacy: The Cultivation of American Dialect Poetry (Columbus: Ohio State University Press, 2013), 138–41.

[12] See W. E. B. Du Bois, The Souls of Black Folk (Chicago, IL: McClurg, 1903).

[13] See Paul Laurence Dunbar, Oak and Ivy (Dayton, OH: United Brethren Publishing House, 1893).

[14] As Lawrence Kramer has argued, a song “does not use a reading; it is a reading, in the critical as well as the performative sense of the term: an activity of interpretation that works through a text without being bound by authorial intentions” (Music and Poetry: The Nineteenth Century and After [Berkeley: University of California Press, 1984], 127, emphasis in original).

[15] Dunbar’s poem “Compensation” was published in the last volume of poems to appear before his death, the 1905 edition Lyrics of Sunshine and Shadow. It appeared in at least venues: the literary journal Smart Set 5, no. 1 (1901): 78; Lippincott’s Monthly 74, no. 444 (1904): 786; and Colored American Magazine 8 (January 1905): 16. Its tragic subject matter made it an attractive text in memorial volumes, including in Voice of the Negro 3 (1906) and A. M. E. Church Review 23 later that same year (1906). It was widely anthologized, appearing in The Little Book of American Poets: 1787–1900, ed. Jessie B. Rittenhouse (Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 1915): 285, An Anthology of Verse by American Negroes, ed. Newman Ivey White and Walter Clinton Jackson (Durham, NC: Trinity College Press, 1924): 90–91, The Le Gallienne Book of American Verse, ed. Richard Le Gallienne (New York: Boni and Liveright, 1925), The Book of American Poetry, ed. Edwin Markham (New York: W. H. Wise, 1927), and was one of eight poems Benjamin Brawley chose to include in his 1936 appraisal of the poet’s legacy, Paul Laurence Dunbar: Poet of His People (Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 1936).

Shirley Graham Du Bois, “Compensation”, MC 476, folder 24.2, sequence 11, Shirley Graham Du Bois Papers, Schlesinger Library, Harvard, Cambridge, MA. At least four other composers have composed songs for the same text: Nina Simone (1968, with the title “Compassion”), Charles Lloyd, Jr. (1977), Betty Jackson King (1990), and Malcolm Rector (1994). And these are a subset of an even greater selection of versions of “Compensation,” which include several by composers who are not Black. As I have implied above, my attention to black composers is both political—countering the pervasive erasure of black classical musicians and the enduring underrepresentation of faculty of color where black faculty at my own institution comprise fewer than 6% of the total—and preferential—these are just good songs.

[16] Pace Harryette Mullen, Muse and Drudge (San Diego, CA: Singing Horse, 1995).

[17] Saidiya V. Hartman, Scenes of Subjection: Terror, Slavery and Self-Making in Nineteenth- Century America (New York: Oxford University Press, 1997).

[18] Shirley Graham McCanns, “The Survival of Africanism in Modern Music” (MA thesis, Oberlin College, 1934), 61.

[19] Du Bois is here quoting James Weldon Johnson’s “Lift Every Voice and Sing,” commonly known as the African American National Anthem. While the poem was first published in Saint Peter Relates an Incident (1917), it had already been set to music by his brother J. Rosamond Johnson and first performed by a Black school in their hometown of Jacksonville in 1900. By the 1930s it well on its way to becoming part of the African American canon, and a formative distillation of the prophetic black tradition’s amalgam of politics and faith.

[20] Vladimir Jankélevitch, Music and the Ineffable, trans. Carolyn Abbate (Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 2003), 77.

[21] Carolyn Abbate, “Music: Drastic or Gnostic?,” Critical Inquiry 30, no. 3 (2004): 505–36, 505.

[22] Adriana Cavarero’s For More than One Voice: Toward a Philosophy of Vocal Expression, trans. Paul A. Kottman (Stanford, CA: Stanford University Press, 2005), 9. The black voice in question in this case is my own, fraught as it is with the strains of a trained amateur. Sound file: “Compensation” by Shirley Graham-DuBois. Voice: Tsitsi Jaji, piano: Cansu Çolakoğlu.

[23] See Aimé Césaire, Discourse on Colonialism, trans. Joan Pinkham (1972; rpt., New York: Monthly Review Press, 2000), 42.

[24] Lawrence Kramer, Musical Meaning: Toward a Critical History (Berkeley: University of California Press, 2002), 54.