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Mr. Bojangles: poetry and the historic experience

by David Smalling
The song clung to the air with hawk-like tenacity, riveting my mind to its sad litany of biographical misfortunes. Of course the voice had something to do with it, for the voice was that of Nina Simone, and its pathos oozed into the heart, carrying all the sorrow of the song's narrative. Sammy Davis has also identified himself with this song, and in his inimitable way has recovered something pertinent to the black minstrel shows while performing it. Nina Simone has recovered that too, and it is a trope of the tragedy of the African-American experience. No one can listen to either renditions of Mr. Bojangles, and not moved by the historic experience of that poetry.

Poetry is story telling, but not every story told is poetry. Poetry is music, but not every metric sound that stirs the emotion is poetry. The story of poetry is carved out of words and made fluid by its metered lines. This presence of the metered lines does not affect the meaning of the story, but colors the meaning of the poem. The meters act as boundaries which the flow of the words approaches but never crossed. At the end of a meter the voice starts its telling over and over again to the end of the poem. The meter is the reality of the poet's geographical space, his boundary that he creates but does not want to be contained in, for nobody likes a wall. The demise of Mr. Bojangles can be predicted from the meter of the song, for its walls are like his county jails, he is fated never to escape their inexorable presence.

Meter is often defined as timing, for it is in time that we have the reality of presence. Time is the cocoon of the human soul, and we have intimations that beyond it we may become butterflies, but inside our cocoon is another fence, a fence made from the web of imagination, and glistens before our eyes as if it is an external artifact. We get trapped in it and die, but not from the spider's paralytic venom, but from the claustrophobia of being too long in the self. But where else could Bojangles go, for he was superficial to his world; he was black and being black was nothing more than entertainment, alleviating the fancy of a people as a diversion from their own disharmonious life. But the meter of the Bojangles is what makes real this confinement, for there is a constant repetition of phrases that audibly structure the meter of the song. "But" is the inescapable return from the end of the meter to the alternative of starting over again.

The song tells the story: "I knew a man, Bojangles, and he dances for you;" every reader of poetry knows this man who can jump so high and then lightly touch down. They know him not because he jumps, but because "he talks of life." His life is an endless repetition of African-American history in a poem passing as mere entertainment, while it is a literal cry for help that is unheard amidst the garrulous laughter of the minstrel show. It is a detail personal experience that poet tries to tell, and know he/she must first capture the attention before he/she can restructure the imagination. Nobody wants to revisit the sordid detail of their own life that is encapsulated in all our humanity. So the poet construct devices: tropes, figures of speech, images, meters, shapes, to foist onto the reader a sense of difference, strange, and unknown because they are classified as new, and holds the attention. The new is entertaining too.

Watching a child plays with a new toy evoke descriptions of love, devotion, and passion. But wait upon time, the child will son abandon that new toy and return to an old paradox of its imagination. Yes, time; for time is what define the reality of the historical experience. The future is a world we have never entered, for out of the repetition of day and night our tomorrows become today. The only cause of this is the sun doing the same thing again, and again, forcing us who are trapped under its influence to accept the false reality of change. Yet our change is more a clinging to the past than of finding way to cross the boundary of time into the future. Dying is going back to our beginning, and we know that Mr Bojangles is accepting this alternative of life when his dog "just up and died." But the poem must seek immortality, it must not surrender to time and death, for the poem is the told word, and in the beginning was the word. The history of the word is frightening because it is our possibility when we know not  how to be. Yet the poem is, and its presence is more than an existence for it can multiple itself from our thoughts and into a thousand minds, still and always becoming.

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