Hello and welcome to our friendly place of poetry. This is Michelle Beauchamp (“Mish”), your host today for Poetics.
As the spirit of Halloween hovers, it had me pondering about masks, their origins and uses. For example, in ancient Celtic times, to celebrate the Festival of Samhaim, ugly masks and costumes were worn to confuse and ward off the ghosts of the dead. The Celts were afraid that these evil spirits would become visible, recognize them and create havoc during their transition on October 31st, what they considered to be the eve of a new year.
Masks have played a part in most cultures in some form including religious rituals of African tribes and Native American healing ceremonies. They have provided protection in battle. They have entertained us for many years in the world of theater.
For today’s prompt, I’d like you to focus on metaphorical masks, or psychological masks, so to speak. Whether we admit or not, we have all worn them at one time or another. We use masks to hide our pain, disappointment, resentment, fear, sorrow, jealousy and other emotions we view as negative. We even hide joy when being sensitive to someone else’s misfortune and our own pride, avoiding the risk of appearing arrogant. We may use them to cover up our weaknesses and imperfections. Consider the masks you have worn or the masks of others. Be real or be fictional.
The following poem by Paul Laurence Dunbar, born in 1872 to former slaves from Kentucky, is a powerful expression of the suffering that can lie behind the facade.
Paul Laurence Dunbar
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 over-wise,
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!
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