A life centered on poetry has allowed me many emotions that I never feel except in relation to poetry. There’s the thrill of gratitude when a poem is conceived, the anxiety of waiting for a word, the warm breakthrough of the right one at last, the dryness and frustration of the blind alley. There’s the glorious triumph of speaking the remembered words of a beloved poem to another person who really wants to hear them. There’s the savoring greed before opening the covers of a deeply-awaited volume of poems for the first time. There’s the particular flavor of openness at reading a moving poem, resembling openness to a person or nature or art, but maybe even more flexible and familiar.
And there are also more complex composite emotions, rare as particular vintages or blends of wine. The other night, I had occasion to drink practically a whole carafe of one of these rare feelings, and I was able to distinguish many elements of its bouquet: exhilaration, excitement, shock, shame, humility, awe, anticipation. This feeling, experienced perhaps only five or so times before in my life but deeply familiar because of the intensity of those times, has come, each time, from re-encountering a poet I’ve been much too ignorant of, and realizing what I’ve been missing.
The poet, in this case, was Paul Laurence Dunbar. During the 1980s, I had picked up two vintage copies of books of his, Lyrics of the Hearthside and Little Brown Baby. I read each of these pretty thoroughly after I got them home and marked a few poems I liked, including the famous “We Wear the Mask,” looking very humble in its old-fashioned typeface on the yellowing page. Somehow, maybe because I was simply too young, or maybe because of the distractions of the editions themselves, I hadn’t really put the whole picture together. So when I saw a paperback edition of The Collected Poetry of Paul Laurence Dunbar, in a bookstore years ago, I bought it but without much curiosity, took it home in the midst of a very busy time, and tucked it away on the shelf for another day.
Another day came recently, just in the middle of the anapests thread on Harriet. I was sitting in a chair for a moment of quiet after a long day and began noticing the spines of the poetry collection on the shelves just next to me. The gold rectangle on the spine of the Dunbar caught my eye and, too tired to stand up, I eased the volume off the shelf and began to browse with increasing excitement through gorgeously skillful, deeply sensitive anapests, trochees, amphibrachs, dipodics, even dactyls—moving poems, wonderful vignettes, a truly distinctive voice. I had been reading numerous clunky nineteenth-century poems in non-iambic meters, by the Fireside Poets and others, so I was especially alert to these poems’ adept musicality. It turned out that the book, published in 1993, is the first reissue since 1913 of Dunbar’s collected poems; the back cover and introduction are full of talk about “reclaiming” and remarks such as “a reconsideration of Dunbar’s work and influence is long overdue.” So I maybe shouldn’t feel so embarrassed to realize how ridiculously ignorant I’d been of the full range, extent, and ambition of Dunbar’s virtuosic talents until that night.
As I learned from the excellent introduction to this book by editor Joanne M. Braxton, critics have mostly ignored the bulk of Dunbar’s poetry for decades, ever since William Dean Howells declared that the dialect poems were his real strength and said there was nothing “especially notable” in his standard verse “except for the Negro face of the author.” Ever since, the dialect poetry, which is really only about a third of Dunbar’s oeuvre, has been the stereotype of Dunbar’s poetry that has prevailed. I was no exception, so the day I picked that book off the shelf was truly a big day in my life as a poet. My landscape, my landmarks, had changed forever.
Dunbar is truly a formal virtuouso. His poems suggest Thomas Hardy’s in their sheer variety of shapes and rhythms, and his skill with meter makes many of the poems seem completely effortless—it’s as though he is literally singing. To try to scan the differences between his meters can feel clumsy and inadequate, not because the meters are too exact for the irregularities of his lines—as is the case with so many, too many, poets—but for the opposite reason: meters can feel too clumsy to capture the precisely realized and exactly maintained nuances of each poem’s metrical tune. One is reminded of the troubadours, who felt that it would insult their loved one to use a form that had been used before. When reading a poet as skillful as Dunbar, it’s possible to imagine that actually happening.
. . . Kisses are wine
Brewed for the lover in sunshine and shade;
Let me drink deep, then, my African maid.
One night in my room still and beamless,
With will and with thought in eclipse,
I rested in sleep that was dreamless . . .
Ashes to ashes, dust unto dust,
What of his loving, what of his lust?
Come when my heart is full of grief
Or when my heart is merry;
Come with the falling of the leaf
Or with the redd’ning cherry.
I also find Dunbar truly entertaining to read. Like Langston Hughes, he writes accessible, self-contained lyrics peopled with interesting characters, shifting between a full range of moods, with a public touch. But Dunbar’s overall tone is much less urban; he is grounded in the slower ways of the country. So the composite effect of the standard-English poems might resemble Hughes and Robert Frost rolled into one, except that the fanciful sensitivity and extreme sensuality of language add a strong flavor of Keats to the mix. Since these three are among my favorite poets, no wonder I have discovered myself to be such a fan of Dunbar. Here is “We Wear the Mask” again, looking even better here than in its original volume. Then there are the many populist poems on subjects concerned with what the title of one of his six volumes calls “the lowly life,” such as this one on the reveries of age, “When the Old Man Smokes”:
For there 's something almost sacred
To the other family folks
In those moods of silent dreaming
When the old man smokes.
Added to these positive emotions were others that are more bittersweet. I was keenly aware that other people—Hughes, Cullen, Nikki Giovanni, Michael Harper, Raymond Patterson, Lorenzo Thomas, Maya Angelou-- had been having a wonderful time among these same pages before me and recognized too late the hints and clues they had dropped all along the way. For example, I stumbled on the wonderful poem "Sympathy," the source of Maya Angelou’s title “I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings.” Published in 1899, six years after Yeats' "Lake Isle of Innisfree," perhaps it echoes it in the last phrase of this stanza:
I know why the caged bird sings.
Ah, me, when its wings are bruised and its bosom sore.
It beats its bars and would be free.
It's not a carol of joy or glee,
but a prayer that it sends from its heart's deep core,
Somehow connected to my sadness about having missed truly appreciating Dunbar for all these years was the sadness of learning that he died at age 33, separated from his poet-wife (later to be known as Alice Dunbar-Nelson), an alcoholic after alcohol had been prescribed as a cure for his consumption, and, worst of all, believing that he was a failure as a poet. The only poet of note who seems to have cared about Dunbar’s death at the time was the now-despised populist James Whitcomb Riley, to whom Dunbar had dedicated an admiring poem and who sent a wreath of flowers for his casket. What a tragedy, that Dunbar could not see that all the care and love and skill he put into his work would find sympathetic recognition after his death, that Countee Cullen and Langston Hughes would consider him a great poet, that he would be dubbed the grandfather of African American poetry.
On a recent Harriet thread, there was an altercation about the importance of editing, criticism, and other forms of canon-building in making a poet’s reputation and ensuring that the work will remain available to readers. Dunbar’s story seems to prove the point. Seeing the poems in modern type on new paper, in the same format as so many other great and respected poems, helps us realize how much power they still have. And will continue to have, if others are inspired to take further steps in rebuilding his reputation. Thank you to Joanne M. Braxton, editor of this vital book, and all those like her who work so hard to make it possible for us to connect with the poetry of essential poetic forebears.
by Paul Laurence Dunbar
Deep in my heart that aches with the repression,
And strives with plenitude of bitter pain,
There lives a thought that clamors for expression,
And spends its undelivered force in vain.
What boots it that some other may have thought it?
The right of thoughts' expression is divine;
The price of pain I pay for it has bought it,
I care not who lays claim to it -- 't is mine!
And yet not mine until it be delivered;
The manner of its birth shall prove the test.
Alas, alas, my rock of pride is shivered -
I beat my brow -- the thought still unexpressed.
Annie Finch is the author or editor of more than twenty books of poetry, plays, translation, literary essays, textbooks, and anthologies, including the poetry collections Eve (1997), Calendars (2003), and Spells: New and Selected Poems (2012), and the long poems The Encyclopedia of Scotland (1982) and Among the Goddesses: An Epic...