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.

Originally Published: May 27th, 2009

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...

  1. May 27, 2009

    Good article, Annie Finch. It catches my attention.\r

    You bring attention to Dunbar's dialect poems, what he made in African-American patois of the time and region. What you may or may not know is that those dialect poems of his were forced on him by poetry editors to whom he submitted his poetry. Regionalism was in vogue in those years, in large part thanks to a certain Virginian by the name of Thomas Nelson Page. Dunbar, a son of a slave, was expected to write in a certain dialect. He hated it. And the older he got the more he hated it. I've always figured his revenge was to out-formal formalists. But Dunbar wasn't just a good poet, a good technician. He had a soul that still sweetens.\r


  2. May 27, 2009
     Kwame Dawes

    Nice one Annie Finch.\r

    Dunbar's technical skills are formidable, and his work is stronger for te rich contradictions that we find in the work--his self-loathing, insecurity, arrogance, pleasure in language, ambition and a shadowy sense of tragedy. Like all of us, he hurt and was hurt. His poems manage to find their way there. I don't think he hated the dialect poems as much as he hated being defined by them. There is achievement there, too, but there is also embarrassment and shame. Placed beside the work of a near contemporary. Claude McKay, whose "Constable Ballads"--dialect poems from Jamaica appeared very early in the century, we begin to understand that these poets were struggling with language and self. \r

    Dunbar is worth discovering, no two ways about it.

  3. May 27, 2009
     Nic Sebastian

    thanks for this

  4. May 27, 2009
     Annie Finch

    Thanks, Kwame and Terreson! Struggles with language and identity, exactly, and made more philosophically complex by the fact that Dunbar also experimented in other dialects, including a poem in German-English dialect about beer; then there is his strong affinity for James Whitcomb Riley, who often wrote in white midwestern dialect. . . Here's a link to an essay on the subject, including quotes from an interview with Dunbar:\r

  5. May 27, 2009
     Michael J

    I dig this.

  6. May 28, 2009
     Robin Kemp

    I'm reminded of Marilyn Nelson's excellent essay "Owning the Masters."

  7. May 28, 2009
     Bradley Paul

    Just a little piece of trivia to add:\r

    One of the historically black high schools in my hometown of Baltimore is Paul Laurence Dunbar High School; their teams are named the "Poets." It's always a little stirring to see kids in town walking around in the t-shirts that say "Poet Pride."

  8. May 28, 2009
     Colin Ward

    but a prayer that it sends from its heart’s deep core,"\r

    This, coupled with Bradley Paul's mention of "historically black", makes me think of this:\r

    Amazing Grace - Wintley Phipps\r\r


  9. May 28, 2009

    I love imagining the Dunbar Poets football team! I'm guessing that Dunbar and Sandburg were the last generation of poets to have high schools named after them. Would be curious to know otherwise.\r

    Dunbar's experimenting in dialects other than African-American fits in with the datum that he was not only a poet, but also a songwriter and writer of musicals. Writers of light verse and song lyrics frequently crossed over from one to the other in that period (from W. S. Gilbert to Ogden Nash); and, as "Under the Bamboo Tree" exemplifies (discussed recently on another thread), dialect songs have been a staple of pop music since Stephen Foster. Irving Berlin's first song was in Italian-American dialect; he wrote a lot in Yiddish-American dialect and other dialects too. Frank Zappa's "Valley Girls" is a dialect song. Dunbar's chagrin at feeling pushed into writing in dialect may be contrasted with the apotheosis of hip hop -- African-American dialect verse winning the marketplace and a substantial portion of the critical acclaim.\r

    Thanks for the post, Annie. You urged me to pick up an anthology of African-American poetry, where I found this, by Anne Spencer (1882-1975), titled, "Dunbar":\r

    Ah, how poets sing and die!\r
    Make one song and Heaven takes it;\r
    Have one heart and Beauty breaks it;\r
    Chatterton, Shelley, Keats and I --\r
    Ah, how poets sing and die!

  10. May 28, 2009
     Annie FInch

    I wonder what kinds of chants the Poets have for their games... Wonderful find by Spencer! Didn't Camille post something about Spencer's hometown not long ago? Robin, bringing up Marilyn's essay is interesting--do you mean because of how she finds ways to reclaim the supposedly aesthetically conservative tradition of poets like Dunbar?

  11. May 28, 2009

    Interesting exchange. I am pretty well convinced that the Dunbar case is settled and that to view the case in a light more accomodating of regional dialect, viewed as a value, is false, down right anacronistic. Dunbar hated being forced to work in dialect because he knew that, in the opinion of his contemporaries, it all made him into a good darkie only. His were bad times indeed for African-American poets. What might seem expansive now among poetry readers, this exotica of regionalism, was not so expansive in his day. It was disfiguring. Dunbar wanted to be heard and not typed.\r


  12. May 29, 2009
     thomas brady


    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."\r

    Dunbar, like many Blacks, Women, Irish, Catholics, Indians, etc belonged to the Jingle School. \r

    William Dean Howells, editor of "The Atlantic," and a Realist, belonged to that White, Puritan, Anglo-American Male tribe in which the nation of Letters was ruled not by poems, but by men.\r

    Howells, who is seen in the above quote 'putting Dunbar in his place,' was the sole witness of Emerson's ill-mannered 'jingle man' remark against Poe. (This is sort of like a fiddler calling Mozart a 'jingle man.')\r

    Emerson attacked the Jingle School in his essay 'The Poet,' insisting that poetry was an 'argument.' By Emerson's logic, if poetry is 'an argument,' then we must ask, 'what is an argument?' Replies the Emersonian logic, 'why it is a poem, of course!' \r

    The most respected American Man of Letters (and basher of Poe & the Jingle School) is best known for a proposition that doesn't pass the test of school-boy logic.\r

    But we cannot question the Great Puritan Ralph Waldo Emerson.\r

    The minor, trivial, Jingle School upstarts must remember: We live in an (Atlantic, Puritan) nation not of laws, not of poems, not of jingles, but of MEN.\r


  13. May 29, 2009
     Camille Dungy

    Annie, \r

    Thanks so much for bringing attention to Dunbar. He's an amazing poet, and the story of how his legacy stayed strong in the African American community is equally amazing. If you ask many African Americans over the age of 50 to recite a poem, it is quite likely their go-to poet will be Dunbar. There was a time many a segregated city named their black school after Dunbar. In fact, in Lynchburg, Virginia, you can still find Paul L. Dunbar Middle School For Innovation, named in tribute to the town's former all-black high school. From 1924-1944 (when the Lynchburg library would not admit blacks) the poet Anne Spencer served as the librarian at Dunbar High Shool, making sure the black students of that city had access to quality literature and poetry. You're right, Anne, it's a shame Dunbar couldn't have lived to see the legacy he left.\r

    By the way, Alice Dunbar-Nelson, who you mention in passing, is another poet worth exploring more. Her poems are full of surprises that continue to draw me back for more.\r


  14. May 29, 2009
     Annie FInch

    Camille, thanks so much for providing more of the cultural context of Dunbar's legacy. It's profoundly moving to think how much he has meant to so many.\r

    As for Dunbar-Nelson, I know just a few of her poems, the ones in the poetry anthologies, but enough to really want more. Do you know if there is any kind of edition of her poetry in print? A quick online search makes it look as if there is nothing but an edition of her diary done by the great Gloria Hull. If it is sad to think of the fate of Paul Dunbar's poetic reputation, to think of the fate of Alice's is so much worse that it is hard to even begin . . . yet of course we need to!\r

    Thomas, there's this jingle stereotyping again--it is really in the wind now, isn't it, and feels to me, more and more, like cutting off the nose to spite the face, particularly in the marginalized state poetry is in now.

  15. June 1, 2009
     thomas brady

    "Thomas, there’s this jingle stereotyping again–it is really in the wind now, isn’t it, and feels to me, more and more, like cutting off the nose to spite the face, particularly in the marginalized state poetry is in now."\r


    It's too late. The camel of Modernism is in the tent. As Allen Tate said, "The critic who tells us that he understands Dryden but makes nothing of Hopkins or Yeats is telling us that he doesn't understand Dryden." The field has been overrun, not partially, but completely by Modernism, so that you cannot praise Dunbar without first praising Ammons. If you don't show you understand Ammons, you cannot understand Dunbar. Since those who are sensitive enough to enjoy the music of Dunbar are not the types to even pretend to like Ammons, Dunbar gets no "real" champions who pass the Allen Tate test, and thus Dunbar's obscurity is guaranteed.\r


  16. June 2, 2009
     Annie FInch

    Thomas, I recall a study in which something like 30% of Americans claimed that their decisions of what to buy were influenced by television commercials. But 80% claimed that their neighbors' decisions of what to buy were influenced by television commercials.\r

    By the way, my mother has posted the poem you requested her to post, on the Mother's Day post.\r