“I know why the caged bird sings, ah me…” — poet Paul Laurence Dunbar

It’s the birthday of poet/novelist/playwright/editor Paul Laurence Dunbar. The child of freed slaves, he was publishing poetry when he was still a teenager, and went on to be the first Black American writer who gained an international reputation.

He was known (at first) for writing in the “Negro dialect,” conversational pieces, funny and lively, all “local” voices – like Kipling did, like Robert Burns did – and he was devoted to his mission in bringing the voices he knew to the public. He was included in volumes of American poetry, edited by white editors, a true breakthrough at the time. This was how he became known the world over. (He was criticized for his use of dialect, by people at the time, who found it a stereotype, as well as some later figures in the Harlem Renaissance. And perhaps those pieces don’t date well today. They need to be seen in the context of the time.)

He was extremely versatile, though, and didn’t ONLY write in the dialect – some of his non-dialect poems have simple forms – and simple rhyme schemes – but with a kind of romantic yearning – and clarity of expression you can still feel when you read them.

The Debt
This is the debt I pay
Just for one riotous day,
Years of regret and grief,
Sorrow without relief.

Pay it I will to the end —
Until the grave, my friend,
Gives me a true release —
Gives me the clasp of peace.

Slight was the thing I bought,
Small was the debt I thought,
Poor was the loan at best —
God! but the interest!

More on Dunbar after the jump:


Dunbar felt somewhat trapped by the popularity of his dialect verse. He got pigeon-holed.

Fascinating man: he was the only African-American in his Ohio high school and two of his classmates were Orville and Wilbur Wright! The three remained friends for the entirety of Dunbar’s short life. (He died of TB in 1906).

He was also friends with some of the major leaders at the time in politics and literature – Frederick Douglass, Booker T. Washington, James Whitcomb Riley – and along the way many white people in prominent positions in Ohio – a lawyer, a psychiatrist (people with money, in other words) – helped him, financing him, recognizing his gifts. He was married – briefly – to poet Alice Moore Nelson (known by her hyphenated last name, Dunbar-Nelson, still – my post about her here). He had tuberculosis, he was depressed, so that put strain on the marriage, as did … well, he beat the shit out of her. She was also a lesbian, and this disturbed him. Suffice it to say, the marriage ended shortly after it began.

Poet Anne Spencer (post about her here) – who was also a librarian at a school named for Dunbar – wrote a tribute to him, wrapping him up – and wrapping herself up too – into the larger tradition of poetry:

By Anne Spencer

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

Interesting dovetail: Jessie Redmon Fauset, a leading light of the Harlem Renaissance (post about her here)- taught at the same high school, at the same time as Spencer.

In 1975, a commemorative postage stamp was released in his honor.

Probably his most famous poem is “Sympathy.” Maya Angelou took a line from it for the title of her celebrated autobiography I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings.

One of the things I love so much about the poem is that the word “sympathy” never appears in the text. So the title opens it all up, in a beautiful emotional way.

I know what the caged bird feels, alas!
When the sun is bright on the upland slopes;
When the wind stirs soft through the springing grass,
And the river flows like a stream of glass;
When the first bird sings and the first bud opes,
And the faint perfume from its chalice steals—
I know what the caged bird feels!

I know why the caged bird beats his wing
Till its blood is red on the cruel bars;
For he must fly back to his perch and cling
When he fain would be on the bough a-swing;
And a pain still throbs in the old, old scars
And they pulse again with a keener sting—
I know why he beats his wing!

I know why the caged bird sings, ah me,
When his wing is bruised and his bosom sore,—
When he beats his bars and he would be free;
It is not a carol of joy or glee,
But a prayer that he sends from his heart’s deep core,
But a plea, that upward to Heaven he flings—
I know why the caged bird sings!

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