Poem #32: The Poet by Paul Laurence Dunbar

Estimated Reading Time:  3 minutes
Book cover to African American Poetry - An Anthology, 1773-1927, Dover Edition.

TitleThe Poet

Paul Laurence Dunbar

Source:  African-American Poetry: An Anthology, 1773-1927. Dover Thrift Editions. Ed. Joan R. Sherman. 1997. ISBN:  978-0-486-29604-3.

Link: You can find this poem on this website.


He sang of life, serenely sweet,
With, now and then, a deeper note.
From some high peak, nigh yet remote,
He voiced the world’s absorbing beat.

He sang of love when earth was young,
And Love, itself, was in his lays.
But ah, the world, it turned to praise
A jingle in a broken tongue.


Short poems, I often have to remember can be just as complex and beguiling as long ones and this one by Dunbar is no different in that regard. We have the two stanzas at tension with one another.  The first proclaiming a singer hitting high notes that align with the world around the singer.  The second indicates that this was not how the singer was appreciated but rather, people wanted his voice to not sing so well. 

A little background on this poem is that Dunbar is lamenting about his own experience as a poety who wrote in dialect and in formal white American writing styles. He garnered attention for his dialect poems but less so than the other poems. Because he was valued for the dialect poem it raises a question about whether he was truly appreciated by audiences since it seemed they only cared for him in a particular way related to his Black dialect. It's a standard trope in American culture.  White culture restricts the movement (physically, culturally, or intellectually) and fails to recognize Black people to be of equal experience and ability. By ignoring or undervaluing his white American writing style and only upholding his Black dialect poems, the culture rejects Dunbar's full abilities. It is reminiscent of numerous times when Black people in the entertainment industry attempt to be move beyond the realm from which they are primarily known.  We have seen this with Muhammad Ali, Kareem Abdul Jabar, Juan Carlos, Colin Kaepernick, and others. White American culture is particularly fearful against such border crossing.

Of course, then there is also the question or consideration raised of Dunbar's aspirations to write and be valued for white American writing forms and raising the question of why he considered that the higher form of writing that he was doing. That probably reflects elements of internalized racism about what literary works could and should be based upon a strong and dominant cultural expectation of white preferences and standards. 

Those are my thoughts.  What did you find interesting about the poem?

About the reflections
This poem is part of a 365 day challenge project that focuses on a poem a day.  Similar projects have included short shorties and photo reflections. Part of the intention of this year's project is to develop a better appreciation and means of reflecting on poetry, something that has never been a strong suit for me.  These reflections therefore do not represent a definitive assessment of the work by me. They are merely an opportunity for me to have a public conversation about what they mean in order to help myself better understand them and mayhaps have a conversation with readers for further insight.  

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