Monday, April 19, 2021

POETRY SPOT

Paul Laurence Dunbar

From Wikipedia:

Paul Laurence Dunbar (1872 – 1906) was an American poet, novelist, and short story writer of the late 19th and early 20th centuries. Born in Dayton, Ohio, to parents who had been enslaved in Kentucky before the American Civil War, Dunbar began writing stories and verse when he was a child. He published his first poems at the age of 16 in a Dayton newspaper, and served as president of his high school's literary society.

Dunbar's popularity increased rapidly after his work was praised by William Dean Howells, a leading editor associated with Harper's Weekly. Dunbar became one of the first African-American writers to establish an international reputation. In addition to his poems, short stories, and novels, he also wrote the lyrics for the musical comedy In Dahomey (1903), the first all-African-American musical produced on Broadway in New York. The musical later toured in the United States and the United Kingdom. Suffering from tuberculosis, which then had no cure, Dunbar died in Dayton, Ohio, at the age of 33.

Much of Dunbar's more popular work in his lifetime was written in the "Negro dialect" associated with the antebellum South, though he also used the Midwestern regional dialect of James Whitcomb Riley. Dunbar also wrote in conventional English in other poetry and novels. Since the late 20th century, scholars have become more interested in these other works.

Two brief examples of Dunbar's work, the first in standard English and the second in dialect, demonstrate the diversity of the poet's works:

From "Dreams":

What dreams we have and how they fly
Like rosy clouds across the sky;
Of wealth, of fame, of sure success,
Of love that comes to cheer and bless;
And how they wither, how they fade,
The waning wealth, the jilting jade —
The fame that for a moment gleams,
Then flies forever, — dreams, ah — dreams!

From "A Warm Day In Winter":

"Sunshine on de medders,
Greenness on de way;
Dat's de blessed reason
I sing all de day."
Look hyeah! What you axing'?
What meks me so merry?
'Spect to see me sighin'
W'en hit's wa'm in Febawary?


Paul Dunbar, c 1890.


Howard University 1900 - class picture with Dunbar in the rear right

One of the areas of concern and interest for Dunbar was in the relationship of law as both an instrument of justice and as a means of maintaining the segregationist status quo in Jim Crow America. His works deal with scapegoating of African Americans for crimes not committed by them and lynching as an extension of the scapegoating. Despite this, he maintained faith in the law.
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Dunbar’s poem The Lawyers’ Ways, posted below, is an interesting work which parallels what Richard Gere as Billy sings in the song Razzle Dazzle in the musical/film Chicago: lawyers can create images with words the way artists paint pictures, to promote their clients and case, at the expense of the truth.

Give 'em the old razzle dazzle
Razzle Dazzle 'em
Give 'em an act with lots of flash in it
And the reaction will be passionate
Give 'em the old hocus pocus
Bead and feather 'em
How can they see with sequins in their eyes?
   - Billy Flynn (Richard Gere), Chicago

See the clip of Billy Flynn singing Razzle Dazzle by clicking on:

Hear a rendition of the poem by clicking on:
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The Lawyers' Ways

by Paul Laurence Dunbar

I've been list'nin' to them lawyers
In the court house up the street,
An' I've come to the conclusion
That I'm most completely beat.
Fust one feller riz to argy,
An' he boldly waded in
As he dressed the tremblin' pris'ner
In a coat o' deep-dyed sin.

Why, he painted him all over
In a hue o' blackest crime,
An' he smeared his reputation
With the thickest kind o' grime,
Tell I found myself a-wond'rin',
In a misty way and dim,
How the Lord had come to fashion
Sich an awful man as him.

Then the other lawyer started,
An' with brimmin', tearful eyes,
Said his client was a martyr
That was brought to sacrifice.
An' he give to that same pris'ner
Every blessed human grace,
Tell I saw the light o' virtue
Fairly shinin' from his face.

Then I own 'at I was puzzled
How sich things could rightly be;
An' this aggervatin' question
Seems to keep a-puzzlin' me.
So, will some one please inform me,
An' this mystery unroll --
How an angel an' a devil
Can persess the self-same soul?

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