Wednesday, May 10, 2006

"Because I had loved so deeply, because I had loved so long, God in his great compassion gave me the gift of song."
--Paul Laurence Dunbar

I used to read that going into the Dayton and Montgomery County Public Library. I went to that library a lot, and I read it every time--it was too good to blank it out through habit.

When Paul Laurence Dunbar was alive, Dayton, Ohio, had three famous people, Orville and Wilbur Wright, the airplane inventors, and Paul Laurence Dunbar, the poet.

Now people might know one line by him, and they probably don't know it's by him.

"I know why the caged bird sings," the title of a book by Maya Angelou is the first line of a poem by Dunbar.

But what does the caged bird sing? Dunbar wrote most of his poems in dialect. The two quotes I've given are not in dialect, but that's what he did. It was a generally happening category. James Whitcomb Riley wrote dialect poems about rural white people. Dunbar wrote dialect poems about black people which included nostalgia for slavery--his parents were enslaved.

It may very well not be my place to say he sold out. If he had written more poems like "I know why the caged bird sings," he would be much better known now.

He felt a lot of economic pressure. The Wright Brothers were friends of his, and they got together a group of Dayton business people who were willing to send him to college. He felt like he couldn't take that time off from working low-level jobs to support his family--his birth family-- he didn't marry til later. So he didn't go to college. He also ended up making relatively big bucks writing for people who didn't go to college, so who knows what is good news and bad news. What he wrote mostly, the majority by bulk, is stuff that is very hard for a college educated person now, however interested in old poetry, to get with.

The Wright Brothers father was a bishop in the United Brethren church, which was like the Methodist Church only smaller. (It had been created to cater to German-speakers in the US which kept it small, though German was no longer a big factor in the church by this time. Wilbur and Orville used their father's pull to get the church press, based in Dayton, to publish Dunbar's first book of poetry. That was a form of being helpful that really worked.

His poetry that made him famous in a period where poets could write popular poetry that everyone would know and be truly famous with average folks. I guess it's partly that poetry took up some of the space now occupied by recorded music, which didn't exist then. So he was huge, Dayton's third famous guy, and Dayton is place where he's remembered. Some of his poems, non-dialect are anthologized, but for someone now to publish a whole book of his poetry and have lots and lots of people read it--that's impossible to picture. Popular culture at that time was awesomely racist and Dunbar's poetry fit in pretty well. Now the bulk of his poetry is excrutiating, untouchable by one and all.

It's corny--that's part of the genre. "It takes of heap o' livin' to make a house a home," said James Whitcomb Riley. It's corny and refers to the good of days of slavery. And it's written in dialect--all those apostrophes. Now popular music, country, rhythm and blues, hip hop, is often essentially in dialect in the same way, non-standard forms--but what is easy on the ears is now very hard to read on the page.

I remember him because I was born in Dayton and spent a lot of my young life near Dayton and little bit in Dayton, and after all others had forgotten him, Dayton kept him as a rah rah guy.

I remember him. I have tried to read his dialect poetry, his bread and butter, in the past and just couldn't. It may be time to try again.

I am not caged, not caged at all compared to Dunbar's parents. I have to find what good free singing is for me.