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April is National Poetry Month

April is National Poetry Month in the U.S. and Canada (although Great Britain celebrates it in October) so we will continue to emphasize what is going on in the poetry collection.  March 21st is actually the UNESCO World Poetry Day.

The month starts out with significant additions to our collection of poems by Paul Laurence Dunbar.  Dunbar is one of those poets whose conciseness and clarity of style often makes poetry seem effortless. As is always the case, it takes great effort to be both succinct and memorable. In his short life (he died from Tuberculosis at age 33) he generated a fairly large body of work covering a wide range of topics. 

Dunbar wrote both short and long works whose language is quite readable today.  You’ll find him far easier to read and appreciate than many poets of his time. Dunbar wrote books and essays as well as poems, including novels with depth and arguments on political, economic, and racial issues. Dunbar could write biting satire – like Theology for instance,

          THERE is a heaven, for ever, day by day,
          The upward longing of my soul doth tell me so.
          There is a hell, I'm quite as sure; for pray
          If there were not, where would my neighbours go?

And he could also write poems that would easily be mistaken for other noted American or European authors – a good example is Sunset, which ends with:

While in the south the first faint star
Lifts to the night its silver face,
And twinkles to the moon afar
Across the heaven's graying space,
    Low murmurs reach me from the town,
    As Day puts on her sombre crown,
    And shakes her mantle darkly down.

He could also write a very smooth song lyric, and many of his songs, both in and out of dialect, are still effective today even without the musical setting. Here is the first stanza from Discovered:

     SEEN you down at chu'ch las' night,
          Nevah min', Miss Lucy.
     What I mean? oh, dat's all right,
          Nevah min', Miss Lucy.
     You was sma't ez sma't could be,
          But you could n't hide from me.
     Ain't I got two eyes to see?
          Nevah min', Miss Lucy.

Writing in dialect, by the way, is not easy to do – particularly in English, where our options for annotation are limited. In his many works written in dialect, Dunbar captures regional accents, personalities, and emotions as well as anyone.

About 40 new works by Dunbar have been added, mostly in bookshelf editions of Lyrics of Lowly Life (http://theotherpages.org/poems/books/dunbar/dunbar06.html) and Lyrics of the Hearthside (http://theotherpages.org/poems/books/dunbar/dunbar05.html). Dunbar’s works were initially self published, then after some success, published in several ‘overlapping’ volumes. This makes updating the author index a little messy. The dates cited may not always be the earliest publishing dates, but they are the editions from which the Poets’ Corner text was taken.

 

--Steve

 


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