Editors’ Picks: The Art of Writing in Dialect

Paul Laurence Dunbar

For the poet of color, whose repository of language is often composed of multiple “englishes” (standard English being only one of them), the dialect poem can become a site of great experimentation–and great conflict.  Best known in the American canon, at least in terms of dialect poetry, are the works of noted African Americans poets like Paul Laurence Dunbar and later, Langston Hughes with his jazz and blues poetry during the Harlem Renaissance.  Dunbar, often considered to be the first African American poet of national eminence, is widely read both for his black vernacular and standard English verse.  The marked differences in syntax, register, tone, and even subject matter that distinguish works like “We Wear the Mask” or “Ships That Pass in the Night” from  “When Malindy Sings” are fascinating to me, particularly because both “voices” are grounded, I think, in Dunbar’s understanding of himself as an English language/African American poet.

Countee Cullen

Equally fascinating to me are figures like Countee Cullen, who, like Hughes, was a prominent figure in the Harlem Renaissance, but who (unlike Hughes) vociferously rejected the use of black vernacular in his poetry.  Why?  Because he considered poetry worth reading to be poetry that was carefully metered, rhymed, and executed in the tradition of Keats and Shelley, his two greatest influences.  For a more detailed exploration of Cullen and Hughes’ differing views on questions of racial representation, poetics, and aesthetics, see the comparative essay “Jazz or Junk?” posted on Renaissance Collage. Continue reading “Editors’ Picks: The Art of Writing in Dialect”

Weekly Prompt: “The Right to Inquire”

Martin Luther King, Jr.
Martin Luther King, Jr. (Lib. of Congress, via Wikipedia)

Martin Luther King, Jr. would have been 81 years old today.  I wanted to do a prompt this week which engaged thoughtfully (in some way) with his legacy—with the work that he began and which continues today—and so I was pleased to stumble upon Laura Gamache’s lesson plan, “The Right to Inquire” (on the Teachers & Writers Collaborative’s web site), in which she uses poetry as a means to link the questions about equality raised by the Civil Rights Movement with contemporary racial injustice for a group of children two generations removed from MLK’s era.  In her three-part exploration, Gamache juxtaposed the big, outspoken rhetoric of the challenges raised in Langston Hughes’ poem, “Let America Be America Again” with the much-quoted rhetoric of Emma Lazarus’s “The New Colossus” and asked her students to write poems that engaged in different ways with questions about the slippery relationship between what we imagine or idealize as “freedom,” and the reality of the matter.

In may ways, I think that Gamache’s title, “The Right to Inquire,” touches a vein at the heart of the struggle for social justice as it continues today.  Who has the right to raise difficult questions, or questions that nobody wants to hear?  And who will have the courage to do so?  In reading Hughes’ poem myself, I was struck not only by the questions that he raises (“Who said the free? Not me? /Surely not me? The millions on relief today? / The millions shot down when we strike? / The millions who have nothing for our pay?”), but also by the broad claims that he lays to the voices of those who (ought to) have the right to freedom, in order to argue that America has not been “itself,” or has not met its own precious standard of liberty, in which the call to equality rings foremost:

“I am the poor white, fooled and pushed apart,
I am the Negro bearing slavery’s scars.
I am the red man driven from the land,
I am the immigrant clutching the hope I seek–
And finding only the same old stupid plan
Of dog eat dog, of mighty crush the weak.

I am the young man, full of strength and hope,
Tangled in that ancient endless chain
Of profit, power, gain, of grab the land!
Of grab the gold! Of grab the ways of satisfying need!
Of work the men! Of take the pay!
Of owning everything for one’s own greed!

I am the farmer, bondsman to the soil.
I am the worker sold to the machine.
I am the Negro, servant to you all.
I am the people, humble, hungry, mean–
Hungry yet today despite the dream.
Beaten yet today–O, Pioneers!
I am the man who never got ahead,
The poorest worker bartered through the years.”

Continue reading “Weekly Prompt: “The Right to Inquire””