Wrestling with the Language: Dialect and Form in Paul Laurence Dunbar
In every volume of poetry Paul Laurence Dunbar published, sonnets coexist with their seeming poetic opposite, dialect verse. As a matter of audience and prestige, sonnets and dialect poetry inhabit very different realms. Yet Dunbar’s meticulous attention to the craft of dialect poetry—his attention to meter and tradition, his careful revisions over time, his experience grappling with phonemes, graphemes, apocope, and aphaeresis—was never far from his interest in sonnet writing. “I am going to try my hand at a bit of a sonnet this afternoon,” Dunbar wrote to his fiancée Alice Moore in 1898; “I wrote a darkey dialect love-poem yesterday called ‘Dely,’ so I want to balance the effect.”1 This talk/paper argues that Dunbar’s revolutionizing of the American sonnet at the end of the nineteenth century was a direct result of his training in dialect poetry, particularly his innovations in orthography, language, and, meter. Dunbar’s apprenticeship with a wide variety of poetic meters and forms—from trochaic trimeter dialect verse to anapestic tetrameter ballads (both in dialect and standard English) to iambic pentameter sonnets—loosened the cage of the sonnet for him and produced the first sonnet speaker with a distinctly and unmistakably black voice. And while both “Negro dialect” poetry and the sonnet have been deemed problematic and inauthentic for African American poetry, Dunbar’s facility with both forces a closer look at dialect as foundational to the African American sonnet tradition.
Hollis Robbins is Dean of Arts & Humanities at Sonoma State University; she recently published Forms of Contention: Influence and the African American Sonnet Tradition (UGeorgia Press, 2020). She holds a PhD from Princeton, an MPP from Harvard, and a BA in The Writing Seminars from Johns Hopkins.