Reading Ohio: Some Poems

I have been working on this post for weeks. Really. I just don’t seem to know what I want to write (or what I can write), but it’s becoming a burden now, keeping me from other posts, and even other reading. So I’ve decided to just bite the bullet and post it, my random, stumbling thoughts on some Ohioan poetry. (Darn it, Ohio, why’d you produce so many poets? This is only scratching the surface…)

I don’t really read much poetry (AKA haven’t read any lyric poetry since high school). I don’t really feel that I know how to read poetry. I blame this in part on high school English classes and their focus on “studying” poems–it almost seemed an instruction that the only way to read poems was this one way. I forget 3rd grade and the rhymes and amusements of Shel Silverstein. Third grade poetry was fun.

So it was with uncertainty that I picked up a volume of poems from the library to begin my explorations of Ohio writers. It was still February then, and I’d thought that in honor of Black History Month I should begin with some of Ohio’s African-American writers–not a few of whom were, or are, poets. (As a bonus, when I started this, it would also have been aligning with The Classics Club’s February theme–I guess I’m a bit a lot behind.)

I find, flipping though the pages of this anthology (Essential Pleasures, Ed. Robert Pinsky, 2009), stopping at random when a title or author’s name catches my eye, that it is not so difficult, actually, after all, to read poetry. Some is delightful, the play of sounds and words. Some is beautiful in its lyricism. Some I don’t understand. I discovered that I rather liked some of it, the small little stories told. The poems that tell stories I like best–perhaps why I have managed to read some of the epic poems on my own. (If you happen to be curious as to which poems I read, they’re all listed under my 2014 reads in the menu above.)

But I don’t know how to write about poetry. So I share here what I can–some biography, some random musings. My stumblings.


The anthology I picked up had two poems by African-American-Ohio poets, Paul Laurence Dunbar and Rita Dove, both of whom were born and raised in Ohio. There was also one poem by Langston Hughes–his connections to Ohio are less strong, but he did attend high school in Cleveland, and his maternal grandmother Mary Patterson attended Oberlin (the first college in the U.S. to regularly admit black students and oldest continuously operating coed college).

Paul Laurence Dunbar (June 27, 1872-February 9, 1906) was born in Dayton, Ohio to former slaves, Matilda and Joshua Dunbar. He grew up in Dayton, where he became good friends with Orville and Wilbur Wright, of “first in flight” fame. They would briefly co-publish a newspaper together. Although Dunbar had been active in high school activities–debate, school paper, literary society, his race would limit him after high school, leading to a job as an elevator operator. Working days, he wrote nights, eventually receiving attention for his poetry and publishing his first collection, Oak and Ivy in 1892. He continued to write and read at local gatherings, with growing attention leading to a reading at the 1893 World’s Fair. Ohio native William Dean Howells praised his 1895 collection Majors and Minors in a Harper’s Weekly column, leading to further fame. A collection of his two previous books, as Lyrics of a Lowly Life, may have been the best-selling work of African American poetry prior to the Harlem Renaissance. (His complete poems are available digitally HERE.) Dunbar’s legacy is mixed–although praised for his poetry, he has also been criticized for his dialect verses, which some have felt were a sell-out to white expectations and a reinforcement of stereotypes. Dunbar himself was upset that his more traditional poems did not find the same audience as his dialect verses. (BIOGRAPHICAL SOURCES)

“Little Brown Baby”

Little brown baby wif spa’klin’ eyes,
Come to yo’ pappy an’ set on his knee.
What you been doin’, suh—makin’ san’ pies?
Look at dat bib—you’s ez du’ty ez me.
Look at dat mouf—dat’s merlasses, I bet;
Come hyeah, Maria, an’ wipe off his han’s.
Bees gwine to ketch you an’ eat you up yit,
Bein’ so sticky an sweet—goodness lan’s!

Little brown baby wif spa’klin’ eyes,
Who’s pappy’s darlin’ an’ who ‘s pappy’s chile?
Who is it all de day nevah once tries
Fu’ to be cross, er once loses dat smile?
Whah did you git dem teef? My, you ‘s a scamp!
Whah did dat dimple come f’om in yo’ chin?
Pappy do’ know you—I b’lieves you ‘s a tramp;
Mammy, dis hyeah’s some ol’ straggler got in!

Let’s th’ow him outen de do’ in de san’,
We do’ want stragglers a-layin’ ‘roun’ hyeah;
Let’s gin him ‘way to de big buggah-man;
I know he’s hidin’ erroun’ hyeah right neah.
Buggah-man, buggah-man, come in de do’,
Hyeah ‘s a bad boy you kin have fu’ to eat.
Mammy an’ pappy do’ want him no mo’,
Swaller him down f’om his haid to his feet!

Dah, now, I t’ought dat you ‘d hug me up close.
Go back, ol’ buggah, you sha’n’t have dis boy.
He ain’t no tramp, ner no straggler, of co’se;
He’s pappy’s pa’dner an’ play-mate an’ joy.
Come to you’ pallet now—go to yo’ res;
Wisht you could allus know ease an’ cleah skies;
Wisht you could stay jes’ a chile on my breas’—
Little brown baby wif spa’klin’ eyes!

Clearly an example of Dunbar’s dialect poetry. I don’t know enough, it makes me wonder if that was an accurate transcription of late 19th century African-American dialect, or just a “this is what white people think African-Americans sound like” transcription? Regardless, the love of the father for his son shines through. I found it a sweet, touching poem. It also made me curious as to his non-dialect poems. Not knowing where to begin with the Complete Poems, I elected to read “Sympathy,” from which Maya Angelou took the title of her memoir, I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings.

I know what the caged bird feels, alas!
When the sun is bright on the upland slopes;
When the wind stirs soft through the springing grass,
And the river flows like a stream of glass;
When the first bird sings and the first bud opes,
And the faint perfume from its chalice steals—
I know what the caged bird feels!I know why the caged bird beats his wing
Till its blood is red on the cruel bars;
For he must fly back to his perch and cling
When he fain would be on the bough a-swing;
And a pain still throbs in the old, old scars
And they pulse again with a keener sting—
I know why he beats his wing!I know why the caged bird sings, ah me,
When his wing is bruised and his bosom sore,—
When he beats his bars and he would be free;
It is not a carol of joy or glee,
But a prayer that he sends from his heart’s deep core,
But a plea, that upward to Heaven he flings—
I know why the caged bird sings!


Langston Hughes (February 1, 1902-May 22, 1967) was born in Missouri and lived in Kansas, Illinois, and New York, as well as Ohio, where he attended high school in Cleveland. He began writing poetry in high-school, and would later drop out of Columbia to travel the world. His first book of poetry, The Weary Blues, was published in 1924, and was strongly influenced by his love of jazz. He would become strongly associated with the Harlem Renaissance, both for his love of Harlem, and his success as a writer, publishing over fifty works, including novels, plays, and short story collections as well as poetry. His politics would lead to some trouble in the McCarthy era, but he remains well-known and well-regarded. (BIOGRAPHICAL SOURCE)

“The Negro Speaks of Rivers”

I’ve known rivers:
I’ve known rivers ancient as the world and older than the flow of human blood in human veins.

My soul has grown deep like the rivers.

(Opening lines)

I love this one–the images it conveys, the touching on things ancient and timeless. It touches the soul.

Rita Dove (August 28, 1952) was born and raised in Akron, Ohio. She grew up loving to read and write, but didn’t realize that writing could be a career until high school. Her education included Miami University, two semesters in Germany as a Fulbright Scholar, and the University of Iowa’s Writer’s Workshop. She began publishing, in magazines, anthologies, and eventually poetry collections. In 1987 she won the Pulitzer Prize for Poetry for Thomas and Beulah and from 1993 to 1995 she served as Poet Laureate Consultant in Poetry to the Library of Congress, the first African-American and youngest writer to hold the post of Poet Laureate. She has continued to publish; her most recent collection was Sonata Mulattica in 2009. (BIOGRAPHICAL SOURCE)

“Gospel” (from Thomas and Beulah)

Swing low so I
can step inside–

a humming ship of voices
big with all

the wrongs done
done them.

(Opening lines)

I’ll be honest: I’ve had a lot of trouble with this one. I’ve gone over and over and over it, and I just don’t fully understand it. I can tell there’s a story there (I think), but I’m not sure what it is. There’s definitely a reference to the spiritual “Swing Low Sweet Chariot” (all the italicized lines in the poem), and I’m wondering if the rest of the poem is the “thoughts” of the poem’s voice (a character? the poet? a narrator?) in between sung lines. I’ve learned that this poem came from the collection Thomas and Beulah, which forms an overall story, so perhaps some of my confusion comes from reading it out of context.


I don’t intend this as my last poetry reading for my Ohio project, but the genre is so unknown to me, that I may yet shy away again. (Or possibly just read and not post on it. The posting seems the hardest part.) I did declare that I would participate in Richard’s April readalong for The Golden Age: Poems of the Spanish Renaissance, so I’m trying to keep my toes in the water. (And for anyone looking for dead female writers, the poetry in the collection includes some by Sor Juana Inés de la Cruz.)  Book blogging/reading projects: here to make us try things we wouldn’t otherwise, right?

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