A Powerful Simplicity

A Powerful Simplicity

A Story by William Liston

The greatest African-American poet of all time


A Powerful Simplicity: Paul L. Dunbar

Image result for paul laurence dunbar

When I say that Paul Laurence Dunbar is one of my favorite poets, people often ask “Who?” Usually, when a poet discusses his or her influences, they'll mention Robert Frost, Sylvia Plath, or someone else who's well-known. Very rarely is Dunbar's name ever mentioned. Lately, I've read a lot of poetry discussions and forums online, and to my surprise, Dunbar's name has yet to be mentioned. I always knew he wasn't very well-known, but I at least expected one person to mention his name. I even looked online for a list of the greatest African-American writers of all time, and still, his name was nowhere to be found.  

Since Dunbar is one of my heroes in poetry, I feel obligated to help raise awareness about him. He's a very talented poet who deserves a lot more recognition than what he gets. Edgar Allan Poe may have inspired me to start writing poetry, but if it wasn't for Paul Laurence Dunbar, I would've quit writing long ago. Dunbar had a larger impact on me as a poet than anyone. When I was 14, I spent at least ninety-nine percent of my time studying this man. I couldn't stop reading his works. It was like I could feel myself living in his words ― not just reading them but living them. Paul Laurence Dunbar, from his simplistic style of poetry to his masterful rhetorical skills, helped to shape me as a poet and ultimately fathered my poetic growth. Unfortunately, many poets, both amateurs and professionals, won't even learn this man's name. The problem with that is, he's the perfect poet for beginners to read. There's so much to learn from him. 

Don't get me wrong, there's a lot to learn from every great poet, but Paul Laurence Dunbar stands out because he skillfully does what most beginner poets try to achieve: he uses simple language and brilliantly structured ideas to create an emotional impact, all while maintaining a flowing rhythm and rhyme scheme. On this website, I've noticed that many beginning poets do the same things: they rhyme, they use simple language, and they try to convey a meaningful theme. The problem is, when they rhyme, it sounds forced, when they use simple language, they sound vague, and when they convey a meaningful theme, that's all they do. 


Paul Laurence Dunbar had a special talent that many poets lack: he's able to convey meaningful themes in his work while still maintaining the rhetorical effect that every poem must have. Take a look at his most famous poem: 


We Wear the Mask 

by Paul Laurence Dunbar 


We wear the mask that grins and lies,  

It hides our cheeks and shades our eyes, 

This debt we pay to human guile;  

With torn and bleeding hearts we smile,  

And mouth with myriad subtleties.  


Why should the world be over-wise,  

In counting all our tears and sighs?  

Nay, let them only see us, while  

        We wear the mask.  

We smile, but, O great Christ, our cries  

To thee from tortured souls arise.  

We sing, but oh the clay is vile  

Beneath our feet, and long the mile;  

But let the world dream otherwise,  

        We wear the mask! 


One of the major flaws I see in new poets is that they focus too much on the poem's message and not enough on the actual poetic impact, and as a result, their poem has a good message, but that's all it has. It lacks striking imagery, it lacks emotional appeal, and overall, it's just not poetic. Notice how in We Wear the Mask, Paul Laurence Dunbar conveys a meaningful message about human nature, but that's not all he does. The didactic tone is intertwined with a rhetorical one, creating a vivid piece of writing that reflects a haunting truth of mankind while also appealing to the reader. He doesn't just rely on a good message alone to create an emotional impact. Instead of saying “we hide our emotions,” he uses rhetoric and says “we wear the mask.” Take notice of his simplicity. Often, a beginning poet will think he or she needs “big words” to sound good, but Dunbar's works prove that idea wrong. He's simple, but not vague, which is a balance many poets need to find. 


Let's look at this poem: 


by Paul Laurence Dunbar 


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! 


Most (or perhaps all) of my thoughts about vocabulary in writing stem directly from Dunbar's work. I try to keep it to where someone who knows nothing about poetry can understand it, but someone who knows a lot about poetry can appreciate it. When using “big words” in poetry, I do it in a way that's understandablein a way where even if the reader does not know what the word means, he or she can make a reasonable inference based on the poem's mood and tone. That's what I like about Dunbar's poetry, it's understandable. Almost all of his poems make it hard for someone to claim that “big words make you sound smart.” There are no “big words” in this masterpiece, yet no reader can deny the vivid imagerythe ultimate pain and struggle behind each line. 


Lastly, I leave you with this: 



by Paul Laurence Dunbar  


If life were but a dream, my Love, 

And death the waking time; 

If day had not a beam, my Love, 

And night had not a rhyme,  

A barren, barren world were this 

Without one saving gleam; 

I'd only ask that with a kiss 

You'd wake me from the dream. 

If dreaming were the sum of days, 

And loving were the bane; 

If battling for a wreath of bays 

Could soothe a heart in pain,  

I'd scorn the meed of battle's might, 

All other aims above 

I'd choose the human's higher right, 

To suffer and to love! 

** Author's note: 

I just felt like I needed to write something about one of my heroes. Please spread the word. 

If you want to learn more about Paul Laurence Dunbar visit these sites:



Here's another good poem by him:

(Just something I wanted to add, Dunbar wrote many poems using the African-American dialect. I don't like those poems.)

© 2017 William Liston

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Added on August 29, 2016
Last Updated on September 22, 2017


William Liston
William Liston

Get your own valid XHTML YouTube embed code I'm an amateur poet who's been writing for about three and a half years. Some of my influences include Edgar Alla.. more..


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