Dialect Poetry

by Wendi Capehart

Dialect poetry is poetry that attempts to reproduce the accents and quirks and speech patterns of people who aren't speaking standardized English. It can be very hard to read if you are not already familiar with the dialect. Older dialect poems can be especially hard to read today, because with the advent of television and radio, regional accents began to smooth out a bit and lose some of their sharpest distinctions. I have read that during the American Civil War and even during WWI, some of the American soldiers from one region of the country would have extreme difficulty understanding Americans from another region.

It might be easier to work through a dialect poem by either finding an example of it being read aloud, or by first trying to work through it and revert the spelling to a more standardized version.

For example, one of the dialect poems of Robert Burns (Scotland) has these lines:

O wad some Power the giftie gie us
To see oursels as ithers see us!
It wad frae mony a blunder free us,
An' foolish notion:

In today's English is might look like this:

"O, would some Power the gift give us
To see ourselves as others see us!
It would from many a blunder free us,
And foolish notion:"

James Whitcomb Riley also wrote dialect poetry. He used the country dialect of the country people of southern Indiana. Here's an example:

The Raggedy Man--one time, when he
Wuz makin' a little bow-'n'-orry fer me,
Says "When you're big like your Pa is,
Air you go' to keep a fine store like his--
An' be a rich merchunt--an' wear fine clothes?--
Er what air you go' to be, goodness knows?"
An' nen he laughed at 'Lizabuth Ann,
An' I says "'M go' to be a Raggedy Man!--
I'm ist go' to be a nice Raggedy Man!"
Raggedy! Raggedy! Raggedy Man!

In today's standard English it might look like this (although we would not call the farm hand The Raggedy Man):

"The Raggedy Man--one time, when he
Was making a little bow & arrow for me
Said, "when you're big like your pa is,
Are you going to keep a fine store like his--
And be a rich merchant--and wear fine clothes?--
Or what are you going to be, goodness knows?"
And then he laughed at Elizabeth Ann,
And I said "I'm going to be a Raggedy Man!--
I'm just going to be a nice Raggedy Man!"
Raggedy! Raggedy! Raggedy Man!

Sometimes dialect poetry makes people feel uncomfortable, thinking the poem is mocking the speech or demeaning the people it is supposed to be representing.

That isn't what good dialect poetry is doing. Good dialect poems are attempts to portray realistically the life, demeanor, and speech patterns of a people the poet loves and holds in warm affection.

Paul Laurence Dunbar's Dialect Poetry

Although about two-thirds of Dunbar's work was in standard English, during his lifetime his dialect poems brought him the most attention and success. But not everybody received them the same way. Dunbar himself was conflicted about them. Sometimes he seemed to be proud of his work, and other times he complained that it was a 'broken jingle'. Sometimes they embarrassed other Black people and made them feel ashamed or embarrassed. But even most of the critics who don't love the dialect poems have admitted these dialect poems really show Dunbar's gift for creating warm, likable, realistic, characters in just a few lines.

Maya Angelou is a well known Black American poet and writer. In her book Even the Stars Look Lonesome, she quotes Dunbar's poem about the Little Brown Baby, saying that where she grew up in Stamps, Arkansas:

"when parents on their way to the cotton fields left small children too young to work in the care of others too old to work, they knew that the baby tenders would recite Paul Laurence Dunbar's poems to their children. Thus, even if a father was twenty miles away, his son would know of his father's love for him because the older person would recite and act out: Little brown baby wif' spa'klin' eyes . . ."

(and she quotes the whole poem).

"Slave dialect" wasn't Dunbar's native tongue, either. He grew up in Ohio. His mother worked hard to make sure he spoke standard English. He was on the debate team at his school. He spoke perfectly straight clear, standard English, and he wrote that way, too. His dialect poems were based on what he heard from his parents. He also carefully studied the dialect poems and deliveries of James Whitcomb Riley, because he took his craft seriously and wanted to be a successful poet, making a living from the best poetry and stories he could write.

Mark Twain had a similar ear for dialect, and Dunbar has often been compared to Twain by those who appreciate Dunbar's gift with dialect poems. Black writer Patricia McKissack wrote an excellent children's biography of Dunbar. She considers his dialect poems "unique, beautiful, rich in ethnic culture, and original." McKissack suggests that Dunbar's standard English poems were not as good, that the dialect poems were uniquely his, and he was at his best when he wrote the dialect poems.

If you're going to read dialect poems yourself, it's good to familiarize yourself with spoken dialect poems. The AmblesideOnline website sometimes links to helpful YouTube examples of people reciting, reading, or performing some of our scheduled dialect poetry.

Year 5, Little Brown Baby

from The Book of American Negro Poetry, 1922

Patricia McKissack says that Dunbar's poem Little Brown Baby

"has become an American classic in slave dialect. It is based on the poet's early memories of his father. In the evenings, before Joshua Dunbar became a bitter and sad man, he would call his son to come sit on his knee. Then he would tell Paul the wonderful stories of adventure and escape and sometimes even tease him about the "Boogie Man," who was supposed to live just outside their door. The love between father and son in the poem crosses racial lines. Fathers of every race have shared this poem with their children, but minority fathers are particularly fond of this Dunbar piece. It represents a black father and son in a loving relationship, something that is rarely shown in American literature. This one poem has helped to destroy the myth that black fathers don't care about their children when in fact, they do; they always have."

Here we offer the poem as Dunbar wrote it, and only as an aid to understanding, not as an improvement, a line by line "translation" for those young readers who are not yet used to the music of Dunbar's dialect poems.--W. C.

Little brown baby wif spa'klin' eyes,
          (Little brown baby with sparkling eyes)
Come to yo' pappy an' set on his knee.
          (Come to your daddy and sit on his knee.)
What you been doin', suh -- makin' san' pies?
          (What have you been doing, sir? Making sand pies?)
Look at dat bib--You's ez du'ty ez me.
          (Look at that bib, you're as dirty as me!)
Look at dat mouf--dat's merlasses, I bet;
          (Look at that mouth- that's molasses, I bet.)
Come hyeah, Maria, an' wipe off his han's.
          (Come here, Maria, and wipe off his hands)
Bees gwine to ketch you an' eat you up yit,
          (Bees going to catch you and eat you up, yet)
Bein' so sticky an' sweet--goodness lan's!
          (Being so sticky and sweet- goodness lands!)

Little brown baby wif spa'klin' eyes
          (Little brown baby with sparkling eyes)
Who's pappy's darlin' an' who's pappy's chile?
          (Who's daddy's darling and who's daddy's child?)
Who is it all de day nevah once tries
          (Who is it all day who never once tries)
Fu' to be cross, er once loses dat smile?
          (to be cross, nor once loses that smile?)
Whah did you git dem teef? My, you's a scamp!
          (Where did you get those teeth? My, you are a scamp!")
Whah did dat dimple come f'om in yo' chin?
          (Where did that dimple come from in your chin?)
Pappy do' know you--I b'lieves you's a tramp;
          (Daddy don't know you--I believe you're a tramp [or hobo])
Mammy, dis hyeah's some ol' straggler got in!
          (Mommy, this here is some old straggler got in!)

Let's th'ow him outen de do' in de san',
          (Let's throw him out the door in the sand.)
We do' want stragglers a-layin' 'roun' hyeah;
          (We don't want stragglers laying around here)
Let's gin him 'way to de big buggah-man;
          (Let's give him away to the big bogie man)
I know he's hidin' erroun' hyeah right neah.
          (I know he's hiding around hear right near.)
Buggah-man, buggah-man, come in de do',
          (Bogie man, bogie man, come in the door)
Hyeah's a bad boy you kin have fu' to eat.
          (Here's a bad boy you can have to eat)
Mammy an' pappy do' want him no mo',
          (Mommy and Daddy don't want him any more)
Swaller him down f'om his haid to his feet!
          (Swallow him down from his head to his feet!)

Dah, now, I t'ought dat you'd hug me up close.
          (There, now. I thought that you'd hug me up close.)
Go back, ol' buggah, you sha'n't have dis boy.
          (go back, old bogey man, you shan't have this boy)
He ain't no tramp, ner no straggler, of co'se;
          (He isn't a tramp, nor a straggler, of course.)
He's pappy's pa'dner an' playmate an' joy.
          (He's daddy's partner and play-mate and joy)
Come to you' pallet now--go to you' res';
          (Come to your pallet now- go to your rest.)
Wisht you could allus know ease an' cleah skies;
          (I wish you could always know ease and clear skies)
Wisht you could stay jes' a chile on my breas'--
          (I wish you could stay just a child on my breast)
Little brown baby wif spa'klin' eyes!
          (Little brown baby with sparkling eyes!)

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