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Thursday, February 09, 2017

Poetry Friday--Black History Month

February is Black History Month and for today, and the next two Fridays, I'll be featuring a black poet. Today let's look at a little-known poet, Paul Laurence Dunbar, 1872-1906. Perhaps Dunbar would be better known if he hadn't died of tuberculosis, cutting short his career in his early thirties. To learn more about Dunbar borrow this recent addition to the children's biography section, Jump Back, Paul: The Life and Poems of Paul Laurence Dunbar, written by Sally Derby and illustrated by Sean Qualls [J B DUN].

There is a line from one of Dunbar's poems that is more famous than the man who wrote it and is frequently thought of as being written by another poet. That line is, "I know why the caged bird sings," and the other poet is Maya Angelou, who titled her autobiography, I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings [B ANG, AB/CD B ANG, also eBook].

Here is Dunbar's poem, which you can find in Jump Back, Paul:

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!

The poem is also found at the Library of Congress blog, "From the Catbird Seat," in a post titled, "The Caged Bird Sings: Paul Laurence Dunbar at the Library of Congress."

Visit Katie at The Logonauts for the Poetry Friday Round-Up.


  1. Wow. What a powerful poem. Thanks for sharing and for introducing me to Paul Dunbar.

  2. Paul Dunbar is new to me, as well. How very sad - he would've been roughly the same age as I am when his life was cut short, who knows what else he still had to create and share? Still, what an inspiration to have left such a mark in so little time.

  3. Thank you for sharing about Dunbar. It's a welcome introduction.

    1. I hope you'll look for more.

  4. Powerful, moving poem. An unforgettable metaphor. Timeless. Universal. There are many cages in life. Thank you for posting this poem, for reminding me of it.

    1. There is no misinterpreting that metaphor.

  5. Very moving poem. I am happy to learn about this poet.

    1. Glad to lead the way to discovery!

  6. Wow, you taught me something new today. I had no idea "I know why the caged bird sings" was Dunbar's line. Wonderful to read the whole poem.

    1. I would venture to guess that 99 out of 100 people don't know the line came from Dunbar.

  7. Oh, my goodness. Thank you for sharing this new-to-me poem!

  8. What a lesson. Thank you for sharing, Always grateful to learn.

  9. Delightful post! Thank you for blending Black History month and poetry. I love it!

  10. "Jump Back Paul," I definitely want to check out this book on Paul Lawrence Dunbar's poetry! Funny so many of us know that line, "I know why the caged bird sings!" but didn't know it was his. Thanks for this informative and enlightening review!