We had a little trouble in class this morning while discussing Paul Laurence Dunbar's poem "A Cabin Tale" (read it here). It's not Dunbar's best work but it's an excellent example of the kindly-slave-telling-trickster-tales genre popularized by Joel Chandler Harris. Our problem first arises when we encounter "a ole black bah" that "used to live 'roun' hyeah somewhah." What, pray tell, is a "bah"? One student interpreted "bah" as "boy," which adds a surreal twist to the poem, and others assumed from context that it was some sort of large animal but couldn't figure out what kind.
It's a bear, of course, but I sympathize with my students: Dunbar's dialect verse tosses so many obstacles in the way of comprehension that we have to wonder why anyone would write it (or read it). Which is why I told them about James Whitcomb Riley.
All you really need to know about the aesthetic judgment of American readers in the 1890s is that they propelled Riley to the kind of fame and fortune that most poets can only dream of. Riley appealed to readers with sentimental rhyming verse full of nostalgia for a lost pastoral innocence, like "The Old Swimmin' Hole" (here) and "When the Frost is on the Punkin" (here), along with dialect verse told in the voice of a child, like "Our Hired Girl" (here) and "Little Orphant Annie" (here).
Riley was also the perpetrator of what may well be the worst poem ever written by a professional poet: "The Happy Little Cripple" (read it here, if you dare), a heartwarming bit of jingly-jangly verse glossing lightly over the plight of a crippled child abandoned by his father (a violent drunk) and living with his weepy aunt. You'll laugh, you'll cry, you'll toss your cookies when you see Riley's skill in rhyming "cryin'" with "curvature of the spine." If there's a more execrable poem out there, I'd like to know about it.
But here's the question: do we judge poets on their best verse or their worst, by their current reputation or their popular reception? The late nineteenth-century reading public gave Riley a huge vote of confidence by buying his poems by the bucketload, which helps us understand why Paul Laurence Dunbar kept producing dialect verse even when his heart was often elsewhere.
Dunbar expressed his difficulty succinctly in his eight-line poem "The Poet" (here), which portrays the dilemma of a poet whose lines touching the heart of mystery are ignored by readers who prefer to "praise / A jingle in a broken tongue." Today's readers appreciate Dunbar's poems written in standard English, but if we imagine the mindset of his readers trained on Riley and develop fluidity in reading dialect, maybe we'll read his dialect poems and respond with something other than "Bah."