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Welcome to this month’s poetry post! Today we have a beautiful poem by Paul Laurence Dunbar. I first read Dunbar in high school and loved his work. I did a project for English class with his poem “We Wear the Mask,” and my teacher gave me a B, saying I didn’t understand the poem. I disagree, but that was years ago.

This poem may sound familiar to you if you’ve read any Maya Angelou. This is the poem she drew from for the title of her book I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings, which I also had to read in high school. I think I was too young to read it then, but I received a new copy for Christmas, so it’s on my To Be Read list.

This poem is perfect evidence of why Dunbar is one of the greats. His imagery is clear. I’m able to perfectly visualize the poor bird, and I’m able to understand why Dunbar says he knows what the bird is going through. I need to read more Dunbar and jazz age poets. Anyone have some suggestions?

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!

Paul Laurence Dunbar

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