Dunbar's work is known for its colorful language and a conversational tone, with a brilliant rhetorical structure. These traits were well matched to the tune-writing ability of Carrie Jacobs-Bond (1862–1946), with whom he collaborated.
Use of dialect
Dunbar wrote much of his work in conventional English, while using African-American dialect for some of it. Dunbar felt there was something suspect about the marketability of dialect poems, as if blacks were limited to a constrained form of expression not associated with the educated class. One interviewer reported that Dunbar told him, "I am tired, so tired of dialect", though he is also quoted as saying, "my natural speech is dialect" and "my love is for the Negro pieces".
Dunbar credited William Dean Howells with promoting his early success, but was dismayed at the critic's encouragement that he concentrate on dialect poetry. Angered that editors refused to print his more traditional poems, he accused Howells of "[doing] my irrevocable harm in the dictum he laid down regarding my dialect verse." Dunbar, was continuing in a literary tradition that used Negro dialect; his predecessors included such writers as Mark Twain, Joel Chandler Harris, and George Washington Cable.
Two brief examples of Dunbar's work, the first in standard English and the second in dialect, demonstrate the diversity of the poet's works:
- What dreams we have and how they fly
- Like rosy clouds across the sky;
- Of wealth, of fame, of sure success,
- Of love that comes to cheer and bless;
- And how they wither, how they fade,
- The waning wealth, the jilting jade —
- The fame that for a moment gleams,
- Then flies forever, — dreams, ah — dreams!
(From "A Warm Day In Winter")
- "Sunshine on de medders,
- Greenness on de way;
- Dat's de blessed reason
- I sing all de day."
- Look hyeah! What you axing'?
- What meks me so merry?
- 'Spect to see me sighin'
- W'en hit's wa'm in Febawary?