Keeper of the Flame

Dayton educator Herbert Woodward Martin honors the poetry of Paul Laurence Dunbar.

When Herbert Woodward Martin reads the poetry of Paul Laurence Dunbar in Dayton next month, audience members might wonder if they’re watching a performance or witnessing a reincarnation. Martin’s presentation, “A Poetic Friendship: Paul Laurence Dunbar and the Wright Brothers,” is the first event in this year’s On The Road With Ohioana Saturday Literary Adventure Series. Needless to say, since the Ohioana Library launched the series to connect readers with Ohio writers, Martin’s program is an ideal beginning. In fact, he is so adept at portraying the Dayton native, looks so much like Dunbar and shares Dunbar’s prodigious gift for rhythm and rhyme, it’s easy to forget they are not one and the same.

A professor emeritus of English at the University of Dayton, Martin possesses a string of academic degrees and acting credentials. He makes it a point to try to pen a new poem every day, enjoys a good joke and sprinkles his conversation with references to Socrates, “King Lear” and Mark Twain. Martin is a thoughtful, soft-spoken man with a gentle demeanor. But the educator assumes a far different persona when he dons a late-Victorian morning coat and recites lines from “An Easy-Goin’ Feller” by Paul Laurence Dunbar:

Do’ want no boss a–standin’ by
To see me work; I allus try
To do my dooty right straight up,
An’ earn what fills my plate an’ cup.

Martin performs the poem in a high-pitched voice, adjusting his posture and gestures for comic affect, and employing the dialect as he believes Dunbar once did — as a device to convey Southern black culture following the Civil War.

If interpreted by a less erudite or appreciative actor, Dunbar’s iambic tetrameter could easily slide into singsong parody, but Martin communicates meaning by capturing the way language was used. He understands the authenticity in Dunbar’s dialect poems, and his droll delivery underscores the poet’s talent and splendid ear. It also serves as a foil for the beauty that Dunbar coaxed out of standard English in poems such as “He Had His Dream,” which Martin thinks anticipated both the life and death of Martin Luther King Jr.:

He labored hard and failed at last,
His sails too weak to bear the blast,
The raging tempests tore away
And sent his beating bark astray.
But what cared he
For wind or sea!
He said, “The tempest will be short,
My bark will come to port.”
He saw through every cloud a gleam —
He had his dream.

Martin has been linked to Dunbar for most of his life, but he initially did not embrace the association. Born in 1933, Martin spent his childhood in Birmingham, Alabama, where his father worked in a foundry and his mother was a maid. The family migrated to Toledo in the late 1940s, because, he recalls, “My parents got a letter from my aunt saying that jobs in Ohio were paying $5 per day instead of $5 per week.”

As a youngster, Martin was no stranger to recitations of Dunbar’s poems: At black churches, ministers routinely inserted Dunbar stanzas into their sermons; and at Martin’s grade school, the poet’s work was part of the curriculum. Not only did Martin have to memorize and recite Dunbar’s poetry, but classmates also noticed his uncanny resemblance to textbook photos of Dunbar and insisted they had to be related.

His schoolboy reaction: Ignore the other kids and Dunbar.

“I literally suppressed Dunbar and put him way in the back of my mind,” says Martin.

The son of former slaves, Dunbar was born in Dayton in 1872, and by the turn of the 20th century, was an internationally acclaimed poet. Although he’d be labeled the “poet laureate of his people,” Dunbar wrote in many genres and was remarkably prolific. In the 15 years between his graduation from Dayton’s Central High School (where he struck up a friendship with schoolmate Orville Wright) and his death from tuberculosis at age 33, Dunbar produced books of poetry and short stories, essays, novels and plays, as well as lyrics for musicals and an opera.

Although Dunbar’s achievements foreshadowed the Harlem Renaissance, Martin reflects, he fell out of favor among black academics in the early 1900s.

“The rising African-American elite,” he explains, “did not quite understand what he accomplished with dialect. To them, it smacked of being second-rate and uneducated.”

In 1971, Martin was teaching at the University of Dayton when he glanced at the Dunbar page in an anthology and realized the poet’s 100th birthday was approaching.

“I thought, why not have a centennial celebration of Dunbar?” recalls Martin. Given the 1960s civil rights movement and Maya Angelou’s then-recent best-seller I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings — whose title came from Dunbar’s “Sympathy” — the timing was perfect to rekindle interest in the poet.

Of the many writers who came to Dayton for the 1972 Dunbar Centennial, it was poet Margaret Walker who most impressed Martin.

“She read Dunbar like none of the [others],” he says. “She spoke the dialect, and when she finished, everyone stood up and cheered.”

Having absorbed such vernacular during his Alabama boyhood, Martin recognized the integrity and humanity of the words. He began teaching Dunbar in literature courses and read his poems aloud so students could grasp the full range of elegance, subtlety, irony and humor present in them.

Martin embarked on a quest to find Dunbar’s forgotten works. He spent years rummaging through dusty newspapers for poems and probing archives for plays. Those efforts finally came to fruition in 2002, when Martin coedited In His Own Voice: The Dramatic and Other Uncollected Works of Paul Laurence Dunbar, published by Ohio University Press.

Because of Margaret Walker’s influence, Martin also adopted the Dunbar persona that he’s been performing for decades. Audience by audience, he weaves Dunbar’s poetry into the fabric of contemporary American culture, perpetuating both the flame of his genius and his significant canon of work.

In Dayton, where Dunbar and airplane inventors Wilbur and Orville Wright are revered as hometown heroes, Martin is also considered a local treasure. He’ll present his upcoming Ohioana Library program inside the Wright-Dunbar Interpretive Center at the Dayton Aviation Heritage National Historical Park. The center’s exhibits highlight Dunbar and the Wright brothers. And for Martin, that’s pure poetic justice.

“All three of them,” he says, “wanted to fly — the Wright Brothers with machines and Dunbar with words.”

Go On the Road with Ohioana

Throughout 2013, The Ohioana Library Association will sponsor a series of Saturday Literary Adventures, featuring tours, talks and meet-and-greets with Ohio authors. Upcoming events include:

April 13: “A Poetic Friendship: Paul Laurence Dunbar and the Wright Brothers” hosted by poet Herbert Woodward Martin, includes a visit to Dunbar House and the Dayton Aviation Heritage National Historical Park.

June 22: “Back to the Garden on Gahanna’s Herbal Trail” features garden tours, author discussions and a picnic lunch at Friendship Park gardens.

July 13: “Play Ball” at Progressive Field, includes a behind-the-scenes tour of the Cleveland Indians ballpark and a meet-and-greet with sportswriter Dan Coughlin.

Aug. 17: “Lit, Lives and Landmarks: Ohio State Football” features a tour of the OSU campus and talks by authors Raimund Goerler and
sportswriter Bob Hunter.

For more information or to purchase tickets, visit or call 614/466-3831. 

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