Wednesday, May 18, 2011

The Rise & Fall of Signature Poems

In my upcoming book on the Black Arts Movement, I give some attention to black "signature poems," those pieces by African American poets that circulated widely and repeatedly and that helped define the nature of poets’ works and places in literary history. During the black arts era of the late 1960s and early 1970s, anthologies were one of the most important mediums for establishing poets' signature poems.

Between 1965 and 1976, more than 60 anthologies were published featuring African American poetry. The repeated publication of individual poems in the anthologies helped establish and extend the popularity of particular pieces.

For instance, Amiri Baraka's "A Poem for Black Hearts," which celebrates Malcolm X, appeared in more than 15 anthologies during the height of the black arts era (roughly 1968 - 1974). As a result of the poem’s continued circulation, "A Poem for Black Hearts" was inscribed into the memory of black literary history.

The poem contains violent and homophobic language and imagery and thus circulates far less these days. But during the black arts era, it was a signature and perhaps representative Baraka poem in anthologies.

Nikki Giovanni's "Nikki-Rosa" appeared in more than 12 anthologies during the height of the black arts era.

Poems by poets who established themselves decades prior to the Black Arts Movement also appeared in multiple anthologies. Paul Laurence Dunbar’s “Sympathy” and “We Wear the Mask;” Langston Hughes “I, Too, Sing America,” “Mother to Son,” and “The Negro Speaks of Rivers;” Robert Hayden’s “Middle Passage,” “Frederick Douglass,” and “Runagate Runagate;” Gwendolyn Brooks’s “We Real Cool;” Dudley Randall’s “Booker T. and W. E. B.;” Margaret Walker’s “For My People;” and Phills Wheatley’s “On Being Brought from Africa to America” were in heavy, heavy rotation.

How heavy? Each of the aforementioned poems appeared in at least 12 different anthologies during the black arts era. Walker’s “For My People” appeared in more than 20 anthologies during that time period.

By the late 1970s and into the contemporary era, the numbers of anthologies featuring African American poetry began to appear less frequently, and signature pieces loss visibility.

The profession of creative writing and anthology publication changed; poets and editors were less likely to repeatedly re-print individual poems multiple times. We tend to see a variety of poems by emergent poets as opposed to the repeated publication of select pieces.

There are a few exceptions such as Elizabeth Alexander’s poem “The Venus Hottentot.” Alexander’s “Praise Song for the Day,” read at President Barack Obama’s inauguration, will likely become a poem for which she is known.

Contemporary poets are always aware of poems that are popular among poets. For the most part though, anthologists and editors do not display a common interest in a common set of African American poems in quite the same way as during the black arts era.


Anonymous said...

I was involved with selecting poems for anthologies once my mother (Ouida Clapp, Director of Language Arts for the Buffalo NY Public Schools) had been given the task of finding poems by black authors that could be included. I was a college English major home for the summer and she asked for my help with the project. Scott Foresman was among the first publishers to include black poetry. Their criteria was strict: A lot depended on would it fly in Texas and CA (mass book buying states); copyright issues; and language deemed non-controversial enough for publishing in high school anthologies. It was the 70s. Mrs. Clapp was the first textbook author to place this poetry into anthologies. The company asked her after she wrote Scott Foresman (several years previous to their request) protesting a story about Tarzan in her 7th grade class anthology. Mrs. Clapp not only refused to teach it; she wrote a sharply worded note of protest to the company. They kept her name and letter on file for years, finally turning to her in the 70s when multiculturalism in high school anthologies became a desirable commodity.

H. Rambsy said...

Oh...thanks for sharing those memories, observations. I appreciate it.