Tuesday, May 29, 2012

Noting Differences between Black Poets, Black Poets & Black Poets

Maybe it's a sign about the rich diversity of the field that the phrase "black poetry" can signal so many different kinds of literary artists. When the subject of black poetry comes up among my colleagues and students, poems by people like Langston Hughes, Gwendolyn Brooks, Paul Laurence Dunbar, and Margaret Walker are discussed. My colleagues will also mention folks such as Robert Hayden and Lucille Clifton, while my students will ask about Nikki Giovanni and Maya Angelou.

A relatively small number of my colleagues and students have read volumes by contemporary black poets like  Elizabeth Alexander, Terrance Hayes, Tracy K. Smith, and Kevin Young. My friends who are contemporary poets themselves, however, are quite familiar with those four poets as well as many others like Cornelius Eady, Marilyn Nelson, Harryette Mullen, and Natasha Trethewey.

Many of the people well-versed on those poets are generally less deep on the spoken word scene, and so are not as familiar with works by Jessica care Moore, Saul Williams, Tracie Morris, and the legions of local artists in various cities.

I write about and study figures who emerged during the black arts era, so it's fascinating that in some contexts, I have extended conversations about contemporary works by Amiri Baraka, Sonia Sanchez, Eugene B. Redmond, Quincy Troupe, and Jayne Cortez, and yet those poets do not come up in some other contexts and conversations about contemporary works by Nikky Finney, Yusef Komunyakaa,  and Rita Dove.    

The differences between these various strands of black poetry and poets are generational, geographic, medium-based (i.e. print, performance, etc.), and ideological, to name a few. There are, by the way, a number of artists whose work cross-over. You're likely to hear discussion of Amiri Baraka, for example, in multiple contexts. Maya Angelou and Nikki Giovanni, more than any others, are most likely to be known by large numbers of non-poets.

The wide, wide world of black poetry is expansive, diverse, and always, it seems, shifting in various ways.


Cathleen Bailey said...

This observation would hold true for, example, white poetry as in European American poets according to generational, geographic, medium-based, etc. points of view. I agree, what this post does for readers, however, is name names. The number of African American poets is large and diverse.

Anonymous said...

Well, Rita Dove wrote a famous poem about Haki Madhubuti,, so the BAM does often come up in discussion about her. Plus she included Amiri Baraka in her new anthology, shocking everybody, from Helen Vendler to me.

I do think that poets these days seem to be less interested in the BAM than in earlier poets, esp. Gwendolyn Brooks (Elizabeth Bishop, Major Jackson etc).

I think we could really use a new anthology of the BAM poetry that has the guts to make an aesthetic case for its selections. One of you academics take up that job!!