Monday, July 30, 2012
"New" African American poets & the Canon
When you think about it, relatively few African American poets who came of age during the late 1980s through the 1990s and present have entered into what some folks refer to as "the canon." Sure, you and I could easily name a dozen or more talented and accomplished African American poets who've published important and even award-winning work over the last two decades. But how many "new" poems are regularly taught in American and African American literature courses; how many black poets under the age of, say 50, have works that are viewed as required reading by large numbers of literature professors and high school English teachers?
It often takes considerable resources from publishing institutions and advocacy from several scholars and teachers for poets and their works to become widely known beyond the immediate realms of poetry. Just about any publishing poet will tell you that it's a struggle simply to gain and maintain recognition in their fields. So gaining notice and a solid place within the broader discourse of American literature requires even more assistance.
The last time a notably large number of "new" black poets entered canons of American and African American literature was during the black arts era of the 1960s and 1970s. Amiri Baraka, Etheridge Knight, Nikki Giovanni, Sonia Sanchez, and other "young" writers became widely known then, but also older established figures such as Gwendolyn Brooks, Robert Hayden, Margaret Walker, and others enjoyed even more visibility due in large part to the dozens of anthologies featuring poetry produced between 1965 - 1976. There was also an active and concerted effort on the part of scholars, cultural commentators, and students to get more black writers included on course syllabi and in major anthologies.
There was a major push to include African American perspectives, manifested most prominently in the rise of more than 300 black studies program between 1968 and 1974 across the country. As a result, black poets became known, even outside of the relatively small worlds of poetry. It's worth noting that several poets actively participated in developing diverse literary and non-literary followings by participating in a range of well, literary and non-literary activities.
Over the last 20 years, the rate of anthology production featuring African American poetry has produced. Furthermore, editors are less likely to continually reprint individual poems by poets lessening the chance that a poet will be identified with a signature poem. Today, many of the most high-profile scholars of African American literature are over the age of 55, and relatively few of them are likely to spend their scholarly energies writing poets who are younger than they are. (That's not necessarily a critique. Those leading scholars, a large number of whom were born between the late 1940s and mid 60s, have made incredible contributions to the field of African American literature over the last 30 years).
Right now, the most scholarly and creative energy dedicated to "new" poetry goes to rap. I participate in rap and poetry projects, and have noticed that by and large, the poetry ones have far less participation from younger folks, a not-so-good sign for future work in the area. More importantly, there has been little demand for more inclusion of works by contemporary African American poets in literature survey courses; there has been little articulation on the part of scholars, teachers, and even high profile contemporary poets concerning the many ways non-poets might benefit by reading those poets' works.
Thus, those so-called canons continue to take shape with hardly any input from "new" African American poets.