Friday, May 22, 2015

Black Poetry Debates: tracking histories of tension, vs., and questions

African American poets usually gain attention in mainstream news outlets when they have won awards and prizes. And that's important because of how many poets have been winning awards over the last 10 years in particular and also because of how many black poets have been overlooked. But what is often lost in conversations about the "good news" is that there are many long-running debates and arguments in the world, or better, the worlds of African American poetry.

What follows is a list of some of the debates. By the way, this list is not comprehensive (see # 12, #13, #14). Mostly, I have identified topics and debates that have caught my attention studying histories of African American poetry over the last 18 years or so.   

Some of the debates are quite public. Some remain under the radar, whispered among various groups. Some of the debates are interracial (see #1, #7, #12); while others are intra-racial (see #3, #6, #9, #13) and cross-cultural. It's quite possible to participate in discussions of black poetry and never hear mention of these differences, in part because efforts to track the debates have been less extensive than the processes of celebrating poets and poetry.       

I should note that I'm indebted to black arts discourse because that realm more than any other that I am aware of actively initiated, highlighted, and in some cases exposed various debates, tensions, and questions during the late 1960s and early 1970s.   

Everything listed below obviously requires further elaboration, which we should pursue at some point in the future.     

1. Jefferson's vs. Phillis Wheatley -- There were longstanding beliefs that black folks lacked creativity, including the ability to produce poetry. Here's Thomas Jefferson:
Misery is often the parent of the most affecting touches in poetry. -- Among the blacks is misery enough, God knows, but no poetry. Love is the peculiar ;oestrum of the poet. Their love is ardent, but it kindles the senses only, not the imagination. Religion indeed has produced a Phyllis Whately; but it could not produce a poet. The compositions published under her name are below the dignity of criticism.
Jefferson's remarks were often presented as evidence of the racist views of African American creativity and black poets as well as reasoning why African American poetry receives relatively little substantial criticism.  

2. Dialect Dunbar vs. Standard Dunbar -- Paul Laurence Dunbar wrote verse in so-called standard English, and he wrote utilizing versions of black vernacular, or what folks commonly call 'dialect.' The popularity of Dunbar's "dialect" poems was sometimes vexing for him and others because of what it might suggest about the questionable interest of white audiences in representations of supposed "low-class" black people.         

3.  Hughes vs. Cullen -- In his essay "The Negro Artist and the Racial Mountain" (1926), Hughes mentions "one of the most promising of the young Negro poets" (a likely reference to Countee Cullen) who apparently wanted to be "like to be a white poet." Among other things,  

4. Hughes vs. the black middle class -- The widespread celebration of Hughes's representations of black folk culture in his poems indirectly suggests the disinterest in representations of the black bourgeoisie or black middle class culture in poetry. 

5. The issue of privileged poets -- Despite the preference for representations of black folk culture, the increasing professionalization of the field of poetry over the last 25 years in particular has meant that African Americans from privileged backgrounds are more likely than people from less privileged backgrounds to achieve higher "success" in the field. Becoming a successful poet today often requires individuals to earn college degrees, an MFA, book contracts, and awards, that is, aspects of social capital that is more highly concentrated among people from more privileged economic classes.

6.  New Negro poetry vs. presumable old Negro poetry -- Leading figures of the Harlem Renaissance, also known as the New Negro Movement, were positioned (generationally and geographically) as an alternative to an older generation of black people. The label of "new" signal of a break from one kind of black to something else.      

7.  The issue of learning American poetry -- This almost doesn't seem like a debate, but it's an unstated one. People attend public schools, private schools, and charter schools and learn all about American and British poetry. Along the way, it's possible, no, it's common for folks to only come across a few poems by Langston Hughes and Gwendolyn Brooks's "We Real Cool" and no other American poets who classify as black or African American.    
8. Place matters -- The Northeast, and especially New York City, has long served as an important location for prominent poets. In contemporary times, the Northeast and other areas with prestigious graduate schools have also been important for the likelihood of "success" among poets. The significance of place is sometimes obscured because several Predominantly White Institutions (PWIs) in locales with hardly any black people are occasionally willing to bestow high salaries on select accomplished poets and for reading series.      

9. Black poet vs. poet who is black -- Although this issue was alluded to as early as  the Hughes and Cullen scenario (#3), it reached a fever pitch during the Black Arts Movement. There were heated debates about whether poets were black first or writers first. Or, put another way, people debated whether they were black poets or poets who happened to be black.

10. Mastery of Eurocentric literary forms -- There's been a strong imperative for black poets to prove their worth by adopting and adapting Eurocentric forms. This imperative has been apparent since at least the days and writing of Phillis Wheatley. We see it now with increasing numbers of poets completing MFA degrees, which necessarily requires many of them to become aware of the standards of poetry as set in motion by primarily white professors. The extents to which black poets should engage Eurocentric forms, though, raises all kinds of questions and tensions.

11. Mastery of black expressive forms -- There's been a strong imperative for black poets to adopt and adapt aspects of black expressive culture, particularly musical forms and aspects of black vernacular speech. Various African American poets, and most notably, Dunbar, Hughes, and Amiri Baraka are leading figures along these lines. Dunbar is celebrated for representing black vernacular speech, and Hughes and Baraka are well known for incorporating for black music into verse.

12. Who's not included in this American anthology? -- The question of omission comes up about black poets excluded or under-represented in general American anthologies. Often, white anthologists are charged with such omissions.

13. Who's not included in this black anthology? -- The question often comes up of what kinds of black poets are excluded or under-represented in general African American anthologies.

14. Overlooked poets? -- Some black poets become notably irritated and even angry that they are routinely overlooked, omitted, and under-studied. Although invisible to the larger public, the hard feelings among poets and organizers because of such omissions become the source of long-running tensions and conflicts.

15. What's black about black poetry? -- As if defining and redefining blackness is not hard enough, the question of what makes black poetry black is a longstanding consideration that occasionally leads to tensions based on conflicting viewpoints.

16. Post-black and apolitical poetry vs. Black poetry -- Actually, long before the current interest in "post-black" topics, there were debates about apparent apolitical poetry produced by African Americans. The debate is linked to issues about privilege, about responsibilities to black communities, and various other concerns. 

17. What are the role of black poets? -- This question was particularly pronounced during the Black Arts Movement when poets were publicly questioning each other and being questioned on what their responsibilities were to black communities.

18. Amiri Baraka vs. Charles Rowell -- For years, Charles Rowell was known to critique some black arts poets. The tensions between Baraka and Rowell became especially known to broad audiences when Baraka struck back in  "A Post-Racial Anthology?"-- a highly critical review of Rowell's Angles of Ascent: A Norton Anthology of Contemporary African American Poetry (2013).

19. Is rap poetry? -- This question, with adjoining tensions, has been simmering for decades. It reached new heights in recent years when Jay Z frequently noted during his book tour for Decoded (2010) that rap was indeed poetry. Several poets, including many black poets, have resisted the designation, noting that there are many differences.

20. Academics vs. poets -- There have long been various tensions between academics, even African American scholars, and poets. Sure, there are obviously many friendships that exist, and in many cases, there are people who are academics and poets. Nonetheless, there are histories and ongoing instances when academics and poets have strong disagreements concerning how poets and poetry should be written about and taught.

21. Rita Dove vs. Helen Vendler -- In a twist to the "who's omitted" issue, Vendler offered hard and harsh critiques of Dove's editorial practices of The Penguin Anthology of 20th Century American Poetry (2011) . In Vendler's view, Dove included "multicultural" poets at the expense of excluding many prominent poets, who happened to be white and male. Vendler's critiques and Dove's follow-up were widely covered.

22. Rita Dove vs. Amiri Baraka -- I actually use Dove and Baraka as stand-ins for the broader considerations on different kinds and really tones of black poetry. Years ago, Dove noted that "I know that I'm considered more of a 'non-militant' writer." Perhaps, there's some tension about what publishers and white audiences view as the poetry most preferred from black poets (i.e. non-militant vs. militant).    

23. Spoken word poetry vs. (print-based) poetry -- Aspects of spoken word poetry are regularly at odds with poetry that is sometimes labeled "printed-based," "literary," or "academic." (Even the labels reveal some conflicts and problems).  It's too long of story for this list, but suffice it to say that there are some divisions and tensions among the two broad areas based of styles of delivery, content, and the relationships of the poets to black and white audiences.

24. Poetry is boring -- I hear this sentiment primarily from students, but you'll occasionally hear poets make the comment about other poets. In his "A Post-Racial Anthology?" review, Baraka noted at least one prominent poet that he found to be "dull and academic." The notion that poetry and poets can be boring and dull is no small matter  when we consider that individual poets and the genre can be easily dismissed for other modes that are viewed to be more exciting or fulfilling for audiences.

25. The poet as celebrity -- This designation was most pronounced with the late Maya Angelou. Whereas she was beloved by people the world over, her fame and label as a poet did not always sit well with some practicing poets. Angelou's brand of poetry was much different and sometimes accused of being overly simplistic in relation to versions of so-called "literary" or "academic" poetry.

26. poetry vs prose -- There's often  unstated competition between the genre that school teachers and college professors will highlight on their syllabi. Even in African American literature courses, poetry often loses, attaining only token representation, while prose in the forms of novels and short stories receive the majority of attention.

27. The poet as controversial figure -- The label "controversial" attached to a poet was most frequently applied to the late Amiri Baraka. Sometimes, controversy referred to his representations of white people or his frank use of language, or his suggestion in his poem "Somebody Blew Up America" that Israel had prior knowledge of the World Trade Center attacks. (There's a Wikipedia subsection on Baraka's supposed controversies.)   

28. The issue of awards -- Whereas winning awards is definitely positive, there are multiple tensions about the nature of the competitions and questions about fairness in some cases. Apparently, winning awards seems tied to things beyond the actual poems, such as the reputation of poets' publishers or personal connections. There's also the matter that poets who do not win awards are far more likely to be overlooked for various opportunities.  

29. Poet and poetry preferences -- Again, this is one of those often unstated tensions or conflicts. Teachers and poets have preferences for certain kinds of poets and poems, which in turn often means that they/we in turn view many other poets and poems with indifference and some with disfavor. While people are largely silent, on the record at least, about such indifference and disfavor, the preferences and disinterest end up shaping important choices and developments in the field of poetry. 

30. Numbers of poets -- In some cases, the growth of MFA programs, the many spoken word spots, and the notion that "anyone can write poetry" have resulted in the field becoming densely populated, leading many to declare that there are too many poets. At the same time, the absence of poets on many course syllabi, on the pages of major book review publications, and in broader discussions about the field of African American literature lead some to point out that there are not enough poets.

1 comment:

Interesting Debate Topics said...

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