Tuesday, March 22, 2011

Why the Birth Years of Black Poets Matter

Recently, I was looking over the birth years of various black poets and noticed some important trends. It appears that a disproportionate number of today’s most popular black poets were born between the late 1920s and early 1940s.

Consider the following writers and their dates of birth:

Maya Angelou b. 1928
Sonia Sanchez b. 1934
Amiri Baraka b.1934
Jayne Cortez b. 1936
Eugene B. Redmond b. 1937
Ishmael Reed b. 1938
Quincy Troupe b. 1939
Haki Madhubuti b. 1942
Nikki Giovanni b. 1943

You’d be hard-pressed to identify another group of living black poets who are collectively more widely known and acclaimed than this related group of literary artists. In addition to being a formidable group of poets by today’s standards, these poets were quite popular and respected 10 years ago, 20 years ago, and even 30-plus years ago.

I wondered if it had to do with the years of their births.

Along with those writers, recall some of their contemporaries who passed away: Etheridge Knight (1931-1985); Henry Dumas (1934 – 1968); Larry Neal (1935-1981); Audre Lorde (1936 – 1992); Lucille Clifton (1936 – 2010); June Jordan (1936 – 2002); and Carolyn Rodgers (1940 – 2010).

12 of the 16 writers listed so far were born during the 1930s, a suggestion that that decade was especially important for the birth of black poets who would become highly successful.

What was going on that allowed the poets to gain so much acclaim?

Well, for one, what was particularly significant was the fact that during the late 1960s black artistic writing gained increased and perhaps unprecedented concentrated attention. Most notably, there was this major cultural enterprise known as the Black Arts Movement. If you born in the mid to late 1930s and happened to be an experienced writer, the late 1960s presented you with many opportunities, including several interconnected publishing venues.

Talented black poets who were in their mid to late 30s during the height of the black arts era were in a good position to develop and extend their careers. During that time, two slightly younger poets – Haki Madhubuti and Nikki Giovanni – also took advantage of the increased attention placed on black writers.

In addition, poets developed alongside or as political activists and in relation to the Civil Rights and Black Power Movement. As a result, from the 1960s up until today, poets like Angelou, Baraka, Giovanni, Madhubuti, and Redmond are regularly called upon to give “talks” and provide political commentary as much as they were invited to read their poetry.

As leading participants in scholarly conversations about literary art and African American culture, black poets enjoyed prominent positions in critical discourses. African American literary critics and black public intellectuals were decades away from gaining increased visibility at major research universities and in scholarly journals. At the time, poets had more influence and access.

The fact that so many of the poets established themselves in other genres before and after becoming noted poets allowed them to expand and diversify their audiences. Taken together, Angelou, Baraka. Sanchez, Cortez, Redmond, Harper, Reed, Troupe, Madhubuti, and Giovanni are noted for their contributions to autobiography, drama, fiction, jazz and literary criticism, audio recording, political commentary, black-owned publishing, *and* poetry.

Black poets born after the mid-1950s have developed their professional careers under different circumstances. In general, they enjoyed access to more publishing venues, professional organizations, literary prizes, and workshops for writers. There is not nearly enough discussion of the high quality of work that they have produced over the decades.

Black poets born around or after the mid-1950s are less likely to be widely known for their contributions to other artistic genres outside of poetry. There are, no doubt, a few exceptions, but in general, the poets are viewed as poets.

By contrast, the aforementioned poets born between the late 1920s and early 1940s are often defined as something other than poets. The notion of Amiri Baraka as political activist; Ishmael Reed as novelist; Eugene Redmond as photographer; and Maya Angelou as cultural icon are just as important as the view of these writers as poets.

What happens when we move the discussion of birth years beyond African American poets?

Admittedly, my knowledge of non-black poets is far more limited. Still, I found some interesting initial related patterns when I considered the ten most recent U.S. Poet Laureates. The following list contains the years the laureates served, their names, and their birth years:

1995-1997: Robert Hass (b. 1941)
1997-2000: Robert Pinsky (b. 1940)
2000-2001: Stanley Kunitz (1905 – 2006)
2001-2003: Billy Collins (b. 1941)
2003-2004: Louise Gl├╝ck (b. 1943)
2004-2006: Ted Kooser (b. 1939)
2006-2007: Donald Hall (b. 1928)
2007-2008: Charles Simic (b. 1938)
2008-2010: Kay Ryan (b. 1945)
2010 - Present: W.S. Merwin (b. 1927)

With the exception of the late Stanley Kunitz, the laureates fall between the previously identified timeframe of the late 1920s and early 1940s.

We might also consider the poetry best sellers list, where volumes by Mary Oliver (b. 1935) and Billy Collins (b. 1941) have appeared for more than 200 consecutive weeks. Books by Nikki Giovanni have been the only volumes of poetry by an African American to spend a comparably extended amount of time on the poetry best seller list.

I’ve always enjoyed thinking and writing about the Black Arts Movement. And even now, I’m discovering new things. As a look at birth years of writers reveals, the movement was especially vital for black poets born between the late 1920s and early 1940s.

Birth Years & Age Matters

1 comment:

jward said...

You have posed some wonderful and challenging ideas that we may consider under the sign of the new transcultural theory now being cultivated by Reginald Martin.
Thanks for your contributions to what Barbara Christin name a race for theory.

Jerry W. Ward, Jr.