Tuesday, January 3, 2012

Persona Poems: A Major Trend in Black Poetry

When poets Treasure Redmond and Adrian Matejka complete their volumes of poems on Fannie Lou Hamer and Jack Johnson, respectively, in the next year or so, their books will contribute to one of the most important trends in contemporary black poetry.

For the last ten years alone, writers have published several volumes of poetry featuring persona poems. Collectively, books containing persona poems, that is, poems written in the voice of a figure other than the poet, have helped shape the landscape of African American poetry.

Rita Dove’s American Smooth (2004) and Sonata Mulattica (2009), Cornelius Eady’s Brutal Imagination (2001), Marilyn Nelson’s Carver: A Life in Poems (2001), Natasha Trethewey Bellocq's Ophelia (2002) and Native Guard (2006), Ai’s Vice (2000) and Dread (2003),  Frank X Walker’s Buffalo Dance: The Journey of York (2004) and When Winter Come: The Ascension of York (2008), A. Van Jordan’s M-A-C-N-O-L-I-A (2004), Quraysh Ali Lansana’s They Shall Run: Harriet Tubman Poems (2004), Thylias Moss’s Slave Moth: A Narrative in Verse (2004), Tyehimba Jess's leadbelly (2005), Kevin Young’s Black Maria (2005) and Ardency: A Chronicle of the Amistad Rebels (2011), and Patricia Smith's Blood Dazzler (2008) include several, if not all, persona poems.

The appearance of so many books by well known African American poets  featuring persona poems reveals an important common interest among the writers. Black poets have seem drawn to the practice of embodying the voices of others, especially African American historical figures. Accordingly, persona poems empower contemporary poets to participate in narrating the past from first-person perspectives.       

Persona poems by African American poets have a long history, stretching back to Robert Hayden, Gwendolyn Brooks, Langston Hughes, Paul Laurence Dunbar and beyond. The production of full-length volumes or extended series of persona poems by several poets, however, seems to represent a fairly recent phenomena in the history of black poetry.

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