Thursday, February 23, 2012

Beyond Poetry: The Work of Black Artist-Poets

When and if you get a chance to read through black arts discourse of the late 1960s and early 1970s, you'll notice a somewhat curious trend where artists otherwise known as poets regularly distance themselves from the idea of being poets in any conventional sense. They question the limits of poems and literature in general and the roles of poets. Somehow, though, in the process of distancing themselves from poetry, black arts era poets created one of the most defining moments in American literary history.

"New constructs will have to be developed. We will have to alter our concepts of what art is, of what it is supposed to 'do,'" wrote Larry Neal in the afterword to the anthology Black Fire (1968). He later notes that "We can learn more about what poetry is by listening to the cadences of Malcolm's speeches, than from most of Western poetics." And he expresses disappointment that black poets had not emulated the sound of James Brown.

Later, in the foreword to a volume of poetry by Larry Neal, his friend and collaborator Amiri Baraka mentions the limits of the idea of the term "literary" by pointing out that "literary sound like somethin’ else … sound like it ain’t sound. And sound is what we deal in … in the real world.”

By challenging traditional ideas of literature and poetry and choosing instead to align themselves with political figures such as Malcolm X and the sounds and performance qualities of black music, black artist-poets began working toward those "new constructs" that Neal had in mind. The result was a body of critical and artistic productions that included essays, audio recordings, books of criticism, magazines, journalism, photographs, publishing houses, music criticism, and speeches. Oh yeah, and poetry too.

In comparison to figures who emerged during the black arts era, contemporary African American poets have become more settled, if not comfortable, about the idea of poetry and of being poets. The poetry that some of the leading poets have produced over the last 20 years has decidedly high literary qualities. That's understandable given that such a large number of poets receive far more formal training and schooling these days.

During the black arts era, however, decades before large numbers of writers had access to MFA programs and before the tendency of artists to stay in a single genre, figures such as Carolyn Rodgers, Amiri Baraka, Larry Neal, Nikki Giovanni, and others found themselves extending the roles of what poets usually do. Sure, they wrote and published poems. But they somehow found time to move beyond poetry as well.

A Notebook on the Black Arts Era

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