Tuesday, June 19, 2012

What happened with African American poetry from 1977-1987?

The last issue of Black World magazine, April 1976
Ever noticed how rarely we hear about literary activity related to African American poetry during the late 1970s and through most of the 1980s? There's considerable conversation about the Black Arts era from the mid to late 1960s up through the mid 1970s. We also begin hearing more about poets and poetry after Rita Dove wins the Pulitzer Prize for Poetry in 1987--the year when the Dark Room Collective was also founded.

In 1990, Elizabeth Alexander published The Venus Hottentot; in 1992 Derek Walcott won the Nobel Prize for Literature; and in 1993 Maya Angelou read her poem "On the Pulse of Morning" at the inauguration of Bill Clinton. In the Tradition: An Anthology of Young Black Writers, edited by Kevin Powell and Ras Baraka, was published in 1992 and signaled the emergence of a "new" group of black poets. But what about black poetry between that moment after the decline of the Black Arts Movement and before the emergence of new poets during the 1990s?

Poets were no doubt producing works during that time period, roughly 1977 - 1987. In 1984, Nathaniel Mackey's  Eroding Witness (1985) was selected by Michael S. Harper as a National Poetry Series Winner; in 1985, Gwendolyn Brooks was appointed Consultant in Poetry to the Library of Congress (the position would later be retitled the U.S. Poet Laureate); and in 1985, the collected poems of Robert Hayden were published.  Still, despite these  individual achievements, you'd be hard-pressed to encounter many scholarly discussions about literary or artistic activities among groups of poets.

It's almost as if black poets, or at least the national visibility of black poetry, went underground when Black World magazine ceased published after its April 1976 issue. Often, the poets who began gaining wide appeal during the late 1980s and early 1990s distanced or aligned themselves with the spirit of the Black Arts Movement. In interviews, when contemporary poets look back, they are curiously silent about what, if anything, transpired on a mass level, with poets during that apparently silent period, 1977 - 1987, in black poetry. 

I'm going to put more thought into what happened during that time that caused the silence or decline, but a few issues do come to mind. For one, beginning in the late 1970s, a new kind of black poetry emerged known as rap. Certainly, rap, more so than formal poetry, captured the hearts and minds of countless young people.

In addition, large numbers of aspiring African American poets had entered MFA programs, which would later earn them the credentials to situate themselves as professors in creative writing programs and begin participating in the growing culture of literary awards and prestige. Also, part of what made black poetry of the 1980s seem relatively quiet was because of how much was accomplished by black poets of the black arts era. 

There are perhaps other reasons? If some come to mind for you, feel free to drop your thoughts in the comments section.

No comments: