Sunday, July 8, 2012

Why a history of unpublished poetry & poets is worth considering

At funerals, at weddings, at family reunions, at church programs, and at other events in communities, I've long been accustomed to hearing people reading poems at various cultural gatherings. Sometimes, they read well-known inspirational pieces, but often the poets read original pieces that they composed for the special occasion that they are reading.

Professional poets might cringe at the many clich├ęs, the many derivative lines, and the many rhymes in the poems. Editors of literary publications would likely reject the pieces. Yet in the context of the events, the poems I've heard are almost always well received, the poets almost always praised.

The designated "poets" for the events are and are not poets in the sense that yes, they are known to write poems, but in the worlds beyond the gatherings, no, they rarely define themselves as poets. But when the occasion arises, a planner notes that "she writes poetry. Let's ask her to write a poem." Or, "he wrote a poem for that last event. It's short notice, but we can ask him to write another one for this one." She says, "yes" or he says "yes;" and at designated moments in the program, a poem is read.

Perhaps some of us who've witnessed these kinds of poetry readings over the years should attempt to write a history--a history of unpublished poetry and poets. Such histories might enhance our understanding of the literacy and literary practices of African American communities. We might also gain a broader understanding concerning the many uses of poetry in specific community contexts.

I'm curious too in what we might learn about the artistic interests of communities that continually include poetry and poets on the programs. Since so much of the scholarship on literature is based on works that appear in books and literary publications, it might be worth considering what histories of unpublished poetry and poets might look like.

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