Tuesday, September 18, 2012

Poetry vs. Poetry vs. Poetry vs. Poetry

Yesterday evening, I participated in a discussion about black literature for a radio program here in St. Louis. I was asked a question I've often been asked over the years: what are your thoughts about spoken word poetry vs. poetry? For now, the answer I gave seems less important than the frequency of that question, which almost always emerges when I am in the company of spoken word artists.

In the context of my classrooms where we cover historically significant and established African American poets as well as modern and contemporary poets, invariably students pose questions to me and their classmates about "poets from back then vs. poets of today." For them, "poets of today" include spoken word artists as well as "literary" or "print-based" poets. The students tend to take sides on those two camps as well. When and if rap is added to the poetry conversation, rappers almost always win.

Among my fellow professors who study American literature, the discussion about African American poets "from back then vs. poets of today" seems resolved. They tend to concentrate on a few of the historically significant and established ones such as Robert Hayden, Langston Hughes, Gwendolyn Brooks, and perhaps Phillis Wheatley. There's little discussion of black arts era poets and certainly no mention of contemporary black poets--print-based or spoken word.

Among my friends and colleagues who would be defined by others as "print-based," the discussion usually focuses on the differences between contemporary African American poets vs. contemporary African American poets. Those poet vs. poet discussions are pronounced in part because so many of them compete for the same literary prizes and fellowships. We discuss and debate the decisions made by judges for those honors and financial rewards. There's hardly any conversation about spoken word artists among this group of poets.

There is a persistent, though sometimes coded, sentiment among some groups of these contemporary poets that black arts poets were overly political and not literary enough. This group prefers Hayden over Baraka, and Rita Dove over Nikki Giovanni and Sonia Sanchez. Black arts poets and others who are self-described as "political" critique many contemporary African American poets for being so decidedly apolitical (With a sneer, they speak of "MFA poets").

Finally, when I seek to read about contemporary poetry in major literary publications, I end up coming across writers such as David Orr and Stephen Burt. Critics in this realm discuss a range of aesthetics, trends, and diverse approaches among contemporary poets. However, they rarely discuss African American poetry in any sustained and in-depth way. Their "poetry vs. poetry" conversations have, for the most part, already excluded black poetry.

The view of poetry as somewhat reserved prevents many of these intense disagreements about different modes and realms of poetry from becoming tense or even notable. But if you reside in these realms, you frequently find yourself in discussions about poetry vs. poetry vs. poetry vs. poetry.

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