Few of the hip-talking, streetwise young sisters and brothers in my literature courses marvel at the language practices displayed in poetry. They seem surprised when I speak of the newness of contemporary poetry, because in their minds the words and phrasings used by so many of the poets that they encounter seems dated.
For so many of them, poetry has this old-timey reputation, evidenced by the lack of hip language, not so much in poets' over-use of archaic wording. If the poetry was so hip, some of them wonder, then why ain't it got no evidence of that hipness in the words the poets use? So many of them have been raised on the rapid-fire movement of rap mixtapes and other up-to-date verbal performances. They've developed high standards for contemporary black language use and references.
Then too, much of the poetry that they've been exposed to is by deceased writers, and not just the typical "dead white men." Canonical black poets such as Phillis Wheatley, Paul Laurence Dunbar, Langston Hughes, Margaret Walker, and Gwendolyn Brooks, to name some poets we cover, belong to much earlier eras than my students. My students enjoy several of the poems, but they still tend to view the subject matter and language as historical, giving them reason to keep many works at a fearful distance.
Not coincidentally, large numbers of award-winning and highly acclaimed poets have received support to produce works concentrating on historical moments as opposed to contemporary ones. Furthermore, by the time most highly accomplished poets have reached the status of "highly accomplished," they are understandably less inclined to utilize language that might be viewed as "street," trendy, or juvenile. As far as public figures and black hip language go, rappers and comedians are usually the ones adopting and adapting new, everyday words and catchphrases from "the hood."
Earning the necessary credentials and establishing a career in the world
of poetry takes considerable time and resources for most writers. The relative small number of highly accomplished, hip young poets in popular culture assists in confirming poetry's old-timey reputation.
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