Wednesday, December 19, 2012

Diversity and Black Poetry

Many of the debates and resentments -- both of which are often covertly expressed or discussed among close-knit groups -- that take place in realms of African American poetry concern issues of diversity. Some people claim that more attention should be given to black women poets; some state that spoken word artists should receive more play; some say that "experimental" African American poets have been too often excluded.

Poets, scholars, and general readers  with deep interests in Amiri Baraka tend to be different than those with deep interests in Rita Dove. The scholars who explicate the poetry of Harryette Mullen and Yusef Komunyakaa express less interest in the works of Saul Williams and Tracie Morris. 

Some poets are adamant that rap is not poetry. Some scholars, rappers, general readers, and listeners aren't so sure. Interestingly, the second edition of the Norton Anthology of African American Literature (2004) includes no "poets" born after 1957, but the anthology does include verse by Rakim (b. 1968), Queen Latifah (b. 1970), Biggie (b. 1972), and Nas (b. 1973).

School teachers and literature professors are far more likely to include canonical poems and poets such as Langston Hughes, Paul Laurence Dunbar, and Gwendolyn Brooks on their syllabi, while faculty members in creative writing and MFA programs are more likely, at least by comparison, to assign volumes by contemporary African American poets. Of course, MFA programs favor volumes of poetry and tend to shun spoken word poetry, which tends to receive little academic institutional support. On the spoken word scenes, however, formal poetry receives far less popular support. 

Maya Angelou and Nikki Giovanni aren't spoken word poets nor are they revered among the MFA sets,  but no African American poets enjoy as much popular support as they do, right? The expansive demographics of African American poets, not to mention the broad and always shifting nature of potential audiences for verse, contribute to the overall diversity (and competing interests) of black poetry.       

The Demographics of African American Poetry

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