Saturday, December 29, 2012

The intellectual histories of black poetry

Last month, I wrote about Toni Morrison's comments about the silence surrounding poet Lucille Clifton's "bracing intelligence." In Morrison's view, even Clifton's admirers have avoided talking about the poet's "profound intellect." I've been fascinated by that position, that we should do more to concentrate on Clifton's or any poets' engagements with ideas.

Maybe we could make concentrated efforts to place poets in conversation with intellectuals, or more broadly, we could consider the intellectual histories of black poetry. In addition to highlighting the language of the poetry, we might benefit by saying more about how poets participate in a range of notable discourses and conversations that have appealed to multiple communities.  So far, folks primarily talk about poetry in the context of poetry, which makes sense, but could be limiting.

When literary scholars talk about slavery, language, narratives, politics, race, gender, and sexuality, they often examine novels, film, essays, and history books, but rarely poetry. Relatively speaking. You'll notice scholars using excerpts of poems as epigraphs for essays and monographs. Nonetheless, poetry and black poets infrequently appear as integral elements of in overall discussions when the subject is not exclusively on poetry.

The scholarly discourse on hip hop is large and growing, but many scholars and poets often separate rap from poetry. The presence and implications of rap are regularly included in scholarly treatments of African American culture, politics, and history, yet we see less discussion of print-based and spoken word poetry in contemporary commentary.

Poetry had a more visible presence in discussions about African American culture and politics during the 1960s and 1970s. That had to do with the prevalence of the Black Arts Movement, which included participation from large numbers of poets. In addition, there were far fewer African American academics producing essays and books at the time, so poets had more opportunities to assume the roles of public intellectuals.

But fields and public discourse change.

As if I don't have enough to think about and do already, I'm going to see if I can spend some time in a few future entries identifying reasons why we have had less writing about the intellectual histories concerning black poetry and explaining why we might benefit by featuring poetry in those broader black studies conversations. Stay tuned.  

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