Tuesday, July 30, 2013

Poets against poetry?

In the history of American letters, has any group of poets, more so than black arts poets, been so suspicious of the idea of poetry? Throughout the writings of African American poets of the 1960s and 1970s, you find the them addressing the limits of poetry, calling for different kinds of poems, and questioning whether they and others should continue their pursuits as poets. 

In one of the more well-known instances, Nikki Giovanni closes her poem "For Saundra" by noting that:
maybe i shouldn’t write
at all
but clean my gun
and check my kerosene supply
perhaps these are not poetic
at all
Her poem challenges the ability of poems to achieve desired ends.

In the afterword to Black Fire, Larry Neal writes "Listen to James Brown scream. Ask yourself, then, Have you heard a Negro poet sing like that, of course not, because we have been tied to the texts, like most white poets."  Like many of his peers, Neal encouraged poets to re-purpose themselves by abandoning traditional and prevalent definitions of poets and literature. 

In the introduction to Neal's Black Boogaloo, Amiri Baraka writes that "Literary sound like somethin’ else … sound like it ain’t sound. And sound is what we deal in … in the real world.” The push toward new sonic possibilities, expressed by Neal and Baraka, or the interest in activism, as raised by Giovanni, were common motivating factors offered by poets to move away from conventional conceptions of poetry and poets.

In retrospect, one important outcome of poets questioning poetry was that they routinely explored realms and discourses well beyond poetry. They viewed and defined themselves as writers and something else. The Black Arts Movement was such an enduring cultural enterprise in part because so many of the poets were in some ways against poetry.  

A Notebook on Black Arts Poetry

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