Friday, December 20, 2013

Sonnet Sequences and Contemporary African American Poetry

[An annotated version of this entry appears on Poetry Genius.]

Several prominent, award-winning African American poets have produced extended sonnet sequences over the course of the last several years. The sonnets cover a common topic and are often linked by interconnected lines combining to form what is known  as a crown of sonnets.
Sonnet sequences represent intricate series of poetic projects composed by poets, and those projects often demonstrate the abilities of writers to design elaborate networks of poems. Crowns of sonnets suggest that writing poetry is more than simply quick bursts of creativity. Instead, a series of interrelated, 14-line poems seem to be the result of planning and patience, extended study, and laborious attention to detail.             

The appearance of sonnet sequences reflects aspects of a larger shift in the publishing history of African American poetry. For decades, black poets gained attention for signature, often short poems such as "We Real Cool" by Gwendolyn Brooks, "We Wear the Mask" by Paul Laurence Dunbar, and "The Negro Speaks of Rivers" by Langston Hughes. Those poems circulated widely in part because anthologies were a primary means of circulating poems and assisting in making poets well known among diverse audiences. 
In recent decades, however, awards and contests in  literary culture became increasingly important. Thus, the visibility and worth of poets is often associated with the accolades assigned to award-winning volumes of poetry as opposed to individual poems. As extensive set pieces within volumes, sonnet sequences can showcase the literary and technical skills of poets and thus elevate the chances of their books receiving notice and winning awards. 

Of course, poets are not taking the time and energy to design sonnet sequences as attempts just to win awards. The design and composition of these highly structured series of interconnected poems present artistic challenges that poets might find fulfilling to pursue.

What follows are a list of volumes containing sonnet sequences.  
1997 - Marilyn Nelson's The Fields of Praise (a series of 7 sonnets, entitled "Thus Far by Faith")
2005 - Tyehimba Jess's leadbelly 
2005 - Marilyn Nelson's A Wreath for Emmett Till (a crown of 15 sonnets)
2006 - Vievee Francis's Blue-Tail Fly (a crown of 7 sonnets)
2007 - Natasha Trethewey's Native Guard (a crown of 10 sonnets) 
2007 - Elizabeth Alexander's & Marilyn Nelson's Miss Crandall's School for Young Ladies & Little Misses of Color (sequence of 24 sonnets)
2010 - Allison Joseph's My Father's Kites (includes 34 sonnets)
2010- Tyehimba Jess's "Sonnet Crown for Blind Tom" (7 sonnets) 
2010 - John Murillo's Up Jump the Boogie (a crown of 7 sonnets) 
2011 - Nikky Finney's Head Off & Split: Poems (sequence of 19 sonnets)
2012 - Patricia Smith's Shoulda Been Jimi Savannah (crown of 15 sonnets)
2013 - A. Van Jordan’s The Cineaste (a crown of 44 sonnets)
2014 - Marilyn Nelson's How I Discovered Poetry (50 sonnets)
2016 - Tyehimba Jess's Olio


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