Sunday, February 2, 2014

The challenge of becoming a major black poet

All the commentary on the passing of Amiri Baraka confirmed the idea that he was a truly major poet. He was major in terms of influence/impact, critical and popular receptions, publishing record, centrality to well-known movements and "schools" of poetry, esteem among fellow artists, prominence in black and white contexts, and recognition across genres.  He was also viewed as an active "leading" figure; or as James Smethurst put it, "Amiri Baraka was not what you could call a follower."

It was essential that Baraka produced ground-breaking and outstanding work, but becoming major required that many commentators identify and validate that work as ground-breaking and outstanding. Indeed major poets possess exceptional talents, but one reason we are aware of their artistic skills is because the writers and their works have been elevated by editors, reviewers, organizers of reading series or cultural events, teachers, and scholars over extended periods of time. 

The necessity of such an extensive reception makes the process of a poet being viewed as "major" all the more challenging. We can likely produce long lists of talented poets, published poets, or award-winning poets. Our lists of poets are much shorter when it comes to identifying poets, whose works have circulated widely and received substantial commentary, are much shorter.

The production of a single major poet is a multifaceted, cross-generational convergent endeavor. 

The ideas of "cross generational" and "over extended periods of time" deserve special attention. One reason we view Langston Hughes as major is based on the fact that groups of scholars, teachers, and reading audiences spanning different historical moments have shown interest in his work. Hughes's publisher, Knopf and editors of literature anthologies are key here since they have kept the poet's work in print for nearly 90 years, and thus raised the likelihood that different generations might "discover" Hughes's work.   

So another aspect, a challenge aspect concerning becoming a major poet relates to whether a writer has substantial support from a publisher and editors over the course of several decades.

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