Thursday, April 10, 2014

Contemporary Black Poets vs. Contemporary Black Poetry

In the introduction to The Norton Anthology of African American Literature (2014), Henry Louis Gates, Jr. and Valerie A. Smith note that given various artistic developments there is "no wonder some scholars believe that black poetry is flowering as never before, certainly not since the Black Arts Movement." I agree; black poetry is flowering in some important ways. However, I'm not sure the presentation of poetry in The Norton adequately captures the nature of that flowering.

The Norton, like many anthologies, tends to concentrate on authors and not necessarily literary trends and special topics. Even critiques of The Norton and various other anthologies often concentrate on noting who was omitted as opposed to making a case for why a certain  poetic practice among those included should be better represented. The privileging of authors over literary styles and trends makes sense for a number of reasons. But what does that model lead anthologies and readers to overlook?

The youngest "contemporary" poets in The Norton are Elizabeth Alexander (b. 1962), Natasha Trethewey (b. 1966), Kevin Young (b. 1970), and Tracy K. Smith (b. 1972). All three have indeed made notable achievements. But the selections included in the anthology by those four writers do not necessarily reflect some of the major trends taking place in African American poetry over the last 25 years.

For one, although there is one sonnet "When" included by Alexander, student readers may not grasp that sonnet sequences, not individual sonnets, have been frequently employed by several poets, especially black women poets. The increasing number of black poets entering MFA programs over the last two decades necessarily results in careful attention to traditional poetic forms.

Another recurring practice among poets has been the composition of persona poems. Alexander's "The Venus Hottentot" (1989) is in fact included in the anthology, but the development of that mode of writing has become even more pronounced over the last 14 years or so as poets began producing book-length works featuring persona verse.

Finally, black poets produced a substantial body of writing about slavery during the 21st century. Alexander, Trethewey, and Young, in fact, have been noted contributors to the discourse on slavery among contemporary poets. However, representing the many writers who have addressed enslavement and struggles for liberation would have been particularly challenging for the editors perhaps. 

Obviously, a single anthology would have a hard time capturing the many developments taking place in African American poetry, especially given the limits of time and space, not to mention copyright and funding issues. Still, it's worth considering how our views of contemporary black poets sometimes silence or downplay aspects of contemporary black poetry. 

A Notebook on The Norton Anthology of African American Literature  

1 comment:

Unknown said...

Pretty interestiing. I' m famliar with some of the poems of the poets you mentioned, especially Alexander and Young. While I repect their skills their poetry is not reflective of what I am doing or of where I would like to see the poetry go.