Tuesday, May 27, 2014

The challenge of pinpointing contemporary signature poems

A notable yet somehow subtle shift in the publishing histories of black poetry concerns the decline of signature poems in anthologies. A few years ago, I wrote about the rise and fall of signature poems, that is, those poems by poets that appear repeatedly in several anthologies. I suppose poets have their own signature poems that they select as favored and representative, which they prefer to routinely share at readings. However, I'm thinking right now about the poems that editors select.

Over the decades, dozens of editors collectively chose "The Negro Speaks of Rivers," for example, as Langston Hughes's signature poem. They chose Margaret Walker's "For My People," Gwendolyn Brooks's "We Real Cool," and Amiri Baraka's "Black Art," among others. There is, no doubt, some tension with editors' selections vs. poets' preferences.

Poets, understandably, prefer their newer work or poems that have not been repeatedly anthologized. By contrast, anthologists, especially those preparing collections that chart extended periods of time, have been inclined to concentrate on the "early" works of poets and their poems that have become canonical, which often means selections that have been repeatedly included in anthologies. 

If you track large number of poems by black poets that have been repeatedly reprinted, you'll notice that poets who began publishing prior to the late 1970s are far more likely to have repeated publications than poets who began publishing after the 1980s and 1990s. The explosion of anthologies featuring poetry during the 1960s and 1970s really cemented signature poems from the past and during that era. Anthologies featuring poetry have continued to appear, but the likelihood of "new" and contemporary poets having individual poems published in more than a dozen anthologies has declined.  

The circumstances with modern-day anthologies have made it a little more difficult to pinpoint poets' signature poems.

The Rise & Fall of Signature Poems 

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