Wednesday, July 25, 2018

Amiri Baraka's three most anthologized poems

[Update: an increase in the dataset shifted the findings initially reported in this blog entry. --Sept. 17, 2018]

Yesterday, I was mentioning to poet and scholar William J. Harris that whenever I work with African American high school students, I include "RhythmBlues." In a way, that poem is securely within my personal canon of poems that I've presented to high school and college students over the last decade and a half. So of course activities using the poem came up the last two weeks when I worked with students from Cahokia and Madison, Illinois.

I have my chosen Baraka poems, but I'm no anthology editor. They've made different choices. When I took a preliminary look at Baraka's appearances in approximately 50 poetry anthologies published over the last 56 years, I noticed that "RhythmBlues" has not been reprinted. Instead, Baraka's three most anthologized poems are "Preface to a Twenty Volume Suicide Note" (17 times), "A Poem for Black Hearts" (15 times), and "Black Art" (13 times).*

Those three poems were first published by 1966. They've now become Baraka's most anthologized poems. It's not uncommon for poets' early poems to become their most frequently anthologized. That's certainly the case with Langston Hughes's "The Negro Speaks of Rivers" and Margaret Walker's "For My People," to name just two prominent examples.

Still, since I've studied aspects of Baraka's career so closely, I notice the limits of how he's presented a little more. I wonder why none of his post-1966 poems stuck the ways those early three did. Why have anthologists not come to a consensus about any of Baraka's post-1970s poems like they did with those early three poems?

Beyond these issues, I've enjoyed tracing Baraka's appearances in anthologies over a long period of time. I'm intrigued that he, more than most any other poet I've encountered, is included in so many different contexts. I'm looking forward to looking through more anthologies and seeing the routes of his poems.

• A Notebook on Amiri Baraka

* I took a look at anthologies published between 1960 - 2016. A future project will take into consideration dozens more anthologies including his poems. Thanks to my graduate assistant Rae'Jean Spears for helping me assemble the collection and tabulate the poems.

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