Why Study African American Poetry?

In 2011, Nikki Finney became the most recent in a line of African American poets to win the prestigious National Book Award for Poetry. In January 2012, when Natasha Trethewey became the first poet in history to become our National Poet Laureate and a state poet laureate (Mississippi) simultaneously, many signaled this as the new age of poetry, nothing short of a black poetry renaissance. The honor, however, was punctuated by discord. A sharp dialogue between Rita Dove and Helen Vendler in the pages of the New York Review of Books about the significance of black poetry sent us back to an earlier time in our history when black literary expression, like the people who produced it, was deemed inferior. The institute seeks to address this contradiction: black poetry’s national and international reputation and its understudied, marginalized status in academic discourse and published scholarship.

In addition to its growing visibility in our public sphere, the global explosion in spoken word poetry makes more urgent the need for shared discussions about form, function and change in poetry and its impact within literature and the humanities. Such a process also allows us to reclaim the large number of poets whose work remains invisible. Nowhere is this more clear than in the shift occurring in black poetry since the 1980s. In what many scholars refer to as the post-soul era, black poetry has followed two divergent, albeit cross-fertilizing, trajectories. On one hand, professionally (MFA) trained black poets demonstrate mastery over the forms of poetry receiving validation within the larger academic and literary culture, as indicated by five Pulitzer Prize winners and/or finalists and twelve National Book awards winners and/or finalists since 1987. This contrasts sharply with previous periods in the 20th century when poets studied and developed independently, honing their talents in writers’ collectives. The experiences of poets after the 1980s also contrasts with poets from the Black Arts Movement, known for their sharp and vocal critiques of social injustice. On the other hand, the contemporary landscape of poetry reflects a paradigmatic shift away from the prevailing model of written and/or academic poetry and more toward spoken word poetries.

NEH Summer Scholars will engage in a critical examination of these two trajectories as distinct but related bodies of black poetry – academic and spoken word – reflecting and refracting conflicting sensibilities and epistemologies within African American culture. Our goal is to gain an understanding of how both can exemplify excellence in their respective mediums.