Thursday, April 1, 2010


April is National Poetry Month, so I could find no better time to highlight African American poetry and poetics.

In an attempt to answer, if ever so briefly, the question of the possible origins of African/African American poetry, I started looking first beyond American shores and back to Africa and to the oral tradition of storytelling.

I looked at the long history of storytelling by griots in Africa. A griot, according Wikipedia, is a West African poet, praise singer, and wandering musician, considered a repository of oral tradition. In the European tradition griots would be considered bards. Not only are griots traveling poets but they were also the depository and disseminators of tribal and cultural history. Such epic works as Sundiata An Epic of Old Mali, was initially told in oral form and tells the history of the nation of Mali.

The poetic style of African storytelling has continued and can be seen in the work Song Of Ocol by Okot p’Bitek. This long poem, at times read as a piece of work that hails from an oratory beginning. It has been said that poetry is a literary form best heard and not read, this seems to be the stance that many African Americans poets historically have taken.

To find a starting point for the poetry of African Americans, I will start with the two of the earliest published black poets- Jupiter Hammon and Phyllis Whitney. Both poets were steeped in the tradition of classical European literary form. Moving forward to the Harlem Renaissance the poetry of African Americans became the poetry of identity politics. This was poetry written through a black aesthetics both bad and good. Arguments went back and forth on if black poetics should reflect the good within society so as not to show up flaws, or be directly linked to the real world as lived by all African Americans- both the gritty and urban and the upper class, educated lifestyles.

Poetry heavily steeped in a black collective consciousness continued up through the 1960’s with the Black Arts Movement which was the artistic arm of the black power and pro black ideological movements of the time and centered literature squarely in a pro-black, sometimes militant vein. Such views of African American literature has continued through the 1970’s, but more recently more and more poets can be seen to be writing in traditional forms such as sonnets, using meter- spondee and trochee, classic patterns that define poetry and not writing about themes that are universal and color-blind reflecting the experiences of every man. This can be seen as throwback to the writing of Hammon and Whitley, although thematically they are still worlds apart. Also with the onset of slam and spoken word poetry, African American writers are re-linking their art, unknowingly so, back to the oral tradition of poetry.

Throughout April I will be posting poems from some established, well known poets both dead and alive, as well poems from up and coming poets from America and around the world.

photos: Poets Camille Dungy, Langston Hughes.

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