I’m not much of a poetry person. I never have been — not in elementary school when my grammar book introduced me to rhyme and rhythm; not in high school when I tucked the book of poems a friend had lent me beneath my bed; and certainly not in college, where I suffered through four poetry-ridden lit courses and an American poetry class before finding myself president of the university’s poetry club (a sequence of events I still haven’t been able to sort into an explanation).
However, throughout these (unsuccessful) attempts to avoid poets and their creations, there was one poet I made an exception for: Lucille Clifton.
Hers was the book of poems I hid beneath my bed, then rediscovered three months later and rushed to read because I felt guilty for keeping a friend’s book so long. I didn’t fall in love that day, but something about those poems stuck with me, because three years later, when I had to write a paper on a book of poems, I turned to Lucille Clifton.
That was when I fell in love, not with poetry, but with Lucille Clifton’s poetry. After a semester of battling beasts like Ezra Pound’s Cantos and Eliot’s The Wasteland, Lucille’s page-long poems were a godsend. Even better, I could understand them; they weren’t like the modernists’ poems, which I felt demanded a dictionary and a doctorate in Greek mythology to begin to comprehend. They were short and sharp and full of vigor, refusing to dally on the page.
As I dug deeper into her poems (eventually making them the focus of my senior sym), Lucille opened my mind to the possibility that maybe not all poetry was bad. Once that happened, I began to pay attention to the assignments I was reading, and even found a few that I liked.
I’m still really picky about what I read, and I definitely don’t read poetry for fun, but a handful of poets have laid claim to my heart. And oddly enough, almost all are African American…
Lived: February 1, 1902 – May 22, 1967
Known for: Renowned for being both an innovator of “jazz poetry” and a leader of the Harlem Renaissance, Hughes is probably the one African-American poet everyone has heard about (and if you haven’t, then you need to check your education, because something’s seriously wrong). He’s best known for his poetry, but he also wrote fiction, nonfiction, children’s books, and plays.
What you should read: Hughes is famous for poems like “Dreams,” “Theme for English B,” and “Let America Be America Again,” but rather than relying on the results of a Google search to introduce you, I’d suggest you grab a copy of the Collected Poems and let Hughes introduce himself.
excerpt from “The Negro Speaks of Rivers”
by Langston Hughes
I’ve known rivers:
I’ve known rivers ancient as the world and older than the flow of human blood in human veins.
My soul has grown deep like the rivers.
I bathed in the Euphrates when dawns were young.
I built my hut near the Congo and it lulled me to sleep.
I looked upon the Nile and raised the pyramids above it…
Lived: June 7, 1917 – December 3, 2000
Known for: The writer of poems that range from traditional sonnets and ballads to loose-limbed free verse sporting the rhythm of the blues, Brooks garnered much praise for her “authentic and textured portraits of life” in inner-city Chicago. She also received many awards, including a Robert Frost Medal, and served as Poet Laureate of Illinois.
What you should read: Her 1949 collection Annie Allen won the Pulitzer Prize for Poetry, making her the first African American to win a Pulitzer, ever.
excerpt from “the mother”
by Gwendolyn Brooks
Abortions will not let you forget.
You remember the children you got that you did not get,
The damp small pulps with a little or with no hair,
The singers and workers that never handled the air.
You will never neglect or beat
Them, or silence or buy with a sweet.
You will never wind up the sucking-thumb
Or scuttle off ghosts that come.
You will never leave them, controlling your luscious sigh,
Return for a snack of them, with gobbling mother-eye.
I have heard in the voices of the wind the voices of my dim killed children.
I have contracted. I have eased
My dim dears at the breasts they could never suck.
I have said, Sweets, if I sinned, if I seized
And your lives from your unfinished reach,
If I stole your births and your names,
Your straight baby tears and your games,
Your stilted or lovely loves, your tumults, your marriages, aches, and your deaths,
If I poisoned the beginnings of your breaths,
Believe that even in my deliberateness I was not deliberate…
Lived: February 18, 1934 – November 17, 1992
Known for: As a Black gay woman, Lorde was passionate about civil rights, LGBTQ+ rights, women’s rights, and the pursuit of intersectionality among these three. She often described herself as “black, lesbian, mother, warrior, [and] poet,” and used her art to celebrate these identities, as well as the identities of anyone who felt “outside” or “othered” in their search for community.
What you should read: Her 1976 collection Coal put her on the literary map. Featuring new material as well as poems from her first two books, the collection introduced her major themes (rage over racial injustice, celebration of black identity, her quest for intersectionality, etc.) and established her as a passionate voice in American poetry.
excerpt from “From the House of Yemanjá”
by Audre Lorde
My mother had two faces and a frying pot
where she cooked up her daughters
before she fixed our dinner.
My mother had two faces
and a broken pot
where she hit out a perfect daughter
who was not me…
Lived: June 27, 1936 – February 13, 2010
Known for: Lucille was a celebratory poet. She wrote about the darkness without losing sight of the light, praised the Black body even as she mourned the loss of it, and infused the ordinariness of everyday life with a laughing, wide-eyed wonder. Her themes range from civil rights to motherhood to her African heritage and back, and while she’s not as well-known as I’d like her to be, she did receive 3 Pulitzer nominations (2 in one year — a record!) and served as Poet Laureate of Maryland.
What you should read: It’s hard to recommend just one collection (I spent a year researching and writing about them, so each one holds a special place in my heart), but Quilting, The Terrible Stories, and The Book of Light are my favorites. And, just because I can, here’s a video of her reading my very favorite poem, “won’t you celebrate with me” (starts at ~0:26)–
Lived: June 7, 1943 – present
Known for: A passionate educator and activist, Giovanni got her start as a leading member in the Black Arts Movement (1965-1975). Currently, she resides in Knoxville, Tennessee, and, in addition to composing poetry, she writes and publishes children’s literature.
What you should read: The Collected Poetry of Nikki Giovanni: 1968-1998 provides a nice crash-course in her art. One of its defining features is her refusal to perpetuate “the trope of the black family as a tragedy”; in other words, Giovanni wants to celebrate the good she sees in the Black community, not just dwell on the bad. This steady, celebratory resistance is clear in her performance of “Nikki-Rosa”:
Lived: 1954 – present
Known for: Eady’s themes include jazz, the blues, violence, family life, and social justice issues related to race and class.
What you should read: I read his collection Brutal Imagination as a senior in high school and was stunned at the story behind it. In 1995, Susan Smith drowned her two sons in a lake and then invented a story about a Black man kidnapping her sons to throw the police off her trail. Brutal Imagination explores what it must have been like to be that imaginary man, accused of murders he did not commit — could not commit — and why? because he was Black? Eady’s is a disturbing but necessary look at what it is like to be Black in America.
Lived: April 26, 1966 – present
Known for: Former Poet Laureate of both Mississippi and the United States, Natasha Trethewey is renowned for her historical, identity-driven work. She is perhaps best known for her ekphrastic poems (poems which respond to other forms of art), particularly those which focus on Black history and community.
What you should read: Native Guard earned her the Pulitzer in 2007, but I would suggest starting with her debut collection, Domestic Work. It lays the groundwork for one of the themes she will struggle with in Native Guard — that is, her mother’s murder at the hands of her step-father — in addition to exploring her identity as a biracial woman.