restricted access Going Overboard: African American Poetic Innovation and the Middle Passage
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Going Overboard:
African American Poetic Innovation and the Middle Passage

In 2008, in a single issue of American Poet, the biannual journal of the Academy of American Poets, two unrelated essays made the same claim—namely, that there has been a noteworthy trend in American poetry toward the historical poem. That both essay writers, Major Jackson and Natasha Trethewey, are African American is more than a coincidence, and we should not be surprised to find both essays citing a healthy number of African American poets as examples (and forerunners) of this trend. Jackson pointedly acknowledges the political work that poets of color and immigrant poets have performed in writing poems about our histories—broadly speaking, the work of complicating and filling in the "official record" (5). I would add to that accounting white women poets, who have also been engaged (more and less overtly) in the project of making poetry tell on the willful blindnesses and smothering silences of an "'authorized' history" that has located the story of our past, by and large, in the places and occupations filled by society's most powerful people (5).

If African American poets and poets writing from similar positions of exclusion and marginalization have led the way toward a recognition of the richness and power of poems treating history, the growing popularity of this genre has only intensified their engagement with it. Jackson names a number of younger African American poets, in particular, who in the last decade have published whole collections of compelling poems with a historical bent, including Amaud Jamal Johnson (Red Summer), [End Page 791] A. Van Jordan (M·A·C·N·O·L·I·A), and Trethewey herself (Native Guard) (3, 6). To these we might add the names of poets from preceding generations whose recent publications have also focused on people and events of the past, such as Marilyn Nelson, writing alone (A Wreath for Emmett Till) and collaborating with Elizabeth Alexander (Miss Crandall's School for Young Ladies and Little Misses of Color), and Rita Dove (Sonata Mulattica). The texts named here are only a sampling of the collections that I might point to and do not even begin to account for the numerous individual poems that fall into this category. These works collectively cover a good bit of historical territory, both within and beyond the contours of North America, as in the case of Dove's book, for example, which vibrantly imagines the story of a violinist of African descent living in late-eighteenth-century Europe.

What is most striking to me, however, is that this explosion of historical poems by African Americans has brought with it a noticeable increase in poems treating the era, the institution, the condition of slavery. While treatments of and references to slavery and enslaved people have consistently appeared in poetry by African Americans since Phillis Wheatley (who occupied the positions of "poet" and "slave" simultaneously) was writing, slavery has not really loomed large on the landscape of the tradition as a primary focus. But recent years have seen a noticeably wider variety of poets refracting this most painful aspect of African American experience through the prism of the imagination. Fred D'Aguiar (Bloodlines), Thylias Moss (Slave Moth), Vievee Francis (Blue-Tail Fly), Quraysh Ali Lansana (They Shall Run: Harriet Tubman Poems), and Camille Dungy (Suck on the Marrow), to name a few, are among the poets who have published entire volumes within the past decade that are predominantly about the enslaved and events occurring during the antebellum and Civil War periods. Moreover, these poets represent a range of aesthetics, from D'Aguiar's steadfastly formal ottava rima stanzas to Moss's fluid, free-verse lines of undulating lengths. I am excited to find Trethewey accurate in her observation that the lively response of American poets to "the muse of history"—including African American poets engaging specifically with this [End Page 792] history of slavery—comes in both "traditional" and "experimental" styles (28). As the increased visibility of African American poetic innovation is also a noteworthy (and long overdue) development in the poetics of this first decade of the twenty-first century, it is perhaps appropriate that this...


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