[ By Brendan Williams-Childs ]
April is National Poetry Month. The sun is out, the temperature is finally above freezing, there are even some flowers in bloom. Spring is finally here! And what better way to appreciate the warming days than by finding your favorite sunspot and reading some poetry?
Not sure where to start with poetry? Looking to expand your poetry palate? Or just aware that Amanda Gorman’s incredible inauguration poem, “The Hill We Climb”, is now available as a book but too new for the KU Library to have yet and excited to read some more Black poetry?
Here’s a short recommendation guide:
If you want to read The Modern Classics, try:
- Audre Lorde – Audre Lorde was a Civil Rights and Gay Liberation icon whose activism and writing were deeply intertwined. Just like her activism, her bibliography is expansive and varied. Start with: The Collected Poems of Audre Lorde
- Langston Hughes – Novelist, children’s book author, playwright, essayist, poet, and Lawrence, KS hometown celebrity, Langston Hughes’s keenly observational work endures. Start with: A New Song
- Maya Angelou – Maya Angelou may be one of the most widely read and quoted Black poets in America. At the time of her passing in 2014, she had published seven autobiographical novels and seven books of poetry. You may know “I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings” but there’s even more to discover. Start with: I Shall Not Be Moved
- June Jordan – Like her contemporaries, June Jordan was a prolific artist and activist. Her bibliography includes over 27 books! In 1991, she founded Poetry For The People – a center that engages the Bay Area community in creating poetry and social change. Start with: Naming Our Destiny: New and Selected Poems
If you’re looking for Contemporary Social Activist Poets, try:
- Alexis Pauline Gumbs – Dramaturge, activist, and self described Queer Black Troublemaker and Black Feminist Love Evangelist, Alexis Pauline Gumbs combines prose, poetry, and theory into new worlds. Start with: Spill: Scenes of Black Feminist Fugitivity
- Morgan Parker – Morgan Parker is an NEA-award winning essayist and novelist, as well as a prolific and celebrated poet. As part of Poets With Attitude, she uses her poetry as a platform to uplift other poets of color. Start with: There Are More Beautiful Things Than Beyoncé
- Jericho Brown – Winner of the 2020 Pulitzer Prize for Poetry, Jericho Brown is one of the most famous and accomplished poets of today. He is also a longtime educator, helping students find their own voices in poetry. Start with: The New Testament
- Claudia Rankine – Jamaica-born Claudia Rankine has worked in nonfiction, stage play, and, of course, poetry, all to great success. When Rankine won the 2016 MacArthur Grant she created The Racial Imaginary Institute – an interdisciplinary journal and art’s space that engages the topic of race. Start with: Citizen: An American Lyric
If you’re looking for national leaders in poetry, try The Poet Laureates:
- Gwendolyn Brooks – Gwendolyn Brooks is the first Black writer to receive the Pulitzer Prize in 1950, the first Black woman inducted into the American Association of Arts and Letters, the Poet Laureate of the United States from 1985-86, and the Poet Laureate of Illinois from 1986 until her death in 2000. She was also from Topeka, Kansas, just a short drive from KU. Start with: Annie Allen
- Rita Dove – In 1993, Rita Dove became the youngest writer to be named Poet Laureate. She used her position to bring the writing of African diaspora writers to the forefront of US poetry and emphasized the role poetry can play in engaging public imagination. Start with: American Smooth
- Natasha Tretheway – Poet Laureate from 2012-14, Natasha Tretheway’s poetry blends free verse with traditional formalist style. Her work investigates public memory, especially about the Civil War, and won her the 2007 Pulitzer Prize in poetry. Start with: Native Guard (Listen to a conversation with Tretheway, part of HBW’s 2013 “Don’t Deny My Voice” poetry institute)
- Tracy K. Smith – Tracy K. Smith, a recent Poet Laureate (2017-19), has cited the influence of previous Laureates on her work, especially Rita Dove, as well as her time in the storied Black poetry group Dark Room Collective. But Smith’s rhythmic poetry is ultimately all her own. Start with: Duende
Of course, the scope of Black poetry is much wider than our recommendations here! The Project on the History of Black Writing hosted two NEH Summer Institutes focused on poetry, Don’t Deny My Voice (2013) and Black Poetry After the Black Arts Movement (2015). The Furious Flower Poetry Center, our partner in both those NEH Institutes and the nation’s first academic center for Black poetry, serves creative writers, literary and cultural scholars, and poetry lovers everywhere. If you’re feeling like you want to take a deep, thoughtful dive into Black poetry, you can discover more by clicking on the links.
Have a favorite poem by a Black author? Share it with us and your friends on Twitter, Instagram, or Facebook (@ProjectHBW)! We can’t wait to read with you.
Brendan Williams-Childs is from Laramie, Wyoming, and is a graduate student pursuing his Master of Fine Arts in Fiction. His future plans are either to continue working in academic research to support projects HBW’s Black Book Interactive Project (BBIP), or to enter publishing. As a Graduate Research Assistant with HBW and the HathiTrust Research Center, Brendan continues BBIP efforts by helping HathiTrust identify gaps in their collection.