The best books on Black poetry

Hollis Robbins Author Of Forms of Contention: Influence and the African American Sonnet Tradition
By Hollis Robbins

The Books I Picked & Why

Selected Poems

By Gwendolyn Brooks

Selected Poems

Why this book?

Everyone should read this book and own this book, which contains key poems from A Street in Bronzeville, Annie Allen (the book for which Gwendolyn Brooks won the Pulitzer Prize in 1950), The Bean Eaters, as well as new poems. Brooks’s sonnets are like a knife in a heart made vulnerable. I could read these poems—especially “The Sundays of Satin-Legs Smith”—again and again. Gwendolyn Brooks was the best American poet of the twentieth century, bar none.


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Native Guard

By Natasha Tretheway

Native Guard

Why this book?

Tretheway’s poetry, particularly her sonnets, are stunning and evocative and the main reason that this volume won the Pulitzer Prize for poetry in 2007. Some of the most powerful poems are spoken in the voice of a recently emancipated Black soldier who writes letters home for illiterate white prisoners of war. Whose stories are really being told by these poems? “They are cautious, dreading / the sight of us. Some neither read nor write, / are laid too low and have a few words to send / but those I give them” she writes, in “February 1863.”  Such a brilliant, brilliant book of poems.


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African American Poetry: 250 Years of Struggle & Song: A Library of America Anthology

By Kevin Young

African American Poetry: 250 Years of Struggle & Song: A Library of America Anthology

Why this book?

Kevin Young’s anthology is the latest in a long line of Black poetry anthologies; the first was James Weldon Johnson’s Book of American Negro Poetry (1922), which Young duly acknowledges. Most of Young’s choices I agree with; some I don’t (at least one of Paul Laurence Dunbar’s great sonnets should have been included); but in the main it is a terrific anthology of poets historical up to the present day. I counted almost 40 sonnets among the poems included. Readers who are interested in the dates the poems were published can turn to an extensive set of notes in the back, which are really helpful.


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Rhetorics of Literacy: The Cultivation of American Dialect Poetry

By Nadia Nurhussein

Rhetorics of Literacy: The Cultivation of American Dialect Poetry

Why this book?

Nadia Nurhussein’s book is critically important for understanding the role of dialect poetry in the African American poetic tradition. It is all too easy to dismiss the popularity of dialect poetry in America—including Black dialect—as an embarrassing phase in American taste and particularly problematic for poetry used in minstrelsy but Nurhussein argues for the importance of the craft of dialect poetry and the remarkable brilliance of Paul Laurence Dunbar’s work along with many other poets working in many other dialects.


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Faster Than Light: New and Selected Poems, 1996-2011

By Marilyn Nelson

Faster Than Light: New and Selected Poems, 1996-2011

Why this book?

Marilyn Nelson’s poetry is staggeringly good, particularly the way she writes formal poems—sonnets!—in a humble voice, like her sonnet “From an Alabama Farmer.” Nelson’s poem “To the Confederate Dead,” with its epigraph by Allen Tate is a better poem than Robert Lowell’s “For the Union Dead,” with which it is in conversation. Nelson’s ‘wreath’ of sonnets, “A Wreath for Emmett Till,” is simply sublime.


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