The best books on Black poetry

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

Who am I?

I have been writing and teaching about African American poetry and poetics for more than two decades. My passion began when I kept discovering long-lost poems that were published once, in Black newspapers, and then forgotten. I wondered why I had never learned about Gwendolyn Brooks in school, though I’d read about e.e. cummings and Robert Frost. Once I stumbled on the fact that Claude McKay discovered cummings, I realized how much the questions of influence and power aren’t really central topics in thinking about the genealogy of Black poets and their influence on each other and on poetry in general.

I wrote...

Forms of Contention: Influence and the African American Sonnet Tradition

By Hollis Robbins,

Book cover of Forms of Contention: Influence and the African American Sonnet Tradition

What is my book about?

Forms of Contention tells the story of 250 years of African American sonnet influence: who wrote sonnets and when, who published sonnets, who praised and who opposed the form, who wrote about them critically, how sonnets were included in anthologies, how sonnets have been in and out of fashion, and how sonnet writers contended with each other’s works. The story of the sonnet’s appeal to African American poets from the nineteenth century through the tumultuous twentieth and into the twenty-first, even as sonnet writing remained a vexed pursuit for black poets, for black poetry anthologizers, for Black Arts advocates, and for Black Studies academics, is rich and surprising.

Forms of Contention argues persuasively that the sonnet form should no longer be considered a European form but is in fact an African American poetic form, since some of the best practitioners for the past generations have been Black poets.

The books I picked & why

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Selected Poems

By Gwendolyn Brooks,

Book cover of 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.

Native Guard

By Natasha Tretheway,

Book cover of 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.

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

By Kevin Young,

Book cover of 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.

Rhetorics of Literacy: The Cultivation of American Dialect Poetry

By Nadia Nurhussein,

Book cover of 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.

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

By Marilyn Nelson,

Book cover of 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.

5 book lists we think you will like!

Interested in African Americans, poetry, and 20th century?

5,309 authors have recommended their favorite books and what they love about them. Browse their picks for the best books about African Americans, poetry, and 20th century.

African Americans Explore 403 books about African Americans
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And, 3 books we think you will enjoy!

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