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.

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The books I picked & why

Selected Poems

By Gwendolyn Brooks,

Book cover of Selected Poems

Why did I love 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.

By Gwendolyn Brooks,

Why should I read it?

1 author picked Selected Poems as one of their favorite books, and they share why you should read it.

What is this book about?

Selected Poems is the classic volume by the distinguished and celebrated poet Gwendolyn Brooks, winner of the 1950 Pulitzer Prize, and recipient of the National Book Foundation Medal for Distinguished Contribution to American Letters. This compelling collection showcases Brooks's technical mastery, her warm humanity, and her compassionate and illuminating response to a complex world. This edition also includes a special PS section with insights, interviews, and more—including a short piece by Nikki Giovanni entitled "Remembering Gwen."

By 1963 the civil rights movement was in full swing across the United States, and more and more African American writers were increasingly outspoken…

Native Guard

By Natasha Tretheway,

Book cover of Native Guard

Why did I love 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.

By Natasha Tretheway,

Why should I read it?

1 author picked Native Guard as one of their favorite books, and they share why you should read it.

What is this book about?

Winner of the 2007 Pulitzer Prize for poetry and former U.S. Poet Laureate, Natasha Trethewey's elegiac Native Guard is a deeply personal volume that brings together two legacies of the Deep South.
The title of the collection refers to the Mississippi Native Guards, a black regiment whose role in the Civil War has been largely overlooked by history. As a child in Gulfport, Mississippi, in the 1960s, Trethewey could gaze across the water to the fort on Ship Island where Confederate captives once were guarded by black soldiers serving the Union cause.?
The racial legacy of the South touched Trethewey's…

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

Why did I love 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.

By Kevin Young,

Why should I read it?

1 author picked African American Poetry as one of their favorite books, and they share why you should read it.

What is this book about?

A literary landmark: the biggest, most ambitious anthology of Black poetry ever published, gathering 250 poets from the colonial period to the present

Across a turbulent history, from such vital centers as Harlem, Chicago, Washington, D.C., Los Angeles, and the Bay Area, Black poets created a rich and multifaceted tradition that has been both a reckoning with American realities and an imaginative response to them. Capturing the power and beauty of this diverse tradition in a single indispensable volume, African American Poetry reveals as never before its centrality and its challenge to American poetry and culture.

One of the great…

Book cover of Rhetorics of Literacy: The Cultivation of American Dialect Poetry

Why did I love 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.

By Nadia Nurhussein,

Why should I read it?

1 author picked Rhetorics of Literacy as one of their favorite books, and they share why you should read it.

What is this book about?

Rhetorics of Literacy: The Cultivation of American Dialect Poetry explores the production and reception of dialect poetry in late nineteenth- and early twentieth-century America and investigates the genre’s rhetorical interest in where sound meets print. Dialect poetry’s popularity stems not only from its use as an entertaining distraction from “serious” poetry, but as a surprisingly complicated pedagogical tool collaborating with elite literary culture. Indeed, the intersections of the oral and textual aspects of the dialect poem, visible in both its composition and its reception, resulted in confusing and contradictory interactions with the genre.


In this innovative study, Nadia Nurhussein demonstrates…

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

Why did I love 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.

By Marilyn Nelson,

Why should I read it?

1 author picked Faster Than Light as one of their favorite books, and they share why you should read it.

What is this book about?

Conjuring numerous voices and characters across oceans and centuries, Faster Than Light explores widely disparate experiences through the lens of traditional poetic forms. This volume contains a selection of Marilyn Nelson's new and uncollected poems as well as work from each of her lyric histories of eighteenth-, nineteenth-, and twentieth-century African American individuals and communities.

Poems include the stories of historical figures like Emmett Till, the fourteen-year-old boy lynched in 1955, and the inhabitants of Seneca Village, an African American community razed in 1857 for the creation of Central Park. ""Bivouac in a Storm"" tells the story of a group…

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