If any of you follow me on Twitter or have friended me on Facebook, you might have seen some of my posts griping about Poetry Daily’s National Poetry Month Picks. In case you don’t know what I’m talking about, let me catch you up.
Every April (National Poetry Month), the website Poetry Daily asks thirty poets (of their own choosing) to present one of their favorite poems and then discuss the poem. Then Poetry Daily sends a poem a day to their subscribers. (You can subscribe for free).
The poem should be eighty years old or more and has moved into the public domain, because of copyright laws and all that. For example, the public domain issue is going to affect my favorite book in the whole world, Their Eyes Were Watching God. This will happen in about seven years. Frankly, I don’t know how I feel about that, because while I’m thrilled that more people will be able to read this book—online for free—I’m not thrilled that publishing companies will be able to make money for publishing this book, while Hurston’s family will not see a dime.
Anyway, a while back, Poetry Daily asked me to present a poem, which was really nice of them. In fact, I’ve been asked twice. The first time, I chose Phillis Wheatley’s “On Being Brought From Africa to America.” The second time, I chose Paul Lawrence Dunbar’s “A Negro Love Song.” When I chose the Wheatley poem, I didn’t know I was supposed to get all scholarly with my explanation on why I loved it, but I’d caught on by the time I picked Dunbar.
I hear you saying to yourself, “Honorée, if you’ve been chosen to present a Poetry Daily Poetry Pick, what’s your beef?”
Or, to quote Lawrence Fishburne as Ike Turner,” Now, what the problem is?”
Well, my issue is that for several years now, I’ve noticed that the poets during National Poetry Month—nearly all of them white—overwhelmingly pick white, male poets to talk about. I’ve never seen a white poet choose a black poet, let alone a Native American, or Latino. There have been a couple of ancient Asian Poetry Picks, and the Hispanic exceptions usually have been Lorca and Neruda, but I’ve never heard either of these guys called “Latino.” I can’t hate on Neruda and Lorca, because they have soothed my soul more than once. And there are some dead white male poets—along with some live ones—that I dig as well, like Whitman and Shakespeare and Keats. (Etc., etc., etc.)
Now let me say this: it is not Poetry Daily’s fault that the National Poetry Picks are usually all white. They just ask the poets to pick. But since there are thirty days in April, it might occur to Poetry Daily that if you only ask two black poets and a couple more colored folks only every other year then you aren’t going to get anything but white poets picked.
What I’m saying is, I didn’t know National Poetry Month was supposed to be called “All White Poets Except for Langston Hughes and A Couple of Other Negroes Besides Him National Poetry Month.”
The poetic segregation is hard to notice. I noticed once that one of my good friends who is a black poet chose Keats one year to talk about, perhaps in an effort to encourage racial cross-pollination, but you know what? His choice didn’t work. He just became the one brother who picked a white guy to talk about during National Poetry Month. Bless his heart.
Most of the young white poets I know who have earned MFAs are familiar with black poets who published during the past thirty years. They can talk all day long about Rita Dove, Yusef Komunyakaa, Natasha Trethewey, Major Jackson, Terrance Hayes, or Van Jordan. And that’s a good thing, for sure.
But ask them most of them about somebody like Countée Cullen and they say, “Who?” I’m serious. One of the most major poets of Harlem Renaissance, and they have never heard of him.
A while back, I mentioned Gwendolyn Brooks to a young white poet–who had finished her undergrad degree and was now in graduate school–and she hadn’t heard of Brooks. When I said, “Well, you should find out who this woman is,” this young poet shrugged her shoulders.
I am asking you white poets out here who teach to please let your students that black poetry did not begin with Rita Dove. And if you need to go back and do some reading, don’t feel ashamed. I’m always having to step up my reading on white poets, myself. That’s what cultural literacy is all about.
Although, I love me some Rita Dove, there is a whole canon of earlier African American poetry that is actually quite good. Let’s start with the Harlem Renaissance and then let’s move back to, say, George Moses Horton.
Here’s a poetry pick of my own by Cullen to get this ball rolling. This is one of my favorite poems of all time–and by the way, Cullen LOVED himself some John Keats. I guess he knew a thing or two about cultural literacy.
When you get to the last two lines, you’ll know why I love it and I figure I won’t need to explain anything else about this poem.
Yet Do I Marvel
I doubt not God is good, well-meaning, kind,
And did He stoop to quibble could tell why
The little buried mole continues blind,
Why flesh that mirrors Him must some day die,
Make plain the reason tortured Tantalus
Is baited by the fickle fruit, declare
If merely brute caprice dooms Sisyphus
To struggle up a never-ending stair.
Inscrutable His ways are, and immune
To catechism by a mind too strewn
With petty cares to slightly understand
What awful brain compels His awful hand.
Yet do I marvel at this curious thing:
To make a poet black, and bid him sing!