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EN986 Topics in American Poetry

Dr David Grundy

Please see here for a pdf of the syllabus

(This module will run in term 2 of the 2019-2020 academic year)


Image from Douglas Kearney, over deluxe af(2018)


Reduced to simplification, distortion, or simply ignored, the forms of African-American poetry have not been well understood. By contrast, this course proposes that a study of those forms has much to tell us about past, present and future. Beginning with the breath (the fundament) and ending with contemporary hip-hop, this course covers some of these numerous forms, from sonnets to sound poetry, signifyin(g) to prose poems, the blues to free jazz, the dozens to trap, suggesting various through-lines that might enable us to move all the way from Claude McKayto Migos. Through this, we’ll address just some of the many debates throughout the twentieth and the twenty-first centuries around, for example, the role of vernacular language, ebonics / AAVE, ‘high’ and ‘low’ speech, tradition and innovation, orality and literacy. Over these ten weeks, we’ll look (and listen) to poems that challenge conventional distinctions between ‘mainstream’ and ‘avant-garde’, the aesthetic and the political, the written and the spoken. This term’s reading forms a sort of anthology of poetry, music and criticism, with the aim to provide a close focus on a relatively small selection of poems, rather than venturing across entire books. Much of this poetry is closely connected to music, and we'll do a good deal of listening, to both poetry and music, throughout: as well as set reading, each week also contains around an hour of audio material, provided via a youtube playlist. Please see this as of equal importance to the reading. Some of this poetry can be hard to obtain, and material will be circulated in advance. (A number of out-of-print texts are available at the ECLIPSE web archive, “a free on-line archive focusing on digital facsimiles of the most radical small-press writing from the last quarter century” – in particular, material relating to the Black Radical Tradition:


Each week I’ll get a number of you to give presentations (not assessed) on that session’s material in order to initiate discussion. The course will be assessed by one 6,000 word essay at the end of term.


Finally, a Content Warning:Please be aware that some of the texts and audio we will be studying contain inflammatory language and material, including racial and sexual slurs.


Course Outline

[Week 1] Breath

Reading:Nathaniel Mackey, ‘Breath and Precarity’ and ‘the overghost ourkestra’s next’, in Poetics and Precarity, eds. Myung Mi Kim and Cristanne Miller (SUNY Press, 2018); Ntozake Shange, ‘Programme Note to Sassafrass, Cypress, and Indigo’, in See No Evil: Prefaces, Essays and Accounts, 1976-1983 (Momo’s Press 1984); Frantz Fanon, trans. Haakon Chevalier ‘Algeria Unveiled’ in A Dying Colonialism(Monthly Review Press, 1959/1965).

Listening: Tracks by Ben Webster, Coleman Hawkins, Eric Dolphy, Archie Shepp, Sonny Rollins, Roscoe Mitchell, and Roland Kirk on the Week 1 course playlist.


[Week 2] Blues 

Reading:Bessie Smith and Ma Rainey lyrics (see also listening); Langston Hughes, poems from The WearyBlues(Knopf, 1926) and Fine Clothes to the Jew(Knopf, 1927); Sterling Brown, ‘Ma Rainey’ from Southern Road(Harcourt, Brace & Co., 1932); Etheridge Knight, ‘feeling fucked up’ (and see recording below), ‘con/tin/u/way/shun blues’ and ‘Poem for Myself’from The Essential Etheridge Knight(1986); Pat Parker, ‘going to the bridge now’ from The Complete Works of Pat Parker(A Midsummer Night’s Press, 2016)

Listening: Bessie Smith, Ma Rainey, Virginia Liston, Langston Hughes, Sterling Brown, Tom Weatherly, and Etheridge Knight on the Week 2 course playlist. Note in particular Liston’s line “laughing to keep from crying”, famously used by Hughes to characterise the blues.

Criticism: Angela Davis, from Blues Legacies and Black Feminism(Vintage, 1999); Amiri Baraka (LeRoi Jones), from Blues People(William Morrow, 1963)


[Week 3] Sonnets

Reading:Claude McKay, ‘If We Must Die’, ‘Outcast’, ‘The Lynching’, [‘Tiger’] from Harlem Shadows(1922); Gwendolyn Brooks, ‘Gay Chaps At The Bar’ and ‘The Children Of The Poor’ from A Street in Bronzeville(1945) and Annie Allen(1949), in Blacks (Third World Press, 1987); Lorenzo Thomas, ‘MMDCXIII ½’ from The Bathers(I. Reed Books, 1981); Wanda Coleman, from American Sonnets(Membrane Press, 1994); Terrance Hayes, from American Sonnets for my Past and Future Assassin(Penguin, 2018).

Listening (shorter this week): Claude McKay, Gwendolyn Brooks, Wanda Coleman, Terrance Hayes (and Harryette Mullen) on the Week 3 Course Playlist.

Criticism: Elizabeth Alexander, ‘New Ideas about Black Experimental Poetry’ (2011 Hopwood Lecture) – Section4: “again wild”);Antonella Francini, ‘Sonnet vs. Sonnet: The Fourteen Lines in African American Poetry’, RSA Journal 14 (2003).


[Week 4] Signifyin’ and The Dozens

Reading: Langston Hughes ‘New Kind of Dozens’ from Simple Stakes a Claim(Rinehart & Company, 1957 – originally in Chicago Defender, 1955); Ask Your Mama: Twelve Moods for Jazz(Knopf, 1961); H. Rap Brown, from Die N***** Die! The Autobiography of H. Rap Brown(Dial Press, 1969); Amiri Baraka, ‘Word from the Right Wing’, ‘TT Jackson Sings’, from Black Magic(William Morrow, 1969); June Jordan, ‘Getting Down to Get Over (Dedicated To My Mother)’ (1972) from Directed by Desire: The Complete Poems of June Jordan(Copper Canyon Press, 2005); Etheridge Knight, ‘Dark Prophecy: I Sing of Shine’, from The Essential Etheridge Knight (University of Pittsburgh Press, 1986); Larry Neal, ‘Negliphcs’ from Black Boogaloo(Journal of Black Poetry Press, 1969) and ‘Shine’ poems from Hoodoo Hollerin’ Bebop Ghosts(Howard University Press, 1974).

Listening: Speckled Red (dozens); Rudy Ray Moore and Johny Brooks (Signifying Monkey); Schoolly D (Signifying Rapper); Rudy Ray Moore (Shine) (and compare Leadbelly’s ‘The Titanic’ and Etheridge Knight, ‘I Sing of Shine’), on the Week 4 Course playlist.

Criticism: Henry Louis Gates, from The Signifying Monkey: A Theory of African American Literary Criticism (Oxford University Press 1988); Robin Kelley, ‘Looking for the “Real” Nigga: Social Scientists Construct the Ghetto’ in Yo’ Mama’s Disfunktional!: Fighting the Culture Wars in Urban America(Beacon Press, 1997); Larry Neal, ‘And Shine Swam On’ (1968), from Visions of a Liberated Future: Black Arts movement Writings(Thunder’s Mouth Press, 1988)


[Week 5] Prose Poems

Reading: Fenton Johnson, ‘Tired’, Others, 1919 (and frequently anthologized); Jean Toomer, Selections from Cane(Liveright, 1923) ; Margaret Walker, ‘For My People, ‘Southern Song’, ‘Today’, from This is My Century: New and Collected Poems(University of Georgia Press, 1989); Harryette Mullen, from Recyclopedia (Graywolf Press, 2006); Claudia Rankine, from Citizen (Graywolf Press,)

Listening: Recordings by Margaret Walker, Harryette Mullen and Claudia Rankine; Marion Brown, ‘Karintha’, from Geechee Reccollections(1973) and Gil Scott-Heron, ‘Cane’ (1978) (tracks inspired by Toomer). Available in the Week 5 Playlist.

Criticism: Aldon Lynn Nielsen, ‘Black Margins: African-American Prose Poems’, in Reading Race: An Arena of Act(2000)


[Week 6] The Coltrane Poem

Reading: A.B. Spellman, ‘John Coltrane: an impartial review’ (1965), ‘Did John’s Music Kill Him?’ (1969) from Aldon Nielsen & Lauri Ramey (eds.), Every Goodbye Ain’t Gone(University of Alabama Press, 2006); Jayne Cortez, ‘How Long Has Trane Been Gone’ (1968), Don L. Lee (Haki Madhubuti), ‘Don’t Cry, Scream’ (1969), Sonia Sanchez, ‘a/Coltrane/poem’ (1972), all in appendix to Benston (below); Tom Weatherly, ‘the yellow brick road (for trane)’, from Mau Mau American Cantos(1971); Amiri Baraka, 'AM/TRAK(Nadja Editions, 1979) (and recording with Air).

Listening: Recordings by Baraka, Cortez (from Celebration and Solitudes, with bassist Richard Davis, 1974), Sanchez, Madhubuti, music by John Coltrane: see Week 6 playlist.

Criticism: Kimberley Benston, ‘Renovating Blackness: Remembrance and Revolution in the Coltrane Poem’, in Performing Blackness: Enactments of African-American Modernism(Routledge, 2000); Sascha Feinstein, ‘From ‘Alabama’ to A Love Supreme: The Evolution of the John Coltrane Poem’ (Southern Review, Vol.32, Issue 2, Spring 1996).


[Week 7] Free Jazz Poetics

Reading / Listening: Cecil Taylor, Unit Structures(Blue Note, 1966) and Embraced(Pablo, 1978, with Mary Lou Williams) – music and liner notes; Taylor, Chinampas(Leo Records, 1987); Joseph Jarman, ‘Non-Cognitive Aspects of the City’ (text in Black Case, Volume I & II: Return from Exile(Art Ensemble of Chicago Publishing, 1977) and Nielsen / Ramey, Every Goodbye(2006); music and recitation on Song For(Delmark, 1966)); Archie Shepp, ‘The Wedding’, from Live in San Francisco(Impulse, 1966) and ‘Mama Rose’ from Poem for Malcolm(BYG / Actuel, 1969); Jeanne Lee (with Shepp), ‘Blasé’ (BYG / Actuel, 1969) and Conspiracy(Earthforms Records, 1974).

Listening: Taylor, Jarman, Shepp, Lee as per above, on the Week 7 course playlist, with additional tracks by Shepp (with poet Ted Joans at the Pan-African Festival in Algiers) and the Art Ensemble of Chicago.

Criticism: Aldon Nielsen, ‘Other Planes of There’, from Black Chant: Languages of African-American Post-Modernism (Cambridge University Press, 1997).


[Week 8] Experiments in Page and Sound

Reading: N. H. Pritchard, Poems from The Matrix(Doubleday, 1970) and other poems on Eclipse; Lloyd Addison, ‘After MLK: The Marksman Marked Left-Over Kill’, fromThe Aura and the Umbra(Paul Breman, 1970); Russel Atkins, poems from Here in The(Cleveland State University Poetry Center, 1976) andspyrtual(7 Flowers Press, 1966; Julie Ezelle Patton, ‘When the Saints Go’, from Nielsen/Ramey, What I Say; Douglas Kearney, ‘Swimchant for N**** Mer-Folk (An Aquaboogie Set in Lapis’), ‘Black Automaton’ and ‘Floodsong’ poems in The Black Automaton (Fence Books, 2009); Julia Fields, ‘Shuffled’ and ‘When That Which Is Perfect If Come (Or, On The Neutron Bomb’), in Slow Coins: New Poems (and some Old Ones)(Three cointents Pres 1981); M. NourbeSe Philip, from Zong (Wesleyan University Press, 2008)

Listening: Recordings of Pritchard, Atkins, Patton, Kearney and Philip; spirituals sung by Mahalia Jackson, Sister Rosetta Tharpe and Paul Robeson; music by Matana Roberts and Julius Eastman on the Week 8 playlist.

Criticism: Anthony Reed, from Freedom Time: The Poetics and Politics of Black Experimental Writing(JHU Press, 2014); Paul Stephens, ‘The transrealism of Norman Pritchard’(Jacket 2, 2019)


[Week 9] Hip-Hop: Roots.

The tracks this week are aural and available on the Week 9 playlist.

Reading / Listening: Charles Mingus, ‘Freedom’ from Mingus x 5(Impulse, 1961);Amiri Baraka, from It's Nation Time(Black Forum, 1972); Nikki Giovanni (with the New York Community Choir), ‘Ego-Tripping’, from Truth Is On Its Way(Right-On Records, 1971); Sarah Webster Fabio, from Jujus: Alchemy of the Blues(Smithsonian Folkways Recordings, 1975); The Last Poets, from The Last Poets(Douglas, 1970); Gil Scott-Heron, Small Talk at 125thand Lenox(Flying Dutchman, 1971); The Watts Prophets, from Rappin’ Black in a White World(ALA Records, 1971); Gylan Kain, The Blue Guerilla(Juggernatu Records, 1970 – sampled by KMD); Lightnin’ Rod, Hustler’s Convention(United Artists Records, 1973 and later version by Grandmaster Melle Mel and the Furious Five).

Criticism: Imani Perry, from Prophets of the Hood: Politics and Poetics in Hip Hop (Duke University Press, 2004)


[Week 10] Hip-Hop: The 21st Century 

Reading: Simone White, from Dear Angel of Death(Ugly Duckling Presse, 2018); Quenton Baker, ‘Transient (2)’ from This Glittering Republic(Willow Books, 2016)

Listening: Tracks on Week 10 course playlist. Mick Jenkins, ‘Gwendolyn’s Apprehension’, from Pieces of a Man(2018) (with reference to Gwendolyn Brooks, ‘We Real Cool’); Earl Sweatshirt, Nowhere Nobody(video, 2018),Solace EP (2015); Future, ‘I Serve the Base’, from DS2(2015); Moor Mother (Camae Aweya), Fetish Bones(2019); Vince Staples, ‘Blue Suede’ from Hell Can Wait EP(2014), ‘norf norf’ from Summertime ’06(20); also TI (for the origin of trap), Migos, ‘Bad and Boujee’, 21 Savage, and more Future.


Selected Secondary Reading

Elizabeth Alexander’s essay ‘New Ideas about Black Experimental Poetry’ (The Hopwood Lecture, 2011) is an extremely useful introduction to some of the central questions we’ll be addressing, and has interesting close readings / case studies of texts : on sonnets, particularly those of Gwendolyn Brooks (on the reading for week 3), on Langston Hughes’ Ask Your Mama(on the reading for week 4) and on the prose poetry of Fenton Johnson and Jean Toomer (on the reading for week 5). Stephen Henderson’s Understanding the New Black Poetrywas an absolutely crucial book when published in the early 1970s; it contains an exhaustive analysis of different categories and forms of African-American poetry, as well as an extensive example of poems themselves. Aldon Nielsen’s Black Chant, published in the 1990s, was again pioneering, providing a useful challenge to the orality / literary binary which had dominated a lot of debates about form in African-American since the 1960s in particular, as well as to literary histories which denied the presence of African-American experimental / avant-garde writing. I’d recommend reading the whole book, but we’ll be consulting chapters from it in our weekly reading. Evie Shockley’s Renegade Poeticstakes things up to the present, with some useful reflections on post-Black Arts Movement writings such as those of Harryette Mullen, who we’ll be looking at in Week 5. Finally, two crucial anthologies: Every Goodbye Ain’t Gone andWhat I Say, both co-edited by Aldon Nielsen and Lauri Ramey, the first collecting experimental writing by black writers during the mid-century period, the second taking things up to the present day. Many of the poets who feature in this course also feature in these anthologies.


This all merely scratches the surface, but is a good way of navigating the field.


Stephen Evangelist Henderson, Understanding the New Black Poetry(William Morrow, 1973)

Aldon Lynn Nielsen, Black Chant: Languages of African-American Post-Modernism(Cambridge University Press, 1997)

Aldon Lynn Nielsen and Lauri Ramey (eds.),Every Goodbye Ain’t Gone: An Anthology of Innovative Poetry by African Americans andWhat I Say: Innovative Writing by Black Writers in America(University of Alabama Press, 2009 and 2015)

Lauri Ramey, A History of African American Poetry(Cambridge University press, 2019)

Evie Shockley, Renegade Poetics: Black Aesthetics and Formal Innovation in African American Poetry(University of Iowa press, 2011)

Sylvia Wynter, ‘Ethno or Socio Poetics’ (Alcheringa, New Series, Vol.2, no. 2 1976)