Experiments in black: African-American avant-garde poetics

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The American republic has, throughout its history, been thought of as something of an experiment. Certainly my home institution, the Pennsylvania State University, was venturing some mode of experiment when, in 1894, it hired Fred Pattee as the first professor of American Literature at an American University. Pattee’s 1896 essay “Is There an American Literature?" asked a question I was still hearing during my own graduate student days. It was a particularly inhumane experiment in slavery that brought Phillis Wheatley from her home in Africa to New England in childhood, where she promptly took up the study of the classics and became the first African American to publish a volume of poetry. Centuries later, Kenneth Warren has published a critical book whose title, What Was African American Literature?, seemingly implies that the experiment that began with Wheatley (though in his view African American literature as a literature begins considerably later) ended with the Civil Rights era. The very status of “experimental poetry” has always been a fraught subject; all the more so the very idea of black experimental writing, this despite the palpable existence of experimental modes of African American poetry visible on the library shelves of America. The very idea; among the many benefits of the Civil Rights, Black Power and Black Arts moments of the twentieth century’s second half was the bringing into critical view of such works as Jean Toomer’s Harlem Renaissance era modernist, multi-genre Cane and Langston Hughes’s wildly innovative, late modernist Ask Your Mama, published in 1961. Yet as quickly as these works were recovered, the idea of experimentalist black poets, a given in any anthology of black American poetry of the late 1960s or early 1970s, was subsumed by a critical literature more given to endless celebration of mainstream creative writing, leavened by a seemingly unending academic fascination with the innovations of Hip Hop and the poetic grandchild of the Black Arts and of 1960s rap sessions, Rap, now codified with the appearance in 2010 of the Yale University Press Anthology of Rap.

Original languageEnglish (US)
Title of host publicationThe Routledge Companion to Experimental Literature
PublisherTaylor and Francis
Number of pages15
ISBN (Electronic)9781136301759
ISBN (Print)9780415570008
StatePublished - Jan 1 2012

All Science Journal Classification (ASJC) codes

  • General Arts and Humanities


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