by Sarah Goodman
American poetry has always been foundational to our culture. “The New Colossus,” Emma Lazarus’s 1883 poem now engraved on the Statue of Liberty, Henry Wadsworth Longfellow’s “Paul Revere’s Ride,” Edgar Allan Poe’s “The Raven,” and “The Road Not Taken” by Robert Frost, are all almost instantly recognizable. We study and memorize these iconic poets beginning in elementary school. We read them at funerals, weddings, graduations, and even at Little League Baseball opening days. American poetry beats with our hearts from our births to our deaths.
And yet, often missing from our lists of favorites and most studied, are our treasured Black American authors. Just as American history was and continues to be built upon the roots and foundations of its African American people, so too is its American poetry. Black poets have been writing their experiences and hearts into art from the birth of our nation, through the Harlem Renaissance, the on-going Civil Rights Movement, our tumultuous 2020, and onward. Reading her poem, “The Hill We Climb,” during the 2021 Presidential Inauguration, the very first Youth Poet Laureate, Amanda Gorman, joined Elizabeth Alexander and Maya Angelou as Black American inaugural poets. Black American poetry really is the foundation of American poetry, as well as its own monument apart from it.
As a white woman, I know I can never experience or speak to the experiences of any Black American, but Black poetry is as close to my heart as any of my literary loves. There is love, joy, pain, beauty, and truth in Black poetry that I can only love as an outside observer.
In an effort to increase the visibility of and elevate the voices of Black poets, the Chillicothe and Ross County Public Library has recently added many poetry anthologies and collections by Black poets, with some of these being the first copies added to a library in Ohio outside of the large Cleveland, Columbus, and Cincinnati public library systems. I have not read them all yet, but I hope to.
Please join me during Black History Month and beyond in reading and cherishing Black American poetry. Listed below are five poetry books in our collection released in 2020, and 10 books new to our collection published prior to 2020. We have even more coming in 2021.
The following books are available for browsing at our Main, Northside, and Mount Logan locations. Place a hold on one and pick it up curbside using our new Click & Collect feature on the SEO Libraries app. Those marked with * can be found as ebooks using our Libby or Overdrive apps, and those marked with ^ have audiobook editions.
African American Poetry: 250 Years of Struggle & Song, A Library of America Anthology
Edited by poet, teacher, and director of the Smithsonian Institution National Museum of African American History and Culture, Kevin Young. Made possible by the national public humanities initiative, “Lift Every Voice: Why American Poetry Matters,” this stunning and vast anthology gathers together essential poets and poems across literary and cultural movements in African American History. I can’t say anything better than Cathy Park Hong, from praise on the back cover, that this anthology makes “it evident that so much of the center of American poetry is Black poetry.” For more information about the project, author readings, photos, a timeline, and other multimedia, head to africanamericanpoetry.org.
Make Me Rain: Poems & Prose by Nikki Giovanni
A new collection from beloved seven-time NAACP Image Award winner, Grammy nominee, Langston Hughes Medallion holder, and recipient of the very first Rosa Parks Woman of Courage Award. Giovanni continues to inspire and enlighten in this collection that covers personal topics like family, love, her Black heritage, and death, and with timely poems about racism and white nationalism. *^
The Weary Blues by Langston Hughes
Celebratory 90th-anniversary edition with a new introduction by Kevin Young. A must read for anyone interested in poetry. From the foreword, “Langston Hughes’s first book, published by Knopf in 1926, is one of the high points of modernism and… the Harlem Renaissance. Nearly 90 years after his book first appeared, Hughes’s innovation still resonates with its rich lines and fascinating lives – the very liveliness it brought to the world.” *
Homie /poems/ by Danez Smith
Smith was a finalist for the National Book Award and recipient of the Forward Prize for best poetry collection. I tried using a thesaurus seeking words that mean more than “moving,” “heartrending,” and “meaningful,” but nothing felt like enough. This book is deeply important to me and yet it is one that I was thinking of when I wrote about myself as an outside observer above. This book is Not For Me, and if I were not a library clerk, I may not have read it. It felt like an intrusion, a stealing, to read this and attempt to feel the strength of these emotions, and it feels like that because, as a white woman, it’s the truth. It feels like essential reading but I have no business saying for whom. ^
Capable Monsters by Marlin M. Jenkins
Jenkins writes with piercing emotion and clarity about race, sexuality, oppression, trauma, and childhood using the world of Pokémon as metaphor and symbol. I don’t really understand Pokémon, but this collection still shook me to my core, and I felt his words as deeply as my kids feel their passion about their card collections.
American Sonnets for My Past and Future Assassin by Terrance Hayes (2018), winner of the 2019 National Book Award, 2018 National Book Award for Poetry finalist, shortlisted for the 2018 T.S. Eliot Prize. ^
Catalog of Unabashed Gratitude by Ross Gay (2015), 2015 National Book Award Finalist, 2015 National Book Critics Circle Award for Poetry, 2016 Kingsley Tufts Poetry Award. *
Maya Angelou: The Complete Poetry by Maya Angelou (2015). Angelou received the Coretta Scott King Award, Langston Hughes Medal, National Meda of Arts, multiple Grammy awards, and multiple NAACP Image Awards, and more. *
The Essential Gwendolyn Brooks, edited by Elizabeth Alexander (2005). Brooks was a recipient of the Pulitzer Prize for Poetry, the Robert Frost Medal, and the National Medal of Arts, among many others.
Magical Negro by Morgan Parker (2019). Parker won the 2020 National Book Critics Circle Award. She is the recipient of the 2017 National Endowment of the Arts Literature Fellowship. *
Monument: Poems New and Selected by Natasha Trethewey (2018), with stunning gold endpapers. Trethewey is also a Pulitzer prize winning United States Poet Laureate.
play dead by francine j. harris, (2016), winner of the 2017 Lambda Literary Award. *
Prelude to Bruise by Saeed Jones (2014), winner of the 2014 Lambda Award for Poetry, 2014 National Book Critics Circle Award, 2015 PEN/Joyce Osterweil Award for Poetry, and 2015 Stonewall Barbara Gittings Literature Award. *
Shake Loose My Skin: New and Selected Poems by Sonia Sanchez (1999). Sanchez is a winner of the PEN Writing Award, National Endowment for the Arts Fellowship Award, American Book Award, Langston Hughes Poetry Award, and Harper Lee Award.
2Fish (a poetry book) by Jhené Aiko Efuru Chilombo, (2018). Chilombo is Grammy, AMA, and Soul Train nominated, and a winner of a BET Award.
Sarah Goodman is a Public Services Clerk at the Mt. Logan location on the east side of Chillicothe.