African American Poetry (1870-1928): A Digital Anthology

Poetic Form in African American Poetry

African American poets between 1870 and 1928 used poetic forms in some really intriguing ways, and this site has only just begun to tag poems according to poetic form. 

The use of traditional forms such as the sonnet was pretty widespread, and forms such as the ballad, the ode, and the elegy were also widely popular.

Some African American poets used the sonnet in particular in transgressive ways. In contrast to the romantic themes one might expect with Elizabethan sonnets, many African American sonnets are explicitly political and confrontational. Poets like Claude McKay and Georgia Douglas Johnson, one might say, used the prestige of the sonnet as a form to make arguments that were clearly transgressive vis a vis the Anglo-American tradition. 

Elegies were also important, especially as ways of marking the passing of important figures involved in supporting civil rights. Abraham Lincoln, Booker T. Washington, and especially Paul Laurence Dunbar were among the most frequent topics for elegiac writing. 

The 1920s era poet and editor Jessie Fauset in particular experimented with more technical French forms such as the Rondeau and the Villanelle. By and large, more technical forms were not widely used by African American poets during this period, though one does find instances of Quatrain (as stand-alone poem), Rime Royale, Terza Rima, Ballade, Sestain, and others. 

Starting in the early 1920s, we start to see more free verse writing, especially among the younger generation of writers, with Langston Hughes and Helene Johnson being  especially prominent practitioners. A few writers also experimented with the Japanese Haiku (sometimes spelled Hokku). 

Finally, a number of poets used musical forms such as the Blues as a poetic form as well. Langston Hughes published many poems using the Blues form, especially in his second collection of poetry, Fine Clothes to the Jew

(Note: we have, in some limited instances been using AI tools such as ChatGPT to help identify poems in the Anthology that may adhere to the various poetic forms mentioned above. Thanks to Melanie Walsh and Anna Preus with their assistance in this effort.)

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