Rita Dove raised the concern: ‘We all understand the dangers of being put into one little box.’1 From its origins, African American poetry has been more diverse and innovative than is commonly realized. In the past and present, a persistent bind for this genre has been the criterion of ‘authenticity’, which has relegated it to narrow stereotypes of how African American poetry should look, sound, and operate. The period from the end of World War II to the present has been an explosive time of poetic experimentation that extends the innovations of Modernism into the twenty-first century. This expanding body of new poetic styles equally builds on the genre’s origins. Rather than signalling a departure or new direction, such exploratory and diverse practices are based on long-present trends, goals, and characteristics. These developments are an invitation to re-examine the canon, to speculate on why such dynamic, even difficult, writing has been systematically excluded, and to redraw the picture for a more accurate and richer view of the full range of African American poetry. Exposure to overlooked, under-appreciated, and forgotten voices produces a radically transformed perspective of the scope of recent African American poetry. When examined through the prospect of innovation, a hidden canon is revealed, putting to rest those stereotypes that African American poetry is autobiographical, vernacular, unitary, and exclusively about the theme of oppression. Its legacy of bold challenge to the status quo is a defining trait. This body of writing, whose founding texts are among the most original ever produced in America, proves that tradition and innovation are not mutually exclusive.
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