In her stirring essay “The Difficult Miracle of Black Poetry in America,” June Jordan recalled serving as the final judge for a poetry prize in the mid-1980s. As she sifted through the last round of manuscripts, she began to jot down recurring nouns: moon, elms, lilac, gulley, tundra.
“Sixteen different manuscripts of poetry written in 1985 and not one of them uses the terms of my own Black life!” she noticed. The poets, all white, wrote of pumphandles and snow geese, never of low wages or police shootings, never of the global events of the era — of apartheid in South Africa, famine in Ethiopia.
“I did not and I would not presume to impose my urgencies upon white poets writing in America,” Jordan wrote. But she marveled at the persistence of Black poets, so intent on writing about freedom even as their work was derided as “topical” or “sloganeering”: “This is the difficult miracle of Black poetry in America: that we persist, published or not, and loved or unloved. We persist.”
The new Library of America anthology “African American Poetry: 250 Years of Struggle and Song,” edited by Kevin Young, is a monumental tribute to that persistence, from the colonial period to the present. It features poems on injustice, harassment, hunger — protests on the page — but also rapturous odes to music and food, to gawking at beautiful strangers, to boredom and birth pains and menopause, and, yes, to moon, elms and lilacs, too.