Today, poetry is alive and well. Leading newspapers frequently publish poems and devote entire sections to the discussion and review of the latest collections; the public, as it always has, turns to poetry for solace or to make sense of uncertain times; thousands of college graduates walk across the stage each year and collect advanced degrees in poetry, from bachelors’ to MFAs to PhDs. However, this often comes as a surprise to most people, who typically think that poetry died out in the Middle Ages and survives only as the plaything of hipsters. Frankly, it’s not hard to understand why people think poetry has died, and that’s because many people don’t see anyone who looks like them writing anything new—they just see old, dead men on the covers of dusty anthologies.
Eric Weiskott, an assistant professor of English at Boston College, discusses the popular view of poetry as antiquated and esoteric in a recent Inside Higher Education article. After noting that he finds himself in the position of defending the very medium of poetry to his students—an all too common experience for those of us who have taught required poetry courses at the intro level—he refers to a petition circulated among students at Yale University last year calling on the English Department to end a class entitled Major English Poets.
A required course which lasts for an entire year, Yale students felt that Major English Poets featured a parade of white, male writers and did not do enough to acknowledge the literary accomplishments of women, people of color, queer, trans, or disabled individuals.
“It is possible to graduate with a degree in English language & literature by exclusively reading the works of (mostly wealthy) white men,” wrote Yale student Adriana Miele in the Yale Daily News last spring. “Many students do not read a single female author in the two foundational courses for the major.”
Alas, this problem is not restricted to Yale alone. According to the Open Syllabus Project, of the 10 most commonly taught poems in college courses across the United States, only two authors are nonwhite and only one is a woman. Of course, poets of the white male variety have made and continue to make significant contributions to the world of poetry, but theirs aren’t the only contributions. Neglecting the literary accomplishments of women, people of color, and other underrepresented authors does a disservice to students as well as the authors themselves and perpetuates the idea that poetry—like many of the white male writers in its pantheon—is dead.
The great irony is that there are so many incredible female poets, poets of color, queer poets, and so on to choose from! In the realm of contemporary poetry, The Golden Shovel Anthology celebrates the work of Gwendolyn Brooks—an acclaimed African-American female poet—and features poems by women, people of color, and others.
Much of poetry’s success in both past and present is due to the contributions of women, people of color, queer, differently abled, and other marginalized artists. Poetry may find itself on solid footing today, but in the future, the poetry community—publishers and educators in particular—need to pay more attention to the diverse voices that make this genre great. Yale has taken the first step toward a more inclusive approach to poetry by making Major English Poets an optional rather than required course, and it’s time for others to take that step for themselves.