The Ethics of Experimental African American Poetry

G. Matthew Jenkins, assistant professor in the department of English, investigates the work of seven African American poets’ writing since World War II.

In his project, Jenkins investigates ethics in the work of seven African American poets writing since WWII—Melvin B. Tolson, Stephen Jonas, Mark McMorris, Erica Hunt, Will Alexander, Nathaniel Mackey, and Harryette Mullen—in the context of what has traditionally been an all-white tradition of experimental American verse, including the Imagists, the Objectivists, and the Language poets. This larger tradition has often been overlooked in discussions of ethics because of its innovative formal and stylistic experimentation. Furthermore, this narrower group of black writers has been doubly ignored because their poetry often does not fit the politically didactic model of ethical criticism in literary scholarship, particularly cultural studies. Jenkins argues, however, that it is precisely their experimentation with the discourse of race that makes their poetry ethical because it invites (and sometimes forces) the reader to face what is “other,” or unknowable, about human experience.