Before Modernism: Inventing American Lyric

How Black poets have charted the direction of American poetics for the past two centuries


Feb 14, 2023
6.13 x 9.25 in.
24 b/w illus.
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Before Modernism examines how Black poetics, in antagonism with White poetics in the late eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries, produced the conditions for the invention of modern American poetry. Through inspired readings of the poetry of Phillis Wheatley Peters, George Moses Horton, Ann Plato, James Monroe Whitfield, and Frances Ellen Watkins Harper—as well as the poetry of neglected but once popular White poets William Cullen Bryant and Henry Wadsworth Longfellow—Virginia Jackson demonstrates how Black poets inspired the direction that American poetics has taken for the past two centuries. As an idea of poetry based on genres of poems such as ballads, elegies, odes, hymns, drinking songs, and epistles gave way to an idea of poetry based on genres of people—Black, White, male, female, Indigenous—almost all poetry became lyric poetry. Jackson discusses the important role played by Frederick Douglass as an influential editor and publisher of Black poetry, and traces the twisted paths leading to our current understanding of lyric, along the way presenting not only a new history but a new theory of American poetry.

A major reassessment of the origins and development of American poetics, Before Modernism argues against a literary critical narrative that links American modernism directly to British or European Romanticism, emphasizing instead the many ways in which early Black poets intervened by inventing what Wheatley called “the deep design” of American lyric.

In dialogue: How does poetry help?