There is a music in me, the music of a peasant people.


From “The Banjo Player,” by Fenton Johnson

Minor Poets: Volume 1 is the first collection in an anthology series meant to highlight lesser known Black poets and establish a broader perspective of writing by Black authors in America. The volume includes excerpts from seven poets writing in the late 19th and early 20th centuries: George Moses Horton, Fenton Johnson, Georgia Douglas Johnson, Henrietta Cordelia Ray, David Wadsworth Cannon, Jr., Anne Spencer, and Angelina Weld Grimke. Despite their technical skill and cultural impact in the Black community, all of these authors remain conspicuously absent from most, if not all, textbooks and anthologies.

Editors Dr. Joshua Bennett and Jesse McCarthy curate the volume with a goal to “amplify, and echo, the voices of a multitude of black poets who have been undertheorized or altogether ignored…as authors…as teachers, community members, and historical actors…” In so doing, what they offer in Minor Poets: Volume 1 is an essential addition to both individual bookshelves and classroom syllabi. The editors offer keen insight into the project by way of their introduction, as well as a very brief introduction into the significance of each poet at the outset of each section. This format allows for readers to encounter each poet with a basic understanding of their importance, making it an ideal anthology for survey courses and readers working to garner a stronger understanding of Black contributions to American poetry outside the traditional canon.

The anthology opens with a section dedicated to George Moses Horton, known by contemporaries as the “black bard of North Carolina.” Horton is arguably one of the most prolific American poets of his time, a feat made all the more remarkable because Horton began composing poems long before he learned to write. He is credited with being the first Black author published in America, the first enslaved person published in America, and the first author to use poetry as a means to protest slavery, among other accomplishments. In “On Liberty and Slavery,” Horton employs common verse to argue that freedom is a God-given right:


Oh, Liberty! thou golden prize,

So often sought by blood—

We crave they sacred run to rise,

The gift of nature’s God!


Horton’s use of poetry as a means to challenge the institution of slavery is foundational to the long history of Black authors who use writing to protest systemic injustices. During his lifetime, though, Horton was most celebrated for his verses on love, which he sold at the market years before he published his first book.

The importance and vitality of each poet included in Minor Notes: Volume 1 cannot be understated. Fenton Johnson, for example, is credited with being the first American poet to conceive of prose poetry that reflects a relationship between the sentence and the paragraph. Poems like “The Banjo Player” and “The Scarlet Woman,” for example, preempt explorations of the prose poem in contemporary writing by more than half a century. He was a seminal figure in the Harlem Renaissance, one of the earliest contributions to Poetry magazine, and a successful writer across genres. The editors feature authors like Fenton Johnson and his contemporary, Georgia Douglas Johnson, as part of their effort to “recuperate…those who were exceedingly well known in their time and since seem to have fallen out of the popular consciousness.”

Another poet in the anthology, Angelina Weld Grimke, is presented as a minor poet in large part because her contributions were largely ignored “until black feminist critics and poets began rediscovering her in the early 1980s” in part because Grimke expressed lesbian desire in her work, and because she chose to keep much of her writing private during her lifetime. In “Brown Girl,” Grimke tenderly writes, 

Your eyes spill sunlight

Over the dusk.

Close your eyes,

I hear nothing but the beating of my heart.

The editors suggest that “it may be that the generation that can embrace Grimke and her work is only just now emerging,” alluding to an ever expanding community of Black queer artists and theorists. Centering her work within the anthology offers an opportunity to more fully develop a legacy of Black queer poetry and introduce readers to yet another voice decades ahead of her time.

Minor Poets: Volume 1 is a carefully curated anthology that presents key figures in Black poetics who deserve a place in conversations around American poetry. This is a must read for scholars and lay readers alike.

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