Diaspora and the Avant-Garde in Contemporary Black British Poetry

  • Lauri Ramey


What does it mean to be an avant-garde poet if one is Black and British today? Are there different definitions for avant-gardism in this context than for the historical avant-garde movements of the twentieth century? Patience Agbabi and Anthony Joseph are two younger Black British poets whose poetry and poetics differ dramatically, yet both often are characterized as “avant-garde.” Citing her favorite poem, Agbabi names Robert Frost’s “The Road Not Taken” a treasured icon that employs tidy structure to bury thorny irony under populist appeal. Agbabi mentions canonical figures such as Chaucer, Wordsworth, and Browning among her important literary models, and frequently writes rhymed metrical verse, notably sonnets and sestinas. In contrast, Joseph lists Kamau Brathwaite, Amiri Barak a, Ted Joans, Bob Kaufman, the Mighty Sparrow, Lord Kitchener, Henry Dumas, and Wilson Harris among his main influences. These Black authors—highly respected though far less likely to appear on college syllabi than Agbabi’s exemplars—explode poetic conventions to convey the difficulties of linguistically encapsulating their diasporic experiences, ideas, and histories.


British Culture Double Consciousness British Identity Young Poet Canonical Figure 
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    For related discussion of the relationship between the categories of the avant-garde and the diasporic in relation to Black British poetry, see Lauri Ramey, “Situating a ‘Black’ British Poetic Avant-Garde,” in Black British Aesthetics Today, ed. R. Victoria Arana (Cambridge: Cambridge Scholars P, 2007), 79–100. For a personal reflection on the experience and situation of a self-described Black avant-garde writer in England today, see Anthony Joseph’s essay “The Continuous Diaspora: Experimental Practice/s in Contemporary Black British Poetry,” Black British Aesthetics Today, 150–56.Google Scholar
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© Carrie Noland and Barrett Watten 2009

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  • Lauri Ramey

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