You might usually find me praising various volumes of contemporary poetry that focus on history. Several poets, including Elizabeth Alexander, Rita Dove, Tyehimba Jess, Natasha Trethewey, Kevin Young, and many, many others have produced books that concentrate on historical figures and time periods. But although the poets employ up-to-date and innovative styles of writing, one wonders: why do so few volumes by prominent contemporary poets focus on contemporary subjects?
There are several reasons, I suppose, and one might relate to cultural capital or prestige. In the world of poetry and more specifically the world of African American poetry, many award-winning volumes focus on historical subjects, which is to say institutions and judging bodies tend to reward poets for producing writers and works that address the past. Publishers take note of what kinds of volumes and poets win and offer support accordingly.
Even beyond the world of poetry, African American literature and literary study place a premium on works that highlight history. That Toni Morrison, whose works often concentrate on historical moments, remains our field's single most written about author, indicates the cultural and scholarly significance of black literary artists who concentrate on history.
There was a time when poets who focused on their contemporary era received more attention. During the black arts era, for instance, there was high value placed on poets who wrote about the contemporary political and cultural scenes of the late 1960s and 1970s. Amiri Baraka critiqued current presidents and politicians as readily as some poets today write about slavery. As the field of poetry shifted and became more institutionalized during the 1990s and onward, however, poets who addressed history were rewarded for choosing historical subjects over popular ones.
Not surprisingly, spoken word artists, whose genre is less institutionalized, often concentrate on contemporary subjects, but they generally receive far less rewards and funding than literary poets who are affiliated with universities. In addition, rappers (and black public intellectuals) became far more visible commentators on contemporary issues confronting African Americans than poets. Of course, it's not that contemporary poets do not write about contemporary issues. Some of them do. However; the incentives, including recognition, to write about the past are more prevalent and thus determines the kinds of poets who receive notice.