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‘Decolonizing Poetic Form’ by Emilia Phillips

— Andrew Sargus Klein

The work of literature (the struggle, really) is to continually stay open. Emilia Phillips says it better when she begins her short essay ‘Decolonizing Poetic Form’ with, “There’s no such thing as a singular ‘poetic tradition.’ To suggest otherwise is horrendously erasive of the myriad poetic traditions, many of them oral, belonging to the world’s diverse cultures.”

Maybe that’s obvious to some, but it bears repeating.

Indeed, “poetic tradition” is often seen as a vacuum, of sorts, where anyone can say anything, because the position of the writer is one of limitless possibility. This stance is regressive and conservative; the work of literature is to stay open; the work of the writer—and, really, anyone—is to maintain a practice humility.

Phillips focuses on how academic (white, conservative) poetry is too often derisive of forms that exist outside of its canon:

Let’s be clear: not all people have the same kinds of access to the same kinds of knowledge. Not everyone has the opportunity to study Shakespeare and Keats and Pound in depth. Not everyone has the same access to these texts—and here we should view “access” as both tangible (that is, the ability to own or borrow a copy of a text) and cultural (the insight into the text’s language usage and its sociohistorical background). These are problems of educational equity: who has been exposed to what kinds of information.

Phillips is looking at slam poetry and the sonnet form and illustrates how literature can stay open to both its older and newer forms. The “both” is the hard part. That takes work (the sort of work Phillips is doing), because it means writers and readers and academics alike need to be as aware of what they don’t know as much as what they do. It means staying open, page after page, voice after voice.


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