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date: 26 September 2022

North American Documentary Poetry and Poeticslocked

North American Documentary Poetry and Poeticslocked

  • Sarah EhlersSarah EhlersEnglish, University of Houston
  •  and Niki HerdNiki HerdDepartment of English, Washington University in St. Louis


The terms documentary poetry and documentary poetics have been used to describe a diverse range of poetic projects that either make use of historical materials or narrate historical events. In the Anglophone context, the documentary poetry tradition emerged in the late 1920s and coalesced in the 1930s in conjunction with advancements in documentary film and the heightened cultural relevance of documentary photography. The term documentary was first used in an arts context by the Scottish filmmaker John Grierson in his 1926 review of Robert Flaherty’s Moana, and Grierson’s subsequent theorizations of documentary filmmaking depended on ideas about poetry and the poetic. While, as several critics have pointed out, documentary poetry constitutes a long tradition that goes as far back as the poems of Lucretius, Ovid, and Virgil, documentary poetry is largely a 20th-century construction, one that has shifted in relation to major technological changes that transformed the landscape of poetic composition and circulation, ongoing debates over the status of the poetic lyric, and developing ideas about the relationship of poetry writing to capitalist crisis and left political activism. The long-standing critical concern with defining documentary poetry and poetics indexes changing

ideas about the relationship between poetry and other historical and political registers. Such critical concerns, however, have often treated documentary poems as if they lack generic distinction or unique formal qualities outside of the incorporation of historical documents or materials. Across the 20th and 21st centuries, documentary poets have innovated in specific modes (e.g., as Jill Magi points out using Bill Nichols’s film theory, the expository, observational, interactive, and reflexive) and forms (especially the paratactical, collage, curatorial, and restricted). Engaging with the terrains of labor precarity, ecological collapse, and widening racial inequities and violence, such forms work in tandem with socially engaged content to address historical and political realities. In the contemporary moment, major contributions to documentary poetic traditions have been from Black, Indigenous, and people of color (BIPOC) writers who innovate with documentary practices and forms to imagine new spheres of social engagement and world-building in lieu of a singular focus on institutional critique. Contemporary poets addressing the exigencies of the 21st century have also emphasized the long-standing relationship between documentary poetry and social engagement, pointing to social activism and radical pedagogy as defining features of documentary poetry and poetics.


  • North American Literatures
  • 20th and 21st Century (1900-present)
  • Poetry

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