In Praise of The Kwansaba

photograph by Jonah Willner

1. For the last month or so, I’ve been teaching an after-school writing workshop at a charter school here in Newark and it has been an absolute pleasure. Working with these students, all of them young women of color, has reminded me why poetry and arts education are crucial to the success of our youth. This post will focus on a recent assignment to workshop took on: the KWANSABA.

2. The Kwansaba is a genuinely African-American poetry form. Created during the peak of the Black Arts Movement, in coordination with the creation of Kwanzaa itself, a kwansaba is praise poem that is seven lines long with seven words in each line with no word longer than seven letters. Given the significance of the number seven to Kwanzaa, the celebration’s meaning is literally built into the poem.

3. The Kwansaba is usually the first form I introduce to my students. Typically, formal poetry is taught as if the European writing tradition is the only one civilized enough to have created valuable and lasting forms, as if there aren’t countless Latin, African, and Asian forms that are equally important and useful. (Most teachers like to throw in a cursory explanation of the haiku as a fun little excursion into the poetry of “Asia”.) My students will learn about the sonnet from me (How could they not?) but for now, I want them to enjoy writing in a form that comes from their own heritage. This is not because I believe black poetry is for black people but because it’s crucial that we remind our young people that literature and literacy are not inherently WHITE.

4. Another reason the kwansaba is a great form to teach young people, high school and middle students especially, is that it’s a poem of praise. Young writers are often only moved to write about their own extreme sadness, love, or anger. These emotions are valid and should be recognized, but they are not the only emotions out of which poems can spring. Challenging students to write a kwansaba requires them to shine a light on their own lives, to meditate on gratitude for a least seven well-crafted lines. Working with students in a city like Newark, I’ve noticed that they could use some optimism. These students are incredibly intelligent, but also a bit cynical. They have seen loved ones go to the jail, die in the streets, so forth and so on. Sometimes writing a kwansaba can help remind them that, even in the midst of hardship, there are joys worth praising and preserving on the page.

5. As far as form goes, the kwansaba is great for beginnings. No need to count syllables or stress over meter. It’s all about the number seven. Seven lines. Seven words. No more than seven letters. The form’s accessibility keeps students from panicking (I dare you to ask a 14 year old to write a villanelle.) but also challenges them. My students found the seven letter requirement to be pretty tricky. One girl pulled out her vocabulary card and started making lists of words no longer than seven letters. That’s a wonderful & useful challenge.

6. Finally, kwansabas like all forms, are great because they force young writers to slow down. My students often think that if they can’t complete the poem in less than five minutes, the poem is never going to happen. By its nature, however, the kwansaba forced the students to work on their poems for the entire week (gasp!) and to meditate on the importance of words down to the very letter.

7. Finally, here’s the kwansaba I have written in honor of the workshop students at Northstar Academy in Newark, New Jersey.

To Polaris

Not even day can outshine you, star.

Lost in skyward gaze, I see you

and think of wayward ships. Your light,

our guide home, away from world’s edge

again and again, but aren’t you tired?

Explain your faith in us. Tell us

what you see in our dark voyages.

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10 responses to “In Praise of The Kwansaba

  1. You know, I have an entire series of these, right? Courtesy of Eugene Redmond creating the form. It is a great form to teach to students. I like “To Polaris” too. Thanks for sharing the kwansaba with young people. I keep collecting short poetic forms from different cultures too for the same reasons you mention above.

  2. Of course I know about your wonderful series. I should share them with my students.

  3. “Typically, formal poetry is taught as if the European writing tradition is the only one civilized enough to have created valuable and lasting forms, as if there aren’t countless Latin, African, and Asian forms that are equally important and useful.”

    The instructional failure here isn’t the exclusion of certain forms from certain curricula, but a refusal to acknowledge that art and artifacts produced by many different, often competing cultures accrete significance through (space)time, i.e., chronology is important.

    North American students very generally encounter European forms before renga or gushi or other geo- or ethnographically identifiable forms, not because any one is more “important” or “useful,” but because the NA canon (and everything written at its periphery, inevitably) has drawn for so long (and will continue to draw) on the literary traditions of those cultures that congealed together into what became the West (with a capital “W”). I assume that’s what’s meant by “the European writing tradition.”

    But it’s never been a question of whether a society is “civilized enough” to produce something “valuable and lasting,” but at what point in history does any given culture accumulate the kind of clout through sociopolitical and economic exchange with other groups of humans to distinguish themselves as artists worth recognizing.

  4. Really enjoyed reading that, I did not know of the form before now. I think it sounds like a great form to introduce to young people, especially if they’ve never thought about form.

  5. “seven words in each line with no word longer than seven words”

    Each word no longer than seven syllables? I’m into the form; Saeed, can you clarify?

    -Jason.

  6. this is such a fantastic idea. i was not familiar with this form (which is a shame!) but perhaps it will be what i work on this next week as i try to get some new material down on paper. looking forward to sharing this blog around 🙂

  7. Hey Jason – Sorry about the typo: It’s seven lines long. Seven words in each line. No word longer than seven letters.

    I’m glad people are finding this post to be helpful.

  8. Thank you for the from and for “To Polaris”–really lovely.

  9. Zahra Marie Darby

    What a meaningful post to find on the form, it’s necessary use, and the canon’s frailty. Your poem is a church with all that praise, amen!

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