The Sweet and Angry Music of Amiri Baraka
Mar 25, 2015
16 Min read time
Image from the cover of LeRoi Jones's Black Magic (1969).
Amiri Baraka is one of the most invisible of visible poets. Readers see him but they don’t really see him. They see what they want or need to see. Interference from beyond the text—social or ideological static—too often gets in the way. And his poetry is simply hard to find: it is either out of print or available only from little presses which usually don’t make it into the big bookstores and mainstream imagination. The one Baraka book that is everywhere is Blues People (1963), which has never gone out of print. Its success suggests that the grand struggle of black people in America, told through the story of black music from spirituals to free jazz, is one of Baraka’s most effective and powerful narratives. It connects without being offensive or threatening. It is highly theoretical, a precursor to cultural studies and critical race theory, satisfying on both emotional and intellectual levels. But there is equal and analogous power to be found in the less well-known poems.
Baraka’s career began very differently. He won an Obie, the off-Broadway theater award, for his 1964 play Dutchman, and his early poetry was published by such major houses as Grove Press and Bobbs-Merrill. Other work came out with William Morrow, a publisher who stayed loyal to Nikki Giovanni, if not Baraka. Several theories try to explain Baraka’s disappearance from the mainstream—some point to anti-Semitism, some his political move to the left, and others the persistent and unconscious traditional aesthetics of many critics. Baraka’s alleged anti-Semitism is a complex issue played out in an explosive but not subtle public area, where name calling replaces serious discussion. And after the 1930s, being leftist has rarely helped the reputation of an American poet. As for the last point, a recent review of Baraka by New York Times critic Dwight Garner epitomizes the pervasive divisions that continue to skew so many “aesthetic” judgments. He writes: “There are two ways to rank writers, the poet John Berryman said, ‘in terms of gift and in terms of achievement’ . . . Baraka’s achievements . . . were only rarely equal to his talents. He went from beatnik to Black Nationalist to Marxist, and his political voice slowly ran over his poetic one.” How are we to judge the artistic achievement of a poet who is at once a New American poet, post-war avant-garde poet, a politically engaged poet, and a jazz poet—a poet for whom process, commitment, and context are more important than some static ideal of perfection?
You can now make up your own mind about Baraka, as Grove Press has returned to him and published his new selected poems, SOS: Poems, 1961–2013. The volume was overseen by Baraka’s long-time editor Paul Vangelisti. Though not flawless—suffering from typos and a disappointing preface—it is a big handsome book, over five hundred pages. I love holding it; I love the cover with Baraka, hands clasped, staring out at me; I love the weight. The collection surveys Baraka’s entire career from Beat bohemian to black and then red revolutionary, generously stretching chronologically from the first book, Preface to a Twenty Volume Suicide Note (1961), to recent uncollected poems.
• • •
Baraka is an autobiographical poet. “Let my poems be a graph / of me,” he writes, but this graph is always more than personal, always also social and political. His poems tell the story of his life and times. Preface to a Twenty Volume Suicide Note transpires in the Beat world of the 1950s. The poet declares his existential despair (“Nobody sings anymore”), shows the limitation of the poet’s role (“Remember, I do not have the healing powers of Oral Roberts”), fuses pop and ethnic art (“Tonto way off in the hills / moaning like Bessie Smith”), and begins his remarkable experiment of turning African American musical form and content into American poetry:
The changes are difficult, whenyou hear them, & know they are all in you, the chordsof your disorder
This book came out when I was in my late teens and helped me to find my direction as a young poet. Baraka was part of the same camp as I was: New American poetry, the world of Allen Ginsberg, Charles Olson, and Robert Creeley. At the time, I was much whiter, less interested in my black identity; I responded to the Beat Baraka, not the black one. I identified with poems such as the comic “For Hettie,” not included in SOS, about the left-handed bohemian wife who is “always trying to be / different.” It is a fun poem, both mocking and celebrating nonconformity. I did not identify with poems such as “The New Sheriff”: “There is something / in me so cruel, so / silent. It hesitates / to sit on the grass / with the young white / virgins.” Neither Baraka nor I knew the explosions that were coming to our lives. Baraka’s transformation is as important for literature as Malcolm X’s was for politics.
The chronological structure of SOS makes a narrative of Baraka’s aesthetic, personal, and political development. In his 1964 collection of dense and beautiful lyrics, The Dead Lecturer, a black revolutionary evolves before our eyes. Though I was too close, too young, and too naïve to understand these poems at the time, today they show the world of the conflicted black intellectual very clearly: self-hating, alienated, both loving and despising the dominant culture. In “An Agony. As Now,” the poet observes:
I am inside someonewho hates me. I lookout from his eyes. Smellwhat fouled tunes come into his breath. Love hiswretched women.
Baraka is the Frantz Fanon of poetry, the poet-psychologist of the radical black intellectual. Through autobiography instead of psychiatry, he scrutinizes the impact of close contact with the dominant culture and the use of violence for both personal liberation and revolution. His poem “Short Speech to My Friends”—these are white friends—deserves many readings; it concludes with these lines:
Let the combination of moralityand inhumanitybegin.
Baraka suggests that liberal ideas and ideals will no longer suffice, that he will have to harden himself to revolutionary violence to bring about a better more humane world. Like Fanon he recognizes the legitimacy of violence.
In “Rhythm & Blues” Baraka takes on the persona of Western civilization. He knows that if he preaches the dogma of love, and not of hate, he will be celebrated by the culture, will become legend. In this persona, he praises the black individual that the world desires:
This is the man whosaved usSpared us from the disappearance of the sixteenth note, thedestructionOf the scale
But through musical metaphors, he explains that he does not want to save white civilization from its destruction. Returning to his own voice, he asserts: “I will not move to save them. There is no / ‘melody.’ Only the foot stomped, the roaring harmonies of need.” He rejects such music, the music of ideas or ideals, for the music of the black masses, for the needs of those masses. Like John Coltrane, the great free jazz saxophonist, Baraka wanted “to murder the popular song,” “do away with weak Western forms.” These forms are weak because they are false: as they speak of humanism, their speakers loot and destroy the earth. Throughout his Black Nationalist years, one of Baraka’s main goals is to counter Western lies.
Baraka is indigestible, or at least hard to digest; that is part of his greatness.
With its stuck-full-of-pins, blue-eyed, yellow-haired voodoo doll cover, Black Magic (1969) is Baraka’s collection in which race takes center stage, tracking his full break from his white friends and movement toward becoming a revolutionary artist. This new position is spelled out in “A Poem Some People Will Have to Understand.” “Some People” and “My Friends” are one and the same—Baraka’s old liberal Village friends, with their failed idea of rebellion, a rebellion that could not help black people. The poem ends:
We have awaited the coming of a naturalphenomenon. Mystics and romantics, knowledgeableworkersof the land.But none has come.(Repeat)but none has come.Will the machinegunners please step forward?
Baraka’s poem declares that it is pure romanticism to think that change is possible within current social structures. With his “machinegunners,” he asserts that change will only come through violent revolution. To achieve a “Black World,” as he states in “Black Art,” “We want ‘poems that kill.’ / Assassin poems, Poems that shoot / guns.” Baraka wants poems with “teeth,” written in strong and vernacular language that will move the black masses to action.
By 1975, Baraka’s poems begin to present race in class terms. The enemy is no longer “whitie” but international capital. The poems shift from a commitment to Black Nationalism to asking for “the new socialist reality, its [sic] the ultimate tidal wave.” The poem in which this quotation appears—“A New Reality Is Better / Than a New Movie!”—was originally published in Hard Facts, a mimeographed, stapled pamphlet. It was a stark illustration that after Baraka became a Marxist, he was published less and less by mainstream presses. Not widely known, these socialist poems represent some of Baraka’s finest and most inventive work, including his great Coltrane poem “AM/TRAK” (“Trane was the spirit of the 60’s / He was Malcolm X in New Super Bop Fire”), and “In the tradition” for Black Arthur Blythe, the jazz alto saxophonist. These two poems present black music as revolutionary. As Baraka’s poems argue, the whole tradition—from the slave songs to free jazz—says:
During his Marxist period, it became clearer and clearer to Baraka that black music, produced by a struggling people, embodies the revolutionary impulse in its very fiber and structure. From the militant pounding of work songs to the melody-transforming rapid notes of bebop to the form-destroying atonal rhythms of free jazz, this music asserts its own voice and demands freedom from all forms of white oppression.
Like William Carlos Williams, Langston Hughes, Allen Ginsberg, H.D., Melvin Tolson, Anne Carson, Nathaniel Mackey, and Charles Olson, Baraka has written one of the most significant long poems of the twentieth century. Yet Wise, Why’s, Y’s (1995) is not well known, probably because it was published by a small press, but even more probably because it was published by a black one. It contains the history of the African American in the New World:
If you ever findyourself, some wherelost and surroundedby enemieswho won’t let youspeak in your own languagewho destroy your statues& instruments, who banyour omm bomm ba boomthen you are in troubledeep trouble. . . .probably take you several hundred yearsto getout!
The African comes to America, is surrounded by a hostile and dominating culture which forces her to give up her culture and language, including the language of music that is beyond words (“omm bomm ba boom”). Baraka bitterly and bitingly understates the tragic destruction of African American culture (“you are in trouble / deep trouble”) and mockingly underplays the black heroic struggle (“probably take you several hundred years / to get / out!”). Is this blues laughter—the kind of laughter that keeps you from crying?
At the upper right corner of the first page of each section of this poem, Baraka notes what black music should accompany it. For the above excerpt, it is “Nobody Knows the Trouble I Seen.” In the context of Baraka’s epic, the spiritual takes on a social meaning instead of a religious one. Baraka becomes an American griot, channeling an oral tradition of storytelling from West Africa; he narrates the story of his tribe, a story that, as Kathy Lou Schultz observes, includes “the genocide of slavery, Reconstruction and the oppressive Black Codes, the Great Migrations, and the shift to an urban Black population.” In SOS: Poems, Vangelisti makes a generous selection of this virtually ignored poem of tremendous scope and ambition, providing a good sense of its volume. The selection ends with this dark quip:
“Y THE LINK WILL NOT ALWAYS BE‘MISSING’ #40”The Wise OneTraneThink of SlaveryasEducational!
The music Baraka pairs with this poem is John Coltrane’s tranquil and meditative “The Wise One.” But I think the title of the piece matters as much as the composition. If one has learned the meaning of the history of slavery and its consequences presented by Baraka as griot in these pages, “one” has become a “wise one.” This last section is both gallows humor and profound truth.
• • •
In 1996, Baraka published Funk Lore, another small press volume, containing his Duke Ellington poems, which reveal both Baraka’s aesthetic evolution and his return to beauty. In his early books Baraka worked for beauty but, as an honest poet, he let the ugliness of the world intrude. Especially during his Black Nationalist period, his language and subject matter became brutal, brutalized, as the music of the age also became harsh and violent. Though a new, rough beauty persisted in his work, it feels different from this concluding lyric from “One Thursday I Found This / in My Notebook”:
When love & the Soulare uncoveredthen you will alwayssound likeDuke Ellington
The second Ellington poem, “DUKE’S WORLD,” meditates on Ellington’s creative genius, “the explanation / beauty makes,” concluding, “Duke’s world / Is where we go if we are good.” It is not clear to me whether Duke’s World is part of the real world or separate from it, a refuge (“expansive gardens”) from the here and now. In “Black Art,” one of Baraka’s most brutalized poems, he wrote, “Let there be no love poems written / until love can exist freely and / cleanly.” Perhaps he finally accepted the fact that love will never exist at large in the world but only individually. We certainly find that individual love expressed in his late love poems to his wife, Amina. “Notes to Sylvia Robinson from When I Saw Her Walking Through the Projects in 1966” and “Ballad Air & Fire” are some of the most exciting and engaging pieces in the collection, both lyric and tender.
SOS: Poems ends with these poems and others largely unpublished in book form and therefore new to most readers. The happy news is that Baraka continued to produce wonderful and lively poetry until the end. Included here is Baraka’s “controversial”—that adjective critics so often use in the first lines of their reviews—“Somebody Blew Up America,” which is a great exercise in political poetry. Though powerful and well crafted, it is marred by unnuanced indictments of power and Internet gossip. But let the reader decide on its truth and power: what is fantasy and what is reality?
The most delightful discovery I made in SOS: Poems is “All Songs are Crazy,” which ends:
I who have learned singing from the oldest singersIn the world and have sung some songs myselfWant to create that song that everybody knowsAnd that everybody will sing one day.So what is left to do? That is how the songBegins.
What sweet music. Baraka creates melody through the repetition of “sing” and its variations, the alliteration of “s” in “sung some songs,” the repetition of “o” in “some songs,” “everybody knows,” and “one,” the repetition of “i” throughout, the graceful rhythm of enjambments, the dignified pacing, the elevated diction. Although this poem is another example of Baraka’s return to lyricism, this is not the only direction of his verse—he continues to be a relentless critic of our society.
With Baraka’s death the critical climate seems less icy toward him. Maybe people are no longer afraid that Baraka is going to talk back to them, bite their heads off. I wonder if people will see Baraka more clearly now. But seeing him, understanding him, requires more than having the texts easily available. I think of these sentences from Ralph Ellison’s classic novel, Invisible Man (1952): “I am invisible, understand, simply because people refuse to see me. Like the bodiless heads you see sometimes in circus sideshows, it is as though I have been surrounded by mirrors of hard, distorting glass.” Readers will have to struggle to find the real Baraka instead of the cartoons created over the years. To think of Baraka in terms of jazz figures, the people who he has emulated, is helpful. The young militant Baraka followed the avenging angel John Coltrane; the mature Baraka molded himself after the angular, haunting, metaphysical Thelonious Monk. I hear Monk’s song in the late poetry and see Duke Ellington’s epic vision.
In Barnes & Noble the other day I saw Maya Angelou’s new book prominently featured, but Baraka’s was nowhere to be found. In December, William McDonald, the New York Times the obituary writer, celebrated both as members of the “veritable legion of the laureled.” Celebrating Baraka is new for theTimes: this too seems to come after his death. Where Angelou’s book is described on its inside flap as consisting of “sage advice, humorous quips, and pointed observations,” Baraka offers nothing so easy to take away. He is indigestible, or at least hard to digest. To come to terms with him—his in-your-face language, strong feelings, and radical ideas—is not easy; that is part of his greatness.
Paul Vangelisti and Grove Press have done American literature a service by making a major poet easily available. Let us hope that a scholarly edition of collected poems, carefully edited with notes, critical apparatus, and introductions, is in our near future. For now, we have a big handsome book of Amiri Baraka’s poetry to give us word magic, wit, wild thoughts, discomfort, and pleasure.
March 25, 2015
16 Min read time