Baraka, Transitions: The man and the poetry

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Tenements absorbed the sun to brick and spread the heat like a steam iron, pressing ideas flat, airless, into our street lives.  Waiting for the number to come out, welfare wary, drinking cheap wine, whining about the sure memory of the south, gaining minute reputations, habitually wanting and needing things, observed nodding to nada with the “white lady.” Colored, and recently “Black” by most definition, coping & cropping personalities to a new South in Harlem…

From around the corner a flatbed approached, like an ominous beast, loud by presence and novelty.  A parade? “Wrong way! No, turn! No, nah, now what, ahhh, mannn…” What now, that the luxury of summer was at least a warm melanin colony from the cold murder of Malcolm by black men?  What now that Harlem was living down in false promises and flamed with the hottest music in America, keeping the heat of rebellion simmered. The idea of rebellion, tone downed by Movements, movements, speeches, trials, and trying tongues wagging singin’ “Black and White together…” sounds mixing confusion while the flatbed stopped in the middle of the block.  What Now? The ensemble of actors set up the flat bed stage for their presentation of “Black Mass”, or “Jell-O” by playwright/poet LeRoi Jones.

The very young knew not to venture beyond a stoop or two, extending their neckeyes ice cream truck circus, observing the space this incident took from the space of their skinny neck street.  Teenagers resumed their predator masks and waited. Elders waited. It was very hot then, in more ways than one.  LeRoi Jones brought theatre to the masses with a bitter hope.  Jones was angry at the situation of Malcom’s death.  We, in the block with any idea of Black consciousness, would not have known how to respond to Malcolm’s death, except in the privacy of our hearts.  LeRoi Jones responded forcefully, and that was enough to seal our hearts against whatever lofty nonsense lifted the spirits through the “Simon Sez” of media.

LeRoi Jones, poet –an irregular and illusive job for a Black man in a “white” world… and from that experience, self dejected, he wanted “Black people” (his adopted “We”), to discontinue “hangin” on the “block”.  Pun intended, like lynched on the auction blick of racism & commercialization.  Amiri Baraka brings back the memory of slavery many times –what it meant, means, reminds of a racial glacier of evil, then, now, and possibly not forever.

Baraka writes in Black Magic Poetry, p.112

 

“For Great Malcolm a prince of the earth, let nothing In us rest until we avenge

Ourselves for this death, stupid animal

That killed him, let us never breathe a pure breath If

We fail, and white men call us faggots till the end of

The earth.”

 

The float moved on, after the performance, trailing a forced memory.  A silent violence contained the moment.

In retrospect, a majority of the Black community did not know who LeRoi Jones/Baraka was.  Only a few passive readers needed him, the young and militant, those with a taste of college, and some Village hunters; those attracted to an ambiance of the purported freedom and “freakiness” downtown, the “get high” hope for adventure offered down there.  I was never one for “jumping” the gun, so I read out of time of “revolutionary” death threats, though I understood the theory and intention of the act, waiting that Minton’s would make it in an obscure revolutionary immediacy of music, right across from my buildin’.  I read “Blues People”, and “Black Music”, where Baraka gave jazz history form, and Miles usta buy coke on the second floor next to the window leading down to the stairs of Minton’s.  I believed Brooklyn College was as young as me in love.  Sugar Ray pinched my ego and told me to let go his arm.  (My father being in George Gainsford’s stable).  When LeRoi Jones suggested he was metaphor Ray Robinson anytimes in tis poems, it was an enlightened familiar memory for me.  Middle class meant money and fame, and since there was little of that left after Ray, my father doin’ hair in Ray’s barber shop, or body guardin’ Jackie Wilson, then crime, I was left with the Black Power Movement, sufficient as I was to invite or entice my peers to come to Harlem from districts of America desirable to become “Black”, as entities of popular identification i.e. The National Black Theatre, where I met Sandra Elaine Jones. And it was clear, and accepted by those in the know, in the fighting spirit of Harlem, that LeRoi Jones was authentic in his conversion to a Black Movement.  Times were changin’.  A different fight.  Ol’Ray of my father was right.  “Go find some other fighter, you little chump.” I did.

In “Black Magic Poetry” p.217, from the poem “Leroy”:

 

…When I die, the consciousness I carry I will to

black people.  May they pick me apart me apart and take the

useful parts, the sweet meat of my feeling. And leave

the bitter bullshit rotten white parts

alone

 

Baraka’s poetry and his political direction is not a matter of right or wrong, but of interest and effectiveness in the power of the word larger than the thought and deed of those who read him.  No small matter if one considers the individuals who took him to heart, maybe foolish idealists, (dropping out dopiest some) and the political consequences of this persona, futile folly (doing time for a Cause they really didn’t understand), and even that he wrote poetry (dreamers for the white world, envying LeRoi’s shadow & appetite); poetry measure by more voice of action, than voice of the aesthetic love of life in the solitude of individual thoughtfulness and his choice of perspective, self-centered, more so suspect, as a late blooming Black Nationalist, etc. Transformations.

I was young and vulnerable, white folks were at best paltry figures, distant power structures of conceit, and variable ghosts (ignorance has its measure).  Baraka seemed to have caught them on the run.  Malcolm caught ‘em while they were steadfastly standing still and defying.  Baraka caught the times of art, and how it evaded issues that were important to him, as a poet/writer, as a human being, as a man, and importantly, as a successful, and acclaimed artist.  Baraka’s poetry appealed to me as shock value.  The violence, the desecration of American icons I dare not, or could not, put in intelligent perspective, or mention honestly, with sincere wicked breath; what was happening to me from a “white” world.  Baraka could, and did reveal a Black silence; the inversion verses of Black victimization, the transcendence to love of Black culture, especially, how he put down the misconstrued gentility of a Black middle class; suffering the deluding experience himself.  How he re-created, returned, emphasized, ideal eyed, wrote and spoke of a Black consciousness through jazz, blues, and the pantheonic history relevant in Black music; paralleling the injustice meted out to people of African descent, and to humanity in general.  This was all attractive to me.  So much so, that when I was drafted and returned before an Army review court after many AWOLS, I was asked, “Why do you keep doing this?’ I responded with sincere austerity, “LeRoi Jones.” The military personnel shot back cooly, “That minute (time) mind,” and left me to the decision of my Company Commander.  To this day, I can’t say what he exactly meant by that statement.  LeRoi Jones/Baraka was clear, loud and yet the poetry was there, how he screamed was screened and filtered by words.  Baraka poets—the reactionary racism, the Marxist stance etc., is a Black thick skin trying to shed thought through poetry, and becoming Black (if such a thing is possible).  Baraka while he transforms from a “white” sensibility to “Black”, writes:

 

We are strange in a way because we know

Who we are. Black beings passing through

a tortured passage of flesh. (Black Magic Poetry, p.177)

 

What is interesting about Baraka’s work is how he is immersed in the aesthetic (love, beauty, and the use of imagery/figure of speech to achieve that effect) and in the same breath deconstructs the mode, the vehicle by which he drives his point(s) home, wherein his poems become didactic.  However, when you get lines like from “Black Art”,

 

…Let there be no love poems written

until love can exist freely and

cleanly…

 

Here is a voice echoing puritanical impudence.  A mind seeking the perfect by imperfect means.

Aesthetically and politically Baraka is a revolutionary poet, for example, from “Dead Lecturer”, p.62:

 

“Rape the white girls. Rape

their fathers.  Cut the mother’s throats.

Black dada nihilismus, choke my friends…

 

No metaphor, simile, abstract imagery here, maybe a sardonic sense of humor in the line “choke my friends.” Is it a death grip? Does one choke one’s “friends?” Or does one want to get a friend’s attention.  Only Baraka knows how such violent depictions mean in the context of the written word.  Where does the reader run when such directives are put in the face of rationality? Who is so desparate as to kill at such a moment’s notice? That’s Immamu’s art. One cannot. It’s a poem.  To Baraka, the poem is a derivative weapon.  Even though Baraka didn’t write to the Black masses, he writes for them, and someone might be listening without the luxury of hanging around the intellects of downtown, or recognizing any artistic objectivity in his work, who may well believe that murder is so simple and act.  In the poem, “Black Art”, Transbluesency p142, Baraka defines his revolutionary stance in and out of the poem.  The use of figures of speech, the surrealist metaphorical imagery, vitriolic directives, all compelling reading, by force of absurd violent depictions.

 

Poems are bullshit unless they are

Teeth of trees or lemons piled

On a step…

 

Apparently and image of a poem in negation of itself. But the slight touch of meter/accent/sound and alliteration slips by (“Poems” – “piled”, “unless” – “lemons”, “Teeth” – “trees”).  Biting and enemy might work.  Leaving trees and lemons on the step might trip ‘em up.  Poems must have substance, be heavy with life, the biting bitter reality must prevail is what Baraka is saying.  This beginning image is soft compared to the following (Black Art):

 

…Fuck poems

And they are useful, wd they shoot

Come at you, love what you are,

Breathe like wrestlers, or shudder

Strangely after pissing…

 

How useful is a poem like this, to a ghetto kid, or to the indifferent populace, or to a working class Black who is searching for identity in the sixties, or now? Baraka’s audience follows his travails to becoming “Black” or being “Black” with his provocative personal revelationary poetry.  A Black middle class needed to find their lost identities through what Baraka wrote.  He writes popular heady challenging images and profanity, simple common universals to bring the reader to its senses, out of complacency (alliterated “shutter Strangely after pissing…”). Baraka’s is a “hip” down look at the unhip and victimized (some non readers) who needed and assumed they’d benefit from Baraka’s notable experience with white people, he knew ‘em, he was “hip” to them. Anti-white was in vogue then.  Theory is fine, but theory without out a living body is a mindset of futility.  King was murdered. Enter, LeRoi Jones the riot griot.

Masses of middle class Black Intelligentsia were fertile ground for Baraka’s effort to make the world a truer place to live against the “system”, and “evil” white people in general, a desperate difference from the “utopia” he longed for in his bohemian days.  He knew what to present here, up north, urban, and “hip”.  My “I”, then, was defined by LeRoi Jones representing a truth, now, wailing, missing Malcolm.  His poetry often became vindictive inside information about the thinking or non-thinking of his white compatriots; racial rhetoric in the poetic mode of his white writer “friends”.  His sister (Sandra, Sandy, Kimako, Sandy Elaine Jones…) mentioned to me that “white people” often called him asking if they could help, while we were knocking on doors for Gibson.

Affirmative as he is in these works, as he consolidates and coerces and pleads “We”, his is a demonstration of this poetic prowess and intellect, a firm disavowal to those who he no longer needed in the content of his spirit.  So, the content of his poems changed, but the form he kept.  The influences of the “Beat Generation” and their literary forefathers, he maintained, the poem remained intact.

 

…We want live

Words of the hip world live flesh &

Coursing blood…

…We want poems

like fists beating niggers out of Jocks

or dagger poems in the slimy bellies

of the owner-jews…

…Another bad poem cracking

steel knuckles in a jewlady’s mouth… (Black Art)

 

The imagery in this passage is strong and fitting to what Baraka feels. Anti-social, whatever the object, white/black or Jew. (“Jocks” was a bar where Adam Clayton Powell and Percy Sutton, and the likes, hung out).  The absurd metaphor is there, the poem as fist or dagger (unless someone can imagine and carry out and beat some middle class Black out of a bar for political reasons with an angry poem).  Autobiographical position in there.  The adventure genre, where the hero is always in danger, and love is to be emancipated is in between the lines, comic book cosmos.  It is clear he is angry with someone, but the poem survives, resolves the blood bathing images by a transcendation of the mean spirit to leveling the anger to the didactic recourse of how Black people are and should be.  The poem continues:

 

…Let Black people understand

that they are the lovers and the sons

of lovers and warriors and sons

of warriors Are poems & poets &

all the loveliness here in the world…

…Let the world be a black Poem

And let.  All Black People Speak This Poem

Silently

Or LOUD

 

But this is a later LeRoi Jones.  This is Baraka.  When, and why did LeRoi Jones become Amiri Baraka coming on like that?

Baraka had many personal/professional influences, “friends”, who shared the idea of a deconstruction, a reconstruction of Wester literature, of a Western mindset, posted in America, advancing and guarding against, or unwilling to accept things as they are. (Ed Dorn, Olson, Ginsberg…) Jones fell in with the “Beasts”, rebels with or without a cause, whose basis of rebellion was the study and often indifferent or acrid appropriation of Western literature. Baraka had an advantage in that he, by the fact of his marginal “Blackness”, was outside all along in America’s literary passages, a passing note.  Consequently, he was attracted to artists who were outsiders i.e. individuals who offset their literary fathers, anyone whose taste for life changed and adapted a living or art – anti-social, non-conformity, or anti-establishment, a need to be different in the face of a world considered corrupt and corny. LeRoi Jones, the Negro Bohemian.  Of Baraka’s influences and / or semblances, “For me, Lorca, Williams, Pound and Charles Olson have had the greatest influence,” says Baraka. (New American Poetry, 1945-1960, p.425) Baraka speaks of Williams as the one that he learned, “mostly how to write in my own language-how to write the way I speak rather than the way I think a poem ought to be written-to write just the way it comes to me, in my own speech, utilizing the rhythms of speech rather than any metrical concept.  To talk verse.  Spoken verse” (The Sullen Art, interview, p.80) From Olson, he absorbed the possibility of recreating reality if he opens the biographical, subjectivity of this feeling, his life, as lived and experienced and explored as it occurs in the creative act of writing.  In the widely anthologized poem “Preface to a Twenty Volume Suicide Note” one can witness how LeRoi Jones’ tone, control, and content in this earlier poem, is less strident than those which represented this later militant/revolutionary stance:

 

Lately, I’ve become accustomed to the way

The ground opens up and envelopes me

Each time I go out to walk the dog.

On the broad edged silly music the wind

Makes when I run for a bus…

 

This is soft music. Universal.  A tight throat, whispering.  Personal and prophetic as the wind.  The argument is strictly autobiographical.  A whim in between time.  A definition of time, with the markings of a luxury to think such thoughts.  Richness like love or and undecided happiness.  Jones’ aesthetics here, in comparison to a later voice, are beauty, nature, a faith in the possibility of beauty and the wonders of nature, form a “white” world:

 

…And now, each night I count the stars,

And each night I get the same number.

And when they will not come out to be counted,

I count the holes they leave…

 

Heaven through the punctured black space of mortality? Who knows? Jones’ was a poetry of wishfulness and metaphorical drama.  Imagination, the poetic tool of a freedom to be human.  Who knows where Baraka laughs.

The line/style/mood/voice of LeRoi Jones is recognized by its attempt to adhere to the priorities of the “Beat” poets his own thought and isolated beauty.

Even when he wrote poems that intended to be didactic in this “Black Nationalistic”, “Marxist”, “Jazzist” voice, whatever the breath, the poems held on, and the basic feel of what a “hip” artist should be prevailed; enlightened to the objective world from a subjective and informed progressive intelligence.  His poetry as Jones or Baraka is one of Self-reflection.  Though reflecting the eyes and spirit of societal blindness, he sees by autobiographical contemplation, and projects strange intangible leaps to break one out of complacency.  (crawl your eyeballs”, “consecrated hardons”, “gaschamber satori”, “tiny lace coughs”, peeled moon”, “rupture threads of light”, “Liverwurst sandwiches dry on brown fenced in lawns” …), leaving the reader to make the necessary mental transportation, like Zen Koan.  There is always the questioning hopefulness, when not screaming in despair.  (… I count the holes they leave…) The questioning is personal.  A quiet search for the quality of ones existence.  His Poems were “open”, leaving space for any small notion, to realize a stifled eternity, for any reality to come forward and possibly witness what he sees.  Yet, even in his bohemian days, Jones looked to the politics, but hear the difference in Jones’ voice then, and as Baraka:

 

Short Speech to my Friends

 

A political art let it be

Tenderness, low strings the fingers

Touch, or the width of autumn

Climbing wider avenues, among the virtue

And dignity of knowing what city

You’re in, who to talk to, what clothes

Even what buttons-to wear.  I address

/the society

the image, of

common utopia…

…(Transbluesency p.72)

 

When one reads Baraka, even in these early poems, one is challenged, subtly influenced to take upon the poetic as well as the political rhetoric of this voice.  As here “A political art” is the individual’s judgment, an address to individual freedom.  A far cry from his later “Black people/”We” poems-tributes to humanity, which he loves and continues to be a part of with a vengeance.  Who but dead or deceiving minds would challenge the force of his idea to save slaveminds from the enslaver in the subliminal question of his art.  Who knows the intimacy or hate of how he writes “nigger.”  Yet, Baraka’s poems, the content of the form is a familiar voice not uncommon to the modern drama of the issue of African-America and human suffering.  It is the unpredictable improvisation of Jazz.  And he is not careless, as to how he uses poetry.  Controversy is his hard sell.  Poetry. Black life. That.  So he tempts the jazz/street/bohemian mysterious schisms.  Entertaining the dichotomy of using Western music modulations on the blue note, forewarning a world or Black Empires, to mean a sensibility conducive to the feel of displace Africans is poetry in perpetual motion.  It’s all love.  Baraka’s a unique voice, original, only if you didn’t read a lot of white modernist, or post modernists, or Beats, or any “white” voices, but he’d lead the language to a “Black” mindfulness which were starved for release from indifference and the suspended blues halo of Langston Hughes and the Harlem Renaissance upbringing.  The period at the beginning of “Black Dada Nihilismus”, is the ending of a beginningless beginning a primordial silence:

 

Against what light

is false what breath

sucked, for deadness…

 

Is a response, to the inexplicable, and Baraka’s answer is the end to that silence, an answer which is a cry for liberation from the self, questioning, and bitter at having to deal with the burden of such contemplation:

 

Murder, the cleansed

Purpose, frail, against God, if they bring him

Bleeding I would not

Forgive, or even call him

Black dada hihilismus….

 

Involved, as Sartre, or Poe, or Burroughs, or others with the question of existence, who spent the question asking their lives to death wondering the mysterious Muse, and in the spaces of this poems, silence, which give his poetry numinous significance.  Or the period could be an erasure, or simply a period at the beginning of a sentence.

LeRoi Jones/Baraka’s transition from a Beat/avant-garde poet to a Black Nationalist/Marxist poet was not swift.  Letters written and received from his friend Ed Dorn reveal much of what he went through when deciding to leave a lifestyle which could no longer suffice his need to write and live as a Black man.  Baraka challenged Dorn on his apolitical stance, Dorn’s reply:

 

“Come on, back off.  I’m no fucking counter – anything.

I’m as truly gassed as anyone, but more embarrassed than others,

At the poor prospects of fellow poets singing the praises of any thing so venal as a

State.” (Dorn to Baraka), October 10, 1961 (Dept. of Special Colletions, University

Research Library, UCLA).

 

In a letter (October 1961) Baraka writes Dorn:

 

“… Only we, on this earth, can talk of material existence as just another philosophical problem… I know we think that to write a poem, and be Aristotle’s God is sufficient.  But I can’t sleep.  And I do not believe in all this relative shit.  There is a right and a wrong.  A good or bad.  And it’s up to me, you, all of the so called minds, to find out.  It is only knowledge of things that will bring this “moral earnestness.” (Lilly Library, Indiana University).

 

Baraka to Dorn on why and what his intentions are, in a letter written in 1962:

 

“But I want now so badly to push extreme… the one huge difference between myself and say, Allen G [insberg], … I have a program (and I don’t mean that I am “a Leftist”) much more extreme than name pretends, and certainly less organized, but still a program based on realizable human endeavor.  (LeRoi Jones to Ed Dorn, November 19, 1962, Lilly Library, Indiana University).

 

LeRoi Jones moved uptown and took whatever he could carry, words, memories, maybe guilt, whatever was worthy of this visit to the “white” house.  A Black face with a copy of Fanon in his holster, loaded killer words that fire off poetry.  His is a long arduous, conscientious journey.  In home, p248, Baraka writes:

 

“The Black artist… is desperately needed to change the images his people identify with, by asserting Black feeling, Black mind, Black judgment.  The Black intellectual, in this same context, is needed to change the interpretation of facts toward the Black Man’s best interests, instead of merely tagging along reciting white judgments of the world”.

 

Whatever Baraka’s personal or professional need is, as a poet, as Burroughs states, “We are here to go.”  Baraka writes, he goes, and has made the world of poetry important.  Now.  America is short sighted where Baraka is long winded.  Yes, he knew of Olson, Black Mountain College, the “Beats”, “friends”, and all the America that feed on his soul and he on theirs – luckily for them he saw the light in the darkness and continued a unique sound.  Mixing words and revolutionary anguish, he gives a direction that would not have occurred without him.  Black folk wouldn’t’ve so much information if he didn’t hurt and breathe so heavily in his art.  So as he left those he loved and wrote for, he redefined, and legitimized their American spirit by broadcasting injustice, the horror of slavery and the beauty of Jazz and its people.  Baraka empowered the execution of the word by handing it a metaphorical gun, dagger, razor or fist, as an immediate language for human potential:

 

…We want poems that kill”

Assassin poems, Poems that shoot

Guns… (Black Art)

 

As Baraka made moves in his work, and in his life, he wrote, to friends, to lovers, for himself, for Black people, to the thought of a flatbed stage in Harlem:

 

I don’t love you. Who is to say what that will mean?

I don’t love you, expressed the train, moves, and uptown, days

Later we look up and breathe much easier

I don’t love you (BMP, P55)

 

And he split

 

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2 responses to Baraka, Transitions: The man and the poetry

  1. Francis Lewis High School,NY, English Dept. April 27, 2017 at 5:29 pm

    Great read. Why the typos?

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