Le Roi Jones, a.k.a. Amiri Baraka
AMIRI BARAKA'S BLACK MOUNTAIN
By Lewis Turco
60 on the 60's (1969), the anthology of poetry edited by Robert McGovern and Richard Snyder, covered the issues of that decade of civil protest and public war. There was cause during those years for anguish on the part of many, including those to be found inhabiting the American academy. The editors, in their "Introduction," wrote, "This book, then, is a celebration of the dignity of human sensibility in the face of war, assassination, poverty, alienation, exploitation of nature, fear of extinction, and other shocks of our evolution. It is a collection of song, which should make it an optimistic record of history. Where there is song, however painful or even despairing, there is hope for human salvation. The themes developed in this volume have not been devised by the editors; rather, the unity of feeling about our world derives from the nature of poetry and poets. While the writers in this book demonstrate a spread of generation, a distinction of race, religion, and sex, there is little gap in sensibility" (5).
Poets represented in the volume included Gwendolyn Brooks who wrote on "Martin Luther King, Jr.," Daniel Berrigan, S. J., who in future years would serve time for his non-violent civil protests against the military draft and the Vietnam conflict; Robert Bly on the "March in Washington Against the Vietnam War"; Denise Levertov who two years earlier, in 1967, had edited an anti-war anthology, Out of the War Shadow, for the War Resisters League; Richard Wilbur, who contributed "A Miltonic Sonnet for Mr. Johnson" — that is, Lyndon Johnson, President of the United States of America; Robert Lowell on "R. F. K." — the assassinated brother of President Kennedy, and many others. Not represented in the book was LeRoi Jones — or Amiri Baraka, as he was by then known.
However, my poem titled “An Open Letter to Le Roi Jones," originally published in The New York Times Magazine, May 25, 1969, did appear in the anthology:
AN OPEN LETTER TO LEROI JONES
“Nobody sings anymore.” — from Preface to a Twenty Volume Suicide Note by LeRoi Jones.
When we were younger, when words were the things we loved;
when men were men, evil and good;
when there was hope;
when you could speak to all, though few would listen;
when I could speak to you, though I did not know you;
when I did not know you were black, but only that your words were black on a white page;
when the page spoke and did not scream;
when there was a way for minds to touch across great distances;
when I read you and, perhaps, you read me in the magazines only the young and the hopeful read;
when time and life meant something more than now they mean;
when there was art;
when we meant to change the world with reason and love;
when there was infinite possibility, in art as in life –
then the world stayed the same, and we did not change it;
then we grew older, and now we are bitter;
now you speak bitterly, to bitter men, and the words are black in your mouth;
now bitter men hear, but do not listen’
now the words you say are the old words – we have lost our art;
now we say what has always been said,
now everyone understands – there is comfort in what we say;
now what we avoided when we were poets has come to pass:
now we are clichés, and our words mirror us;
now you are a black man and I am white – only the colors remain, the colors of our words and pages:
now we do not speak, we only harangue;
now we do not tell what could be, but only what is, what always has been;
we have lost ourselves in slogan;
we have lost our art in the web of words;
we are devoured by unreason, by the spider within;
we have forgone that which is human: mind, love, and art:
“Nobody sings anymore.”
We are no longer poets.
“Amiri Baraka,” who died today, Thursday, January 9, 2014, was exactly my contemporary. Everett LeRoi Jones was born in 1934, a native of Newark, New Jersey, where he attended school and began college at the Newark branch of Rutgers University. He transferred to Howard University subsequently and took his B. A. there in 1954. He was a member of the U.S. Air Force after the Korean War, from 1954 to 1956. He married a white Jewish woman in 1958, was divorced in 1965, and married again the following year. His teaching career included holding academic positions at the New School for Social Research in New York City from 1961 to 1964 and shorter stints at the State University of New York at Buffalo, Columbia University, and San Francisco State University.
Even in his first full collection of poems Preface to a Twenty Volume Suicide Note published in1960 (two chapbooks preceded it), Baraka's characteristic themes — distrust of and hatred for the caucasian world —were well developed. The Dead Lecturer, Jones' second book, appeared in 1964; Black Art in 1966, Black Magic: Poetry 1961-1967 in 1969, and It's Nation Time in 1970. By the publication in 1972 of Spirit Reach, Jones was "Amimu Amiri Baraka" and well-established as the premier black militant of the world of poetry, but he was also establishing himself as a playwright; he had written two books of fiction — a novel and a collection of short stories, and he had edited or written many other titles, most of them on social issues. His Selected Poetry was published in 1979.
Baraka has inspired more scholarship since 1973 than any other black poet in America. "If Baraka is a villain in the eyes of whites," Theodore Hudson wrote in From LeRoi Jones to Amiri Baraka: The Literary Works (1973), the first study to appear, "he is a hero in the eyes of the current generation of black nationalists and their sympathizers. No one so captures the cultural sensibilities of young black cultural revolutionists. He has great drawing power on predominantly black campuses. There is no doubt that among young black readers he is the most consistently read of all the current black writers" (37).
Baraka never wrote formalist poetry like that of Robert Hayden or Gwendolyn Brooks. His earliest work was line-phrased prose, and it remained so, though as his work matured Jones sometimes treated prose in the manner of Walt Whitman and Allen Ginsberg, as in the "A New Reality Is Better Than a New Movie!" the first part of which is quoted:
"How will it go, crumbling earthquake, towering inferno, juggernaut, volcano, smashup, in reality, other than the feverish nearreal fantasy of the capitalist flunky film hacks tho they sense its reality breathing a quake inferno scar on their throat even snorts of 100% pure cocaine cant cancel the cold cut of impending death to this society. On all the screens of america, the joint blows up every hour and a half for two dollars an [sic] fifty cents. They have taken the niggers out to lunch, for a minute, made us partners (nigger charlie)
surrogates (boss nigger) for their horror."
But it was the proposition of William J. Harris, in his book The Poetry and Poetics of Amiri Baraka: The Jazz Aesthetic (1985), that it is difficult to pin the poet down because of his Protean transformations "of avant-garde poetics into ethnic poetics, of white liberal politics into black nationalist and Marxist politics, of jazz forms into literary forms. Baraka's entire career is characterized by such transformations.... Because it emulates a transformation process typical of jazz revision, I call Baraka's method of transformation the jazz aesthetic, a procedure that uses jazz variations as paradigms for the conversion of white poetic and social ideas into black ones" (37).
Particularly Black Mountain ones. Harris pointed out that Baraka was "influenced by the Projectivist School; no one, however, has made it clear how profound and lasting this influence has been. The main source of influence is the great white whale of American literature, Charles Olson" (35). This insight explains Jones' sojourn for a summer in the Little Black Mountain of S.U.N.Y. at Buffalo in 1964. "From the Projectivists," Harris continued, "and from Olson in particular, Baraka absorbed his sense of the poem as open form, his sense of line, his sense of the poem as a recorder of process, and his conception of the poem as definition and exploration. For instance, speaking of form, Baraka...said [in Donald Allen's The New American Poetry, 1945-1960, p. 425]: 'There must not be any preconceived notion or design for what a poem ought to be. "Who knows what a poem ought to sound like? Until it's thar" says Charles Olson...& I follow closely with that. I'm not interested in writing sonnets, sestina[s] or anything...only poems'."
In this respect, then, Baraka's primary literary influences were those of a renegade white academy rather than those of Langston Hughes, Robert Hayden, or Gwendolyn Brooks, who worked out of a tradition of black formalism deriving from, on the one hand, mainstream English literature and, on the other, black musical forms. But at this point Baraka's practice approached those of his older black contemporaries. Harris maintained that "Baraka...blackens the white avant-garde poem with scatting — a jazz singing technique that substitutes nonsense syllables for traditional lyrics — and by creating poems more suited to oral than written presentation. Scatting occurs when singers imitate musical instruments. Baraka uses scatting both to incorporate black rhythms into his poems — to make them familiar — and to break down conceptions of what the elements in a poem should be to radicalize poetic form" (107). The example Harris uses is
these warm street shoobies
my soul gets off behind
from Black Magic (144). Another that also shows the Olson influence is the first strophe of "Like, This Is What I Meant! from Selected Poetry:
Poetry makes a statement
like everything poetry
makes a statement
Poetry is a being of words
a being of language flicks
produced by the life
of (DAH da da Dah!)
But here is where we differ
from Funk & Wagnalls, Empson
& the rest of assorted bourgeois functionaries
of the inherited
"Take Class Struggle
as the Key Link", sd Mao, "Act according
to the past principles" (294)
Here is much that is frustrating to many readers about the 1960s: the in-group jargon, including shorthand words ("sd" for said), imitation Ezra Poundisms-via-Olson of a low order, such as allusions to "Funk & Wagnalls," "[William] Empson," the British New Critic; "Thaddeus Dustface," who may or may not be an "Academic Poet," and Chairman "Mao" Tse-Tung; the idiosyncratic arrangement of phrases on the page, which Harris and others would excuse as "jazz," and the "scat" syllables that Stephen Henderson made much of before Harris did. A comparison of Baraka's early work with his late will not show, in the opinion of some critics at least, an improvement. Unfortunately, he did not transform Olson's prosodic peculiarities into his own style as successfully as Hayden and Brooks combined black ethnic traditions with English language formal techniques to make a poetry as effective as any written during the period of protest.
A version of “Amiri Baraka’s Black Mountain” was originally published in The Hollins Critic, xxxi:3, June 1994, pp. 1-8, and collected in Dialects of the Tribe: Postmodern American Poets and Poetry, © and all rights reserved by Lewis Putnam Turco, Nacogdoches, TX: Stephen F. Austin State University Press, www.tamupress.com, 2012. All rights reserved.