Liz’s Weekly Poetry Series: Amiri Baraka, 1934-2014
Because he’s now dead, the poet Amiri Baraka will get some attention that most poets—even relatively famous ones—don’t get while alive.
In the span of 70 years, Baraka moved from Beat to Black Nationalist to Marxist and—some would say—an anti-semite. Here’s a little peek from the Poetry Foundation:
Baraka did not always identify with radical politics, nor did his writing always court controversy. During the 1950s Baraka lived in Greenwich Village, befriending Beat poets Allen Ginsberg, Frank O’Hara, and Gilbert Sorrentino. The white avant-garde—primarily Ginsberg, O’Hara, and leader of the Black Mountain poets Charles Olson—and Baraka believed in poetry as a process of discovery rather than an exercise in fulfilling traditional expectations. Baraka, like the projectivist poets, believed that a poem’s form should follow the shape determined by the poet’s own breath and intensity of feeling. In 1958 Baraka founded Yugen magazine and Totem Press, important forums for new verse. He was married to his co-editor, Hettie Cohen, from 1960 to 1965. His first play, A Good Girl Is Hard to Find, was produced at Sterington House in Montclair, New Jersey, that same year. Preface to a Twenty Volume Suicide Note, Baraka’s first published collection of poems appeared in 1961. M.L. Rosenthal wrote in The New Poets: American and British Poetry since World War II that these poems show Baraka’s “natural gift for quick, vivid imagery and spontaneous humor.” Rosenthal also praised the “sardonic or sensuous or slangily knowledgeable passages” that fill the early poems. While the cadence of blues and many allusions to black culture are found in the poems, the subject of blackness does not predominate. Throughout, rather, the poet shows his integrated, Bohemian social roots. The book’s last line is “You are / as any other sad man here / american.”
With the rise of the civil rights movement Baraka’s works took on a more militant tone. His trip to Cuba in 1959 marked an important turning point in his life. His view of his role as a writer, the purpose of art, and the degree to which ethnic awareness deserved to be his subject changed dramatically. In Cuba he met writers and artists from third world countries whose political concerns included the fight against poverty, famine, and oppressive governments. In Home: Social Essays (1966), Baraka explains how he tried to defend himself against their accusations of self-indulgence, and was further challenged by Jaime Shelley, a Mexican poet, who said, “‘In that ugliness you live in, you want to cultivate your soul? Well, we’ve got millions of starving people to feed, and that moves me enough to make poems out of.’” Soon Baraka began to identify with third world writers and to write poems and plays with strong political messages.
And here’s an excerpt from the poem that got him in hot water—Somebody Blew Up America:
Who the fake president Who the ruler Who the banker
Who? Who? Who?
Who own the mine Who twist your mind Who got bread Who need peace Who you think need war
Who own the oil Who do no toil Who own the soil Who is not a nigger Who is so great ain’t nobody bigger
Who own this city
Who own the air Who own the water
Who own your crib Who rob and steal and cheat and murder and make lies the truth Who call you uncouth
Who live in the biggest house Who do the biggest crime Who go on vacation anytime
Who killed the most niggers Who killed the most Jews Who killed the most Italians Who killed the most Irish Who killed the most Africans Who killed the most Japanese Who killed the most Latinos
Who? Who? Who?