1: Amiri Baraka; or, poetry and politics

Amiri Baraka is reading in Berkeley tomorrow, or rather, today. I’m equivocating on whether or not I should attend. My desire to see as many of the looming figures in 20th century poetry before they all die off will most likely prevail over my hesitation and anxiety, but it doesn’t prevent me from being awake at three in the morning wondering what to wear (nothing too “white middle class,” nothing too cute, nothing too indie, nothing that could possibly be misconstrued as following the trends of any of the Berkeley-kid cultural subgroups). Ideally, I would like a magic hat of mundanity that would blend me imperceptibly into any crowd — essentially an invisibility cloak, but without the pain of finding and holding an empty person-sized space in a crowded room.

Why the mundanity hat? I’ve got a guilty secret, and I’m irrationally afraid that Baraka (or anyone at all) might accidentally briefly glance at me and be able to read it in my posture. My secret is this: I like the poems of LeRoi Jones better than those by Amiri Baraka. “Preface to a Twenty Volume Suicide Note” (see below) appeals to me enormously even though it is has a taint of saccharine idealism, even though there is nothing that shouts “AMIRI BARAKA” or even “LeRoi Jones” about the style (whenever I read it I feel like it could have been written by any number of poets; the first time I read it I refused to believe that it was a Jones/Baraka poem and not a borderline-Confessional contemporary of his). I like its subtle lyrical earthquake anxiety, I like the domesticity, the strains of romanticism and the unnamed threat of existentialism. Most of all I like the tidy, comforting end: it’s the type of poem that leaves you thinking, “Yeah, yeah, yes, it’ll be okay,” in a way that what I’ve read of his Amiri Baraka work never could. I’ve read “Somebody Blew Up America” (the poem I expect will be the centerpiece of tomorrow’s, I mean today’s, reading) several times and have only been left feeling uncomfortable. This is because of my other secret: I really don’t like politics. It’s not that I don’t necessarily care about politics, not even that I am totally ignorant about them (just mostly ignorant, but I can talk post-colonial lit-crit as well or better than most); it’s that I have trouble dealing with raw doses of them. I need a veil of weighty prose or fiction to buffer me, I need the safety of time and distance. Poetry, being by nature more immediate, doesn’t provide that. In addition to this inclination away from politics, I am also skeptical about political poetry. Maybe I’ve just suffered through too many bad readings from the poetry MFAs, but I think the majority of political poetry is basically pointless: it tends towards hysteria, it is wholly subjective, it sacrifices craft in favour of impact, and, worst of all, it has no sustainability: it tends to be too rooted in current political events for me to imagine that it would have any life or use beyond the current political moment except as a curious historical document, a mummified relic of a particular paradigm.

This is not a problem I ever have with novels. Not that there aren’t many, many atrocious political novels, but prose, especially fiction, has the sheer capacity of form to make broader connections. And this is not to say that political poetry does not perhaps, theoretically, ideally, have the potentiality to make an impact in its short lifetime. And, finally, this is not to say that I do not think that there can be good political poems — I just think that they are rare, and very difficult to write. I am not sure that Baraka’s work qualifies as anything more than curio-status for me. Case in point: read “Somebody Blew up America” before and again after reading something like Wilfred Owen’s “Dulce Et Decorum Est.” Consider the gradations of political poetry, the different stances and tones the author/narrator might take and what impact they have on the reader. Argue, if you dare, whether this currently rather well-known poem of Baraka’s has any chance of ever attaining the timeless relevance of Owen’s poem.

…this turned into more of an essay than I set out for it to be. In closing: I haven’t really decided if I’ll go see Baraka or not. I will if I can get a friend to come, probably; all of these issues aside, I’m wildly curious to see if he seems as totally dangerously insane as the poetry folks in my English department have said. I’m not sure if it’s true, but a poet grad student told me last year that every school and group of poetry has been trying to distance themselves from Baraka because they think he’s reached a really loose-canon stage of radicalism. Knowing as many staid poetry students as I do, I’m willing to believe it, but I want to see for myself if he really is off his rocker or if it’s just that he makes the rest of the world feel as squirmy with discomfort as he does me.

I leave you with the above-mentioned poem of his, from when he was still LeRoi Jones.

Preface to a Twenty Volume Suicide Note
(for Kellie Jones, born 16 May 1959)

Lately, I’ve become accustomed to the way
The ground opens up and envelopes me
Each time I go out to walk the dog.
Or the broad edged silly music the wind
Makes when I run for a bus . . .

Things have come to that.

And now, each night I count the stars,
And each night I get the same number.
And when they will not come to be counted,
I count the holes they leave.

Nobody sings anymore.

And then last night, I tiptoed up
To my daughter’s room and heard her
Talking to someone, and when I opened
The door, there was no one there . . .
Only she on her knees, peeking into

Her own clasped hands.

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~ by Not Alice on November 1, 2007.

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