I could not let this National Poetry Month posting period pass without a poem by Amiri Baraka (1936-), who, despite my multiple disagreements with many of his positions, actions, statements, and ideological shifts, remains a poet whose life and work were incredibly important to my own formation. (I've met him more than once, and have found him to be far more reasonable in person than in print.) The following poems remain one of my favorites; I initially read the first one in a poetry anthology while in junior high, and I imagine that, as was the case then, while Baraka's appears in anthologies, it probably isn't taught that often, though it's useful to any understanding of the seismic aesthetic and political shifts in American and African-American poetry that occurred during the 1950s and 1960s. The second comes from Baraka's Black Nationalist period and marks his break with the White avant-garde and his White wife and children; his critique of a certain sphere of the Black bourgeoisie (really the Black middle-class here) is acid--though without the violent rhetoric of "A POEM SOME PEOPLE WILL HAVE TO UNDERSTAND" or the landmark "Black Art"--but as the tone makes clear, it's also tinged with sadness. The Clay of Dutchman who only erupts after repeatedly provocations here is fully cast aside; the air that remains is funereal, though in other poems, like "SOS," in which Baraka is "calling all Black people," a new, more joyful tone and statement appear. Both poems are about love, and disillusionment, and in an ironic, the nostalgias that Baraka describes in each, though quite different, are intimately linked.
IN MEMORY OF RADIO
Who has ever stopped to think of the divinity of Lamont Cranston?
(Only Jack Kerouac, that I know of: & me.
The rest of you probably had on WCBS and Kate Smith,
Or something equally unattractive.)
What can I say?
It is better to have loved and lost
Than to put lineoleum in your living rooms?
Am I a sage or something?
Mandrake's hypnotic gesture of the week?
(Remember, I do not have the healing powers of Oral Roberts . . .
I cannot, like F. J. Sheen, tell you how to get saved & rich!
I cannot even order you to gaschamber satori like Hitler or Goody Knight
& Love is an evil word.
Turn it backwards/see, see what I mean?
An evol word. & besides
who understands it?
I certainly wouldn't like to go out on that kind of limb.
Saturday mornings we listened to Red Lantern & his undersea folk.
At 11, Let's Pretend/& we did/& I, the poet, still do, Thank God!
What was it he used to say (after the transformation, when he was safe
& invisible & the unbelievers couldn't throw stones?) "Heh, heh, heh,
Who knows what evil lurks in the hearts of men? The Shadow knows."
O, yes he does
O, yes he does.
An evil word it is,
Copyright © 1961, 1991, LeRoi Jones/Amiri Baraka, from Preface to a Twenty-Volume Suicide Note, in The LeRoi Jones/Amiri Baraka Reader, New York: Thunder's Mouth Press.
LETTER TO E. FRANKLIN FRAZIER
Those days when it was all right
to be a criminal, or die, a postman's son,
full of hallways and garbage, behind the hotdog store
or in the parking lots of the beautiful beer factory.
Those days I rose through the smoke of chilling Saturdays
hiding my eyes from the shine boys, my mouth and my flesh
from their sisters. I walked quickly and always alone
watching the cheap city like I thought it would swell
and explode, and only my crooked breath could put it together again.
By the projects and small banks of my time. Counting my steps
on tar or new pavement, following the sun like a park. I imagined
a life, that was realer than speech, or the city's anonymous
fish markets. Shuddering at dusk, with a mile or so up the hill
to get home. Who did you love
then, Mussolini? What were you thinking,
Lady Day? A literal riddle of image
was me, and my smell was a continent
of familiar poetry. Walking the long way,
always the long way, and up the steep hill.
Those days like one drawn-out song, monotonously
promising. The quick step, the watchful march march,
All were leading here, to this room, where memory
stifles the present. And the future, my man, is long
Copyright © 1969, 1991, LeRoi Jones/Amiri Baraka, from Black Magic, in The LeRoi Jones/Amiri Baraka Reader, New York: Thunder's Mouth Press.