This paper will focus on two poems by Amiria Baraka / Leroi Jones. It will demonstrate how they can be used in order to trace Baraka’s own development from a poet influenced by the Beat and bohemian tradition of New York’s Lower East Side to a much more radical aesthetic influenced by Black Nationalism and revolutionary politics.
The first poem is entitled Preface to a Twenty Volume Suicide Notes. It contains clear existential themes and a use of an everyday tone that remains within a conversational and anecdotal register. Barak opens the poem with the line; ‘Lately, I’ve become accustomed to the way / The ground opens up and envelops me / Each time I go out walk the dog’ (2009, 3). Here Baraka clearly employs an existential motif associated with city and Beat style writing of the figure of the poet becoming whelmed by the processes of daily life, to such an extent that they begin to lose control over their functioning and their ability to be in the world. This sense is compounded as the poem progresses as features lines that clearly stem from the everyday are twisted into a sense of palpable dejection and lack of control.
The third stanza of the poem confirms the overall view of the poet as a passive observer and receiver of information in the face of the world. Barak writes; ‘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’ (ibid). The act of counting the stars necessitates that the stars present themselves in order to be counted. This again confirms the poet as a passive figure who observe and documents the universe, rather than one who takes an active part in it. This point is emphasized finally in the final moments of the poem as Baraka describes spying his daughter in her room, talking to no none and clasping her hands.
This is sense of passivity and of observation can be directly contrasted with the poem ‘Black People!’ which deals with a much more aggressive and active stance towards the world; something informed directly by Barak’s experience of the Newark Riots and his own growing radical politics. The poem does not adopt a verse structure, and rather appears as a block of prose on the text. It opens with a rhetorical question related to the things that are advertised to consumers in Harlem and then proceeds to inform the reader of the poem that they ‘can can get it, no money down, no money never, money dont grow on tres no way, only whitey’s got it, makes it with a machine to control you’ (224). As such, the poem shifts from an informal conversational register to the language of Black Nationalism in order to answer a seemingly rhetorical question about everyday consumerism.
The poem then declares that; ‘All the store will open if you will say the magic words. The magic words are: Up agains the wall mother fucker this is a stick up!’ (ibid). Here Baraka deliberately uses the language of looting and the Newark Riots in order to generate and directly encourage a strict and serious engagement with the world, something that can be seen to stand in direct contrast to the previous poem that focused on an existential passivity. Rather ‘counting the stars’ as they present themselves, Baraka encourages the reader of the poem to ‘gather the fruit of the sun’ and to ‘make a world we want black children to learn and grow in’ (224). This demand to make a world could not be further from Baraka’s early description of a situation in which he counts the stars only when they come to present themselves to him.
In conclusion, it is this shift from passive to active poetry via a mobilisation of the language of the everyday and of the riot, that marks Baraka’s passage from an early Beat poetry aesthetic to one informed by radical politics and action. This can be traced throughout his work, but especially between Preface to a Twenty Volume Suicide Note and Black People!
- Baraka, Amiri. The Leroi Jones / Amiri Baraka Reader. Edited by William J. Harris. New York: Basic Books, 2009.