The character of consciousness.
The first kind of folks are usually bad poets. They may be famous and well-connected, but they are still bad poets. On the other hand, the really generous people frequently fit the category of great. They do not do favors with an attitude of bogus noblesse oblige that obligates the recipient to kiss the fake godfather's ring. And it is not a matter of false modesty, either. It is simply about gracefulness and openness and "real-ness."
Anyway, I'm thinking of a particular moment when several of us got into print because of Amiri's connections. There was a journal published in Paris called Revolution. And one of the issues, I think it was Spring 1964 number, included a special section called "Five Young African American Poets." The editors had, in fact, asked Baraka for some of his poems, and it was his idea to expand that invitation to include several others. I was, as you might imagine, pleased that he asked me to contribute some of my own work. I was still in college at the time and had only published a few things in Umbra and a couple of other places.
Thinking back on it now, the section called "Five Young African American Poets" was quite exciting. There was powerful work there. The section had a brief introductory note and included Joe Johnson's terrific poem "If I Ride This Train"; a set of poems by A. B. Spellman, including "zapata & the landlord" and "for my unborn & wretched children"; and poems by Sonia Sanchez, including a powerful piece titled "slogan."
When I picked up the magazine, I thought, "Hey, I'm in good company!" When I sat down and read it, I realized it was more like I was in water over my head. Then there were Baraka's poems.... Now, this was truly terrifying! He is represented in the magazine by four brand-new poems: "Cant," "Kenyatta Listening to Mozart," "The People Burning: Mayday! Mayday!," and "Letter to E. Franklin Frazier." As Richard Wright might have said, LAWD TODAY!
Amiri was only about 30 at the time but--as he put it in a poem called "Numbers, Letters"--he was "strong from years of fantasy / and study." Needless to say, when I read his selection of poems in that magazine, I knew it was time for me to get down to some very serious study. For real.
The unselfish generosity that Amiri Baraka demonstrated in 1964 by sharing his opportunity with younger, developing writers--giving us a chance to be heard--is one of the engines that made the Black Arts Movement an important, nationwide resurgence of African American creativity and artistic accomplishment.
The Black Arts Movement is often described--by those who care to talk about it at all--as an idea that suited its era. That's true. It was, to use a phrase from Ezra Pound, what "the age demanded." But it became the Black Arts Movement because Sonia Sanchez and Askia Toure, Woodie L. King and Ed Bullins, Gwendolyn Brooks and Haki Madhubuti, Larry Neal and Amiri Baraka were moving back and forth across the country--carrying a message. And Ron Milner in Detroit, Norman Jordan in Cleveland, Eugene Redmond in East St. Louis, Mance Williams and Thomas Meloncon, Margie Walker and Loretta Devine in Houston, were also on the case.
One aspect of that period that may or may not have been necessary, but that was and remains troubling to me, was a serious deterioration in communication across racial lines in the mid-1960s. This was about the time of the Black Arts Repertory Theatre/School in Harlem and perhaps a bit later. What I'm talking about is a sort of provocative atmosphere and a personalized politics that--at times--was the result of personal problems rather than progressive analysis.
Does that show up in the poetry of the period? You bet it does--but not necessarily in the way that critic Arthur P. Davis noted in an article he wrote back then in which he characterized almost all of the work that was part of the Black Arts Movement as "the poetry of hate." What I'm talking about requires a critical inquiry that is more complex and nuanced than Professor Davis's response. Some of the poems I'm referring to contained unnoticed contradictions. On one hand, we claimed to be interested in liberating the authentic voices of the community, yet some of our poems can more clearly be read as attempts to dictate to that community.
Here, too, I think there is something important to be discovered in the poems that Amiri Baraka wrote during that moment--precisely because so many of these poems are intensely personal, mercilessly introspective, and more self-critical than dictatorial. "Kenyatta Listening to Mozart" and the magnificent "Letter to E. Franklin Frazier" offer excellent examples of the qualities I'm trying to draw attention to. These poems, although brutally honest, somehow avoid solipsism or self-pity; they are more philosophical than confessional and, as a result, open outward toward the reader. As with all great poems, this work begins to tell us as much about ourselves--if we read honestly--as about the man who wrote them.
It is upon some of these poems--including the ones that delightfully came into my hands in that issue of Revolution--that we can clearly base a claim that Amiri Baraka is, and will remain, one of the major poets ever produced by the United States.
Lorenzo Thomas is Professor of English at University of Houston-Downtown and author of Extraordinary Measures: Afrocentric Modernism and Twentieth-Century American Poetry (U of Alabama P, 2000).
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|Title Annotation:||Amiri Baraka|
|Publication:||African American Review|
|Date:||Jun 22, 2003|
|Previous Article:||Somebody blew off Baraka.|