Amiri Baraka

Amiri Baraka

In 2002, a year after 9/11, the black American poet and activist Amiri Baraka read a long poem apparently criticizing America and including questions about the Israeli intelligence warning of an impending attack on the twin towers. (1) It was in his usual no-holds-barred, in-your-face style, (2) and the poet was writing from an establishment position as the poet laureate of New Jersey. The response was loud and predictable. The Jewish community accused him of anti-Semitism, and demanded his resignation. (4) The mainstream press demonized him as anti-American. (3) The literary world distanced itself from his views, but pleaded for artistic freedom. (5) No one pointed to the obvious, that firstly the poem came close to crude pamphleteering and, secondly, there was nonetheless a pressing need for a sustained, detailed and transparent investigation into the 9/11 material that Amiri Baraka had incorporated into his poem. (3) The media shot the messenger, or tried to, as the unrepentant Marxist wouldn’t lie down. Baraka did not resign and the governor was obliged to discontinue the position of poet laureate of New Jersey.

Let me start by emphasizing that I have every respect, indeed admiration, for Amiri Baraka’s courage over a long career battling prejudice and unequal treatment of black society, but I don’t, all the same, think the poetry of later years has been too good. Like Ezra Pound, though with less calamitous results, he swapped the poet’s mantle for that of the seer and social activist. Literature was too small an ambition: far more important were the injustices that needed to be put right. That I think was  a brave and perhaps necessary course to take, but I want to say something about black consciousness poetry generally, which has been warmly praised by Margo Crawford, (5) and of course many others. Let’s start with Somebody Blew Up America. It’s perfectly straightforward.  The sections are:

1. They say someone in Afghanistan was responsible.

2. It was not the usual culprits this time, i.e. Americans themselves: a long list follows of practically everyone in America in one way or another, the listings often framed or punctuated by an accusatory who?

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?

In good Marxist fashion, capitalism was ultimately fingered for the crime:

Who make money from war
Who make dough from fear and lies
Who want the world like it is
Who want the world to be ruled by imperialism and national
oppression and terror violence, and hunger and poverty.

3. Towards the end of these lists were two references to Israeli intelligence not being passed on to, or received properly by US officials:

Who know why Five Israelis was filming the explosion
And cracking they sides at the notion


Who knew the World Trade Center was gonna get bombed
Who told 4000 Israeli workers at the Twin Towers
To stay home that day
Why did Sharon stay away?

4. The final lines bring home the charge:

But everybody seen
The Devil

Like an Owl exploding
In your life in your brain in your self
Like an Owl who know the devil
All night, all day if you listen, Like an Owl
Exploding in fire. We hear the questions rise
In terrible flame like the whistle of a crazy dog

Like the acid vomit of the fire of Hell
Who and Who and WHO who who
Whoooo and Whooooooooooooooooooooo!

I’d better deal with the politics first. Most decent Americans were going to be upset by this tirade against the beneficent and exceptional nation, but outsiders, those who read political economy in some depth but are not necessarily left-wing in their political orientation, would find this all pretty normal: it is the way America is viewed in many parts of the world, and one that any reader of the alternative press would have no trouble in finding extensive documentation for. America is not alone in such callous treatment of its citizens, of course. War between the great powers killed 190 million in the last century, (7) and only the first holocaust against native Indians comes close to (and may exceed) the purges of Mao’s China and Stalin’s Russia. (8) A few points before we move on:

1. American critics of their country often see themselves as truer patriots by honestly wishing something better for their fellow Americans.
2. Many difficulties with the official version of 9/11 remain under wraps.
3. The poem does not accuse Israel of being complicit with 9/11, only of having some prior knowledge.

My real concern is the poem, however, and black consciousness poetry, which  often seems excellent political theatre, if somewhat stridently confrontational, dividing off a world with different approaches and values, though that may be one imposed by necessity. The poetry has its distinctive styles: Margot Crawford notes the:

1. frequent use of repetition (anaphora, Who killed. . . etc. above).
2. preference for free verse, taking jazz as a model, and what is now called hip-hop or rap music.
3. reaching out to the audience in chant-like effects.
4. incorporation of visual arts, especially ghetto graffiti.

In this poem I think we would have to concede that:

It’s in a hectoring, pamphleteering style, that tries to bludgeon the reader into views that would be less impressive but perhaps more persuasive if couched in quiet, documented prose.

2. The language is powerful but somewhat uninventive.

3.  You are either wholeheartedly with the narrator or entirely alienated. There is no attempt to woo readers, who are hit over the head with statement after statement until they fall into the cataleptic state of repetitive chant.

It was not always this way. Ka’Ba (11) has many passages of tender lyricism:

Correspondence with ourselves
and our Black family. We need magic
now we need the spells, to raise up
return, destroy, and create. What will be
the sacred word?

And there are many other poets and poems. Haki Madhubuti’s Gwendolyn Brooks is often mentioned, especially the ‘black identity’ lines: (9)

black so black we can’t even see you black on black in
black by black technically black mantanblack winter
black coolblack 360degreesblack coalblack midnight
black black when it’s convenient rustyblack moonblack
black starblack summerblack electronblack spaceman

Clearly this is not the poetry of quiet thought, but closer to rap and rock concerts: the audience identifies with and gets behind the phrases. Is that a problem? Perhaps it depends on how you see poetry. A vague but I hope useful and generous definition of the art might be the depiction (or better, evocation) of emotion mediated by literary structures that are sanctioned by literary convention and everyday use. Those structures allow us to say things in ways difficult or impossible in prose – more powerfully, sensitively, with more shades of meaning, etc. than is possible otherwise. On those terms, Gwendolyn Brooks ‘qualifies’ only in rather special ways. The power is there, and the precisely idiomatic use of American English:

u could hear one of the blackpoets say:
“bro, they been calling that sister by the wrong name.”

But the poem doesn’t quite say anything beyond the obvious, that Gwendolyn Brooks was a much-loved black writer who was also entirely herself. The same applies to  For the Consideration of Poets, and possibly Rwanda: Where Tears Have No Power. Yes, of course, it’s fighting talk, and we need to reminded of our common humanity:

modern massacres are intraethnic. bosnia, sri lanka, burundi,
nagorno-karabakh, iraq, laos, angola, liberia, and rwanda are
small foreign names on a map made in europe

But is it not a little obvious and mundane to be poetry? Even the ending ‘mute’ is a bit flat-footed.

In deeply
muted silence looking south and thinking that today
nelson mandela seems much larger
than he is.

Another well-known name is Nikki Giovanni, though the pieces readily available online are rather slight:

The welcoming smile of my librarian
The anticipation in my heart
All those books-another world-just waiting
At my fingertips. (12)

I wish I could be more enthusiastic about such work. Of course we can redefine poetry to be something more appropriate to our image-saturated world of instant opinions, as Crawford does. But the cost of this special pleading may be an even more ghetto-like existence for poetry. If we can’t write a poetry equal to that of the past – and it seems we can’t, despite all out present-day advantages, and the huge numbers writing – then we are either not trying hard enough, or we are worshipping at the wrong shrines.

End Notes

1. Somebody Blew Up America
by Amiri Baraka Anti Semitism.

2. Amiri Baraka (1934-2013) The Poetry Foundation.

3. Poetry as Treason? By Kurt Nimmo. Counterpunch. October 2002.

4. My Favorite Anti-Semite: How Amiri Baraka Inspired Me by Jake Marmar. Tablet Magazine. December 2013.

5. One Way of Reading ‘Somebody Blew Up America’By Selwyn R. Cudjoe. December 2002.

6. Crawford, Margot N. The Poetics of Chant and Inner/Outer Space in Ashton, Jennifer (ed.) The Cambridge Companion to American Poetry Since 1945. CUP, 2013.

7. Empire over Life by Paul Craig Roberts. Counterpunch. May 2014.

8. United States Economic Prospects. Ecommerce Digest. May, 2014.

9. Gwendolyn Brooks by Haki Madhubuti. The Poetry Foundation.

10. Rwanda: Where Tears Have No Power by Haki Madhubuti. The Poetry Foundation.

11. Ka’Ba by Amiri Baraka.

12. My First Memory of Librarians by Nikki Giovanni. Academy of American Poets.

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