Amiri Baraka | Critical Review by Barry Wallenstein

This literature criticism consists of approximately 6 pages of analysis & critique of Amiri Baraka.
This section contains 1,548 words
(approx. 6 pages at 300 words per page)
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Critical Review by Barry Wallenstein

SOURCE: A review of Transbluency: The Selected Poems of Amiri Baraka/LeRoi Jones (1961–1995), in American Book Review, Vol. 17, No. 3, February-March, 1996, pp. 7, 30.

In the following review, Wallenstein provides a positive assessment of Transbluency.

Deeply political, Amiri Baraka writes poems that have bothered many, reflecting as they do his dream of revolution, where the social orders will be recast, the races realigned. Much of his work is topical, written for the moment, and, as with agitprop verse, it's run the danger of becoming an historical footnote. Perhaps to consciously counter this eventuality, Baraka has placed musicality at the center of his efforts as a poet. He has often stated his aesthetic or purpose: "The poetry I want to write is oral by tradition, mass aimed as its fundamental functional motive."

Paul Vangelisti, the editor of Transbluency, divides the selected poetry into three periods, the Beat, Black Nationalism, and, finally, Third World Socialism. Baraka's "lyrical realism" is a stylistic constant, and his "political avant-garde[ism]" is the impulse that holds the work together. Almost from the beginning, the poetry is infused with the poet's emotional conflict between his racial culture and his self-recognition as an educated black man having come of age within a white culture. He copes with this dichotomy in a variety of ways, from expressions of rage to poses of cool detachment. In his best, most moving work, the "positions" are felt as coming not from the hardened heart or the fixed idea, but from the mind in flux, jockeying for a take on the particular situation at hand.

Marsilio Press deserves praise for bringing out this Selected Poems, an ample presentation from ten books. After the success of his first two books, Preface to a Twenty Volume Suicide Note (1961) and The Dead Lecturer (1964, the year of the Dutchman), came Black Magic (1969) itself a collection of three revolutionary books, Sabotage, Target Study, and Black Art, some of the most influential publications of the Black Arts Movement.

This book marked his nationalist phase, a period he'd look back on, not many years later, as "reactionary." However, passages abound that transcend the taint of narrow practicality. The first poem, "Three Modes of History and Culture," concludes:

     I think about a time when I will be relaxed
     When flames and non-specific passion wear themselves
     away. And my eyes and hands and mind can turn
     and soften, and my songs will be softer
     and lightly weight the air.

Similarly, when he says in "Gatsby's Theory of Aesthetics" that "Poetry aims at difficult meanings," he is speaking about his personal response and understanding of the objective world: "I write poetry in order to feel, and that, finally, sensually, all the terms of my life. I write poetry to investigate my self, and my meaning and meanings." These are words of the artist superseding the polemicist.

Although Black Magic makes pronouncements and develops ideas about black nationalism, one finds further examples where poetry reaches inward: "I am real, and I can't say who / I am. Ask me if I know, I'll say / yes. I might say no. Still ask. / I'm Everett LeRoi Jones, 30 yrs old. / A black nigger in the universe. / A long breath singer, / wouldbe dancer, strong from years of fantasy, / and study."

Ultimately, he would like to be viewed as one speaking less for himself than the larger group his poems are intended for. One could imagine the following lines being issued from a soap box, an incendiary pulpit, or a hate rally. This is from "Black Art":

        We want poems
     like fists beating niggers out of Jocks
     or dagger poems in the slimy bellies
     of the owner-jews. Black poems to
     smear on girdlemamma mulatto bitches
     whose brains are red jelly stuck
     between 'lizabeth taylor's toes. Stinking
     Whores! We want 'poems that kill.'

The poem ends: "We want a black poem. And a / Black World. / Let the world be a Black Poem / And Let All Black People Speak This Poem / Silently / or LOUD." One might imagine a deeply sensitive man, one steeped in modernist literature, Kafka and so forth, finding a tormented comfort away from the subjective quarrels of the struggling self, comfort behind the "we" of his people's painful history and daily oppressions. By the early '70s he'd moved from the nationalist sentiments and strategies of Black Magic to the Marxist-Leninist investigations of Hard Facts (1972), where he still sees art, as did Vallejo, Aragon, and Aimé Césaire, as "a weapon of revolution."

Concurrent with Baraka's political/racial passions has been his commitment to jazz as a liberating force, as a balm and inspiration. Not only do his poems refer to music, players and songs, but the language and urban landscape of the poetry clearly have a jazz feel. He came of age during the bop revolution of the late 1940s and was involved in performing his poetry in jazz clubs and coffee houses. An exemplar of the Beat counterculture, Baraka's aesthetic includes emphasis on spontaneity, improvised structure, and the use of argot, and "natural" speech. Along with everything else wild and untethered, such as line breaks, punctuation, diction, and so forth.

In the 1960s Baraka wrote for Downbeat magazine and published two important books on jazz, Blues People (1963) and Black Music (1968). In his Autobiography (1984) he remembers: "Art Williams … also had poetry readings (at the Cellar) and I even read there myself one evening with a poet … Yusef Rahman. Yusef's poetry was a revelation to me. He was like Bird in his approach to poetry, seeming to scat and spit rapid-fire lines of eight notes at top speed. It was definitely speech musicked." His phrase is an updating of Emily Dickinson's famous definition of poetry as "language musically employed." Baraka has strengthened this emphasis throughout his career. "[We] were drenched in black music and wanted our poetry to be black music. Not only that, we wanted that poetry to be armed with the spirit of black revolution."

From the 1979 book, Poetry for the Advanced, is a good example of Baraka's jazz inspired poetry, "Pres Spoke in a Language" (dedicated to Lester Young): "Pres / had a language / and a life, like, / all his own, / but in the teeming whole of us he lived / tooting on his sideways horn." The poem evokes other classic players, "Bird's feathers / Trane's sinewy tracks / the slickster walking through the crowd / surviving on a terrifying wit / it's the jungle the jungle the jungle / we living in." At the end of this lyrical, controlled meditation on jazz and survival, Baraka reaches out to include his readers: "Save all that comrades, we need it."

More recent books go all out with Baraka's involvement in jazz. In the Tradition (1982), dedicated to "Black Arthur Blythe," the great alto player and exemplar of free jazz, is a long poem celebrating the heritage of black music. Lists of tunes are arranged along with jazz artists and political figures mixed in. It's an amazing performance piece that Baraka has chanted or half-sung around the world. "Speech #38," from Wise, Why's, Y'z (1995), is an example of Baraka's sound poetry and the sound is pure jazz. It opens, "OoBlahDee / Ooolyacoo / Bloomdido / OoBopShabam / Perdido Klackto-/ Veestedene / Salt Peanuts oroonie / McVouty / rebop," and continues for two pages that way.

In The Selected Poems, there are many poems that do not touch racial issues and do not make use of jazz idiom, but still demonstrate Baraka's individual voice. For instance, there are the "Crow Jane" poems from The Dead Lecturer, rich in literary reference, and then there is the opening of the famous "Black Dada Nihilismus." It begins with a quiet prayer-like sound; "Against what light / is false what breath / sucked, for deadness." Soon oblique references to violent revolution sweep in. Sartre is referred to before "Plastique, we / do not have, only thin heroic blades. / The razor. Our flail against them, why / you carry knives." Finally in the infamous second section, after signaling "A cult of death," he calls forth "black dada / Nihilismus. Rape the white girls. Rape / their fathers. Cut the mothers' throats. / Black dada Nihilismus, choke my friends / in their bedrooms…." The poem moves to elegy as it offers a list of black heroes who have absorbed the violence of racism and for whom suffering and resistance have been identical: Willie Best, Du Bois—"The Black buckaroos / For Jack Johnson … billie holiday." But the end complicates even hatred; placed in an open parenthesis are the troubling words: "(May a lost god … save us / against the murders we intend / against his lost white children …)."

Viewing Baraka's work through a selected poem is a trip that inspires smiles (not always the comfortable kind) and admiration for qualities beyond the jazzy rhythms and the rage. There is restraint, sudden detachment, and technical control, often not noticed or mentioned in deference to the legend of poet as improvisor, poet as spontaneous bard. In "Balboa, The Entertainer," Baraka says: "Let my poems be a graph / of me." His is a complex graph, defying simple conclusions. His first book, Preface to a Twenty Volume Suicide Note has not yet been followed by the note, nor is the Preface finished.

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This section contains 1,548 words
(approx. 6 pages at 300 words per page)
Buy the Critical Review by Barry Wallenstein
Literature Criticism Series
Critical Review by Barry Wallenstein from Literature Criticism Series. ©2005-2006 Thomson Gale, a part of the Thomson Corporation. All rights reserved.
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