Showing posts with label Amiri Baraka. Show all posts
Showing posts with label Amiri Baraka. Show all posts

Thursday, January 30, 2014

in Gloucester
October 2013
Plus reading his own poetry

Thanks to Ferrini Productions

Wednesday, March 23, 2011

Amiri Baraka
at UC Berkeley

Saturday, October 05, 2002

One point that I’ve made three times* since I began the Blog a little over a month ago is that themes, for me at least, don’t work. That is to say, I literally can’t read them. Them, in this instance, being poems with a point. When I try, the poem invariably loses my interest before I complete the text. My experience as a reader is that it feels like coercive sentiment & I find myself physically repelled by the poem. The affect is nausea. It doesn’t matter whether I agree with the sentiment or not. Nor for that matter does it need to be about war or politics – I’ve had the same problem with any number of other noble topics, from AIDS to the environment to love.

Great political poetry – & by extension thematic poetry – is not impossible. I would point to Allen Ginsberg’s “Wichita Vortex Sutra, Part II” and Robert Duncan’s “The Fire, Passages 13” as two of the finest works of the past fifty years, let alone two of the best political poems. In each instance, the devastation & viciousness that is the essence of war** functions as no more than one axis around which a much wider range of reference is organized. The experience of each poem is to move outward, incorporating a broader & much richer cross-section of the world than, say, just the political. In the process, each contextualizes (thus making a case for the importance of) the underlying theme itself.

With its massive deployment of parallelisms invoking a tone right out of the Old Testament and the call-&-response oral traditions of the black Baptist church, Amiri Baraka’s “Somebody Blew Up America” is neither great poetry nor simply another commemorative bauble by Pinsky, Collins or Angelou. At one level, the poem is about the palpable but nonetheless abstract presence of evil in the world itself. At another, the dizzying juxtapositions that are yoked together via the constant question – “Who? Who? Who?” – play with the concept of paranoia itself. Anti-Semitism runs throughout the poem, not simply in the few lines that have been scattered widely about the media. So do anti-capitalism, anti-authoritarianism and a limited version of anti-racism. But ultimately it is the referential range of Baraka’s juxtapositions –

Who need fossil fuel when the sun ain't goin' nowhere

Who make the credit cards
Who get the biggest tax cut
Who walked out of the Conference
Against Racism
Who killed Malcolm, Kennedy & his Brother
Who killed Dr King, Who would want such a thing?
Are they linked to the murder of

that restricts the poet’s impulse. The poem exists entirely at the level of public discourse. There may be moments of referential opacity if you don’t get a reference, but none of intimacy. It may help some readers to know that “Little Bobby” is Bobby Hutton, the first person to sign on with Huey Newton & Bobby Seale in Oakland’s Black Panther Party, gunned down at the age of 18 by the police there on April 6, 1968, but the poem does nothing to suggest that Hutton, or anyone for that matter, has any reality or meaning beyond the headlines from which the poem is constructed. Private life is reduced to the mention of a tax cut.

The public reactions to this poem have generally missed its playful elements as well as the way in which that reiterated baseline who who echoes a genuine howl of grief that is also present & perfectly audible in the text. It is in the nature of public discourse to miss just such elements of life, poetic justice of sorts for a text that is so indebted to this same discourse. But the ineluctable problem of any thematic text almost invariably has to do with its reduction of discourse. Duncan & Ginsberg could not be more radically opposed to Baraka.

** It matters little whether or not the war can be “justified.”