Preface to S O S: Poems, 1961-2013 by Amiri Baraka

By Paul Vangelisti

This essay will be included as the preface to S O S: Poems, 1961-2013 by Amiri Baraka, selected by Paul Vangelisti, forthcoming February 2015 from Grove Press.

Baraka1S O S traces the almost sixty-year career of a writer who may be, along with Ezra Pound, one of the most important and least understood American poets of the past century. The selection attests to a life’s work that is both a body a poetry and a body of knowledge; passionate, often self-critical reflections on the culture and politics of his time.

S O S includes all of the poems that appeared in Transbluesency: The Selected Poems of LeRoi Jones/Amiri Baraka (1961-1995), as well as those in Funk Lore: New Poems (1984-1995). The last section of this volume, “Fashion This,” offers a sample of Baraka’s poems from the period following, for the most part unpublished in book form. Although the first two collections were edited with Baraka’s consultation and final approval, I regret that the last part of this book was compiled after the poet’s death.

Throughout his life, as he transformed himself from “Beat” to Nationalist to Third World Socialist, Baraka remained a difficult figure to approach, particularly for a literary establishment positioned somewhere between Anglo-American academicism and the Entertainment industry. As the noted anthologist M.L. Rosenthal wrote more than forty years ago, “No American poet since Pound has come closer to making poetry and politics reciprocal forms of action.”1 At least a decade earlier, in his 1960 anthology The New Poets: American and British Poetry Since World War II, Rosenthal had praised the young, ostensibly “Beat” poet as possessing a “natural gift for quick, vivid imagery and spontaneous humor.”2 For a critic like Rosenthal, grounded in the Cold War university aestheticism of the fifties, the Beats’ apolitical non-conformity, keeping rebellion and art above” politics, wouldn’t necessarily be a threat or a challenge. In the long run, such bohemianism wouldn’t prove unfriendly—perhaps rather accommodating—to the legends of established institutions. However, an increasingly politicized avant-garde like Baraka’s, committed to alternative forms of aesthetic and social behavior, was and is clearly another matter.

What distinguished him from the start is a kind of lyrical realism that sounds in counterpoint to his Beat contemporaries, steeped as they were in the egocentric idealism of 19th century Anglo-American literature. Like Jack Spicer or Gilbert Sorrentino, around but not of the beat public relations machinery, Baraka acknowledged a clear debt to the modernism of Pound and William Carlos Williams, while developing other more challenging measures throughout his career. It was, in essence, the experimental, materialist, and anti-romantic overtones of the historical avant-gardes, as they filtered through Pound and Williams, that placed Baraka’s writing in a new international tradition, both American (i.e. African-American, of the “New World”) and firmly outside Anglo-American culture.

* * * *

In 1912 (the year F.T. Marinetti, flying 650 feet above the chimneys of Milan, heard the propeller declare the death of the psychological self and the birth of a lyrical obsession with matter), Ezra Pound wrote that he, analogously, was in search of a more precise, active speech, “a language to think in.”3 Fifty years later, after two world wars, and with imperial America relentlessly on the march, Baraka’s first book, Preface to a Twenty Volume Suicide Note, underlined the urgency of a comprehensive African-American poetic language. An early indication of this language’s parameters may be found in “Hymn for Lanie Poo,” fixing the historical ironies of the rebellious, colonial Rimbaud with the poem’s epigraph: “Vous êtes des faux Négres.” The “Hymn” finds its pulse in a parodic reliquary of the avant-garde “Saint”—who, in a notorious letter to his high school literature teacher (having run off to Paris at age sixteen), clamored about the primal, “universal poetry” of mind and soul.4 His young minstrel/bard (“schwartze bohemian” as he referred to himself and friends) opens this mock ode to the primordial with self-conscious slapstick, playing both inside and outside the subject at hand:

these wild trees
will make charming wicker baskets,
the young woman
the young black woman
the young black beautiful woman

   These wild-assed trees
   will make charming
   wicker baskets.

(now, I’m putting word in her mouth … tch).

In “Way Out West” (after Sonny Rollins’ title composition on the 1957 LP, and dedicated to Gary Snyder),5 Baraka improvised upon and re-evaluated the rhetorical powers of that other grand Anglo-American figure, T.S. Eliot. In the seeming infinitude of Far Western space, the eyes of Prufrock’s dream melody are made to open wide, and to be shut with some finality at song’s end:

No use for beauty
collapsed, with moldy breath
done in. Insidious weight
of cankered dreams. Tiresias’
weathered cock.

Walking into the sea, shells
caught in the hair. Coarse
waves tearing the tongue.

Closing the eyes. As
simple an act. You float

Further along, in the collage piece “Vice,” he even more self-consciously defined a topography he is struggling to inhabit. He introduced the theme of rage in exile, from a language and a culture, where the poem seems an incessant reminder of a distance still to be traveled, a music still to be transformed:

This is not rage. (I am not that beautiful!) Only immobile coughs
& gestures towards something I don’t understand. If I were lucky
enough to still be an adolescent, I’d just attribute these weird
singings in my intestine to sex, & slink off merrily to mastur
bate. Mosaic of disorder I own but cannot recognize. Mist in me.

In the sparsely lyrical and intimate “Betancourt” (dated, in the foreign” manner, “30 July 1960 / Habana”: marking the poet’s pivotal visit to Cuba Libre), the exiled rage of “Vice” was momentarily reversed. He didn’t look out at the world from inside the poem’s U.S. boundaries, but rather from “some / new greenness,” surrounded by a bolder, more active language, where “flame / is the mind / … on strange islands of warmth.” In this exquisite instance he gazed at his land from outside, from a revolutionary island and distance, toward poem and country:

(I mean I think
I know now
what a poem
is) A
turning away …
from what
it was
had moved
us …

Back home, at the end of Preface to a Twenty Volume Suicide Note, the exile was once again complete: “Notes for a Speech” beginning “African blues / does not know me. Their steps, in sands / of their own / land. A country / in black & white, newspapers / blown down pavements …,” concluded with the inescapably reductive and terrible democratic vista of lower-case nationality:

They shy away. My own
dead souls, my, so called
people. Africa
is a foreign place. You are
as any other sad man here

Baraka’s first book underscores how the scrutiny of poetic language compelled him to redefine the ideological stance of the poet. Some ten years later, after his Nationalist phase, this research will ultimately bring him to a kind Internationalism, a Third World Socialist aesthetic of liberation. Up through his last poems, there remained above all a critical, often restless lyricism insisting that, to borrow a phrase from his Blues People, the piece must “swing—from verb to noun.”

* * * *

His second book, The Dead Lecturer, was published in 1964the year Dutchman premiered and won an Obie, and not long before he moved from Greenwich Village to Harlem, and began his Nationalist phase. In several poems at the start of the collection,  the lyric was turned on itself, or rather on the privileged figure of the poet (“Roi,” as he signed himself until 1966).6 With “Balboa, the Entertainer,” Baraka pushed a musical intensity, a clarity of diction and phrasing, that’s nothing short of disarming:

(The philosophers
of need, of which
I am lately
will tell you. “The People,”
(and not think themselves
to the same
trembling flesh). I say now, “The People
as some lesson repeated, now,
the lights are off, to myself,
as a lover, or at the cold wind.

The next piece, “A Contract. (For the Destruction and Rebuilding of Paterson,” revisited the populist language of W.C. Williams’ civic icon (also Baraka’s not so idyllic home state), in order to demolish it from within. The poet found it critical to attack “Paterson’s” imaginative and mythopoetic core, in rebuilding a secular, more democratic and demythologized city—and by extension, poetry—for those who must live within its limits:

Flesh, and cars, tar, dug holes beneath stone
a rude hierarchy of money, band saws cross out
music, feeling. Even speech, corrodes.
I came here
from where I sat boiling in my veins, cold fear
at the death of men, the death of learning, in
cold fear, at my own. Romantic vests of same death
blank at the corner, blank when they raise their fingers

Cross the hearts, in dark flesh staggered so marvelous
are their lies.

The rest of The Dead Lecturer resounded with a multiplicity of rhythms and dictions that by decade’s end would make Baraka a preeminent voice in American poetry. Accents and poetic stances, subject matter and ideological reflections were in the foreground, as the poet seemed intent on challenging Cold War orthodoxies. Along with contemporaries outside the U.S., he continued to work from the assumptions of a highly politicized avant-garde. The ideological lucidity, which defined the European and Third World poetics of the 1960s, claimed the urge of poetry to establish itself as the “conscience of communication.”7 The poem was conceived as a total, linguistic act, uniquely capable of posing the problem of language: a work critical of—and invaded by—mass media and governmental institutions, while remaining a primary symptom of reality. “The Politics of Rich Painters,” for instance, displayed an articulate line, driven by the nuances of shifting, heterogeneous cadences, often spoken, often collaged, and always relentlessly material and public. This compositional mode would characterize his writing throughout the rest of the decade:

Just their fingers’ prints
staining the cold glass, is sufficient
for commerce, and a proper ruling on
humanity. You know the pity
of democracy, that we must sit here
and listen to how he made his money.
Tho the catalogue of his possible ignorance
roars and extends through the room
like fire. “Love,” becomes the pass,
the word taken intimately to combat
all the uses of language. So that learning
itself falls into disrepute.

* * * *

The leap from The Dead Lecturer to Black Magic in 1969—the quintessential volume of his Nationalist period and one of the most influential publications of the Black Arts movement—doesn’t seem as extreme as many in the literary establishment, then and now, would claim. The ideological urgency of earlier poems, such as “A Guerilla Handbook,” can hardly be dismissed as bohemian:

Silent political rain
against the speech
of friends. (we love them
trapped in life, knowing no way out
except description. Or black soil
floating in the arm.
We must convince the living
that the dead
cannot sing.

The impetus of self-critical pieces in the first two sections of Black Magic, like “Sabotage” and “Target Study,” appears not so different from the driving, hard-bop cadences of “Green Lantern’s Solo” in The Dead Lecturer:

No, Nigger, no, blind drunk in SantaSurreal’s beard. Dead hero
for our time who would advance the nation’s economy by poking holes
in his arms. As golden arms build a forest of loves, and find only
the heavy belly breath of ladies whispering their false pregnancies through the

The awareness that urged his recasting of the rhetorical figure of the poet, which he had set in motion in the earlier collection, bore fruit in the clarity of many compositions in Black Magic, such as “Letter to E. Franklin Frazier”:

Those days I rose through the smoke of chilling Saturdays
hiding my eyes from the shine boys, my mouth and my flesh
from their sisters. I walked quietly and always alone
watching the cheap city like I thought it would swell
and explode, and only my crooked breath could put it together

The same may be said of the reflective energy that concludes “The People Burning.” The poet’s scrutiny not only embraces the poem, but undermines the very self-consciousness of the poetic act, emphasizing the difficulty of building poetry upon what Walter Benjamin calls “individual renunciation”:8

Sit down and forget it. Lean on your silence, breathing
the dark. Forget your whole life, pop your fingers in a closed room,
hopped-up witch doctor for the cowards of a recent generation. It is
choice, now, like a philosophy problem. It is choice, now, and
the weight is specific and personal. It is not an emotional decision.
There are facts, and who was it said, that this is a scientific century.

How Baraka described his former nationalist politics in 1973-74—as he helped transform the Congress of Afrikan Peoples into a Marxist-Leninist organization—could also account for his politics from that moment to the present. Publicly altering what he characterized as his “narrow nationalist and bourgeois nationalist stand,” and repudiating it as, in fact, “reactionary,”9 he went on to point out that his intentions as a Third World Socialist were fundamentally like those he held as a Nationalist:

They were similar in the sense I see art as a weapon of revolution. It’s just that I define revolution in Marxist terms. I once defined revolution in Nationalist terms. But I came to my Marxist view as a result of having struggled as a Nationalist and  found certain dead ends theoretically and ideologically, as far as Nationalism was concerned and had to reach out for a communist ideology.10

With this declaration of Marxist-Leninism, a curious thing happened to his publishing career. Starting with the mimeo edition of the groundbreaking Hard Facts, 1973-1975, which formally signaled this ideological shift, down through the two aforementioned collections, Transbluesency (1995) and Funk Lore (1996), he would only be published by smaller or alternative presses. In the poet’s own words, from an interview in 1996: “When I was saying, ‘White people go to hell,’ I never had trouble finding a publisher. But when I was saying, ‘Black and white, unite and fight, destroy capitalism,’ then you suddenly get to be unreasonable.”11

After breaking with cultural nationalism, Baraka soon emerged as an artist in the radical tradition of Cesar Vallejo, Luis Aragon, Paul Eluard, Aimé Césaire, and René Depestre. Insisting that poetry be an active, socio-linguistic force, Baraka would pursue a utopian communist aesthetic, much like what Aragon and Eluard called “lyrical communism.” Invariably the poet would seek allegiance between what is radical or subversive politically and what is avant-garde poetically.

Moreover, as an African-American poet, Baraka’s career embodied a commitment, along with poets like Césaire and Depestre, to develop a space for the spirit of negritude within this internationalism. For him, negritude played at the heart of 20th century poetics, animating and transforming what remained innovative in the socialist literary project. As Depestre noted, “The new Black Orpheus will be a revolutionary or he will be nothing at all.”12

Many have emphasized in Baraka’s work the exemplars of progressive, as well as traditional jazz and blues. It afforded a model for a genuinely avant-idiom, inspired by Third World and European art practices alike, to fashion its own singular, African-American poetics. In this respect, Baraka described what, at the close of a century, he considered fresh and contemporary; the language and music that reality spoke through him:

If you’re a modern artist who’s not some kind of cultural nationalist, you understand that you can learn from anything and anybody, see that the whole of world culture is at your disposal, because no one people has created the monuments of art and culture in the world, it’s been collective.13

* * * *

The poet’s later work shows music and history to be for him inevitable subjects of poetry. From the terse, hard-swinging lines of poems like “Four Cats on Repatriationology”:

Dude asked Monk
If he was interested

In digging
The Mother

Monk say,
“I was in the
Mother Land

& some mother

brought me
over here

to play

You, dig?”

And from the longer, more fluid, almost ballad-like measures of “Chamber Music,” with their poignant introspection:

I am like that sometimes, I think, some
distant romantic wrapped in music. I wanted to know
myself, and found that was a lifetime’s work, the
twists and zig zags, dips and turns, all could
disorient you, that you were no longer you but
somebody else masquerading as yourself ’s desire.
Rain could come. The sky grow light. It could even be
twilight, in a foreign town. Where you walked under
far noises of invisible worlds.

Baraka’s lyrical gift remained always of and for the world, and the people’s music that daily inspired it.

His powers can’t be said to have diminished, if anything, their resonance matured and deepened in this final section. Baraka was never just an imitator of blues or jazz idioms, but strove to grow with the music, to develop a language that embraced and played along with it, if you will. More than a singer, he was a vital composer and/or improviser in the historical ensemble. Always ready to swing and be “truthful as the actual life of the world.”  

The poem, “Fashion This, from the Irony of the World,” begins with up-tempo comedic rhythms, the poet as much bemused and amused with himself as with the audience:

That I, the undaunted Laureate of the place, daunted in some
Un as yet/ed pre tense of what they see, they be
As if, such where they was
Was yet to be, and then to say
They is, and is not, like revelations, wow!
Humans. The skin. The lodging inside dumbness a slight breeze frees they speech
To speak as if acquainted with small things in the world. Eating, Belching, Farting,
Murder, robbery.
And so. As if, and them too they is. But nothing further
But the wee dots on the deletion resembling the minds of them
Yet to come.

Masterful turn after masterful turn, Baraka drives the stakes higher, pushing one to feel the sounds of an increasingly discomforting, ridiculous and monstrous world. Indeed, one is compelled to end with the overwhelming question, “what next the world of this life held for / those / Who would love goodness.”

The musicality of Baraka’s earlier books is challenged and extended to where it’s inseparable from his thinking. It would reveal, as he wrote in his eulogy of Miles Davis, “a prayer in the future.”14 Song and thought were in close harmony, and there was an ease of rhythm and accent that embodied his late mastery. Poems may have served what, for Baraka, became an international struggle, while his technique, full of humor and no less extraordinary as it became abbreviated with age, would remain a “test of the poet’s sincerity,” once more to quote Pound.15

In a more recent piece from 2009, “All Songs Are Crazy,” the poet is joyous to the challenge:  

I who have learned singing from the oldest singers
In the world and have sung some songs myself
Want to create that song that everybody knows
And that everybody will sing one day.
So what is left to do? That is how the song

Here, alongside the last two lines in Baraka’s typescript, there’s a long-hand notation in parenthesis, to serve as a performance cue, as well as, one can’t help but imagine, a nod to posterity: (sing).

Paul Vangelisti
Los Angeles—May 1, 2014

1. Salmagundi, nos. 22-23 (1973), quoted in The LeRoi Jones/Amiri Baraka Reader, p.xxi.
2. Ibid, p.xix.
3. Marinetti’s “Technical Manifesto of Futurist Literature,” from Let’s Murder the Moonshine: Selected Writings, Los Angeles: Sun & moon Press, 1991, p.92; Pound’s “A Retrospect,” from Literary Essays, New York: New Directions, 1968, pp.3-4.
4. Rimbaud, Complete Works, Wallace Fowlie ed. & trans., U. of Chicago Press, 1966, p.304.
5. Recorded at the Contemporary Records studio in Los Angeles, March 7, 1957.
6. Baraka was born Everett LeRoy Jones, changing it to LeRoi in the fifties.
7. Adriano Spatola, “A Vaguely Ontological Aspiration,” Invisible City 16-17 (June 1975), p.33; translated & reprinted from TamTam, 2 (Parma, 1972).
8. To build a production on the basic renunciation of all manifest experiences of this class causes specific and considerable difficulties. These difficulties turn this poetry into an esoteric poetry.” From Addendum to ‘The Paris of the Second Empire of Baudelaire,’” Invisible City 21-22 (November 1977), p.33.
9. KPFK, Los Angeles radio interview, March 1976; transcribed in part in Invisible City 23-25 (March 1979), p.8.
10. The Amiri Baraka/LeRoi Jones Reader, p. xxviii.
11. Obit, Los Angeles Times, January 10, 2014.
12. Speech to the 1967 Tricontinental Cultural Congress in Havana, reprinted in Invisible City 10 (October 1973), p. 9.
13. KGNU, Boulder, Colo., broadcast, July 27, 1984; transcribed in part in the Amiri Baraka/LeRoi Jones Reader, pp.249-50.
14. “When Miles Split,” Eulogies (New York: Marsilio, 1996), p. 144.
15. ABC of Reading (New York: New Directions, 1960), p. 203.

S O S: Poems, 1961-2013
By Amiri Baraka
Selected and introduced by Paul Vangelisti
Grove Press (forthcoming, February 2015)
ISBN: 978-0-8021-2335-0

One thought

  1. A perceptive and informative intro by an editor well suited to the project. The poem excerpts evoke a sense that Baraka’s bellicosity was defensive, not aggressive. And his lyricism invites you inside that pugilist’s stance for a quiet talk with the man he’s protecting.

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