This Old Poem #92:
Amiri Baraka’s leroy
Copyright © by Dan Schneider, 5/22/04
is 1 of those writers who should have died years ago. Had he died in about 1970,
he would not have become the laughingstock he is today- pilloried for being a
rabid Anti-Semite & racist in the Louis Farrakhan mold. Yes, he came to
prominence as ‘The Negro’ of the Beatniks, but poetry was
never his strong suit- he always pretty much sucked at it. His play Dutchman
is a classic, & he had a few other small plays that made an impact in the
Off-Broadway radicalism of the 1970s. But, drama was not where his strengths
lied either- polemics was his gift. The LeRoi Jones (AB before conversion to
Black Muslimism) of the 1960s polemics was a great counterpoint to the William
F. Buckleys of the day. No- he was not a great thinker like, say, James Baldwin-
nor did he have a demotic soul like a Studs Terkel- but he could gnaw a topic
through till it was dead. Even if you disagreed with him (which I did, just as I
do with most of Buckley’s ideas) you had to admire the ferocious skill he had.
Time passes, & the angry Bad Ass Brother of the 1960s has been replaced by a frail shuffling old man who seems to have lost a grip on reality- the tirade of a Jewish Plot on 9/11 was just the latest manifestation of a growing schism between the fiery & dead-on polemicist of his youth & the addle-minded wacko that supplanted him. My only meeting with AB came in the late 1980s when I attended a reading of his at the West Side Y in New York City. I was expecting the Bad Ass but met the nut. AB arrived over 30 minutes late with a coterie of 12 or so young coeds dressed in white robes- as was AB. The kids were, interestingly, all white. The head acolyte- a nubile girl of 20 or so stated that the Imam would not himself read tonight. She would read selections from the master. She did- she read 2 poems of no more than 10 lines each & in less than 3 minutes the ‘reading’ of AB was over & the flock & the master shuffled out.
The organizers at the Y seemed nonplussed at the whole bizarre scene & I laughed out loud. Apparently AB had, as the nostrum goes, started to believe his own press clippings! I wrote a poem about the incident & a few years later when I read it at The Front Bar reading series in Minneapolis, during a Nuyorican Poets visit, it caused a near race riot. Still, it seemed to me that I had witnessed the downfall of a man. Even his daughter, Lisa Jones, whom I met a few years later & asked about the incident, seemed to shrug off her father’s wackiness as just something she dealt with on a regular basis. Still, he had been a great essayist, & a so-so playwright so I could write it off to the usual artistic pretense- but he was always a bad poet. Witness:
to be against
This is a slogan, not a poem. Here’s another:
In the Funk World
If Elvis Presley is
Who is James Brown,
These 2 poems are not really doggerel as much as they are a joke written on a napkin. They are sentiments that gains nothing by being broken in to a line. The poem below is perhaps AB at his best ‘poetically’- but look how the individuated metaphors & conceits of the 1st 2 stanzas give way to banality & screeding in the rest of the poem. On the + side the lines are broken well.
closed window looks down
on a dirty courtyard, and Black people
call across or scream across or walk across
defying physics in the stream of their will.
world is full of sound
Our world is more lovely than anyone's
tho we suffer, and kill each other
and sometimes fail to walk the air.
are beautiful people
With African imaginations
full of masks and dances and swelling chants
with African eyes, and noses, and arms
tho we sprawl in gray chains in a place
full of winters, when what we want is sun.
have been captured,
and we labor to make our getaway, into
the ancient image; into a new
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?
Here’s a poem that’s more typical in AB’s lack of understanding of enjambment:
He came back and shot. He shot him. When he came
back, he shot, and he fell, stumbling, past the
shadow wood, down, shot, dying, dead, to full halt.
At the bottom, bleeding, shot dead. He died then, there
after the fall, the speeding bullet, tore his face
and blood sprayed fine over the killer and the grey light.
Pictures of the dead man, are everywhere. And his spirit
sucks up the light. But he died in darkness darker than
his soul and everything tumbled blindly with him dying
down the stairs.
We have no word
on the killer, except he came back, from somewhere
to do what he did. And shot only once into his victim's
stare, and left him quickly when the blood ran out. We know
the killer was skillful, quick and silent, and that the victim
probably knew him. Other than that, aside from the caked sourness
of the dead man's expression, and the cool surprise in the fixture
of his hands and fingers, we know nothing.
This could be
a good poem if the lines were broken well- why is there a dangling the, there,
than, & victim’s? There is no musical nor syllabic reason-
not to mention narrative. After such a banality as darkness darker is a
reader drawn to follow what comes next because of the than? Compare this
poem to some of the great taut poems of violence by Weldon Kees
& there is no comparison. The form this poem takes does not match the idea
of the narrative- that of ignorance of the act being filled in from the
periphery. Nor does the use of clichés serve well the poem. & what dramatic
purpose does ‘down the stairs’ or ‘We have no word’ serve? The thoughts
are not deep enough to warrant being set alone stanzas, yet they are set alone.
Some people have queried me as to why I don’t go on ad nauseam explaining why obvious clichés are clichés, or why poor line breaks are poor. This is because anyone reading this series should by now be familiar with the repetition of similar & familiar ideas & phrases coming where expected. This is what a cliché is. As for poor line breaks- if there is no manifest rationale for ending a line where it ends then you most likely have poor enjambment. Clichés & poor enjambment are things that simply by reading bad poem after bad poem any would be poet with a modicum of awareness comes to see. It is very easy to see why a bad poem fails because bad poems all fail for only a handful of reasons. The mysteries come when encountering a good or great poem because success is often a measure of the individuated style.
Before we get to the poem in question let’s scan the cyberworld for 1 of 100s of AB bios:
Baraka was born Everett LeRoi Jones in Newark, New Jersey, on October 7, 1934.
His father, Colt LeRoy Jones, was a postal supervisor; Anna Lois Jones, his
mother, was a social worker. He attended Rutgers University for two years, then
transferred to Howard University, where in 1954 he earned his B.A. in English.
He served in the Air Force from 1954 until 1957, then moved to the Lower East
Side of Manhattan. There he joined a loose circle of Greenwich Village artists,
musicians, and writers. The following year he married Hettie Cohen and began
co-editing the avant-garde literary magazine Yugen with her. That year he
also founded Totem Press, which first published works by Allen Ginsberg, Jack
Kerouac, and others.
He published his first volume of poetry, Preface to a Twenty-Volume Suicide Note, in 1961. From 1961 to 1963 he was co-editor, with Diane Di Prima, of The Floating Bear, a literary newsletter. His increasing hostility toward and mistrust of white society was reflected in two plays, The Slave and The Toilet, both written in 1962. 1963 saw the publication of Blues People: Negro Music in White America, which he wrote, and The Moderns: An Anthology of New Writing in America, which he edited and introduced. His reputation as a playwright was established with the production of Dutchman at the Cherry Lane Theatre in New York on March 24, 1964. The controversial play subsequently won an Obie Award (for "best off-Broadway play") and was made into a film.
In 1965, following the assassination of Malcolm X, Jones repudiated his former life and ended his marriage. He moved to Harlem, where he founded the Black Arts Repertory Theatre/School. The company, which produced plays that were often anti-white and intended for a black audience, dissolved in a few months. He moved back to Newark, and in 1967 he married African-American poet Sylvia Robinson (now known as Amina Baraka). That year he also founded the Spirit House Players, which produced, among other works, two of Baraka's plays against police brutality: Police and Arm Yrself or Harm Yrself. The Autobiography of LeRoi Jones/Amiri Baraka was published in 1984.
He has taught poetry at the New School for Social Research in New York, literature at the University of Buffalo, and drama at Columbia University. He has also taught at San Francisco State University, Yale University and George Washington University. Since 1985 he has been a professor of Africana Studies at the State University of New York in Stony Brook. He is co-director, with his wife, of Kimako's Blues People, a community arts space. Amiri and Amina Baraka live in Newark, New Jersey.
On to the reason you are reading this essay:
I wanted to know my mother when she sat
looking sad across the campus in the late 20’s
into the future of the soul, there were black angels
straining above her head, carrying life from our ancesters,
and knowledge, and the strong nigger feeling. She sat
(in that photo in the yearbook I showed Vashti) getting into
new blues, from the old ones, the trips and passions
showered on her by her own. Hypnotizing me, from so far
ago, from that vantage of knowledge passed on to her passed on
to me and all the other black people of our time.
When I die, the consciousness I carry I will to
black people. May they pick me apart and take the
useful parts, the sweet meat of my feelings. And leave
the bitter bullshit rotten white parts
This is a poem with potential, as it strains between melancholia & screedery. A nip & tuck, + some tidying up of the form will shape this baby up:
I want to know my mother
looking sad in the late 20's
straining above her head, carrying life
and the strong nigger feeling. She sat
showered on her by her own, hypnotizing
to me and all the other black people of our time.
When I die, may they pick me apart, the sweet
meat of my feelings. Alone.
Ok- what have I done? 1st off the poem gains an immediacy by being put in the present tense. This also is heightened by shortening the poem. The ‘strong nigger feeling’ is heightened because it is not hampered by the banalities of the 2 lines ‘into the future of the soul, there were black angels/straining above her head, carrying life from our ancestors’ coming before it. Life- the idea & the word that ends the line just before the ‘strong nigger feeling’ in the rewrite- now has more of an emotional connection to that feeling. The word hypnotizing also gains in power because the very choice of the word is more out of the blue- yet in a poem like the rewrite we sort of now link it back the ‘strong nigger feeling’. In the original we have 3 full lines of banalities that distract between the 2 ideas. The ending of the rewrite is also a big improvement. Instead of the naked puerility of the original the reader is now thrown off balance with a seeming tenderness to the end (highlighted by the line break at sweet)- except that the last word/sentence takes on a far more commanding tone. That ending, the word hypnotizing, & the ‘strong nigger feeling’ all stand out far more in the rewrite & connect the shorter poem back to an emotion that sputters to the end in the original. Oh yeah- the rewrite also has less clichés & poor line breaks. Have you learned, yet?
Final Score: (1-100):
Amiri Baraka’s leroy: 50
TOP’s leroy: 75
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