A decade ago I met with Amiri Baraka at San Francisco's City Lights Bookstore for a reading of his short story collection, Tales of the Out and Gone. He said that he'd written nearly twenty books and nearly all of them were out of print. As a writer who had hoarded his work from my excavations of used bookstores and library sales, it hurt to hear this.
An artist as prolific as he was, it seemed criminal that most of his work was virtually inaccessible to the masses to whom he wrote; because that's who Amiri Baraka was first and foremost: a writer for the masses, a people's poet.
As a poet, Obie-winning playwright, essayist, and novelist, Baraka has few peers, black or white. And SOS: Poems, 1961-2013, a new collection of Baraka's poetry from Grove Press, gives only a glimpse into the ever-expanding universe which was his vision. A lifelong native of Newark, New Jersey, he understood the power of the word to affect change, and until his death—a year ago this week—he stayed working, writing, and publishing with small independent publishers in spite of the utter abandonment he experienced from the literary establishment. SOS attempts to chronicle that struggle.
SOS, however, is difficult navigate. Edited by poet and anthologist Paul Vangelisti, there is a pronounced reverence and respect for Baraka's work. His preface, though meandering in places, enlightened me to Baraka's understanding of why his books were all but erased from public memory. Vangelisti points to a conversation Baraka had twenty years ago. "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 say Black and white unite and fight, destroy capitalism, then you suddenly become unreasonable.'"
He later expands on Baraka's calling, writing: "After breaking with cultural nationalism, Baraka soon emerged as an artist in the tradition of Cesar Vallejo, Luis Aragon, Paul Eluard, Aimé Césaire, and Rene Desparte... Moreover, as an African American poet, Baraka's career embodied a commitment, along with poets like Cesaire and Desparte, to develop a space 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."
The preface serves as a sound launching pad as one delves into the collection, a signpost to guide the reader through what is, almost too often, a morass.
Because Amiri Baraka used controversy as a medium within itself—he never hesitated to use inflammatory language for both affect and attention—what can be easily overlooked was his rigorous practice as a poet. Throughout his writing life, he crafted some of the most potent, thoughtful, and even sublime lines of any poet of his generation and beyond.
We sit around
Near the edge of the city
Sharpening our teeth
We want "poems that kill."
Assassin poems, Poems that shoot
Guns. Poems that wrestle cops into alleys
And take their weapons leaving them dead
With tongues pulled out and sent to Ireland.
And onward to the elder statesmen in "What's That Who Is This In Them Old Nazi Clothes? Nazi's Dead," from his previously uncollected works:
This new anti fascist war we must fight, against the rule of
The corpses. The corporate dictatorship forming in front of
Our eyes. It can no longer surprise. Get your pitch forks ready.
Strike Hard and True. You get them or they get you.
What we see in Baraka's insistent chronicling of his evolution, is a man committed to an Afrosurreal engagement with the word as a tool and weapon toward the socialist literary project. Beginning with his work from the emerging Beat Movement—of which he, Ted Joans and Bob Kaufman were initial members—his lines show that his surrealism was more than a way to write a poem, but as a means towards a growing declaration for a way of life that not only demanded, in Ted Joans' words, "complete freedom of the imagination and radical social change, but also a far-reaching moral revolution."
When Baraka coined the term Afrosurreal in 1974 in an introduction to Henry Dumas's book Ark Of Bones, he described Dumas's "skill at creating an entirely different world organically connected to this one… the Black aesthetic in its actual contemporary and lived life." Baraka's engagement with the word, much like Dumas, reveals a powerful mind and spirit transforming "the struggle that has to be" through the prism of Afrosurrealism.
"Henry Dumas's work dealt with these changing dimensions and people who do strange things in realistic situations," Baraka said in a 2009 interview, "it was Surrealism that changed the relationship of things."
Baraka, too, was renowned as the founder of the Black Arts Movement in Harlem during the 1960s. Though short-lived, the movement became the virtual blueprint for a new American theater aesthetic. The movement and his published work—such as 1963's signature study on black music, Blues People, as well as his searing play Dutchman— practically seeded "the cultural corollary to black nationalism" of that revolutionary American milieu. And yet, he was more than this still: a beat poet, a cultural nationalist, and a mercurial, but mighty force in the world of arts and letters.
What is lacking in SOS, is the ability to reign in all of these different manifestations of Baraka to give a gestalt view of the complex, and intentionally complicated, artist. Altogether, the collection is edited and selected well. Vangelisti does the maestro proud, and it is a hope that SOS inspires more publishers to resurrect Baraka's works with the same reverence and meticulous respect that genius deserves.
[Image via Getty]