Thursday, January 9, 2014

Remembering a Night With the Poet: Amiri Baraka Passes On

I wrote "Amiri Baraka passes on" because I couldn't write "Amiri Baraka is dead." A poet such as he doesn't die, does he? Nonetheless, I accept his body is lifeless and his soul's moved on. The Star-Ledger and other news outlets report that the controversial poet, activist, and "prolific author, Amiri Baraka is dead at age 79."

Back in 2006 while living in New Jersey, I met Baraka at a poetry event at the Newark Museum and then saw him again reading at Rutgers. Somehow, I can't recall how, I ended up attending a salon at his home in Newwark where I talked to him and his lovely wife Amina.

I was so awestruck that night that I didn't even write about the experience later except to acknowledge that I had met him. Awestruck because as a teen I had a book with his poems in it, the 1968 edition of Black Voices: An Anthology of Afro-American Literature. In the current edition, he's listed as Leroi Jones aka Amiri Barka, but I think in my old copy he was Leroi Jones. His poem "Preface to a Twenty Volume Suicide Note" is in that collection with more of his work. I don't think anyone assigned the book to me. I just picked it up somewhere.

This anthology includes the works of Langston Hughes, James Baldwin, Margaret Walker, Paul Laurence Dunbar, and Gwendolyn Brooks--writers my mother revered (back when Zora Neale Hurston had fallen into memory almost unknown). So, to me, included among these other giants, Baraka was an important writer.

And there I was in his home, walking to the kitchen to get a plate of food from his wife, hearing stories about their old days in the New York theater, and seeing the poet stroll through rooms in his large but non-pretentious home like he was anybody else. The Web was only a few years past its novelty exploration phase then, so it was easier to become known simply because you had a blog and to be invited places where you strangely wound up standing among the famous and infamous.

I look back now at a defunct blog in which I mention meeting Baraka for the first time. I thought I'd taken the post offline (If ever you're online ranting about your divorce through poetry and crazy vignettes, you should probably take time later to get it offline, but so much has happened since then that the moment to delete got away from me. If you read my old stuff, forgive my errors.) . . . and now when I read my words, it's as though I'm reading about someone else's life.

That night at his home in 2006, I walked up to Baraka in his dimly lit dining room. It was perhaps an hour after he'd introduced his guests for the evening--African musicians if I remember correctly. He was alone, getting something off the table, not food. I think all the food was with Amina in the kitchen. I'd noticed the first time I met him at the museum that he wasn't particularly tall.  Again, that evening, so close to him and alone, I observed that he was a small man, quite thin. I didn't know then that he had diabetes.

Something about him--his energy--intimidated me, and although he didn't look at me long, when he did it seemed he peered into me. His eyes said, "Don't come to me with foolishness. I don't have time for people playing around with life."

I don't recall how I asked him anything, but he agreed to an interview. Stupid me, feeling small, I never got the nerve to follow up. I let that opportunity slip away because I didn't know how to interview a man of such strong convictions and not reveal my idiocy. Perhaps such a conversation would show me that I was not as committed to battling injustice.

In any case, I'm not writing about me now, I'm writing about Baraka.

As you read his obituary in different places, you'll be reminded that controversy followed the poet. Even in his later years he remained associated with fiery rhetoric, disagreements, and "the struggle." In 2011, his name came up in Helen Vendler's disapproval of Rita Dove's selections for the Penguin Anthology of Twentieth Century American Poetry.

"Are these poems to Remember?" Vendler asks in her negative review of the collection in the New York Review of Books. Among her objections, the critic takes issue with the inclusion of one of Baraka's poems.

Later Dove defends the anthology in a reply to Vendler which was also published in the Review. Dove suggests that Vendler's critique of the anthology dripped with racial bias, and Dove writes:
"It is astounding to me how utterly Vendler misreads my critical assessment of the Black Arts Movement, construing my straightforward account of their defiant manifesto as endorsement of their tactics; she ignores a substantial critical paragraph in which I decry the fallout from the movement (“Against such clamor and thunder, introspective black poets had little chance to assert themselves and were swept under the steamroller,” I write in my introduction) and instead focuses on that handy whipping boy, Amiri Baraka, plucking passages from his historically seminal poem “Black Art” in which he denigrated Jews, thereby slyly, even creepily implying that I might have similar anti-Semitic tendencies. Smear by association…sound familiar? I would not have believed Vendler capable of throwing such cheap dirt, and no defense is necessary against these dishonorable tactics except the desire to shield my reputation from the kind of slanderous slime that sticks although it bears no truth. (I could argue equal opportunity offensiveness by having printed Hart Crane’s “A liquid theme that floating niggers swell”—but perhaps that makes me racist as well.)"
Oh, "Black Art" was not Baraka's only poem that some critics and activists have found offensive.  His poem "Somebody Blew Up America" caused him to lose his New Jersey Poet Laureate title in 2002. The poem was written in the wake of the 9/11 bombing. As complaints against him swelled with accusations of racism and antisemitism, Baraka stood by his poem and responded with his essay "I Will Not Apologize; I Will Not Resign."

Here is video of the  poet reading "Somebody Blew Up America."

This poem still offends some young Jewish people today. Just last spring I heard complaints from a few Jewish graduate students about having to read it in a poetry class.

I won't deny that this gifted poet had his share of anger issues, but I'm of the mind to let black poets who came of age in Baraka's era speak as they please. They had something real to be angry about as many of us still have today. Also, I object in general to people who are not black shooting down black protests with "You're so hostile and angry;" however, I do not support anti-Semitic rants (I stopped dating someone because he went off that way one day) or misogyny of which Baraka has also been accused. Furthermore, I don't think I have a right to define for Jewish people what is or is not antisemitic.

Was Baraka a hateful man? I don't think so (at his home I saw people of all backgrounds), and I've read that he had some regrets about negative attitudes he had in the past. In addition, he said in a 2013 interview with the Washington Post that being called an anti-Semite now seemed "bizarre" to him.

A better question is should a poet's biases make his or her work any less relevant? People of color know that if you answer "yes" to this question, then you must be prepared to eliminate many writers in the English canon of literature, the ideas of renowned European philosophers, and the symphonies of some lauded composers. The creative fields contains notable racists, anti-Semites, and misogynists.

So, I've given Baraka his space to speak as a black man and important poet, and I see him in his place among the gifted. His work rattles us in the right way, and rattling us is what the poet did best, hurling us between that rock and that hard place of outrage and fear, of our thirst for justice and our desire to keep our stuff. Baraka forced us to examine the darker chambers of our hearts--to ponder how easily we are broken and are willing to break others, to glimpse how quickly everything we hope we believe and stand for crumbles into myth or the void. So, this poet is not dead the way the rest of us will some day be dead. He lives on as other great writers live, through his work and the gut-punching energy with which he infused words.

1 comment:

Shirley Fok said...

Hi ! I was wondering if we could reprint this blog post at . This is a really well written tribute and I think it'd be great material for In These Times. You can check out our website and email if you would be interested.