April 29, 2009

Searching for an ever-escaping mutuality

In researching a poet every day for my tweets on Twitter in celebration of National Poetry Month, I read some of Langston Hughes' poetry over the last two days. In comparison to those poems, the struggles of the African American people have manifest itself in such a different voice through the poems of Amiri Baraka, (formerly known as Leroi Jones). The rhetoric (of the 1960s civil rights movement) of anger, political rebellion, and angst over the African American identity is captured well in his poetry.

I ran into Amiri Baraka's poetry when I started reading poet Adrienne Rich's book A Human Eye, day before yesterday night. It is a collection of essays on Art in Society (1997-2008) and includes a wonderful essay (originally published in the Boston Review) about the poetry of  Amiri Baraka. Writing about Baraka's poems in The Dead Lecturer (out of print; most of the poems can be read in this collection), she writes:

It is the book of an artist contending first of all with himself, his sense of emotional dead ends, the limits of poetic community, the contradictions of his assimilation by that community, his embrace and rejection of it: searching what possible listening, what possible love or solidarity might exist out beyond those contradictions. It is the book of a young artist doing what some few manage or dare to do: question the foundations of the neighborhood in which he or she has come of age and received affirmation.
To further expand on that, here are some words from Baraka himself from the preface to the Baraka Reader:
My writing reflects my own growth and expansion, and at the same time the society in which I have existed throughout this confrontation. Whether it is politics, music, literature, or the origins of language, there is always a historical and time/place/condition reference that will always try to explain why I was saying both how and for what.

To quote from the Adrienne Rich essay again:
And it is a book, not an assemblage of occasional poems: a soul-journey borne in conflictual music, faultless phrasing. Music, phrasing of human flesh longing for touch, mind fiercely working to decipher its predicament. Titles of poems are set sometimes in bold, sometimes italics, implying structures within the larger structure. Drawing both on black music and the technical innovations of American Modernism, Jones moves deeper into a new poetics, what the poet June Jordan would name “the intimate face of universal struggle.”

But intimacy is never simple, least of all in poems like these where “inept tenderness” (“A Poem for Neutrals”) searches for an ever-escaping mutuality. 
And identity is never simple either. In contrast to Hughes' poems, which incorporated into poetry the aesthetics of the blues as the experience of a race, Amari writes in his poem, Notes For a Speech:
African blues
does not know me. Their steps, in sands
of their own


My own
dead souls, my, so called
people. Africa
is a foreign place. You are
as any other sad man here
Like Adrienne Rich writes about his poem, An Agony. As Now., which deals with existential anguish but in a "surround of social hatred":
Here is self-wrestling of a politicized human being, an artist/intellectual, writing among the white majority avant-garde at a moment when African revolutions and black American militance seemed to be converging in the electric field of possible liberations. Experiencing the American color line—that deceptively, murderously, ever-shifting, ever-intransigent construct—as neither “theme” nor abstraction, but as disfiguring all life, and in a time when “revolution” was still a political, not a merchandising term, Jones’s poems both compress and stretch the boundaries of the case. “
Also this poem, which is included in Rich's essay:
  / the society
                           the image, of
                           common utopia.
                               / The perversity
                               of separation, isolation,
after so many years of trying to enter
     their kingdoms,
now they suffer in tears, these others,
     saxophones whining
through the wooden doors of their less
     than gracious homes.
The poor have become our creators. The
     black. The thoroughly

               Let the combination of morality
and inhumanity
Like Rich writes:

The poem’s structure spirals like a staircase, where “the society / the image, of / common utopia” turns sharply into “The perversity / of separation, isolation,” this turn signified by a full-stop and capital letter. And, since the poet is located between worlds, there is a necessary ambiguity to the pronouns, the “they” and the “our.” 
There is much more to read and enjoy, not only in Baraka's poetry but also in Rich's essay. I leave you to go read it in its entirety.

Related Reading: Essay in Dissent magazine on Amari Baraka's life and poetry.

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