Poetic Voice Wrapped Tight in Its Shifting Politics ‘S O S: Poems 1961-2013,’ Works by Amiri Baraka

Books of the Times

By Dwight Garner

THE NEW YORK TIMES

Jan. 27, 2015

There are two ways to rank writers, the poet John Berryman said, “in terms of gift and in terms of achievement.”

Amiri Baraka (1934-2014) had a bold gift. His best poems are cynical, impolite, acid in their wit’s rain. He tapped easily into the suspicion and resentment that linger below the promise of American life. He was the keeper of a certain vinegary portion of the African-American imagination. He declared, over and over, that he would not be fooled again.

You can open to nearly anywhere in the first third of “S O S: Poems 1961-2013,” a career-spanning new collection of his work, and find fresh evidence of his capacities. In a poem called “Three Modes of History and Culture,” from 1969, a kind of updated Muddy Waters blues, he caught the faces of those in “trains/leaning north, catching hellfire in windows, passing through/the first ignoble cities of missouri, to illinois, and the panting/Chicago.”

What’s best about Baraka’s verse is that this historical sensibility and sense of historical dread bump elbows with anarchic comedy. “I have slept with almost every mediocre colored woman/on 23rd St,” he declares in a poem from “Preface to a Twenty Volume Suicide Note” (1961), his first collection of verse. In another poem from that collection, he asks:

What can I say?

It is better to have loved and lost

Than to put linoleum in your living room?

You were never sure what Baraka was going to say next, and for a writer, that’s not an insignificant gift to possess.

Baraka’s achievements, “S O S” makes plain, were only rarely equal to his talents. He went from beatnik to black nationalist to Marxist, and his political voice slowly ran over his poetic one, his dogma over his karma, to reverse the joke. Misogyny and anti-Semitism began to filter into his work.

In The Village Voice in 1980, he published an essay called “Confessions of a Former Anti-Semite.” But a poem titled “Somebody Blew Up America,” written shortly after Sept. 11, contains these lines:

Who knew the World Trade Center was gonna get bombed

Who told 4,000 Israeli workers at the Twin Towers

To stay home that day

Why did Sharon stay away?

The funny thing about “Somebody Blew Up America” is that much of the rest of it is terrifically clarifying in its anger. It’s a vernacular poem, meant for the ear perhaps more than the eye, and it asks the oldest and juiciest questions about inequality:

Who own them buildings

Who got the money

Who think you funny

Who locked you up

Who own the papers

Who owned the slave ship

Who run the army

Who the fake president

Who the ruler

Who the banker

Who? Who? Who?

Now there’s a pop quiz for every sentient soul. Here is your blue book. You have 15 seconds.

“S O S” is the best overall selection we have thus far of Baraka’s work, but he is served poorly by it. The introduction by Paul Vangelisti, the volume’s editor, is an anthology of unforced errors.

Mr. Vangelisti neglects to provide the most basic details of Baraka’s life, so these poems are shorn of context. He also writes academic jargon of the sort Baraka despised, referring to one poem as “driven by the nuances of shifting, heterogeneous cadences, often spoken, often collaged, and always relentlessly material and public.”

This is the kind of rhetorical dishwater that can just as easily apply to a Meghan Trainor song or a Fox News segment.

Mr. Vangelisti provides only the vaguest sense of how the poems in this volume were selected and misses a crucial opportunity to set the entirety of Baraka’s oeuvre in necessary context. What were the criteria? What exactly was left out? We do learn that “S O S” comprises the contents of two earlier selections of Baraka’s work, selections the poet oversaw.

You would not know from this introduction, for example, that one of the poems Baraka left out included this line: “I got the extermination blues, jewboy.” The poems in the last section of “S O S” were selected by Mr. Vangelisti after the poet’s death.

Baraka knew he was wound tight. “I am a mean hungry sorehead,” he writes. “Do I have the capacity for grace??” He long had the sense he’d been “undesirably discharged/From America.” His internal struggles — he wore his id on his sleeve — are rarely less than interesting. “I wanted to know myself,” he writes, “and found this was a lifetime’s work.”

The pleasures in “S O S” tend to be mean or pointed, and funny and very real. He asks in one short poem,

If Elvis Presley/is

King

Who is James Brown,

God?

Another reads in its entirety,

How amazed the crazed

negro looked informed

that Animal Rights had

a bigger budget

than the N.A.A.C.P.!

He had little time for organized religion. A poem from 1972 begins,

We’ll worship Jesus

When jesus do

Somethin

When jesus blow up

the white house

or blast Nixon down

when jesus turn out congress

or bust general motors to

yard bird motors.

Baraka’s poems are filled with tantrums and sophistries, stances and dances. There are many, many deficiencies of coherence. Some make only the dead, clicking sound cars make in the frost. But others plant a hatchet in your skull that you won’t be able to pull out for weeks. Especially the ones in which he seems to want to slice up the white man like a spiral ham.

Baraka, who can almost be viewed as an intense and wary reverse image of Whitman, was a malcontent who contained multitudes. “Get your pitch forks ready,” he writes in a late poem collected here. “Strike Hard and True. You get them or they get you.”

 

S O S

Poems 1961-2013

By Amiri Baraka

531 pages. Grove Press. $30.

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