The poet, playwright, and pugnacious political agitator Amiri Baraka died yesterday in Newark. He was 79. Born Leroy Jones, later tweaked to LeRoi Jones (with an emphasis on the Roi), he again changed his name in the late 60s after a conversion to Islam to Imamu Ameer Baraka, later shortened to Amiri Baraka, which translates roughly from Bantuized Arabic as Blessed Prince. He was a polarizing figure, as the Times obit is sure to stress in its opening paragraphs, moving through different schools of unpopular-to-odious thought like anti-Semitism and separatist black nationalism. (My colleague Kristin Iversen’s father took an African Studies class at Columbia in the early 70s, which was once visited by Baraka, who spent his entire lecture laying into the White Devil.) But in his early days, Baraka, then still Jones, was a Beat poet, palling around with people like Allen Ginsberg, Frank O’Hara, and Gilbert Sorrentino, editing a literary magazine and eventually starting his own small press, Totem, which published a Who’s Who of the generation’s writers.
I first discovered his writing through the Viking Portable Beat Reader, a seminal text for me and many other curious young literary wannabes needing an introductory guide to the canon. I was so impressed by the title poem in Preface to a Twenty Volume Suicide Note that I tracked down a copy on eBay. And it was through this slim volume that I came to know LeRoi Jones, pre-Baraka. Of course I knew of his later work, his renaming, but I never tracked down his plays, or collections of his later verse, or his cultural histories. I had only this small book, still one of my favorite books of poetry.
In it, Jones experiments with some e.e. cummings-like language, shortening could and would to “cd” and “wd,” opening parentheses without closing them, and using the page as a canvas to be filled with words for reasons both functional and aesthetic. I’m not trying to argue that the issues to which Baraka responded later in life aren’t worth investigating, or that his politics aren’t worth grappling with, but we should also bear in mind that in his early years, he was simply a lovely poet, charged less with the cause than the universal concerns of love and death and, less universally, the black experience. And he was able to maintain a sense of humor! As in “In Memory of Radio”:
What can I say?
It is better to have loved and lost
Than to put linoleum in your living rooms?
Though his writing’s more often poignant than silly, using language that’s both direct and full of stirring imagery, as in this stanza from title poem:
And now, each night I count the stars,
And each night I get the same number.
And when they will not come to be counted,
I count the holes they leave.
It can feel cheap to go through an artist’s work to find retroactively apt obituary quotes, but what the heck. Here’s one more excerpt, from “The Death of Nick Charles,” to encourage you to go out and find a copy of this wonderful book.
I sit inside alone, without
thoughts. I cannot lie
& say I think of you. I merely sit
& grow weary, not even watching
the sky lighten with morning.
I am sleeping
& you will not be able
to wake me.
Good night, blessed prince.
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