Friday, January 10, 2014

Amiri Baraka

“The most valuable quality in life,” Amiri Baraka wrote, “is the will to existence, the unconnected zoom, which finally becomes in anyone’s hands whatever part of it he could collect. Like dipping cups of water from the falls. Which is what the artist does. Fools want to dictate what kind of dipper he uses.” That’s from his 1964 essay “Hunting is not those heads on the wall”, in which Baraka challenges the capitalistic worship of artifact over the activity of making art. For Baraka, that making was/is history, wide awake and ceaseless, and you can hear this in his poetry—you hear the making in the made thing. He showed the American poet’s dilemma in clear terms, how the “academic western mind” can shut you down.

9/11 hit when I was 22, and those insane jingo-bush years had me dazed—I couldn’t shake my disbelief over Afghanistan, Iraq, the Patriot Act, Guantanamo, the fools who wanted to dictate everyone’s lives. Because I was ignorant of history myself. When the newspapers started trashing Baraka in 2002 for having written and performed “Somebody Blew Up America”, I got pissed and wrote the Philly Inquirer, argued back and forth with a columnist who couldn’t tell me why her paper was pretending, like the government, that the cause of 9/11 was that terrorists hated our freedom. It felt very personal, that attack on Baraka. I was just waking up, but somehow I already knew you don’t fuck with a poet like Amiri Baraka.

Like many, I first encountered him in the context of a college class on “Postmodern American Poetry”, i.e., mostly white experimental poetry of mid-20th century—a context Baraka wrenched himself from in order to join a revolution, to use poetry as a weapon of revolution. His influence reaches far beyond poetry scenes. Before he went to Cuba in 1960, Baraka had thought of revolution as “one of those inconceivably ‘romantic’ and/or hopeless ideas that we Norteamericanos have been taught since public school to hold up to the cold light of ‘reason.’ That reason being whatever repugnant lie our usurious ‘ruling class’ had paid their journalists to disseminate. The reason that allows that voting, in a country where the parties are exactly the same, can be made to assume the gravity of actual moral engagement” (“Cuba Libre”, 1960). Baraka broke boundaries and sought possibilities for a better human world. Reading or listening to him can spark this sense of possibility.

Here’s the first stanza I ever read by him:

Luxury, then, is a way of
being ignorant, comfortably
An approach to the open market
of least information. Where theories
can thrive, under heavy tarpaulins
without being cracked by ideas.

So then I went to the library, I found The Dead Lecturer. I found Transbluesency. I thought harder about what education’s for, what it’s really for. “Maps/weep/and are mothers and their daughters listening to//music teachers. From heavy beginnings. Plantations,/learning/America, as speech, and a common emptiness. Songs knocking//inside old women’s faces…”

This endless fountain that he's left us with, of poetry that pushes beyond poetry--what to do with it...