Amiri Baraka (1934-2014)

ABTravel Well!

In 1998, for Vol. 2 of Poems for the Millennium, Jerome Rothenberg & I wrote the following commentary on Baraka’s work:


The force we want is of twenty million spooks storming America with furious cries and unstoppable weapons. We want actual explosions and actual brutality: AN EPIC IS CRUMBLING and we must give it the space and hugeness of its actual demise. A. B.

It was Baraka’s genius to grasp the ferocity (theatrical, poetic) of Artaud’s “theater of cruelty” & to redirect it—in the context of his own time—into a “revolutionary” poetry & theater, of which he wrote: “This is a theater of assault. The play that will split the heavens for us will be called THE DESTRUCTION OF AMERICA. The heroes will be Crazy Horse, Denmark Vesey, Patrice Lumumba, and not history, not memory, not sad sentimental groping for a warmth in our despair; these will be new men, new heroes, and their enemies most of you who are reading this” (1966). But his project had begun still earlier with a poetry practice (Preface to a Twenty Volume Suicide Note, The Dead Lecturer) informed by the line of Pound & Olson, modified by participation in Beat/”bohemian” doings & by ongoing attention to jazz & blues rhythms &c (increasingly) to Negritude and Harlem Renaissance poetics & the language “really spoken” in the worlds around him. By the later 1960s he had gone from LeRoi Jones to [Imamu] Amiri Baraka, had emerged for a time as a major American playwright (Dutchman, The Toilet, The Slave), &C had taken a highly visible role in black nationalist politics and black culturalist practice. The move brought him also to the founding of the Black Arts Repertory Theater in Harlem & of Spirit House (“a black community theater”) in his native Newark. (During the 1967 Newark riots he was arrested & sentenced to a three-year jail term—later overturned.) From 1974 on, his political stance turned sharply internationalist with a self-proclaimed conversion to “Marxism-Leninism-Mao Tse-tung Thought”—allowing him (again) to put his total person into play. As a declaration of his sources 8c directions, his late ongoing poem Why’s/Wise —”about African American (American) History”— is described by him as “in the tradition of the Griots [African Singer-Poet-Historians] but also like Melvin Tolson’s Liberia, William Carlos Williams’s Paterson, Charles Olson’s Maximus in that it tries to tell the history/life like an ongoing-off-coming Tale.”

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1 Response

  1. Liza Williams says:

    Pierre – Thanks for this memorial commentary on Baraka’s social and literary genius – and thanks, too, for your cogent and moving comments at the Feb. 12th Pratt Institute celebration of Baraka’s life and work. I look forward to reading a transcript of your comments on this blog.

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