January 29, 2022

"The Poet with a Razor in His Vest" | essay/review by Douglas Messerli (on Amiri Baraka's SOS)

The Poet with a Razor in His Vest

Amiri Baraka SOS: Poems 1961-2013, edited, with an Introduction by Paul Vangelisti (New York: Grove Press, 2014)

About a year after writing a tribute to Amiri Baraka upon his death, I was asked by Hyperallergic if I’d be interested in reviewing my friend Paul Vangelisti’s new selection of Baraka’s poems, published in 2014. Despite the enthusiasm I expressed about Baraka in general, I had some misgivings, particularly since the editor was one of my dearest friends and the more I had read of Baraka’s poetry, the more problems I discovered in the dealing with the work. Particularly in Funklore, which I’d been asked to reprint, I found the satirist, the bad-boy prankster had become increasingly bitter, and recognized expressions in his poems that veered closely to outright vitriol and hate.

Cover: S. O. S.: Poems 1961-2013

     Still, I had never read a large swath of his work, and with poems dating from 1961-2013 I felt I would have a wonderful opportunity to study his work in full. The early work was quite wonderful, but very quickly I recognized other elements creeping it that transformed his poetic talents to expressions of pure anger and worse, anti-Semitic statements and patterns of homophobia. By the end of the book, I had quite radically changed my views of Baraka’s poetry, if not the man himself. As a gay man I wondered whether the rapport I felt between us had been truly genuine.

    I had had a somewhat distant, but openly friendly relationship with Amiri Baraka (I enjoyed his company and felt he was a witty raconteur when I met him years ago in Los Angeles) and I have had a long-time comradeship with the book’s editor, Paul Vangelisti. Moreover, my own Sun & Moon Press distributed Funk Lore, one of the books from which some of these selections were taken, In short, I came to this anthology with a rather empathetic point of view. In a world of bigotry, I had long argued, Baraka spoke out with a clearly provocative voice, and with often purposely outrageous viewpoints.

     Even before encountering his poetry, I had known Baraka, formerly LeRoi Jones (scholar Aldon Nielsen has reminded us of Baraka’s birth name, Everett Leroy Jones, no capital R in the middle name) for his remarkable editorial achievements as editor, with his wife Hettie Cohen, of the magazine Yugen (with contributors such as Allen Ginsberg, Jack Kerouac, Frank O’Hara, Kenneth Koch, Robert Creeley, and Fielding Dawson), then as managing editor and contributor to Kulchur magazine from 1960-1965 (which published figures such as Ginsberg, Edward Dorn, Paul Bowles, Louis Zukofsky, Charles Olson, Gary Snyder, William Burroughs, and numerous others) and, finally, with Diane di Prima, the important mimeo newsletter The Floating Bear (which included work by nearly all the above, along with Michael McClure, Ronald Duncan, Jack Spicer, and John Wieners). With Cohen, Baraka also established a small publishing house, Totem Press, which published Kerouac and Ginsberg, among others.

     With di Prima, Baraka also co-founded (with choreographers Fred Herko and James Waring, and actor Alan S. Marlowe) the New York Poets Theatre. And, as most theater-goers know, Baraka himself wrote several of the most important Black plays of the 1960s, including Dutchman, The Slave, The Baptism, The Toilet, and A Black Mass. With Mac Wellman, I anthologized Baraka’s The Toilet in our From the Other Side of the Century II: A New American Drama 1960-1995.

     In short, even without the 528 pages of poetry which SOS represents, Baraka is a significant figure on the literary landscape. And a great many of his poems are important and formative works. 

     Particularly in his early poetry, but continuing as well into his later career, Baraka was a gifted poet of wit. “Hymn for Lanie Poo,” for example, mocks both liberal white visions of Black paradises and American Black notions, like his own, of their African heritage:


                      All afternoon

                      we sit around 

                      near the edge 

                                           hacking open

                                           crocodile skulls

                                           sharpening our teeth.

                     The god I pray to

                     got black boobies

                     got steatopygia


                    make faces in the moon

                    make me a greenpurple &

                    maroon winding sheet.

                                                      I wobble out to

                                                      the edge of the water


                    give me horny yell

                    & 24 elephants

                    stomp out of the subway

                    with consecrated hardons.


Almost all of the early poems in books such as Preface To a Twenty Volume Suicide Note (1961) and The Dead Lecturer (1964), even when they are angry, evince a great amount of self-doubt and humility that makes us feel that we can somehow trust Baraka’s honesty, even if the message sometimes seems alienating and the experiences he expresses lie outside our own. In “The Insidious Dr. Fu Man Chu,” for example Baraka argues “If I think myself / strong, then I am / not true to the misery / in my life. The uncertainty.” And again, the poet’s wit restores his doubt, as, turning the situation inside out, he transforms his doubts into immodest pride:



                     I think myself ugly

                     & go to the mirror, smiling,

                     at the inaccuracy, or now

                     the rain pounds dead grass

                     in the stone yard, I think

                     how very wise I am. How very

                     very wise.


Similarly, in “An Agony. As Now” he speaks of his own self-hate, “I am inside someone / who hates me. I look / out from his eyes.” Yet, here too, even in his pain, the final “scream” of the poem, he finds, at least, temporary redemption, in his own “human love. I live inside.”

     Throughout this period, Baraka, like William Carlos Williams and other nationalist voices before him, argued for a focusing on the American scene, but one simply more honest and straight-forward than the primarily middle-class Black artists of an earlier era. In a poem such as “Notes for a Speech,” for example:


                     African blues

                     does not know me. Their steps, in sands

                     of their own



And, after encountering a Black woman walking alone, the poet declares, “Africa / is a foreign place. You are / as any other sad man here / american.”

     But with a visit to Cuba in 1960 and, more importantly, the assassination of Malcolm X in 1965, as Claudia Rankine recently reminded us in The New York Times review of this work, “everything changed.” Leaving his wife Hettie and his children and the Manhattan poetic community in which he had been so involved, Baraka moved, first uptown to Harlem, and then returned to his hometown in Newark. He was now a self-described “Black cultural nationalist,” who founded The Black Arts Repertory/Theater School. What had previously been expressed in a voice of wit and self-deprecation, as an expression of sorrow and doubt, was transformed into a war against both white privilege and Black inaction. The scream became a war whoop. A bit like the Italian Futurist F. T. Marinetti, Baraka now spoke of a poetry that would kill: “We want poems that kill.” In “Black Art,” for example, some elements of artifice are cut away. It begins “Poems are bullshit unless they are teeth or trees or lemons piled on a step…. Fuck poems / and if they are useful, wd they shoot.” Almost mocking the Italian Futurists, by mid-poem, Baraka roars into disgust:


                    Politicians Airplane poems, rrrrrrrrrrrrrrrrrrr


                    ….rrrrrrrrrrrrrrrr….Setting fire and death to

                    whities ass.


And by the time the poet had moved away from Black nationalism in the early 1970s to become a Marxist-Leninist spokesman for third-world liberation, his poetry had often radically shifted into a poetics filled with anger, hate, and outright bigotry.

     That is not to say that Baraka totally abandoned the intense lyricism described by Vangelisti (“Baraka’s lyrical gift remained always of and for the world, and the people’s music that daily inspired it.”) and Rankine (who calls the final poem of this book, “Ballad Air & Fire,” dedicated to Baraka’s second wife Anina Baraka, “a stunningly beautiful lyric”).

     Poems such as “History-Wise #22,” dedicated to Bessie Smith, “Speech #38 (Or Y We Say It This Way),” a kind of scat tribute to numerous Black singers throughout American history, “Chamber Music,” and numerous others, as well as several works not included in SOS, continue to reveal his wit and his commitment to the Black American legacies of jazz and lyrical poetic expression in the tradition of Langston Hughes. Rankine, for example, wonders why the several love poems to Baraka’s first wife are missing; Nielsen goes so far as to suggest that Baraka’s collected poems might need another volume the size as SOS.

     I looked in vain for the long, rhythmically stunning 1988 poem, “The Pause of Joe,” an anthem celebrating American jazz drummers “Philly Joe” Jones and Jo Jones, who died only two days apart.


                              Let bones beat it

                                  take the air

                                above the trees

                                a herd of me’s




                              Yet your hear-ing

                                  is your bone


                                     hide under

                                     and &



                                  the riddim say

                                It’s On You


Or, I wondered, why didn’t Vangelisti include the lovely, constantly twisting “Alba” published in his own Ribot journal in 1993?


                                  to be always

                                  to be always

                                  what came after

                                  is there too


                                  So I keep us clear

                                  & with us connected

                                  as our breath

                                  to we

                                      twisted its




                                  a bebop



                                  the way the sun the

                                       moon the

                                       star is


Yet the dozens of poems between these gems, filled with anger, hate, and bigotry make it impossible for me to any longer exempt Amiri Baraka from criticism as a provocateur or even to argue the case that he is a brilliantly misunderstood poet. Vangelisti, I would argue, does the poet no favors in comparing Baraka with Ezra Pound, suggesting, early in his introduction, that the writer is, along with Pound, “one of the most important and least understood of American poets of the past century.” First of all, I don’t think Pound was terribly misunderstood, particularly in regards to his anti-Semitism; I think everyone who has read his poems and war-time broadcasts know quite clearly how Pound felt about Jewish people. Even close friends, like Nancy Cunard, were disgusted by his wartime comments. Baraka, who appears, at times, to also be anti-Semitic is not at all as open about it as was Pound. Moreover, no matter how one may denounce Pound for his racist commentaries, Baraka is not, in any respect, the major theorist who changed the course of American poetry that Pound was 

     Even if you grant that in Baraka’s notorious poem, “Somebody Blew Up America,” wherein he writes the often quoted lines,


                 Who know why Five Israelis was filming the explosion

                 And cracking they sides at the notion




                Who told 4000 Israeli workers at the Twin Towers

                To stay at home that day

                Why did Sharon stay away?


is not necessarily demonizing American Jews but evinces his anger over the Israelis and the Zionists (although at an earlier point in the poem he also asks, “Who do Jesus resemble[?]”);  even if one might be able to overlook his paean to Arafat in “Arafat Was Murdered!,” all one has to do to imagine Baraka as a racist is slog through the earliest poems of this volume.  There are no people of Jewish faith in this poet’s vocabulary, only Jews: “the grey haired jew lady” at whose party a guest sets a matchbook on fire (p. 30), “crazy jews who fuck” (p. 65), an enjoinder to “Become a Jew, and join the union” (p. 126), a depiction of a “Jew who torments Hitler in Paradise, wiping thick fingers on a hospital cloth.” (p. 130), an attack on “the Liberal Spokesman for the jews,” puking himself into eternity (p. 150), a “Jew on the corner” thinking of bargains (p. 154), and many other such references until I stopped counting. And his most obviously anti-Semitic works such as “For Tom Postell, Dead Black Poet” (“Smile, jew, Dance, jew. / Tell me you love me, jew / I got the extermination blues, jewboys. / I got the hitler syndrome figured”) do not even appear in this volume.

     Baraka, moreover, is an equal-opportunity hater; fags, faggots, and queens populate, at scattered moments, his poetic imagination (pages 11, 71, 82, 129, 143). Christ is pilloried in “When We’ll Worship Jesus,” which begins:


                          We’ll worship Jesus

                          When jesus do


                          When jesus blow up

                          the white house

                          or blast nixon down

                          when jesus turn out the congress

                          or bust general motors…..


Nixon, Reagan, Kissinger, the African-American mayors of Newark—including Kenneth A. Gibson, Sharpe James, and Cory A. Booker—are only a few of his targets roasted on the cartoonized spitfork of the devil. James gets a particularly scathing attack, as the poet describes Newark as a city


                          Ruled by a Negro

                          Ghoul, a sepia Lieutenant Nazi

                          With licence to fool, a looney

                          Tunes coon, so skilled

                          At deception, everything he thinks

                          Is a lie, and he has had his

                          Snoring altered to resemble

                          Casual remarks.


“Tom Ass Clarence,” Supreme Court Justice Clarence Thomas, gets his “due” countless times. And George W. Bush gets bushwhacked endlessly, along with Condoleeza Rice:


                           Progressive Nazi


                           Bush is more democratic

                                    Than Hitler,

                           He made Eva Braun

                                     Secretary of State.


A few pages later, he describes Bush taking off his “presidential grey for / Fuhrer black.”

     One certainly might understand some of his anger, but his not very clever or insightful attacks seem to me to offer little of substance to instigate political or social change, proffering what I can only imagine as contented giggles from people who share his views. I too might not be fond of the people the poet is skewering, but I am sure that were I to play out my anger the way Baraka does, I’d have few readers and even fewer friends.

     Let us imagine that some far-right poet were to produce such drivel about Obama (sorry, Baraka beat him there also in “I’m Not Fooled”), or verbally abuse Justices Ginsberg and Sotomayor in the name of poetry, or if someone were to attack Hillary Clinton or write racist poems against Blacks. Baraka already beat everyone to the last two unpleasant potentialities: in “Mississippi Goddamn!” he writes:


                   I saw Hillary Clinton in Mississippi with two giant coons


whom he attacks as “swinish wooden negroes” who “help the slavemasters mistress repeal the emancipation.”        

     I am sure that Baraka and his unqualified admirers see the poet’s attacks as morally- grounded statements of outrage. But can anyone be so certain as Baraka seems to be that his vision is the truth, and that, in his righteousness, his is the correct vision of the world? His work has very little to do with the real definition of “politics” and raises the question whether hate is a proper subject for poetry.

     Kenneth Goldsmith—who was recently viciously attacked, if perhaps somewhat justifiably (although the manner of the critique reminds me some of Baraka’s verbal vigilantism), for his appropriation of an autopsy report of the dead body of the Black teenager, Michael Brown, shot by a white policeman—has argued:

          I really have trouble with poethics. In fact, I think one of the most

          beautiful, free and expansive ideas about art is that it—unlike just

          about everything else in our culture—doesn’t have to partake in an

          ethical discourse.


I’d argue that, in fact, poetry, more than any other art must have an ethical foundation. Since language makes reality, determines how we even know reality and defines what the truth is and isn’t, poetry has a responsibility to be more ethical than any other art form. How one arrives at the ethical foundation is, perhaps, a more problematic matter.

     Even Baraka seems to ask these questions of himself in “The Education of the Air”:


       Did the truth know him? The truth could speak but is was drowned

           by itself

      As Evil. Evil speaks the truth and so do lies. Sometimes the lie

           is truer

      Than the truth. Because many times the truth is a lie. And a lie is

           The truth. Get it!




      So he found out he had been lying by telling the truth as he knew it.

      But not knowing he didn’t know he knew a lie as the truth.

      So when he found out, he found in. When he opened his eyes

      His mouth opened too. He was calling, and this was startling.

      He was calling. It was shocking. Because he had never known

      He was calling. But he had been calling all the time. And never

      Knew it.


The problem for Baraka is his inability to tell the difference between lies and the truth, and what that might say about a poet who, as he admitted, “carries a razor in his vest.” Anger cuts, but it is too late, I would suggest, to seek true forgiveness after you have spent an entire life in rage, lashing out for a truth that is so unknowable in the first place. In poem after poem in SOS the poet cries out against the fascism of the world around him. Unfortunately, he seldom went back to that mirror of his early poem to discover the inaccuracy of his inner self-perspective.

     Yet the fact that Baraka sees his own voice as an uncontrollable “calling out” is a truly painful admission, a recognition that his work, as my friend Charles Bernstein observed, “is a poetry sacrificed to its rages but giving fantastic voice to them—so that what troubles in Baraka is something that neither begins nor ends with him.”

     Baraka, moreover, knew what he was doing. In the powerful and truly confessional poem Whoosh! the poet admits to his positioning of himself:


                    I used to be simple

                               When the world





                    I used to be quiet

                    I used to look at things

                    & wonder

                    That was before

                            the war

                            before the other

                            war & the war







                    I used to be ignorant

                             & thought I cd live

                             without killing


Los Angeles, March 20, 2015

Reprinted in Hyperallegic Weekend, April 5, 2015