On January 9th of this year the poet and activist Imamu Amiri Baraka (previously LeRoy Jones) died. It would be impossible to describe his works and their importance here—not just because of their quantity but also because of their incredible range. In early life a beatnik, in middle life a black nationalist, and in later life a marxist—Baraka/Jones was a dominant force in the Black Arts Movement who never stopped demanding a politics and language that would act on his world. His work elicited passionate reactions, as many hateful as honoring.
Listening to him read his poems now I am struck first by the vigorous momentum of his voice and then by the themes of music and speech rising from decaying and dying lands and bodies.
In the poem A Contract (For the Destruction and Rebuilding of Patterson) the speaker describes those who are not his brothers, “dying under dried rinds, in massa’s/ droopy tuxedos. Cab Calloways of the soul, at the soul’s juncture, a/ music, they think will save them from our eyes”. Immediately the feeding of a “little life with dried tubers” from the opening section of T.S. Eliot’s The Waste Land springs to mind, along with all the invocations of dryness that follow it in the poem. The “soul’s juncture” conjures the gibbet at the crossroads and the hanging man present throughout Baraka’s and Eliot’s works.
While Baraka/Jones probably would have regarded Eliot as an influence that needed to be killed off, they share a desperate call for a new moral code they fail to find and must invent in a dead language and on their own terms. In Baraka/Jones’ case this invention happens over and over again. The barren, dead lands and bodies both he and Eliot document, condemn, and seek to revive offer up a kind of music. A kind of life.
In his essay “Cuba Libre” from Home Baraka/Jones concludes, “It is too late. Even the vitality of our art is like bright flowers growing up through a rotting carcass.” He echoes vividly the conversation between Eliot’s speaker and the recognized stranger in The Waste Land: “That corpse you planted last year in your garden,/ Has it begun to sprout? Will it bloom this year?”
Poetry as dead speech from a rat-filled infertile and godforsaken property that is nonetheless the poet’s only inheritance is no new correlative. The practice has been dying and regenerating itself by whatever means possible as far as our records go back. After a poet’s death the body of their writing bears what witness it can to that tradition. When that writing traces a life as riven with expression, action, and change as Amiri Baraka’s, that witness is a rich and challenging resource.
With April upon us we have work to do and not just in our offices and gardens. As writers and readers we have the honor not only of listening to the words of the dead but of using them as they used those of the dead before them—to act on our world.
Listen to Jones/Baraka and many other poets at PennSound.