Thursday, January 9, 2014


RIP, Amiri Baraka

The extraordinary poet Amiri Baraka, formerly LeRoi Jones, died today at age 79 after a prolonged period of ill health. Huge parts of American politics and poetry can't be imagined without Baraka's blazing, mercurial, punch-in-the-throat animus; this summer I thought about him every time I saw audiences scream certain lines of Kendrick Lamar. People much more qualified than I am will surely be writing more on Baraka soon; on my end, I've only got what I told my kids yesterday on the first class I taught of the semesterthat poetry is such a pure use of language that the best of it feels pre-verbal, a flash not even in the heart but in the nervous system. Baraka's always been especially that way to me. From "Preface to a Twenty-Volume Suicide Note":

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.

And the end of "The New World":

Our style,
and discipline, controlling the method of knowledge.
Beatniks, like Bohemians, go calmly out of style. And boys
are dying in Mexico, who did not get the word.
The lateness of their fabrication: mark their holes
with filthy needles. The lust of the world. This will not
be news. The simple damning lust,
                                       float flat magic in low changing
                                       evenings. Shiver your hands
                                       in dance. Empty all of me for
                                       knowing, and will the danger
                                       of identification,
                           Let me sit and go blind in my dreaming
                           and be that dream in purpose and device.
                           A fantasy of defeat, a strong strong man
                           older, but no wiser than the defect of love.

8 Comments / Post A Comment


thanks for this, jia. it was actually how i found out about his passing. baraka was a brilliant human, with the sort of passionate rage that changes the world.
this news sparked an interesting discussion between my friends about what impact the personal views of an artist should have on their legacy. interesting how baraka's anti-semitism is consistently noted while the general asshattery of many white, male, non-revolutionary writers/artists is overlooked and forgotten. dutchman is still one of the most important things i've read. RIP, baraka.

Story #2

@tofuswalkman For real -- Baraka was misogynist and antisemitic, but so is Philip Roth* and when he dies, there's going to be a hell of a lot more hagiography.

*I say Roth is antisemitic; I think he is in a way that goes hand-in-hand with his misogyny. I don't think I've ever, as a Jewish woman, read a book that seemed to hate me, personally more than Portnoy's Complaint. (Not to make this about Roth. RIP, Baraka. I was proud to work for the first theater to produce Dutchman.)


@Story #2 exactly! consider the anti-semitism of someone like ts eliot, just off the top of my head, which goes wholly unremarked upon, ALL THE DAMN TIME. i think this trend betrays a level of a political and racial interest in discrediting/silencing baraka.
god, i hated portnoy's complaint. i couldn't finish it. and that is amazing, incredible, that you got to work on dutchman! thanks for sharing!


@tofuswalkman i'm totally with y'all on this. there is so much more readiness to describe a black artist as "CONTROVERSIAL" than a roth. and my reaction to the death of a writer is just always going to be, read their work, that's it.

Story #2

@tofuswalkman I'm afraid I wasn't alive to actually work on the production, but I worked at Cherry Lane in its current, unfortunately kind of depressing form and I got to write some press releases about what a great part of theater history it was and how important it is to make space for work that revolutionary. (Also I got to read the file with all the original publicity materials, which was amazing. They were prepared for the press to freak the fuck out, which the press duly did.) Sorry to have phrased that in such a confusing way!


is literally LIFE@k

lucy snowe

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.

I wish I could take my mouse with me and click-paste that everywhere I go.


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