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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.


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