Saturday’s Poem 4/18/09

Amiri Baraka – “Black Art”

Poems are bullshit unless they are
teeth or trees or lemons piled
in a step. Or black ladies dying
of men leaving nickel hearts
beating them down. Fuck poems
and they are useful, wd they shoot
come at you, love what you are,
breathe like wrestlers, or shudder
strangely after pissing. We want live
words of the hip world live flesh &
coursing blood. Hearts Brains
Souls splintering fire. We want poems
like fists beating niggers out of Jocks
or dagger poems in the slimy bellies
of the owner-jews. Black poems to
smear on girdlemamma mulatto bitches
whose brains are red jelly stuck
between ‘lizabeth taylor’s toes. Stinking
Whores! we want “poems that kill.”
Assassin poems, Poems that shoot
guns. Poems that wrestle cops into alleys
and take their weapons leaving them dead
with tongues pulled out and sent to Ireland. Knockoff
poems for dope selling wops or slick halfwhite
politicians Airplane poems, rrrrrrrrrrrrrrrr
rrrrrrrrrrrrrrr . . .tuhtuhtuhtuhtuhtuhtuhtuhtuhtuh
. . .rrrrrrrrrrrrrrrr . . . Setting fire and death to
whities ass. Look at the Liberal
Spokesman for the jews clutch his throat
& puke himself into eternity . . . rrrrrrrr
There’s a negroleader pinned to
a bar stool in Sardi’s eyeballs melting
in hot flame Another negroleader
on the steps of the white house one
kneeling between the sheriff’s thighs
negotiating coolly for his people.
Aggh . . . stumbles across the room . . .
Put it on him, poem. Strip him naked
to the world! Another bad poem cracking
steel knuckles in a jewlady’s mouth
Poem scream poison gas on beasts in green berets
Clean out the world for virtue and love,
Let there be no love poems written
until love can exist freely and
cleanly. Let Black people understand
that they are the lovers and the sons
of warriors and sons
of warriors Are poems & poets &
all the loveliness here in the world

We want a black poem. And a
Black World.
Let the world be a Black Poem
And Let All Black People Speak This Poem
Silently
or LOUD

Source: Selected Poetry of Amiri Baraka/LeRoi Jones (1979)

Commentary

Interesting…provocative.

Love him or hate him, Amiri Baraka is a part of American poetic history, one of the most outspoken and famous poets of the “Black Arts” movement of the 1960s and 1970s. I find his work intriguing, for its sheer violence and bold, uncensored vitriol, if nothing else.

I’m also learning more about black history and the role of anger in black culture. An understanding of that, I think, helps one to appreciate this poem. In fact, I think that’s the point of the poem, to shock the reader into confronting the reality of hatred in American life. To read about and attempt to understand the brutality inflicted on blacks not just during slavery times but less than 50 years ago, and still (though to me, a lesser and more infrequent degree) today, it becomes easier to connect with the rabid teeth of this poem. Baraka was attempting to wed the political with the poetic, the real with the aesthetic.

The unconventional phrasing, capitalization, and grammar can be seen as another technique to bridge the real and the aesthetic, to bring the unacademic, everyday voice into the poem.

To me, the poem is also interesting in that it reflects the prejudices of black militants – sexism, anti-Semitism, hatred of whites, homophobia. Though Baraka has since distanced himself from some of these views (rejecting anti-Semitism, while remaining “anti-Zionist”), these ideas will always be linked with the angry black voice. His poem “Somebody Blew Up America,” written in October 2001 in response to the 9/11 attacks, continued his controversial aesthetic. (Though it did so more through condemnations than hate-driven language, it still sparked enough controversy to get the governor of New Jersey to abolish the position of Poet Laureate, just to unseat Baraka from that position without firing him.)

I think poems should be assassins – assassins of the status quo, of old perception. Poetry should always make you see, hear, or think the world in a different way. For me, “Black Art” certainly does that. He’s also trying to wipe away the hatred by violence to make way for love. Perhaps that is disturbing – if Baraka was trying to wed the poetic with the real, can we think of the suggested violence in this poem as merely hyperbole or metaphorical? Still, I prefer a more figurative interpretation, valuing the imagery for its disruption of stagnant perception. The Black Poem, The Black World, may be one where the landscape is new, cleansed of oppression, proud of its Otherness.

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One Response to Saturday’s Poem 4/18/09

  1. Angele says:

    “I think poems should be assassins – assassins of the status quo, of old perception.” A great line–and this Baraka poem certainly qualifies.

    There is a hypnotic quality to Baraka’s hyperbolic, vitriolic, and profane rant (which could not be read on the radio TODAY because of FCC regulations–I hear George Carlin cackling from the comic afterlife). The speaker’s own bigotries and vivid runs of verbal violence turn the “old perception” inside out and outside in:

    “…We want poems
    like fists beating niggers out of Jocks
    or dagger poems in the slimy bellies
    of the owner-jews. Black poems to
    smear on girdlemamma mulatto bitches
    whose brains are red jelly stuck
    between ‘lizabeth taylor’s toes. Stinking
    Whores! we want ‘poems that kill.’
    Assassin poems, Poems that shoot
    guns. Poems that wrestle cops into alleys
    and take their weapons leaving them dead
    with tongues pulled out and sent to Ireland. Knockoff
    poems for dope selling wops or slick halfwhite
    politicians Airplane poems, rrrrrrrrrrrrrrrr
    rrrrrrrrrrrrrrr . . .tuhtuhtuhtuhtuhtuhtuhtuhtuhtuh
    . . .rrrrrrrrrrrrrrrr . . . Setting fire and death to
    whities ass. Look at the Liberal
    Spokesman for the jews clutch his throat
    & puke himself into eternity . . . rrrrrrrr
    There’s a negroleader pinned to
    a bar stool in Sardi’s eyeballs melting
    in hot flame Another negroleader
    on the steps of the white house one
    kneeling between the sheriff’s thighs
    negotiating coolly for his people…”

    I counted at least a dozen outrageous sins against political correctness in this passage alone.

    However, I’m not sure that I agree with your statement that the corrosive anger of Baraka’s speaker creates a “Black Poem…Black World…one where the landscape is new, cleansed of Oppression, proud of its Otherness.” This poem may be NECESSARY, but with a few substitutions, it could look like the work of a white supremecist. (I’m sure that Baraka is aware of this.)

    This poem also reminds me of some of the transgressive cartoons of artists such as R. Crumb–they skewer the sins of society, all right, but I see their showy sexism and reverse or implicit racism as part of the problem, not as part of the solution.

    It is a shame that the powers-that-be decided to abolish the position of Poet Laureate of New Jersey as a way of dealing with Baraka. We’re a long way from the Joyce Kilmer rest stop on the New Jersey Turnpike (“I think that I shall never see/A poem lovely as a tree…”). We’re lost in the Jersey Pine Barrens–perhaps–where the ghosts of murdered Mafiosi and legends such as the Jersey Devil and the Hookman rattle the doors of our stalled cars, their vengeful breaths steaming our useless windows.

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