Amiri Baraka Didn't Worry About His Politics Overpowering His Poetry "The real hallmark of an effective political artist is that the politics is accepted with the art," said Baraka. A new career-spanning anthology collects his work from 1961 to 2013. He died in 2014.
NPR logo

Amiri Baraka Didn't Worry About His Politics Overpowering His Poetry

  • Download
  • <iframe src="https://www.npr.org/player/embed/382702204/382851625" width="100%" height="290" frameborder="0" scrolling="no" title="NPR embedded audio player">
  • Transcript
Amiri Baraka Didn't Worry About His Politics Overpowering His Poetry

Amiri Baraka Didn't Worry About His Politics Overpowering His Poetry

  • Download
  • <iframe src="https://www.npr.org/player/embed/382702204/382851625" width="100%" height="290" frameborder="0" scrolling="no" title="NPR embedded audio player">
  • Transcript

SCOTT SIMON, HOST:

Few poets explored the history and concerns of African-Americans like the late Amiri Baraka. Amiri Baraka died last year. He was one of the most important and controversial figures in African-American literature. Next week, to mark Black History Month, Grove Press is publishing a comprehensive anthology of Amiri Baraka's poetry. It's called "SOS: Poems 1961 to 2013." Tom Vitale has more.

TOM VITALE, BYLINE: For Amiri Baraka, poetry was about the sound of the words, that the poems should come alive when they were read aloud.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

AMIRI BARAKA: This is a poem for John Coltrane. It's called "Am/Trak." (Reading) History love scream. Oh. Trane. Oh Trane. Oh. Scream history love. Begin on by Philly nightclub or the basement of a colored church. Walk the bars, my man, for pay. Honk the night lust of money. Oh blow scream history love.

VITALE: In 1980, Baraka told me about his deep interest in jazz. He wrote music criticism and his seminal book "Blues People," written under his given name, LeRoi Jones, is still in print. In his poetry, he incorporated the rhythms and melodies of jazz. He said he looked at the texts of his poems like scores for pieces of music.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

BARAKA: I'm trying to make the poems as musical as I can, you know, from the inception so that whether they're read on the page or people read them aloud or I read them aloud, the musicality will be kind of a given.

VITALE: In the poem "Am/Trak," Baraka said he was trying to capture the spirit of John Coltrane's music, as well to show the context that produced that music - the social upheaval of the 1960s.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

BARAKA: (Reading) Super sane screams against reality course through him as sound. Yes, it says, this is now and you screaming. Recognize the truth. Recognize reality and even check me, Trane, who blows it. Yes, it said. Yes. Yes, again, convulsive multi-orgasmic art protest.

ARNOLD RAMPERSAD: He, like Langston Hughes before him, like Ralph Ellison to some extent, understood the pre-eminence, you'd have to say, of black music in black American expressive culture.

VITALE: Arnold Rampersad is professor Emeritus at Stanford University and an authority on African-American literature. He says Baraka started out writing poetry as part of the Beat movement in the Greenwich Village of the 1950s - casual and confessional verse, in the style of his friend Allen Ginsberg.

RAMPERSAD: But then gradually he became radicalized and brought race more and more into his work, till it became the central element of his writing. And for that he was vilified in many circles, but I think it was the beginning of a flood of similar poetry, I think, from young black writers who became empowered as a result of the freedoms that he commissioned in the writing of poetry.

VITALE: In the 1960s Amiri Baraka was a leading figure in the black power movement. In the '70s he broke with the black nationalists but remained a committed Marxist. The sound and the fury in much of Baraka's verse is a call to arms.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

BARAKA: (Reading) Make you think of all that's been. Make you think of all that's passed. All that flows that won't come back again. Think about, study, study, do it, do it - be about what needs to be. Be about what needs - needs - yeah, please, right now, be about what needs to be. Only revolution will set us free.

VITALE: Most of Amiri Baraka's poetry was first published by small alternative presses. In a 1982 interview at his home in Newark, N.J., Baraka said the major publishers wouldn't touch it.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

BARAKA: They would publish you if you had the same story to tell as mainstream white writers. But because no oppressed nationality can tell, you know, that story if you're true to history, then they respond by saying, well, you're complaining too much, or, you're always complaining, you know, we don't want the complaints. People don't want complaints.

VITALE: Baraka said he never worried that his politics were overwhelming his poetry.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

BARAKA: As a political artist, you know, I think you have to learn how to create art, no matter what your ideology is. If, you know, as Mao Zedong said, you are successful in what you do as you combine high artistic quality and revolutionary politics. You see? And then I think the real hallmark of an effective political artist is that the politics is accepted with the art and is made influential because of the strength of the art.

VITALE: Scholar Arnold Rampersad says sometimes Baraka went too far in his radical expression - for example, his anti-Semitic lines in a 2002 poem about the World Trade Center bombing that generated a huge controversy and got him removed as New Jersey's poet laureate. But Rampersad says Baraka's emphasis on racial and economic inequality has never lost its relevance.

RAMPERSAD: You have a very powerful and authentic voice writing about the African-American condition in a way that is absolutely memorable and is also, I think, prophetic.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

BARAKA: (Reading) You have all of what you need. That assembly line you work on will dissolve in thin air. Oh wow, wow. Oh wow, wow. Just gotta die. Just gotta die. This old world ain't nothing. Must be the devil got you thinking so. It can't be Rockefeller, it can't be Morgan, it can't be capitalism, it can't be national oppression. Oh wow. No way. Now go back to work and cool it.

VITALE: When Amiri Baraka died last year at the age of 79, he left behind a body of work that, says Arnold Rampersad, improved the heart and soul, the texture, of black American poetry.

For NPR News I'm Tom Vitale in New York.

Copyright © 2015 NPR. All rights reserved. Visit our website terms of use and permissions pages at www.npr.org for further information.

NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by Verb8tm, Inc., an NPR contractor, and produced using a proprietary transcription process developed with NPR. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.