We don’t talk about Amiri Baraka, not like we should at least.
For a poet whose career spanned the second half of the 20th century, whose work evolved through the rise and fall of several poetic schools and political movements, whose voice offered a musical rage unparalleled, his verse seems too frequently pushed aside to make room for the controversies of his life. Baraka’s legacy is too often that of a firebrand so perilous that governments needed to get involved.
Perhaps that is why this collection spanning 52 years of his work is so long in the coming.
SOS arranges the poetry of those years chronologically, which seems uniquely appropriate for such a metamorphic figure. Beginning from his first collection, Preface to a Twenty Volume Suicide Note, this anthology offers a view of the poet’s movement from the experimentation of his early days (then a Greenwich Village hipster known as Leroi Jones) to the fury of his later years (known for being politically deposed from his position as New Jersey’s Poet Laureate). Along the way, Baraka’s poetry dives into and then climbs out of Black Nationalism, and by the time readers get to the poet’s ode to the aftermath of the September 11 attacks, “Somebody Blew Up America,” nearly every poem contains some I-can’t-believe-he-said-that moment.
Yet the collection also illuminates those threads that remain constant throughout his body of work. Baraka is always musical, incorporating elements of jazz not only in the rhythm of his lines, but through onomatopoeic purrs flourishing his work. Of course, the poet is also deeply personal, and has spent his entire career exploring the meaning of being Black in a racially unjust nation.
One reason we don’t talk about Baraka is that it is so difficult to define which poet is to be discussed: the Beat poet who wrote “The god I pray to/ got black boobies/ got steatopygia”? The Black Nationalist who wrote “We must convince the living/ that the dead/ cannot sing.”? Perhaps the radical who asked “who say they good but only do evil/ who the biggest executioner/ Who? Who? Who?”
Surely, there are few figures in the history of poetry who have both been rumored to share beds with the Beat poets and to be called out on barefaced homophobia. Who else can be panned for their misogyny and have their posthumous collection decorated with praise by Maya Angelou and Gwendolyn Brooks?
There are few poets, few American artists even, so wholly celebrated and so completely reviled. For that reason, SOS is really a collection of several different poets. Though Amiri Baraka appears alone on the cover, no living thing is static, and the poet, most of all, must continue growing, each time tearing fiercely from its chrysalis.
SOS, Poems 1961 – 2013
by Amiri Baraka
Available Now Grove Press
$30 – Hardcover
Gay Life May 2015