Amiri Baraka (Leroi Jones) During the Newark Riots, July 14-1967 [by Fred W. McDarrah]
Shortly after the 1965 publication of his novel The System of Dante’s Hell, Amiri Baraka – then still named LeRoi Jones – wondered in an interview whether the energies he had put into writing it might not have been better used to ‘devise a method for blowing up the White House’.
STOP KILLER COPS
Gun flash beats the child’s head in,
maniac teeth dance in a bloody grin
blue lies, badge confessions, yng dude dead
just beyond his mama’s arms, In our hallways,
and cocaine boulevards, where joe the cop and
mike the cop have disappeared and work for
scag benny and normie the nark, or have nazi salutes
sparkle in they grubby brains going distractions of
hipper uniforms they drool to wear. When they finish
jerking off in the police car in each others mouths
and got nothing else to do, slept all day to get
the semen level high enough to blast off in tiny
dry dribbles of sickness. the yankee game went off
as background music to their hot lurches, the hoodlums
have another gorge in heat to rise into their nose
they hear another cry to set their stashed joints
in smokeless blaze, a yng brother a live, a young
black dude with broke down black jeep hat, and
denim jacket with a fur piece around the neck.
The world he walks in throws ground glass zoom
into the face of the dying cops, they wipe the
jism off their mouths, and open the door, a
group of black youths strolling by, a fire
lit by david rockefeller hisself, when he ran
these unfortunate cop creeps through the pavlov
machine, so that when the bell of our stride
bangles against they knots, dickless pigs grab
they revolvers to imitate the hot spangle of playboy
early evenings under the station house garage. John
Warhol and Andy Wayne, come together in one blinding scream
of the state in anger that we want to live
Ford and Rockefeller know the state must live off violence
none of us want to be poor and oppressed so they pay
their souped up hit men to patrol our lives with murder
His uniform soaked wet to his skin, fly hung open, and
the blue black weapon whipped in freakish frenzy
to come in the blood from the youth’s ripped head.
How sick is this killer cop? How sick is
this government? how sick is capitalism?
Amiri Baraka; HARD FACTS (1973-75)
Poems are bullshit unless they are
teeth or trees or lemons piled
on 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 . . . tuhtuhtuhtuthtuhtuhtuhtuhtuh
. . . 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 cooly for his people.
Agggh . . . 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 lovers and warriors and sons
of warriors Are poems & poets &
all the loveliness here in the world
We want a black poem. And a
Let the world be a Black Poem
And Let All Black People Speak This Poem
He came back and shot. He shot him. When he came
back, he shot, and he fell, stumbling, past the
shadow wood, down, shot, dying, dead, to full halt.
At the bottom, bleeding, shot dead. He died then, there
after the fall, and the speeding bullet, tore his face
and blood sprayed fine over the killer and the grey light.
Pictures of the dead man, are everywhere. And his spirit
sucks up the light. But he died in darkness darker than
his soul and everything tumbled blindly with him dying
down the stairs.
We have no word
on the killer, except he came back, from somewhere
to do what he did. And shot only once into his victim’s
stare, and left him quickly when the blood ran out. We know
the killer was skillful, quick, and silent, and that the victim
probably knew him. Other than that, aside from the caked sourness
of the dead man’s expression, and the cool surprise in the fixture
of his hands and fingers, we know nothing.
(for Blues People)
In the south, sleeping against
the drugstore, growling under
the trucks and stoves, stumbling
through and over the cluttered eyes
of early mysterious night. Frowning
drunk waving moving a hand or lash.
Dancing kneeling reaching out, letting
a hand rest in shadows. Squatting
to drink or pee. Stretching to climb
pulling themselves onto horses near
where there was sea (the old songs
lead you to believe). Riding out
from this town, to another, where
it is also black. Down a road
where people are asleep. Towards
the moon or the shadows of houses.
Towards the songs’ pretend sea.
The People’s Choice: The Dream Poems II
A comb or womb of what we lay down nightly
in. Sleeping there, outside the ordinary fact
of lie and death. But there, the tired cone
of black love, tilted heavy through head bone
cross and jack to lift the tired soul, crossed staves
of the daring failure’s history. Secret cove
of spirit waves of time and loss crack flesh
and dream, he turns there so, cracks simple things
like love. What I, a singer, have for the world
is simple, deadly darkness closing down so hard,
is simple, in defense, a yielded portion of grace.
As people in
are common blankness: hugged in the womb
of the trees or night’s whispered geometries. As people,
to consider, Buddha’s child, a bearded drunk
considered, in my head of hair the dark is there
and light it lays against my tongue. I feel no thing
but word, picture, conditioning . . . black tomb of possibility . . .
heart, dreams of stinking feet. I feel no single
treachery but what you are having been these few seconds
something like my self.
The Dream Poems III
Sleep builds the picture world, widening
rubber fancies spread the walls of any
thing you’ve ever said. In bed, my head
is lead, and dead. I think of all the
people hearts and songs I need, call them
Flesh, its new but, Flesh, over here,
Flesh. And they drop against my chest.
Women shoes and money. Poems and cars.
Countries words and courage. The assembled
fates and human weights. And if I have none
of them, who am I, or you, if I am reader
you, your eye, are poet?
GATSBY’S THEORY OF AESTHETICS
Verse, as a form, is artificial. Poetry is not a form, but rather
a result. Whatever the matter, its meaning, if precise enough
in its information (and direction) of the world, is poetic. The
poetic is the value of poetry, and any concatenation of ele-
ments is sufficient to induce the poetic. What you see is as
valuable as what you do not. But it is not as meaningful (to
you). Poetry aims at difficult meanings. Meanings not already
catered to. Poetry aims at reviving, say a sense of meaning,
or meaning’s possibility and ubiquitousness.
Identification can be one term of that possibility. That is,
showing a thing with its meaning apparent through the act
of that showing. Interpretation can be another term. That is,
supporting a meaning, with one’s own life. That is, under,
standing. And using that position as a map, or dictionary.
Depending on whether you move or sit.
I write poetry only to enlist the poetic consistently as apt
description of my life. I write poetry only in order to feel,
and that, finally, sensually, all the terms of my life. I write
poetry to investigate my self, and my meaning and meanings.
But also to invest the world with a clearer understanding
of it self, but only by virtue of my having brought some
clearer understanding of my self into it. I wrote in a poem
once, “Feeling predicts intelligence.“
But it is possible to feel with any part of our consciousness.
Whatever part of us does register: whatever. The head feels.
The heart feels. The penis feels. The penis is also, because it
is able to feel, conscious, and has intelligence of its own. No
one can deny that intelligence, or at least no one should try.
The point of life is that it is arbitrary, except in its basest
forms. Arbitrariness, or self imposed meaning, is the only
thing worth living for. It is the only thing that permits us to
The only time I am conscious of my limitations is when I
am writing. The rest of the time, there is no standard, at all
reasonable, for judging, in fact, what limitations are.
Year of the Buffalo
for Calvin Hernton and Ishmael Reed
The corrupt madness of the individual. You cannot live
alone. You are in the world. World, fuck them. World rise
and twist like you do, night madness in rain as heavy as stones.
Alabama gypsy talk, for peelings lips. Look in your mother’s head,
if you really want to know everything. Your sister’s locked up
pussy. Invasion of the idea syndrome like hand clapping winter in.
Winter will make you move. Or you will freeze in Russia and
never live to see Napoleon as conceived by Marlon Brando.
We are at the point where death is too good for us. We are
in love with the virtue of evil. This communication. Rapping
on wet meat windows, they spin in your head, if I kill you
will not even have chance to hate me
First, feel, then feel, then
read, or read, then feel, then
fall, or stand, where you
already are. Think
of your self, and the other
selves . . . think
of your parents, your mothers
and sisters, your bentslick
father, then feel, or
fall, on your knees
if nothing else will move you,
and look deeply
into all matters
come close to you
Make some muscle
in your head, but
use the muscle
in yr heart
Will They Cry When You’re Gone, You Bet
You leave dead friends in
a desert. But they’ve deserted
you, and them-
selves, and are leaving
in the foot paths
of madmen and saints
enough sense to get away
from the dryness and uselessness
of such relaxation, dying in the dry
light, sand packed in their mouths
eyes burning, white women serenade them
in mystic deviousness, which is another
way of saying they’re seeing things, which
are not really there, except for them,
never to find an oasis, even bitter water
which we get used to, is better than
white drifting fairies, muses, singing
to us, in calm tones, about how it is better to die
etcetera, than go off from them, how it is better to
lie in the cruel sun with your eyes turning to dunes
than leave them alone in that white heat,
Banks must be robbed,
the guards bound and gagged.
The money must be taken
and used to buy weapons.
must be seized, or subverted.
The machines must be turned
Smoke plenty of bush
before and after work,
or during the holdup
when the guards are iced.
Word from the Right Wing
is a mass murderer,
and his mother,
was a mass murderer,
and his wife
is wierd looking, a special breed
of hawkbill cracker
and his grandmother’s
wierd dumb and dead
turning in the red earth
sick as dry blown soil
and he probably steals
and has no use
for change, tho changing, and changed
the weather plays its gambling
tune. His mother is a dead blue cloud.
He has negroes work for him hate him,
wish him under the bullets of kennedydeath
OPEN FIRE FROM THE SCHOOL WINDOWS
these projectiles kill his mother plagued
by vulgar cancer, floating her dusty horoscope,
without the love even she thinks she needs, deadbitch,
Johnson’s mother, walked all night holding hands
with a nigger, and stroked that nigger’s
hard. Blew him downtown Newark 1928 . . . I got proof
We are meat in the air. Flying into night space.
Meat complexified by evolution from the original
stuff. Re-evolved and retread, grown, bolted, hands
feet working, like they do, from slimy water, even now,
shot out the peter, through the crisscross round mileage
of speed and explosion.
Burst of the planet, burst through years I see on a hill
in electric your death and am puzzled. I am. I am. Milliards
of millions of no thing, blank, zero, indian time. To go.
And me. My feeling, and clicking brain. Zero. From nothing.
To nothing. Just speed and adventure, sensation. But truth,
real shit, where is it. I am. I am. Through the dazzling
lives of the planets and stars. I am. sings.
Amiri Baraka (LeRoi Jones) | Black Magic; Poetry 1961-1967
SABOTAGE · TARGET STUDY · BLACK ART
Shortly after the 1965 publication of his novel The System of Dante’s Hell, Amiri Baraka – then still named LeRoi Jones – wondered in an interview whether the energies he had put into writing it might not have been better used to ‘devise a method for blowing up the White House’. Perhaps he was right. But while the whole of Baraka’s work might not add up to a manual for creating a revolutionary movement, it is still among the most exacting and vital expressions of the struggle to create a militant poetics written in the ‘English’ language.
A key force in the intense constellation of African-American creation that emerged from the Black Liberation struggles of the late ‘60s, together with writers and artists such as Henry Dumas, Albert Ayler, Sun Ra, Jayne Cortez, and Sonia Sanchez, Baraka produced some of the most confrontational art of the Twentieth Century. The Black Arts Movement was the major avant-garde movement of the 1960s, a dialectical shift in the relation between form and content as mode and address. This was a poetry that was no longer an artistic representation of speech, but speech itself: ‘We wanted an art that was revolutionary. We wanted a Malcolm art, a by-any-means-necessary poetry. A Ballot or Bullet verse.’ It was actively revolutionary, and it was intended for the people who were capable of making that revolution. Lorenzo Thomas recalls a Baraka reading from around 1967:
We walked through the cold quiet streets a few blocks to a union hall or community centre sort of place where Amiri Baraka was reading feverish political poems to a few cheerful working class black folks [. . . ] Baraka was dressed in a flowing big-sleeved dashiki and a Moroccan knit cap. He was shouting and singing his poems [. . .] The audience, just like a church congregation, said ‘Amen’ when the poem was finished [. . . ] Ishmael Reed and I sat there with our eyes bugged out, wondering if the brother was mad. Talking like that. Talking that talk [. . .] The people were saying ‘yeh, uh, huh’, laughing and bopping their heads. Like in church. I was amazed at what the poems were doing.
It is a poetry that is un-interested in only speaking to aesthetes, one that refuses a distinction between artistic work and revolutionary activism. ‘The artist and the political activist are one’, wrote Larry Neal, in the afterward to the Black Arts anthology Black Fire, edited by himself and Baraka in 1968, ‘they are both shapers of the future reality’. But in no way – as the caricature of the later Baraka goes – was this a sacrifice of complexity. The relationship to the content of the work, as well as to the audience, was transformed. Artists summoned images and histories inaccessible to the comprehension of the racist enemy, that were both educational – they were committed to art as pedagogical street communication – and revolutionary, in that the world being proposed was one that was entirely other than the one in which they were made to live.
We brought street-corner poetry readings, moving the poets by truck from site to site. So that each night through that summer we flooded Harlem with new music, new poetry, new dance, new paintings, and the sweep of the Black Arts movement had recycled itself back to the people. We had huge audiences, really mass audiences, and though what we brought was supposed to be avant and super-new, most of it people dug. That’s why we knew the music critics who put the new music down as inaccessible were full of shit. People danced in the street to Sun Ra and cheered Ayler and Shepp and Cecil and Jackie McClean and the others.
Baraka’s later work was criticised by more than one reactionary avant-gardist for being one-dimensional and didactic. It’s a stupid (and sinister) criticism, deliberately dismissive of a large and complex body of work that included music criticism, drama, fiction, musical performance and political organisation as well as a wildly various body of poetry. And while t nhese different aspects of the work were obviously distinct, they were also inseparable, feeding into and informing each other. The didacticism was intentional, and never simplistic, but rather the development of a new poetics – the poem as political speech, the political speech itself as music, the slogan as essay, the essay as poem etc. ‘We can learn more about what poetry is by listening to Malcolm’s speeches, than from most of Western Poetics’, claimed Larry Neal. If that is true, then it requires an absolute transformation of what is expected from poetry, and of how it is to be judged. And that is not to say that militant poetry must simply become crudely utilitarian. Quite the opposite: the transformation of poetic energies into revolutionary energies requires, at base, a transformation of our understanding of the imagination itself.
Imagination, or rather, the work of the imagination, becomes the summoning of historical energies, be they ones officially documented by the dominant culture, or ones concealed by the forces of that domination. The work is a gathering, a summoning, of the energies (dreams) of oppression and the resistance to that oppression, to condense those energies into a confrontational poetics and art whereby the hidden history of subjugation is revealed, at times apocalyptically. The content of the militant poetics of the Black Liberation Movement, then, is to activate historical data, and to condense that data into energies and intensities that can give those who hear it the strength to act (a method for blowing up the White House). Frantz Fanon called it the ‘literature of combat’. For Baraka it was the struggle to express what he called ‘struggle images’, where the imagination is solidified into a counterimage intended to challenge and overcome the image-networks of the dominant culture, that system of lies that provides an alibi for the idiot barbarism of the civilized west, a system of lies that Baraka felt extended even into the work of so-called ‘radical’ poets, who in a late essay he referred to as having ‘the good manners of vampires’. And poets, to steal an image from a later group of radical African- American artists, must be ‘fearless vampire killers’.
EDITORIAL NOTE: Writer and leading figure of the Black Arts movement in the United States, Amiri Baraka died this January, aged 79. Before 1966, when he changed his name from LeRoi Jones, he was a celebrated avant-garde poet and playwright, an associate of Ginsberg and the Beats, and New York poet and art curator Frank O’Hara. As the sixties progressed he began to question his association with such figures, and, following a trip to revolutionary Cuba, his work, and attitude towards what poetry was, became increasingly radicalised. With the murder of Malcolm X he placed himself at the forefront of militant, separatist black cultural politics and poetics. His output in the 1960s was extraordinary: poetry, short stories, a novel, political tracts and Blues People, the first book on African-American music actually written by an African-American, and still considered a key work of jazz criticism today. After 1966 he was also a prominent activist, spokesman and organiser, setting up the influential Black Arts Repertory Theatre / School. Much of the work of this period was characterised by a revolutionary rage unmatched by any other poet of the period. In the 70s he rejected Black Nationalism, and became a Marxist-Leninist, a political position he retained for the rest of his life, and the later poetry constitutes a major contribution to the traditions of twentieth century Marxist poetry. In his later years his importance to US African- American history was increasingly recognised: his work was increasingly included in surveys of 20th century poetry and he was awarded various literary prizes and fellowships. But despite this seeming acceptance by the establishment, he remained committed to grass-roots, politically radical arts organising, un-mediated by literary and academic restrictions.