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Amiri Baraka’s ‘S O S’

© Eddie Hausner/The New York Times

Amiri Baraka eulogized James Baldwin on Dec. 8, 1987, by saying: “He was all the way live, all the way conscious, turned all the way up, receiving and broadcasting... He always made us know we were dangerously intelligent and as courageous as the will to be free.”

This eulogy can aptly be turned back on Baraka himself, as “S O S: Poems 1961-2013” arrives a year after his own death. The sweeping collection, selected by Paul Vangelisti, begins with poems from Baraka’s first collection, “Preface to a Twenty Volume Suicide Note” (1961), and ends with unpublished work written up to 2013.

Baraka began his career in the company of the Black Mountain School (Charles Olson, Robert Duncan), the Beats (Allen Ginsberg) and the New York School (Frank O’Hara), among others. He published “Preface to a Twenty Volume Suicide Note” as LeRoi Jones, a downtown hipster dad of two daughters, married to the white and Jewish Hettie Jones. Many of his early poems are meditative lyrics in conversation with Ginsberg, Duncan, Gary Snyder and Olson, to name a few. The assassination of Malcolm X in 1965 brought Jones’s life as he knew it to a sudden close. He would leave his wife, children and poetic community; move uptown to Harlem; and eventually across the Hudson River back home to Newark, where he was born in 1934.

Baraka’s search for an ideological as well as geographical positioning saw him embrace black nationalism and become a founding member of the Black Arts movement, the cultural arm of the Black Power movement. He spearheaded the making of a revolutionary art that was recognizably black and oriented toward the working class. He wrote in “Short Speech to My Friends,” “The poor have become our creators.” By the end of the 1960s he changed his name to Amiri Baraka as he began fine-tuning his black poetic aesthetic: “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.” Inevitably, his outlook would become more global and international and he would turn to third-world Marxism.

These were the years defined by the assassination of black leaders, and informed by protests and riots across the country. The volumes Baraka wrote during this politically turbulent and transitional period are represented in “S O S,” which takes its title from a poem used as an epigraph:

Calling black people
Calling all black people, man woman
Wherever you are, calling you, urgent,
come in
Black People, come in, wherever you
are, urgent, calling
you, calling all black people
calling all black people, come in, black
people, come
on in.

Baraka’s poems criticized the black bourgeoisie, Nixon, “the owner Jews,” the “superafrikan Mobutu,” “boss nigger,” Kissinger, “Tom Ass Clarence,” “Spike Lie” and on and on — basically everyone in our global community whose motives and actions he questioned. His struggle to form a black poetics that could marry his activism, politics, history, culture and imagination represented his struggle to exist. He stood firm in his beliefs and demonstrated again and again in his poems the informed ability to hold complexity but not ambiguity. To know his fury was to understand both his limits and his genius.

For readers familiar with “Transbluesency: The Selected Poetry of Amiri Baraka/LeRoi Jones (1961-1995),” published 20 years ago and also selected by Vangelisti, “S O S” can be considered an updated version. The omissions in “Transbluesency” — love poems to Hettie Jones, some well-known and often anthologized Black Arts poems — remain intentional omissions in “S O S: Poems 1961-2013.” In this sense the collection is selected with an emphasis not on culling the good from the bad but on presenting a certain narrative for Baraka, one not interested in his career in the archival sense. Additions to the 2015 volume include poems from the collection “Funk Lore” (1996) and the poems Vangelisti chose after Baraka’s death.

The “Funk Lore” poems maintain Baraka’s agenda of speaking truth to power. The breath and line are now firmly influenced by the improvisational techniques of jazz and suggest the spoken word tradition that is a contemporary standard. There is a conscious attempt by Baraka to align himself less with the modernist tradition and more with the jazz-influenced poetics of Langston Hughes. Poems are dedicated to Duke Ellington and Thelonious Monk. Voice and sound pull us through these performance pieces, challenging us to speak the poems aloud. In the ending of “JA ZZ: (The ‘Say What?’) IS IS JA LIVES,” scat singing is born out of the standard techniques of the line. Alliteration and rhyme pull the words right out of a mouth:

. . . africanmemorywhisper
the blown the known
what we knew
what we blew
blues loves us
our spirit is ultraviolet

The real prize of “S O S” is its final group of poems, labeled “Fashion This, 1996-2013.” The section opens with the autobiographical “Note to AB:

I became a poet
Because every thing
Beautiful seemed
“poetic” to me.
I thought there were things
I didn’t understand
that wd make the world
poetry. I felt I knew
who I was but had to
Struggle, to catch up
w/ my self.
Now I do see me
sometimes, a few worlds
ahead, & I speed up, then,
put my head down,
Stretch my stride out
& dig
There me go, I scat &
sing, there me go.

The use of the first person is intimate. The poem with subtle guile enacts Baraka’s changing relationship to poetic traditions. Capitalization creates a contrasting relationship between “Beautiful” and “Struggle.” Rather than catching up, he realized he had to dig in, which became its own form of understanding. Then the “poetic” is in the “scat & / sing,” which is synonymous with moving forward.

The controversial “Somebody Blew Up America” — a poem that cost him New Jersey’s poet laureate position when its speculations were described as anti-­Semitic — is also in this section, along with “Arafat Was Murdered!” Both engage the Israeli-Palestinian struggles from an anti-Zionist position. In this light, Vangelisti’s framing of Baraka as the new Ezra Pound (he invokes M. L. Rosenthal’s statement that “no American poet since Pound has come closer to making poetry and politics reciprocal forms of action”) is provocative, given Pound’s politics.

“S O S” compiles the most complete representation of over a half-century of revolutionary and breathtaking work. Its final poem, “Ballad Air & Fire,” is a stunningly beautiful lyric dedicated to Baraka’s wife (now widow), Amina Baraka, nee Sylvia Robinson. The dedication “for Sylvia or Amina” suggests an inside joke, adding to the poem’s air of intimacy. But even in this final personal moment the language opens out to its community of readers. The final two stanzas become an everlasting, poignant entrance into silence:

to have been together
and known you, and despite our pain
to have grasped much of what joy
accompanied by the ring and peal of
romantic laughter
is what it was about, really. Life.
Loving someone, and struggling

Poems 1961-2013
By Amiri Baraka
532 pp. Grove Press. $30.


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