Saturday, February 07, 2015

Save Our Stanzas - Selecting Amiri Baraka

For many years I have complained loudly and often about the lack of a readily available major gathering of Amiri Baraka's poetry. It would be hard to think of another late career poet of his importance who was not the subject of a Collected as well as a Selected. (The Complete generally awaits the poet's demise -- but even then . . .. Recollect that one of Frank O'Hara's friends asked, following the publication of both the Collected and Poems Retrieved, whether a Complete was even a possible thing. Looking at the masses of Baraka's work, I have often wondered the same thing.) 

Long out of print, the Selected Poetry of Amiri Baraka/LeRoi Jones, published in 1979, was advertised as "containing those poems which the author most wants to preserve," and that has long been the most substantial collection of Baraka's verse we had - 339 pages running from Preface to a Twenty Volume Suicide Note through to Poetry for the Advanced. (This was the only volume in which many of us could find that second collection from Baraka's Marxist epoch.) There was no editor named in the book, so one assumes the selections are indeed Baraka's own.

 A quarter century on, Marsilio published Transbluesency: Selected Poems 1961-1995, edited by Paul Vangelisti in consultation with the poet. I loved the cover of that book the minute I saw it, and began reading with the highest hopes, but I was already concerned just picking up the volume. The 1979 Selected ran to 339 pages; the 1995 Transbluesency, taking in decades more work to choose from, was 271 pages long. 

Shortly after the publication, a retrospective symposium on Baraka's life and work was held at the Schomburg Library. One of the standout events of that weekend was a reading Baraka gave during which, at the suggestion of Kalamu ya Salaam, Baraka read poems from the entire breadth of his career, something I had never seen him do before and that I never again witnessed. Picking up Transbluesency, Baraka paused over the first poem on the first page and remarked, "there's a mistake here." That was just the beginning of it -- Transbluesency was badly marred by obvious typos and substantive errors. Any selection, like any anthology, is open to criticism for what has been omitted (or what perhaps should have been). I remember Kalamu asking Baraka why the book didn't include such powerful works as "I Investigate the Sun." But selection criteria aside, those of us who hope to teach from such books also hope to have reliable editions. Since 1995, Transbluesency has been the only easily acquired and adopted collection of Baraka's work spanning his writing life, and so I have often begun classes by issuing a corrections kit to my students so that we can all be on the same page with some assurance we are on a page Baraka wrote. Learning that the new SOS: Poems 1961-2013 was also being edited by Vangelisti, and that it was to be an expansion of Transbluesency, I harbored a wish that those many errors would be corrected.

And some of them have been -- That first poem, "Preface to a Twenty Volume Suicide Note" has been corrected, but the fifth section of "Hymn for Lannie Poo" still contains lines that read "The preacher's / conning eyes / filed when he saw /the way I walked to- / wards him;" lines that don't really make much sense. "Conning eyes filed"? Readers of earlier editions know the word was supposed to be "fired." A pretty bad typo in "Wise I" has been corrected, but the opening page of"In the Tradition" retains a significant error. The current edition has the lines "the White Shadow / gives advice on how to hold our homes / together, tambien tu, Chicago Hermano" -- I imagine any number of readers have been wondering who this Chicago hermano is and why Baraka is addressing him in Spanish. Those of us who first heard the poem on the stunning LP New Music - New Poetry, accompanied by Fred Hopkins, Steve McCall and David Murray, know that the line goes "tu tambien, Chicano hermano." Chicano/Chicago -- not really a typo, and a world of difference.

Again, any of us might well have made a different selection. Why no "Why Is We Americans"? Why no "Something in the Way of Things," no "I Liked Us Better"? Was the decision to repeat exactly the selections from Transbluesency Baraka's choice? For the foreseeable future, we will have to live and work with these decisions. A proposed Collected was put on hold by Baraka's agents in favor of letting SOS have the field to itself for a time.

But it's not just copy editing that is a problem. The editor's introduction adds some new counterfactuals to those already circulating. Baraka's parents did not capitalize the "R" when they named him Everett Leroy Jones. It is simply not true that following 1973 Baraka "would only be published by smaller or alternative presses."  That 1979 Selected (still a book to get on the used book market if you can't get all the original volumes)? That was published by Morrow, and it includes the Marxist period books Hard Facts and Poetry for the Advanced, the very sorts of work Vangelisti argues rendered Baraka unpublishable by the larger, commercial houses. Baraka often observed that it had been easier to get published with "hate whitey" than with "hate capitalism," and that is true enough. But that's a far cry from the claim advanced in the introduction to the new book. Morrow also published Baraka's Selected Plays and Prose and Daggers and Javelins, a major collection of essays from the Marxist period. It was also Morrow who published the first substantial collection of Baraka's later plays, The Motion of History. None of this is to take anything away from the story of Baraka's difficulties in the publishing world (part of why we haven't seen another major collection of the poems in all these years from a larger press), and we all owe a tremendous debt to Third World Press and the many small literary presses who continued to make Baraka's works available. Still, it's better to get the motion of history right when writing history, when you're editing the only large collection of Baraka's poetry that we're going to have for the foreseeable future.

There are questionable interpretations as well. Can we really make the case that Baraka's "lyrical realism" "sounds in counterpoint to his Beat contemporaries, steeped as they were in the egocentric idealism of nineteenth-century Anglo-American literature"? Take another look at Baraka's brilliant introduction to The Moderns and let his comments on the relationship of his contemporaries among the Beats to, say, Melville and Twain, sink in and then think carefully about this argument. And is it really defensible to claim that Baraka's writing is "both American (i.e., African American, of the 'New World') and firmly outside Anglo-American culture"? 

On the other hand, Vangelisti is on much firmer ground with his observation that "up through the last poems, there remained above all a critical, often restless lyricism . . . " I think one of the greatest services this new volume will perform is forcing, or at least encouraging, a much more nuanced understanding of Baraka's later writings. The anthologies have tended to repeat the same few poems, and many readers, aided and abetted by America's publishing world, simply have no clue what Baraka's late poems are like. The image of a screaming, hate-filled nationalist was simply replaced in the national media imaginary by the image of a screaming, hate-filled communist (see the press controversy surrounding "Somebody Blew Up America" for a sense of what I'm getting at) and all too many critics and general readers alike simply didn't bother reading any poetry Baraka wrote over the past four decades. Those who did lay hands on copies of Funk Lore or Wise or any of the many chapbooks over the years knew that Baraka continued to write poetry easily the equal of anything done in his youth. How hard could it have been for anyone to know that? Still, it could have been a whole lot easier if he'd had the kind of book publication an Adrienne Rich or a Kevin Young or a Mark Strand seemed to find without quite so much trouble.

The final section of the new SOS, titled "Fashion This," is selected from work published after 1996 and is in itself cause for celebration, a truly important event in American poetry. Many familiar elements are in place. Where the young LeRoi Jones recollected the Green Lantern, the old Baraka at several points remembers the little devil cartoon character created by Gerald 2X in the pages of Muhammad Speaks. (Has anybody ever gathered those cartoons in one place?) The lyric reflections on Monk and Trane continued to Baraka's dying day. The scathing satire continued unabated. The wild experimentation with language went on (see "John Island Whisper"). The collection provides a new context for reading poems we've nearly talked to death in the past. Reread "Somebody Blew Up America?" next to Baraka's earlier poem written after the bombing in Oklahoma City.

There are few places in the work as deeply moving and lyrically intense as the poems for and about Amina Baraka, the former Sylvia Robinson. "What beauty is not anomalous / And strange"

If we ever do get a Collected Baraka (and let's hope it's also a corrected Baraka) I suspect it will need to be in two very large volumes, rather like the two volumes of the Creeley Collected we now have. There are at least 236 pages of uncollected poems just from the beginning of Baraka's publishing to 1966. Add to that all the uncollected poems since 1966 and whatever of the unpublished poetry can be coralled and you'd probably have another entire book at least as long as SOS. We need these books, but for now this is what we have. To the good, there is plenty here for us to reread and think over for a good long while.

The saddest lines in the entire 528 pages of SOS come in a late poem reflecting on late Auden: "What poetry does / is leave you when you stop needing it!" Poetry never left Amiri Baraka, and we will never stop needing his.

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