Amiri Baraka (LeRoi Jones) (b. 1934)
Contributing Editor: Marcellette Williams
Classroom Issues and Strategies
The typical problems in teaching Baraka's poetry have to do with what has been called his "unevenness"--perhaps more accurately attributable to the tension inherent in balancing Baraka's role as poet and his role as activist--and the strident tone of some of his poems--also related to his political activism.
Both problems are probably best addressed directly by inviting the students to describe or characterize their impressions of the impetus for the poems as they read them (stressing "their reading" is critical and complements what current reading theory regards as the essential role of the reader in any reading paradigm), then asking them to substantiate textually those impressions. Such a strategy finesses the temptation to engage in a definitive debate of the politics of the time as the genesis and raison d'être of Baraka's poetry. Further, such a strategy allows students to explore the aesthetics as well as the politics of his poetry and understand better the inter/inner-(con)textuality of the two.
Because the "sound" of Baraka's poetry is essential to texturing or fleshing out its meaning, readings aloud should contribute to discussions as well as to the introduction to his work.
Students respond almost always to the intimacy of Baraka's poems; sometimes they are offended by that intimacy, and this posture often leads to discussions of poetic necessity. Students also raise the question of the paradox of Baraka's clear aesthetic debts and his vehemence in trying to tear down that very Western ideal.
Major Themes, Historical Perspectives, and Personal Issues
It is important to emphasize the themes of death and despair in the early poems, moral and social corruption with its concomitant decrying of Western values and ethics, the struggle against self-hatred, a growing ethnic awareness, and the beneficent view of and creative energy occasioned by "black magic."
The issues to focus on historically involve the racial tenor of the decades represented by his poetic output as well as the poetic aesthetics of imagism, projectivism, and Dadaism--all of which influenced Baraka to some extent.
From the perspective of personal issues, his bohemian acquaintances of the fifties (Charles Olson and Allen Ginsberg, for example), his marriage to Hettie Cohen, his visit to Cuba, his name change, the death of Malcolm X, and his Obie for The Dutchman are all important considerations.
Significant Form, Style, or Artistic Conventions
It is appropriate to refer to the question of "school," here again in the context of the poet's use of sound and images as the articulation of form and meaning. I would further encourage the students to pay careful attention to Baraka's use of repetition--at the lexical, syntactic, semantic, and phonological levels. What is its effect? Does it inform? If so, how? Are there aspects of the poems one might regard as transformations? If so, what might they be? What effect might they have? How might they function in the poem?
Baraka's consideration of the significance of "roots" appears to evolve in his poetry. How might you characterize it?
A consideration of progenitors and progeny provides a convenient point of departure for a discussion of audience for Baraka's work. Students interested in imagism and projectivism, for example, will certainly value Baraka's efforts as an effective use of those aesthetic doctrines toward the shaping of poetry of revolution appropriate for the time.
Baraka's influence is apparent in the poetry of Sonia Sanchez and Ntozake Shange. What aspects of this influence, if any, might contribute to considerations of audience with regard to time and poetry?
Comparisons, Contrasts, Connections
In considering Baraka's conscious use of language for poetic effect, comparisons with William Carlos Williams (for the use of the vernacular and the idiom) and with Ezra Pound (for its communicative focus) are appropriate. Sometimes in discussions of Baraka's early poems, the criticism compares them in tone and theme--moral decay and social disillusionment--with T. S. Eliot's The Waste Land.
Questions for Reading and Discussion/Approaches to Writing
1. Frank Smith discusses the "behind the eyeball" information a reader brings to text. Louise Rosenblatt discusses the expectations and experiences a reader brings to "transact" or negotiate meaning with text. Given these considerations of the reader, prediscussion questions might be designed to elicit from the reader whatever information or preconceptions he/she has about the author and/or his work. If the students are totally unfamiliar with Baraka, then questions eliciting experiential responses to the broad issues of theme or technique would be appropriate--"What, if anything, do the terms social fragmentation and/or moral decay mean to you?" "What would you imagine as a poetic attack on society? Or a poetic ethnic response to a dead or dying society?"
2. Writing assignments and topics for the students are derived from the assumption that as readers their participation is essential to meaning. Topics are not generally prescribed but, rather, derived from the questions about and interest in the author and his (Baraka's) work. These assignments sometimes take the form of poetic responses, critical essays, or "dialogues" with Baraka.
Brown, Lloyd W. "Baraka as Poet." In Lloyd W. Brown's Amiri Baraka. Boston: Twayne Publishers, 1980, 104-35, Chapter 5.
Harris, William J. "The Transformed Poem." In The Poetry and Poetics of Amiri Baraka: The Jazz Aesthetic. Columbia: University of Missouri Press, 1985, 91-121.
Lacey, Henry. "Die Schwartze Bohemien: 'The Terrible Disorder of a Young Man' " and "Imamu." In To Raise, Destroy, and Create. Troy, New York: The Whitstone Publishing Company, 1981, 1-42, 93-162.
Sollors, Werner. "Who Substitutes for the Dead Lecturer?: Poetry of the Early 1960s." In Amiri Baraka/LeRoi Jones: The Quest for a Populist Modernism. New York: Columbia University Press, 1978, 83-95.