Bi-Monthly Review: SOS: Poems 1961-2013 Amiri Baraka – Selected by Paul Vangelisti

The Bi-Monthly Review is a twice monthly feature of whatever I happen to be reading. Highly informal. Opinions are my own. Try to enjoy.

Amiri Baraka

Last month I received this hefty selection of Amiri Baraka’s poetry for the poetry book club I participate in. I love anthologies, but very rarely focus my time and efforts on reading selected and/or collected works of particular writers. I was excited for this opportunity to dive into over 5 decades of a single poet’s work and see what I could learn. Going in–I knew very little (and, I admit, STILL know very little) about Amiri Baraka as a man and poet, which I thought was strange. After all, I studied poetry in college, and Baraka was a highly influential poet. I wasn’t exposed to any of his work until I graduated from university and took it upon myself to read The Penguin Anthology of Twentieth Century American Poetry, in which four of his poems were included.

I have to be honest here–after reading this book, I felt like I had very little tangible insight to contribute to the book discussion. Many of the poems were eye openers for me, some were so musical that I was compelled to read them aloud, and others, others left me scratching my head because the form and language was arranged in ways I had never encountered and didn’t quite know how to process.

The poem I found the most striking was easily “WHOOSH!” (469). This poem compelled me to read aloud, and I was able to clearly see–to clearly FEEL–the music that I was told pervaded Baraka’s poetry. This was the poem that really allowed me to see it for myself.

I used to be simple
When the world

“When was that”?
An LP after the ’45
After the ’78
When the sky was far away
When humans had faces
When the world minded
Its own business
& poetry was a dream
that left no foot prints… (469)

Every sound in this poem is used superbly. Even in this small fragment from the beginning of the poem, it’s clear how each word and letter is working together to create a musical beat. I love the way the “s” sound at the end of multiple words here helps to create a musical flow (humans, faces, business), and compel me to slow down while reading.

I also enjoyed how many of Baraka’s poems directly address the topic of poetry and the speaker’s reason for writing poetry. In “Gatsby’s Theory of Aesthetics” the speaker admits, “I write poetry to / investigate my self, and my meaning and meanings.” (138) I think a lot of writers can identify with this statement (myself included). Then there’s “Black Art”–one of those poems I’m not sure how to interpret just yet, but love for it’s use of sound and line break. Take the first several lines:

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… (149)

And later in this strangely captivating poem; “Let there be no love poems written / until love can exist freely and / cleanly” (150). I found myself getting caught up in the musicality of the poems when I read them the first time, and then finding a powerful meaning during another read-through.

Baraka’s work welcomed me to think about identity in ways I had never considered before. His poems detailing the experiences of his oppressed race helped me to realize just how fortunate I am to be able to forget my identity…to not have to consider what it means to be black or white or safe or in danger at any and all moments of my life. Everyone is self-conscious at times, but these poems made me realize that my personal identity issues were merely minor discomforts compared to those of so many who have been oppressed for centuries.

Baraka’s poems make me think…and they make me sing their songs. This was a difficult read for me, but I think I would learn a lot by digging into this again, deeper.


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