Amiri Baraka

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Amiri Baraka Poetry: American Poets Analysis

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Amiri Baraka’s importance as a poet rests on both the diversity of his work and the singular intensity of his Black Nationalist period. In fact, Baraka’s diversity gave his nationalist poetry a symbolic significance with personal, political, and aesthetic dimensions. Perhaps his most substantial achievement is his ability to force reconsideration of the relationship between the artist, his work, its audience, and the encompassing social context. Reconstructing his own vision of this relationship both at the beginning and at the end of the nationalist period, Baraka has increasingly stressed the necessity for an art that will alter the context and increase the real freedom of both artist and community.

During his Black Nationalist period, Baraka concentrated on exposing the unstated racist premises of Euro-American art while developing an alternative black aesthetic. In part because he had demonstrated mastery of Euro-American poetic modes, Baraka’s Black Nationalist philosophy commanded an unusual degree of white attention. Coming from a then-unknown writer, his militant poetry might well have been dismissed as a naïve kind of propaganda. It did, in fact, alienate many earlier admirers, who came to see him as an embodiment of the civil disorders rampant in the mid-1960’s. On a more profound level, however, he spurred the more thoughtful of his readers to ponder the complex logic of his transformation and to reassess the political implications of their own aesthetic stances.

Even as Baraka’s relationship with the “mainstream” audience underwent this metamorphosis, his call for a militant and, if necessary, violent response to American racism received an affirmative answer from a significant number of younger African American writers. Challenging them to speak directly to and for the African American community, Baraka pursued the implications of his demand and employed his poetry as a direct political force. His subsequent turn to a socialist position, reflecting his growing conviction that simple nationalism unintentionally contributed to capitalist oppression, forced many Black Nationalists to reassess their own positions. Though Baraka again alienated a portion of his audience, he continued to generate serious debate on central issues. Throughout his career, but especially in the 1960’s and early 1970’s, Baraka has exerted a combined political and aesthetic influence matched by few other figures in American literary history.

Baraka’s poetry falls into three distinctive periods, each reflecting an attempt to find a philosophy capable of responding adequately to what he viewed as a corrupt culture. The voice of each period is shaped in accord with a different set of assumptions concerning the nature of the cultural corruption, the proper orientation toward political action, and the poet’s relationship with his audience.

During his early period, Baraka built an essentially aesthetic response on premises shared primarily with white poets and intellectuals. Although Baraka always recognized the importance of his racial and economic heritage, the intricate philosophical voice of the early period sounds highly individualistic in comparison with his later work. In his middle, Black Nationalist period, Baraka shifted emphasis to the racial dimension of American culture. The associated voice—much more accessible, though not nearly so simple as it first appears—reflects Baraka’s desire to relate primarily to the African American community. Throughout his third and ongoing Marxist-Leninist-Maoist period, Baraka adopted a less emotionally charged voice in accord with his stance as a scientific analyst of capitalist corruption.

Differing from the voices of the earlier periods—which assumed an equality between Baraka and his audience, whether based on aesthetic awareness or racial experience—this socialist voice frequently takes on the didactic tones of a teacher lecturing an audience unaware of its potential identity as a revolutionary proletariat. The diversity of Baraka’s work makes it extremely...

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difficult to find a vocabulary equally relevant to the complex postmodernism ofPreface to a Twenty Volume Suicide Note, the militant nationalism of Black Magic, and the uncompromising economic analysis of Hard Facts. Nevertheless, Baraka is not three different people, but one person expressing himself at three different stages of awareness. Anticipations and echoes of all three voices occur during each period. Throughout his career, several constants emerge, most notably a philosophical refusal to conform to the demands of what he views as a corrupt culture and an emphasis on the oral/musical nature of the poetic experience.

Baraka’s early work emphasizes the relationship between psychological experience, vocal rhythm, and the poetic line. This aesthetic adapts and develops those of Euro-American poets such as Robert Duncan, Robert Creeley, and Olson, whose essay “Projective Verse” states many of the general premises of the group with which Baraka associated. Olson insists on “the possibilities of breath” as the central element of “Open” verse and develops the idea that “FORM IS NEVER MORE THAN THE EXTENSION OF CONTENT.” Given this aesthetic, the poetic voice should embody the precise rhythm and emphasis of the poet’s immediate experience and perception.

“Duncan Spoke of a Process”

The poem “Duncan Spoke of a Process” both explicitly recognizes Baraka’s aesthetic affinities (he also inscribed poems to Gary Snyder, Allen Ginsberg, and Michael McClure during this period) and analyzes the experience and premises shaping his voice. The poem typifies Baraka’s early work in that it is philosophical, abstract, and nonracial. Although it may obliquely relate to Baraka’s experience as a black man, it is equally accessible to a reader whose emotional state derives from different circumstances. In addition, it typifies the early work in its intimation of the deep dissatisfaction with Euro-American culture that led to Baraka’s political development.

Assuming an audience familiar with Duncan, Baraka meditates on the emotional and intellectual implications of Duncan’s work and revises its aesthetic in accord with his own perceptions. Although he reiterates the word “repeat” three times in the first stanza, he is not simply repeating Duncan’s words. The poem most closely resembles Duncan in its syntax, which mirrors the hesitations of a consciousness struggling to embody a natural process in order to find words that repeat experience “as a day repeats/ its color.” Frequently “sentences” consist of a string of perceptual units with ambiguous syntactic relationships. Many sentences contain no concrete images (“Before that, what came easiest”); the images that do occur are in relation to poetic consciousness rather than external “reality.” Like Duncan’s, Baraka’s landscape is part psychological and part mythic or archetypal. The image of unidentified people traveling across the “greenest earth” represents his struggle to unite these landscapes, to bring the nurturing archetypal world to life in the persona’s mind.

The remainder of the poem, however, emphasizes the persona’s inability to achieve this rejuvenating unity. He insists that all abstract ideas and assumptions be validated in relation to memory (of psychological states rather than of external experiences). His memory, however, confronts him with an internal wasteland, “a heap of broken feeling.” Starting with this consuming feeling of loss—whether of lover, childhood innocence, affinity with Duncan, or spiritual resiliency remains purposefully ambiguous—the persona’s process leads him increasingly toward solipsism. No longer able to distinguish between “love” and “opinion,” he feels no sense of the reality of past connections; even the archetypal Eden seems to be an illusion. Existing “. . . where there/ is nothing, save myself. . . . ,” he says, “I cannot fill/ myself. . . .” The isolation of the word “myself” in its own line emphasizes the isolation that momentarily overwhelms the persona. Paradoxically, the line expressing the moment of existential terror intimates the pure merging of voice and consciousness associated with the processes of nature in the first stanza.

Perhaps because of this resemblance, the moment generates in the persona a resolve to reestablish contact with the external world. His determination, however, collapses in a way that, at least in retrospect, seems to anticipate Baraka’s later political development. His first reaction to the existential terror is a perception of what he “love[s] most.” Rather than reassuring him, however, this engenders a cynical determination—perhaps reflecting the continuing sense of loss—that he will “not/ leave what futile lies/ I have.” In a context where “love” is a “futile lie,” the persona’s subsequent decision to “go out to/ what is most beautiful” demands ironic revaluation. The irony increases when the persona derives his conception of the “beautiful” from the platitudinous appeal to nobility of “some noncombatant Greek/ or soft Italian prince,” the originators of the Machiavellian slavocracy of Euro-American culture. The persona’s concluding questions anticipate the insistence on social and political processes that characterizes Baraka’s later works: “And which one/ is truly/ to rule here? And/ what country is this?” Duncan spoke of a process which was essentially mythic, natural, and psychological. While mirroring this process, Baraka’s internal processes are clearly carrying him toward the political arena where questions concerning control and possession are central rather than subordinate.

“Crow Jane” and “Leroy”

Throughout his early work, Baraka tries on a variety of personas, indicating a fascination with masks that provides the center for some of his most interesting early work. The “Crow Jane” sequence, echoing both William Butler Yeats’s “Crazy Jane” poems and a blues composition by Mississippi Joe Williams, focuses on the limits of social masking. “Crow Jane,” a white woman unconsciously adopting the old Jim Crow racial patterns, attempts to escape her role in “straight” America only to find herself a “wet lady of no image.” Even more uncompromising in its dissatisfaction with masks that derive meaning from Euro-American cultural patterns, “An Agony. As New.” develops the image of a persona being burned within a mask of “white hot metal.” Tormented by the constrictions of a corrupt, mechanical white role, the persona feels itself “inside someone/ who hates me.” Although that someone can easily be seen as a white self, tormenting a black soul, the poem is not developed in explicitly racial terms. It could apply, for example, to a gay person living a “straight” life or a businessperson on the verge of a breakdown. Its implications are clear, however; inexorably, the agony leads to the final line consisting only of the word “screams.” Again, the “projective” merging of voice and experience is pure, but the echoes of the scream sound in a voice no longer intended for the ears of the white avant-garde.

Baraka’s nationalist voice, collective where the earlier voice was individualistic, aspires to a specifically “black” purity. Even while assuming the role of teacher, Baraka claims authority for his voice only to the extent that it reflects the strength and values of his African American heritage. In “Leroy,” he offers up his old voice to the black community, urging it to “pick me apart and take the/ useful parts, the sweet meat of my feelings. And leave/ the bitter . . . rotten white parts/ alone.” The alienation associated with Euro-American culture, expressed in the word “alone” as a line by itself, contrasts with the expansive sense of connection felt by the Amiri who rejects the masks of his predecessor “Leroy.”

It would be misleading, however, to suggest that Baraka simply rejects all masks imposed by white society in order to reveal his “true” black face. Even while rebelling against the masks associated with his avant-garde personas, Baraka continues to explore the potential of masking in relation to his new orientation. This exploration takes two distinct forms—both designed to bring Baraka closer to the black community. First, he realizes that his own family background distances him from the “black angels” and “strong nigger feeling” described in “Leroy.” Even while envisioning Leroy’s mother “getting into/ new blues, from the old ones,” he sees her “hypnotizing” him as she stares into “the future of the soul.” In relation to African American culture, the future of the black bourgeoisie appears increasingly white and alienated. To become “purely black,” Baraka must to some extent mask the influence of his class origins. Second, the mask itself is a central image in both African and African American culture. Invoking both the ritual knowledge of Africa and the survival strategy of the black South, the mask has been exploited in African American literature from Charles Waddell Chesnutt and Langston Hughes through Ralph Ellison and William Melvin Kelley. To speak with a black voice, Baraka must, like Br’er Rabbit, present a variety of shifting surfaces, both to defend against and to attack the predatory forces of his environment.

Call-and-response

These shifting surfaces are extremely elusive, deriving their meaning as much from audience as from speaker. Using musical forms and images as primary points of reference, Baraka explores this relationship between group and individual voices. His music criticism frequently refers to the primacy in African American culture of the call-and-response mode of work songs and spirituals. Playing off this dynamic, many of Baraka’s nationalist poems identify his individual voice with that of a group leader calling for an affirmative response from his community. “Three Movements and a Coda,” for example, concludes: “These are songs if you have the/ music.” Baraka can provide lyrics, but if they are to come alive as songs, the music must be provided by the participation of a responsive community. The conclusion of “Black Art” makes it clear that this music is more than a purely aesthetic response: “Let the world be a Black Poem/ And Let All Black People Speak This Poem/ Silently/ or LOUD.” If the world is to be a poem for the black community, a political response must accompany the aesthetic one.

Determining the precise nature of the desired response demands an awareness of the differing implications of Baraka’s poetry when interpreted in relation to white and black cultural traditions. Euro-American reactions to Baraka’s nationalist voice tend to attribute even its most extreme statements to the poet himself, dismissing the possibility that he is wearing a mask for political purposes. This is particularly significant in relation to the poems in which Baraka appears to suggest random violence against whites. “Three Movements and a Coda” presents the image of looting a drugstore as a guerrilla attack on the “Vampire Nazis.” “Black People!” includes the exhortation: “you can’t steal nothin’ from a white man, he’s already stole it he owes/ you anything you want, even his life.” The same poem, using profanity as “magic words,” pictures looting as a “magic dance in the street.”

“A Poem Some People Will Have to Understand”

Frequently, Baraka pictures violence in graphic images of “smashing at jelly-white faces” or “cracking steel knuckles in a jewlady’s mouth.” Given the unqualified intensity of these images, it hardly seems surprising that many white and less militant black readers dismiss the Baraka of this period as a reverse racist forwarding the very modes of thought he ostensibly rejects. In essence, they take the call that concludes “A Poem Some People Will Have to Understand” on a literal level. When Baraka asks: “Will the machinegunners please step forward,” they respond that a military race war can end only in catastrophe for both races.

As the title of the poem suggests, however, the call should not be interpreted simplistically. To be understood, it must be seen in the context of Baraka’s view of the historical response of African Americans to racist oppression. Describing a society in which “the wheel, and the wheels, wont let us alone,” he points out that blacks have “awaited the coming of a natural/ phenomenon” to effect a release. Only after repeating “But none has come” three times does Baraka summon the “machinegunners.” The call sounds Baraka’s response to what he sees as the traditional passivity of the African American community. Recognizing that practically all black experience involves direct contact with psychological racism tied to economic exploitation, Baraka treats these shared experiences hyperbolically in order to shake his community into political action. Placed in a social context where violent group rebellion has been the exception, there is much less chance than most white readers believe that his words will be acted on literally. The use of this aesthetic of calculated overstatement demonstrates Baraka’s willingness to use the tradition of masking for a new set of political purposes. Where the form of most African American masks has been dictated by their relationship to white psychology, however, Baraka shapes his new masks to elicit response from blacks. Far from oversimplifying his awareness in the nationalist period, Baraka demonstrates his developing sense of the complexity of poetry designed to function in a real social and political context.

The contextual complexity, however, adds a new dimension of seriousness to attacks on Baraka’s use of anti-Semitism and racism as rhetorical strategies. Baraka negotiates extremely treacherous territory when and if he expects readers to concentrate on his desire to “Clean out the world for virtue and love” in the same poem (“Black Art”) that endorses “poems that kill . . . Setting fire and death to/ whitie’s ass.” A similar apparent paradox occurs in “Black People!” which says both “Take their lives if need be” and “let’s make a world we want black children to grow and learn in.” Baraka’s aesthetic approach, which vests ultimate authority in the authenticating response, raises the problematic possibility that the audience’s real social actions will authenticate the destructive rhetoric rather than the constructive vision.

“It’s Nation Time” and “Africa Africa Africa”

Baraka attempts to diminish this possibility by developing his constructive vision in celebratory nationalist poems such as “It’s Nation Time” and “Africa Africa Africa,” which introduce a new musical/chant mode to his work. Exhortations such as “Black Art,” which, like Baraka’s earlier work, manipulate punctuation and syntax to express fully the urgency of an emotional experience, also anticipate the chant poems by introducing oratorical elements reflecting participation in communal ritual. “A Poem for Black Hearts,” for example, varies the opening phrase “For Malcolm’s eyes” to establish a focal point for audience response. “For Malcolm’s words,” “For Malcolm’s heart,” and similar phrases provide a kind of drumbeat for Baraka’s meditation on the fallen leader.

In “It’s Nation Time” and “Africa Africa Africa,” this drumbeat, clearly the constitutive structural element, often sounds explicitly: “Boom/ Boom/ BOOOM/ Boom.” Writing primarily in short lines echoing these single drumbeats, Baraka uses reiteration and rhythmical variation to stress his vision of Pan-African unity. The first thirteen lines of “Africa Africa Africa” include no words other than “Africa” and “Africans.” Anticipating Baraka’s developing interest in reggae music, these poems call for the transformation of the old forms of African American culture into those of a new Pan-African sensibility. “It’s Nation Time” phrases this call: “get up rastus for real to be rasta fari.” Baraka rejects those “rastus” figures content to wear the passive masks imposed on Africans unaware of their heritage, and celebrates the Rastafarians, a Caribbean sect associated strongly with reggae.

AM/TRAK

The most effective poems of Baraka’s socialist period redirect the music of these nationalist chants in an attempt to lead the proletariat, black and white, to a new awareness of the implications of its own experience. AM/TRAK, Baraka’s celebration of John Coltrane, attempts to chart this new social and aesthetic awareness by relating Baraka’s poetic processes to those of the great jazz saxophonist. Beginning with a section that, like the saxophonist’s piercing high notes, merges “History Love Scream,” Baraka explores the origins of Coltrane’s art, which combines individual intensity and the communal response of the bars and churches of Coltrane’s Philadelphia. At once purely black and more highly aware than any single voice from the community, Coltrane’s voice combines “The vectors from all sources—slavery, renaissance/ bop Charlie Parker/ nigger absolute super-sane screams against reality.”

Just as Coltrane’s voice incorporates and surpasses that of Charlie “Yardbird” Parker, Baraka’s incorporates Coltrane’s and places it in a wider socialist perspective. Meditating on the aesthetic “difficulty” of both Coltrane’s experimental sounds and his own philosophical works, Baraka considers the threat of losing the communal response: “’Trane you blows too long.’/ Screaming niggers drop out yr solos.” Of course, the phrase “drop out” is ambiguous: Even as the audience refuses to make the effort to comprehend the call, the call perfectly expresses the implications of the audience’s experience. Such a call, Baraka insists, can never simply fade into silence. Rather, it will receive a response from artists such as Thelonius Monk, the jazz pianist who played “Street gospel intellectual mystic survival codes.” Coltrane’s audience, according to Baraka, consists largely of fellow artists able to perceive the depths of his involvement with black reality.

By associating his own voice with Coltrane’s, Baraka points to the developing distance between himself and his wider audience, a distance reflecting his shift to a socialist stance. The poem’s final section, especially, is much more politically explicit than either the previous sections or Coltrane’s music. As he does in numerous poems of the period, including “Dictatorship of the Proletariat” and “Class Struggle in Music,” Baraka insists that the capitalist economic system bears full responsibility for the aesthetic and political corruption of American life. Seeing that “the money lord hovers oer us,” he concludes, “only socialism brought by revolution/ can win.” Meditating on Coltrane’s death in relation to the Newark disorders, Baraka responds to his music as an implicit call for the socialist revolution that will “Be reality alive in motion in flame to change.” The intensity of the call for change is unmistakable, in both Coltrane’s music and Baraka’s poetry. Baraka’s identification of the change with “socialism brought by revolution,” however, seems abstract and unconvincing in contrast, perhaps because of the relative flatness of diction.

As in many of the poems of the socialist period, Baraka’s rhetorical strategy seems unclear. AM/TRAK contains few indications that the last section should be seen as some type of intricate mask. In fact, American socialist writing lacks a dominant tradition of masking and also tends to reject philosophically anything other than direct confrontation. Still, Baraka certainly retains his knowledge of the African American tradition of masking and has the ability to adjust his voice in accord with shifting social contexts. His extreme didactic stance may be intended as much to spark debate as to enforce agreement. The direct attacks on Don L. Lee (Haki R. Madhubuti) and Nikki Giovanni that occur in Baraka’s works, however, suggest that such an interpretation may be overly ingenuous and that Baraka does in fact seek total agreement.

Socialist voice

No simple aesthetic analysis suffices to explain either Baraka’s new poetic voice or his difficulty in calling forth an affirmative response from either the artistic or the working-class community. Lines such as “This is the dictatorship of the proletariat/ the total domination of society by the working class” can easily be dismissed as lacking either the intellectual complexity or the emotional power of Baraka’s earlier work. Such a dismissal, however, risks avoiding the issue of cultural conditioning, which Baraka has come to view as central. Arguing that capitalist control of the media deforms both the proletariat’s image of itself as a revolutionary force and its response to a “pure” socialist art, Baraka attempts to shatter the psychological barriers through techniques of reiteration similar to those used in his nationalist poetry. His relationship with the proletariat audience, however, generates a new set of political and aesthetic problems. While the nationalist voice assumed authority only insofar as it was validated by the experience of the African American community, the socialist voice must take on the additional burden of convincing the proletarian audience that its interpretation of its own experience has been “incorrect.” If the community does not respond to Baraka’s voice as its own, the problem lies with a brainwashed response rather than with a tainted call (the source of the problem in “Leroy”). As a result, Baraka frequently adopts a “lecturer’s” voice to provide the “hard facts” that will overcome resistance to political action by proving that capitalism deceives the proletariat into accepting a “dictatorship of the minority.”

The lack of response to his poems based on this aesthetic may simply reflect the accuracy of his analysis of the problem. What is certain is that Baraka remains determined to resist corruption in whatever form he perceives it and that he continues to search for a voice like the one described in “Class Struggle in Music (2),” a voice that “even reached you.”

Somebody Blew Up America, and Other Poems

The critically acclaimed collection Somebody Blew Up America, and Other Poems is dominated by the title poem, Baraka’s inflammatory response to the September 11, 2001, terrorist attacks on the United States. The title poem is a sharp thorn among roses of tribute and remembrance, such as “Beginnings: Malcolm,” an homage to Malcolm X that raises the issue of Christianity’s contribution to the disharmonious state of affairs in the world. The title poem, read publicly beginning on September 19, 2001, and published in November of that year, caused a storm of controversy.

“Somebody Blew Up America” is a polemic that uses a terrorist act of global consequence as a jumping-off point to condemn terrorism in general, and especially the terrorism practiced by whites against minorities, particularly that which occurs in the United States. The poem gathers many threads from Baraka’s traditional themes. Racism, corruption, class warfare, government, and imperialism all come under fire in an angry litany of historical outrages—slavery, murder, genocide, market manipulation, Christianity, assassination, capitalism, financial control, and political shenanigans—along with the more recent outrage of passenger-plane attacks against buildings. The poem also brings together elements of Baraka’s three creative phases: the intellectual avant-garde, the Black Nationalist, and the radically political.

The structure and tone of the poem owe much to the Beat movement of the 1950’s, particularly to Ginsberg’s “Howl” (1956). Baraka, in fact, seems to be paying homage to Ginsberg in his repetition of the refrain “Who” and in his reference to an owl in the final stanzas. Stylistically, the poem draws on several traditions: blank verse, spur-of-the-moment rhyme, and repetitious, hip-hop rhythm. Like the Beats, Baraka is not afraid to use a full range of techniques—blunt language, emotionally charged words, racial epithets, Ebonics, slang, and street lingo—to drive home a point. He accuses both the living and the dead (naming such well-known public figures as Trent Lott, David Duke, Rudy Giuliani, Jesse Helms, George W. Bush, Colin Powell, and Condoleezza Rice) of complicity in a five-hundred-year conspiracy to eliminate undesirables, opponents, and the outspoken in an all-consuming effort to dominate the world. Baraka asks tough questions, demanding to know who has historically been the worst mass murderers; who has been the chief aggressors over the ages; who currently controls the oil, the media, and the governments around the globe; and who is responsible for the sad state of the world. The material is based on fact, innuendo, rumor, and wild speculation, making it difficult to distinguish where truth leaves off and fiction begins. The poet’s anger is real, and the targets of his vituperation are legion, but he sometimes contradicts himself in his righteous vehemence. After the initial shock of “Somebody Blew Up America” wears off, the thoughtful reader is left with the myriad questions the poem raises, but is provided no answers for how to correct humankind’s self-destructive nature or how to change the course of history. Even if reminded of the past, Baraka seems to say, people are condemned to repeat it.

In the poem, Baraka implies that Jews both in the United States and abroad were aware in advance of the September 11 attacks and stayed away from New York City on the day the planes crashed into the Twin Towers. Suggestions like this caused New Jersey’s governor to call for Baraka to resign from his post as the state’s poet laureate. Baraka, however, refused to do so, and the post was abolished in 2003, ending his appointment.

Un Poco Low Coup

In contrast to much of Baraka’s earlier poetic work, Un Poco Low Coup presents brief bursts of inspiration about a range of subjects. The short folio (twenty-three pages) features poems combined with illustrations, photographs, scribbles, and drawings in folk-art style to aid in understanding or to visually expand on a theme. The pieces are experiments in concision, based on the Japanese haiku, the impressionistic seventeen-syllable poem used to express small but significant or profound moments. The title of Baraka’s collection (un poco means “a little” in Spanish) is an ironic pun on the sound of the word “haiku,” in the same vein as such earlier works as Raise Race Rays Raze: Essays Since 1965 (1971) or Wise, Why’s, Y’s (1995). “Low coup” (LOW-coo) may be presumed to have the opposite intent of the haiku, as filtered through politically motivated, radicalized African American sensibilities, wherein skepticism rules and things are not accepted at face value. The reader is warned in advance that these epigram-like or graffiti-styled efforts, though echoing the brevity of the Japanese verse, do not aim at high art, but low art, since puns are traditionally considered one of the lower forms of humor. Many pieces in Un Poco Low Coup do not even attempt to duplicate the precise haiku form, as though the poet, after consciously launching the collection in imitation of a well-established poetic form, found the ancient structure too confining for modern thought.

Reflecting Baraka’s lifelong love of music and rhythm, the poems in Un Poco Low Coup are like improvisational, jazz-flavored riffs—as though scored for such traditional Japanese instruments as the koto, the shamisen, the hichiriki, or the taiko—touching on favorite themes. These nuggets of arcane, esoteric wisdom are intended as thought-provoking snacks for the brain, rather than as a filling meal for the soul. Much can be read into them, but the reader has to do most of the work; Baraka’s short poems are only a beginning rather than an end, a catalyst to cogitation rather than a completed thought.

It is difficult to argue about the premise of the individual poems. Like the haiku that spawned them, the Un Poco Low Coup poems are so brief and so open-ended that interpretation becomes the sole responsibility of readers, all of whom will bring unique personal experiences that contribute to understanding; Baraka proposes, but each person disposes meaning.

In “Ancient Music,” for example, Baraka contends that death is humankind’s common enemy, and everything else pales by comparison. “In the Funk World,” he posits that James Brown deserves more acclaim than Elvis Presley for his contributions to music. The wry “Monday in B-flat” suggests that dialing emergency is more efficacious than prayer in getting results. “Low Coup for Bush 2” recommends imprisonment for George W. Bush. In “Heaven,” Baraka implies that the concept of servitude and the idea of slavery was an original tenet of Christianity. Ultimately, the value of the poems of Un Poco Low Coup can be summed up in a paraphrase of an older, haiku-like aphorism: “Profundity is in the eye—and ear—of the informed, politically aware beholder.”

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