Baraka, Imamu Amiri (Vol. 5)
Baraka, Imamu Amiri 1934–
Baraka, formerly known as LeRoi Jones, is a prize-winning Black American poet, playwright, director, editor, and community organizer closely associated with Black nationalism. (See also Contemporary Authors, Vols. 21-22.)
LeRoi Jones's Dutchman earned him a reputation as the Negro scourge of white complacency, an angry, knowing, ultracontemporary playwright. But his … short plays, The Toilet and The Slave, reveal him as an archsentimentalist, a dramatist who uses obscenities and wrath to mask a poverty of ideas and a painfully immature emotional structure. (p. 231)
[The Toilet] is entirely unconvincing. There has merely been an undramatized assertion that out of perversion can come love, a sentimental broad jump over all the intervening difficulties. Beyond this, the presence of a [secondary] white character who functions as a voyeur is an infuriatingly juvenile note introduced so that Jones can have it both ways. For the white boy speaks up against the brutality but at the same time is a fairy who clearly doesn't "belong there," where real life is going on.
The two plays are united by Jones's adolescent need to have his cake and eat it, to seem to be arguing for peace and reconciliation while flaying whites with every weapon his limited arsenal contains. The Slave is a "fable" set at some future time when a Negro insurrection is devastating the country. It is a pas de trois among a white liberal couple and the woman's first husband, a Negro who is now the leader of the rebellion. He breaks into their house and holds them at gunpoint, his purpose being to take away the two daughters he had by the woman. Jones's purpose presumably is to have the three engage in denunciation and counterdenunciation, giving both sides of the racial question. (pp. 231-32)
But on one level Jones writes like nothing so much as a lesser Edna St. Vincent Millay pontificating on the state of world and soul—"I have killed for all times any creative impulses I will ever have by the depravity of my murderous philosophies," the Negro says. On another level Jones employs frequent obscenities exactly the way people in real life do—to preclude the possibility, and danger, of thought. And though Jones allows the white man to call the Negro a maniacal, destructive racist, he stacks the cards ferociously against him. Once more the white is effete, incapable of satisfying the woman as the Negro did, and a liberal whose values pale before the apocalyptic vision of Negro power and healing violence.
In the end the Negro shoots the white man, after which a bomb flattens the house. "The children," moans the fatally injured wife. "They're dead," replies the Negro. Whatever tragic insight resides in these words comes too late. Jones has simply bypassed a terrain mined with all the explosive truths about human conflict. To traverse this dangerous ground he will need more resources—and more courage. (p. 232)
Richard Gilman, "Evasive Action" (1964), in his Common and Uncommon Masks: Writings on Theatre 1961–1970 (copyright © 1971 by Richard Gilman; reprinted by permission of Random House, Inc.), Random House, 1971, pp. 231-32.
The Slave … is a blatant, unmodulated scream of racial abuse; its primary purpose, one assumes, was authorial self-gratification…. It is so devoid of conflict, of dramatic content—the whites are such pappy, wish-fulfilling projections ("Professor No-Dick"), the gunman such a sick, simple noise, that the only reasonable response, white or black, is one of embarrassed and annoyed detachment. Which, perhaps, is what Jones wanted.
The Dutchman … is quite another matter. It may be the most important imaginative literary document of the American race war since Native Son. And it works. Jones has here channeled his hate equally into two antagonists, a young Negro boy and the violent white female (a stunning part for an actress) who accosts him on a New York subway, and has managed to create in their encounter one of the more genuine and irresistible conflicts of the modern stage.
The dialogue between the two is almost perfect. It conveys the shrill, sharp, absolutely open insult-trading of cool modern neurotics, hiding nothing except everything, all very uptight New Yorky 1964. And just beneath it, one can feel the peeled-grape hypersensitivity, the heading-for-a-crackup comic tension. (pp. 74-6)
LeRoi Jones has published (in addition to his plays) [his] volumes of poetry, Preface to a Twenty-Volume Suicide Note (1961) and The Dead Lecturer (1964), and an expressionistic, semi-autobiographical, semi-pornographic prose thing called The System of Dante's Hell (1965). He is the most difficult of all the Negro poets, and it is hard to say whether any reader can be guaranteed a just repayment for his efforts. It is hard, in fact, to say anything sensible or useful about a poet who is himself not simply irrational but anti-rational; whose whole approach to poetic language reaches far beyond mere coherence or what we would call sense; who is highly suspicious of the whole nature of verbal communication. This may be one of those many occasions when the wise critic would simply shut up.
would be silence. To shut up, even such risk
as the proper placement
of verbs and nouns. To freeze the spit
in mid-air, as it aims itself
at some valiant intellectual's face.
But to give an idea, not to judge, not to interpret: There is, first, a small group of poems that work very nearly in the manner of ordinary sense (at least for a poet). The title poem and "The Turncoat" from the first volume, "Duncan Spoke of a Process," "If Into Love The Image Burdens," "I Substitute For The Dead Lecturer," "Snake Eyes," perhaps "Footnote To A Pretentious Book," and especially "The Liar" from the second volume: these are all quiet, poignantly quiet pieces of introspection, honest and painful, suggestive, intimate, coolly sad: Jones on Jones. They reveal, even in their own moody illogic, a man who wants very much to know who he is, and wants the reader to know and love him too. These are inside poems, straight from the pain. (pp. 96-7)
One familiar with Jones' plays, too, will catch, here and there, the violent racist anger, particularly in the two strong anti-syntactic "speeches," in "Black Dada Nihilismus," a Kill-All-the-Whites manifesto in dada, and in the surrealist abuse of "Rhythm and Blues" and "Green Lantern's Solo," two of his strongest poems. The violence here is a kind of nightmare violence, something one puts together out of frightening fragments. The two latter poems (from The Dead Lecturer) may be as close to a testament as Jones will ever offer, if one knew where to find it; the most honest possible expression of a man who simply cannot trust words to stay still.
I am deaf and blind and lost and will not again
sing your quiet verse. I have lost
even the act of poetry, and writhe now for
cool horizonless dawn …
More frequently, the communication is nowhere so definable. It is a nonverbal communication that uses words and phrases only as little pressures on the reader's consciousness, a communication that has very little to do with normal syntax or denotative structure. One reads, at best, a tone. The Suicide Note poems ("early LeRoi Jones"?) like "Hymn for Lanie Poo" have a brash, jazzy, young man's sound—a lot of pop-art black humor, jerky collages à la Rauschenberg of radio serial heroes or comic-strip characters taken seriously. As he admits,
are not music. They make no motions
for a dance.
One is denied even the surface attractions of rhythm, except for a jarring sort of skittery jerkiness, or occasional cool riffs on a theme; the "From an Almanac" poems come nearest to modern jazz. Otherwise, the reader must be content to rest passive, to float along with the unresolved surrealistic progress, as Jones plays about with his parentheses and camp gags and insets of sense in search of a style.
The Dead Lecturer poems are even sparer of sense, less attractive, more steely chill, devoid of even the comic gamey glibness of the earlier Jones. But they are even harder to reject absolutely. We have more odd noodling about with word noises, pages in which no single word group between periods coheres into sense. "Obscure" is too concrete a word: lists, insults, four-letter words, parentheses that don't close, lost commas, cold cuts of sound, allusions, dim suggestions of sex or of characters (there are two hazy "character" sequences, on Crow Jane and Willie Best) blend about in the half light, the murky background of dissonance, not nonsense but not sense. For lines and lines the words may lie positively dead, say nothing at all. Then out of it all leap sudden glints and rills of image or statement or pain, three words, a paragraph, a page. This happens especially in the abstract-expressionist protest poems like "Rhythm and Blues"; the evocative and crafted poems full of keen dreams and emergent pain: "A Contract," "The Politics of Rich Painters," all lethal and queerly vivid things. Here, in his non-sense, he attacks with surrealist vigor all the common muck that passes for sense.
It is all, ultimately, anti-rational poetry, an attempt at a new stimulation of consciousness through words made malleable. Jones of course is not the only one practicing it, and his identification with Beat poets like Duncan, Olson, and Snyder is appropriate. Rational criticism is unequipped, in the last analysis, to deal with such an effort, and finally irrelevant. It is poetry for the leisured, the patient, the energetic, for those who do not insist on an immediate show of gain for energies expended. (pp. 98-100)
David Littlejohn, in his Black on White: A Critical Survey of Writing By American Negroes (copyright © 1966 by David Littlejohn; reprinted by permission of Grossman Publishers), Viking, 1966.
For whatever reasons, no one has yet examined Dutchman simply as a play. Dramatically, Dutchman presents a theme developed in a carefully planned structure which itself is the life of this particular drama, and which stands as the turning point in Jones's artistic career.
The theme, as other critics have noted, is one of black identity and its existence in the world. It is presented in the relationship of a black man, Clay, and a white woman, Lula. But because commentators, in a rush to find the tempting "meanings" in their confrontation, have passed over the dynamics of their special interpersonal relationship, much of the play's significance has been lost. (p. 123)
Jones' thematic statement, that the authentic black self cannot survive, is an integral part of his play's dramatic structure. One need not have recourse to biography or sociology to see that Lula's approach, whether as a seductive woman or accusing white person, leaves no room for Clay's existence. It is not surprising that Jones' next play, The Slave, should cast his black hero as a revolutionist waging a hopeless war for his existence, for in Dutchman his back is squarely against the wall. The notion of an authentic self, and the course of existence it must follow, is central to Jones' works. His sociology bears this out, but it is more instructive to see the theme treated in his fiction, where it remains the key element in his art. Better than his two books of jazz criticism or even his Home: Social Essays is the story collection, Tales. These sixteen pieces plot the development of a black self, first seeking its reflection in the world of white intellectualism, and finally returning to an opposite set of polarities in authentic black existence. Repeated again and again are the alternatives of "reflection" and "action." (p. 125)
Jones' drama argues the same theme as his most sustained work of prose: that authentic existence is possible only in the vital act of warring against its challenges. His theatre is now self-proclaimed as "Black Arts" and, by necessity, "Revolutionary." White men are taken by the "Experimental Death Unit #1" and shot; "J-E-L-L-O," a play "about Jack Benny and Rochester, and what happens when Rochester diggs hisself," ends with Benny's murder. Dutchman, written at the point in Jones' life when he abandoned his white wife and his posture as a Village intellectual in favor of a more racial militancy, is not only substantial drama, but is cathartic within Jones' own career. The black man's self, otherwise repressed in a stifling cultural assimilation, must in fact go underground to preserve its very existence; and Jones' plays become guerilla theatre, treating the theme of a guerilla soul. (pp. 125-26)
Jerome Klinkowitz, "LeRoi Jones (Imamu Amiri Baraka): Dutchman as Drama," in Negro American Literature Forum (© Indiana State University 1973), Winter, 1973, pp. 123-26.
Baraka is generally recognized today not only as the first articulater of the requirements for a black literature but also as a kind of spiritual leader of black-poetry writers. Although it seems to me that he has had great difficulty in adhering to his own theory of what black poetry should be, he has nonetheless pointed the way for younger poets. During the late fifties and early sixties, he was a very successful contemporary poet and playwright, whose verse, though unique in its way, was not unlike that of other academic poets: complex, obscure, written primarily for academicians and other poets. After a period of transition, traceable in his poems and essays, he turned his back on the established powers responsible for making him a success, and set about working toward the organization of the black community in his hometown, Newark, New Jersey. His poetry underwent several significant changes (as did his name from Jones to Imamu Amiri Baraka), becoming aggressively militant in its tone and message, and directed, in the manner of Langston Hughes, to the people. Most of the younger black-poetry writers have followed his lead. (p. 16)
Donald B. Gibson, "Introduction" to Modern Black Poets: A Collection of Critical Essays, edited by Donald B. Gibson (© 1973 by Prentice-Hall, Inc.; reprinted by permission of Prentice-Hall, Inc., Englewood Cliffs, New Jersey), Prentice-Hall, 1973, pp. 1-17.
LeRoi Jones' poetry describes a quest for a moral order which he feels ultimately impelled to create for himself and on his own terms. It begins as a moral order similar to T. S. Eliot's in The Waste Land and similar to the order insisted upon by the comic books and the radio serials of Jones' youth. The moral order Jones searched for is related to Eliot's hanged man, who appears frequently in Jones' work. But it is also related to the hero as something other than victim: to the existential hero who, like the Shadow, the Lone Ranger, and Green Lantern, can act individually to impose a strong moral order on a disordered world. Yet both of these visions are rejected…. All his heroes die; his values are inverted …; his only recourse is to become his own hero in the streets, to create his own black gods, and to preach a destruction of the old order as a means of preparing for the new. The pain and anguish he experienced in reaching this point—including the loss of faith in the old heroes and the old moral order—are the subject of the bulk of the poems in … three published volumes, Preface to a Twenty Volume Suicide Note (1961), The Dead Lecturer (1964), and Black Magic (1969).
In view of the influences Jones recognizes in his own work, Baudelaire, Duncan, Olson, Ginsberg, to name a few, it may seem strange to isolate Eliot. But Eliot's influence is pervasive: it operates on many levels simultaneously. The fragmented structure of The Waste Land figures in many of Jones' more difficult poems, particularly in the poems of the fifties and early sixties. The vision of the world as wasted and infertile; the vision of a world having turned its back on God; the vision of rat's feet through the ruined city all seem as much a part of Jones' poetry as of Eliot's. Rhythms which are decidedly Eliotic crop up in crucial moments in the early—and sometimes the late—poems. And innumerable direct references and allusions to Eliot pepper all the poems, though they are most obvious and most frequent in the middle work. What all this seems to point to is an effort on Jones' part to understand the moral dilemma of his own situation as a black man in a white city, oppressed and displaced in his own land, in the mythic terms which satisfied Eliot and which concerned the ultimate problem of God, moral order, the disregard of man, and the hope of resolution through love and faith. In Eliot we find the thin edge of despair honed to razor sharpness only to be neutralized by faith in a God for whom justice is clear, unambiguous, and thorough—if not sudden and swift. (pp. 112-13)
Jones' almanac is a moral almanac, like Eliot's record of the seasons; both their landscapes are moral landscapes, with the wind and the cold not only affecting, but reflecting the souls of men. The differences in their views lie perhaps in the feeling, on Eliot's part, that though the world has been wasted by man, God could somehow still inspirit it if he wished. Eliot's view is that there is a moral order in the nature of things which man has somehow lost the key to…. But for Jones such is not at all so clearly the case. His almanac poems suggest a picture of despair. The winds are cutting, the people infertile, the children impossibly aged. The question of the soul and the question of religion figure strongly in the almanacs as they do in many of the rest of his poems. But Jones has no basic conviction that the basic moral order is there and needs only to be understood anew. Jones in no way renounces his faith in God, but he examines in painful detail his relation to Eliot's God. In these early poems the distinction between Jones' God and Eliot's God seems almost academic. The images Jones uses correspond closely enough to Eliot's to convince us that they are one and the same, the hanged man—Jesus Christ. But the fact seems to be that Jones is examining from the very first the nature of God, that he is trying to see himself in relation to Christ and Eliot's vision, and that he ultimately renounces Eliot's God on the grounds that the moral order is inverted because of the nature of the God himself. If he wishes to set things straight for himself, he must give up the Christian God and find his own. (pp. 115-16)
Critics who have seen nihilism and nothing more … in Jones' work are simply wrong. He is looking for something—for a God and a moral code—which will not destroy empires or him. By no means is he fearful of violence or destruction so long as it produces the destruction of the code that destroyed Moctezuma. He sees no irony in the need for such violence: no more than one sees in the destruction of Sodom and Gomorrah, perhaps a reasonable analogy. (p. 119)
It may be said that one of Jones' solutions to the dilemma of what to do about Eliot's God, and what to do about the existential heroes of his comic book youth, is to supplant them both in his own person. (p. 125)
Perhaps it is merely a vatic pose Jones adopts in these poems, and he does not apotheosize himself at all. But there is a curiosity that lingers in the imagination regarding the name he has assumed since the publication of his poems, the Islamic name which appears in the "Explanation" to Black Magic. One wonders if God and the comic book heroes are dead forever, or if they have been absorbed into Jones' poetic unconscious waiting to poke out again. His name, Báraka, like Lorca's Duende, means many things. Its root is Hebrew: Brk, and it means a number of things: lightning, the blessed of God, virtue, inspiration, the muse. "Since lightning is a phenomenon everywhere attributed to the gods, báraka means the sudden divine rapture that overcomes either a prophet or a group of fervent devotees." It makes one think of the lightning bolt on Captain Marvel's chest, the faith that transformed a Billy Batson at the altar of Shazam, and the consequent faith that out of the scourge of action will come a new order, a new wholeness. (p. 126)
Lee A. Jacobus, "Imamu Amiri Baraka: The Quest for Moral Order" (copyright © 1973 by Lee A. Jacobus), in Modern Black Poets: A Collection of Critical Essays, edited by Donald B. Gibson, Prentice-Hall, 1973, pp. 112-26.
The mark of LeRoi Jones' poetry is the mark of his personality on the printed page. He is the most personal so far of the Afro-American poets. For him poetry is the flow of being, the process of human electricity interacting with the weight of time, tapped and possibly trapped on paper. Feelings, impressions, moods, passions move unedited through a structure of shifting images. Quick poems, light on their feet, like a fancy middle-weight. Mostly, his poems carry no argument, no extractable, paraphraseable statement. They operate prior to the pros and cons of rational, persuasive, politic discourse. Even after several readings, one is likely to remember mainly a flavor, a distinct attitude of spirit, an insistent, very personal voice.
His poetry is written out of a heavy anti-rationalist, anti-didactic bias. Its obligation is to the intentions of its own feelings. Its posture is in defiance of criticism. The critic is for him the sycophant and would-be legislator of official (white) reality, an implacable enemy, the best symbol of the spiritually dead pseudo-intellectuality of the West. (Lula in Dutchman is a white critic, if you watch closely.) Against the strictures and constipations of this official reality, his poetry is an imposition upon the reader of the actuality, the majesty even (hence, LeRoi) of his subjectivity. The personalism of his earlier poetry, particularly, is a challenge to the ready-to-wear definitions of the sociologically defined "Negro writer" lying in wait for him. (p. 127)
All his poems give the notion of being end-of-the-line thoughts, where attempts to reach an understanding dance on the edge of ambiguity. They are the works of an apprentice guru, "stuntin' for disciples," he later decided.
A major source of this creative orientation came from the streets. The hipsterism that nourished his poetry has to be regarded respectfully since whatever its limitations hipsterism was the germ of several cultural and social revolutions still turning in the world today. Hipsterism was a counter-assertion to brand-name, white values and the conformism of middle America, a serio-comic celebration of energies and forms unaccounted for, a mysticism (with some odd resemblances to Zen and other spiritual disciplines) of rhythms and tempos inside of and beyond metronomic, bureaucratic time, reflective of the polyrhythmic time of black music (particularly be-bop) and of the fluid, open time-space sensation of a pot high. Hipsterism was a new, Afro-American ontology, a style of knowing the world and acknowledging in the parody of one's own posture the craziness of a materialistic, hyper-rationalist, racist, self-contradictory square world on the one hand and the absurdity of a universe that mocked human values in its variousness and arbitrariness on the other.
An important aspect of hipsterism that LeRoi absorbed, less familiar than, say, the relationship to black music, was its deep fascination with the ghost-spirits and fantasy-figures of pop culture, the radio, movies, the comic book. (p. 128)
To borrow a figure whose fascination Jones shares with Blake, his poetry passes through a vortex—a point at which physical forces converge—such as the center of a whirlpool…. His development has been through one vortex into another (carrying a large segment of creative Afro-America with him). A reading of his works together shows that the crossing was not as sudden as its results were profound. More important, at the convergence-point of these two vortexes the themes, motifs, style, images are common to both, though sometimes inverted.
In brief, what we can see happening in Black Magic Poetry, 1961–1967 is the despair without reference-point of the earlier volumes discovering its most sufficient cause in the enormity of the fall of man under whiteness. (pp. 129-30)
The vagrant itches of his personal fantasies come home to a new cosmology, much indebted to Elijah Muhammad (see the dramatization of the Yacub myth in Black Mass). The natural order of the universe, in which "everything is everything" and man is in harmonious relation to nature and the gods, his imaginative and creative powers equal to his needs, has been interrupted disastrously by the intrusion of a counter-human homunculus (the white man) who maintains its parasitical existence feeding on the blood of living (nonwhite, essentially black) people and their cultures. A crucial image is the vampire. (p. 130)
But to characterize Jones' poetry rather than a particular segment of black nationalist ideology is to recognize the residue of the earlier, personal world-view transformed in the [later] work. For instance, the particular, non-conformist "craziness" of the be-bopper, one indigenous reference point for the adolescent Leroy, becomes the "black madness" of "Black Dada Nihilismus" and then the holier black madness of the intense, fiery, disorienting (to whites) commitment to blackness of the third section of [Black Magic Poetry]. (pp. 130-31)
What emerges is a diabolism, incipient from the earliest poems, whose main feature is the blaspheming of the hated religion, in this case the religion of whiteness. It is a commitment implied in the title, Black Mass, or in the poem "Black Art"… or in the whole conception of Black Magic Poetry. The black magic motive (black meant ironically) is the drive to weave an imaginative spell powerful and compelling enough to counteract in the minds of black people the spell of the white man for "To turn their evil backwards / is to / live"…. (p. 131)
It is as though his talent were lying around like an empty bag until filled by the spirit-breath of suddenly conscious black people and took stunning shapes from the idioms, rhythms, folklore, the needs and crises, the beauties of a self-defining Afro-America. Some of the Black Magic poems adapt the forms of blacktalk: the dozens in "T. T. Jackson sings" and "Word from the Right Wing"; wallwritings like "You cannot hurt / Muhammud Ali, and stay / alive"; hoodoo curses like "Babylon Revisited" and "Sacred Chant for the Return of Black Spirit and Power," raps such as "Poem for Half-White College Students," put-downs like "CIVIL RIGHTS POEM" and neo-African chants such as "Part of the Doctrine"…. But more of the poems are free-form reflective lyrics, alternately public and private, in which Jones shows remarkable growth as "a long breath singer" in contrast to the telegraphese of the earlier work. In these, where the inspiration is street talk and the long, cascading line of Coltrane and what might be called the Eastern-Astral school of black music, the utterance moves in one unimpedable breath, with its own swoops, cries, distributed vocal parts, sound effects and faultlessly chosen words to its cymbal-crash ending. Poems like "Poem for Black Hearts" and "Black People" are among the few works equal to the intensity and urgency of the black rediscovery years of the sixties.
The incandescent furies of [Black Magic Poetry] subside in subsequent poems, some of them collected in In Our Terribleness (1970). It is as though Jones sensed that simple, diabolical inversion of white values is another form of flattery and dependency and that the creative motif of despelling the white man had run its course. The later poems, more independently reflective of the spiritual needs of black people, are mellower, less satiric, showing a deeper turn into mysticism. This latest change in a poet who believes in change as a fundamental aspect of reality is signaled by the adoption of a new name, Imamu Amiri Baraka.
There are enough brilliant poems of such variety in Black Magic and In Our Terribleness to establish the unique identity and claim for respect of several poets. But it is beside the point that Baraka is probably the finest poet, black or white, writing in this country these days. The question still has to be asked whether he has fulfilled the vocation set for him by his own moves and examples. He has called himself a "seer" (one familiar with evil is the way he defined it) and holy man, but hesitates to claim (while vying for it) the fateful name of prophet. (pp. 131-32)
A poet's obligation, by contrast [with the prophet's], is to the integrity of his verbal rendering of his individual sensibility. The problem is whether Baraka's creative impulse, which is essentially underground, hip, urban, and avant-garde, can be made to speak for a nation of black people rather than for a set of black nationalists. Can he transcend the inclination to ad-lib on the changes of black consciousness (the way be-boppers ad-libbed on "Indiana") toward redefining that consciousness in the light of enduring values and in major works of sustained thought and imagination?
"We need a heavy book, like the Bible or the Koran," he writes in In Our Terribleness. This is doubtless too much to ask of one man. There are qualities, further, in his creative armament that run counter to that need. He seems to confuse fantasy, which is whimsical and gratuitous (consider "Answers in Progress" in Tales, 1967, and "All in the Streets" in Terribleness, both beautiful reveries) with myth, which, however non-rational its basis, holds firmly to a certain kind of cause-effect economy. His early avant-garde posture has given way to a mysticism that depends upon other people's orthodoxies, a gnosticism, really, that carries with it the aura of initiates, adepts and degrees of secret lore. The magic of his poetry owes almost as much to his enchantment with figures of pop culture like Mandrake, Lamont Cranston, Plastic Man, and The Green Lantern as it does to African cosmology and Arabic philosophers. Some of his symbols look like paraphernalia left over from a Shriner's convention. In his later work, black nationalism moves toward becoming a subdivision of the occult sciences, whereas something more broadbacked, comprehensive, open, accountable seems demanded by the ethos of black people—the kind of poetry (groping for a reference) Malcolm might have written, had he turned his genius in that direction.
The legacy of hipsterism, then, together with his still rather Baudelairean spiritual elegance, places Baraka's work always underground or aloft in relation to the meat and potatoes' scene where the straight world works out its dull, mediocre gimmicks. His peril is that his work must pass close to that fearful terrain—not conceding to whiteness all of the middle, ordinary world, where humans play out their messy lives—if it is going to take on the amplitude and range of black being.
The limitations I speak of, already dwindling in his latest pieces, really go beyond a consideration of Baraka as poet. There, the same qualities are adornments of his invented poetic cosmos, part of the spell-binding conviction of the work, adding tones to one of the distinctive, compelling, haunted modern voices, a voice like the nerve-endings of our terrible times. They are part of the legend, a legend supported by a list of accomplishments impressive in a writer just reaching midcareer. And he has become a prophet in the literary sense, establishing modes in which some of the most stirring impulses of black expressiveness have found form. Behind this record, still another title comes to mind for Baraka, one we used to confer only upon ourselves; he is "The Kid of Afro-American Writing." (pp. 133-34)
Clyde Taylor, "Baraka as Poet" (copyright © 1973 by Clyde Taylor), in Modern Black Poets, edited by Donald B. Gibson, Prentice-Hall, 1973, pp. 127-34.