"In Memory of Radio" appears in Baraka's first collection of poetry, Preface to a Twenty Volume Suicide Note, published in 1961. Baraka was then known as LeRoi Jones. Although the poems in this collection express disaffection with conventional social values and mores, they do not embody the often strident political views Baraka became known for later in his career, when he embraced Black nationalism and then international Marxism. The third poem in the collection, "In Memory of Radio" comes just before a poem to his wife, "For Hettie." It is not, however, about memory or, necessarily, radio. Rather, Baraka uses these subjects to explore ideas of taste, technology, imagination, identity, and the poet's role in society. Written in free verse and employing a conversational, sometimes humorous voice, the poem uses the speaker's memory of radio shows to ostensibly evoke a sense of nostalgia and loss. In actuality, the poem comments on the very insidiousness of radio itself, and how the medium commands human attention and creates a reality separate from the one in which human beings live. The central image in the poem is a superhero from comic books and radio shows called The Shadow. Under the cloak of invisibility, The Shadow hunts down and roots out evil in the world. The words he uttered after he transformed himself from Lamont Cranston, a millionaire playboy, to The Shadow have become a part of popular culture: "Who knows what evil lurks in the hearts of men? The Shadow knows."
Baraka's early writing was very much influenced by Beat writers such as Jack Kerouac and Allen Ginsberg, both of whom wrote spontaneously and championed the immediacy and the authenticity of human experience. Like much of Beat literature, Baraka's poem offers a critique of mid-century American culture and society. The poem questions middle-class tastes, popular culture, and America's seeming unquestioning acceptance of technology. Like much Beat writing it is more process than product, and hence difficult to summarize or paraphrase.
Stanza 1: The title sets the tone for the poem. We expect an elegy to the radio, a nostalgic reminiscence about its effect on the speaker. We get that and more. Lamont Cranston is the alter ego of the Shadow, a black-cloaked crime fighter with an eerie laugh. The Shadow was the subject of hundreds of pulp novels and a radio show which ran in the 1930s and 1940s. The speaker wants us to think about how a figure from popular culture can also be divine. He also, consciously or not, sets himself apart from others who listen to radio, declaring that radio stations such as WCBS (a New York City station) and singers such as Kate Smith (a popular crooner who immortalized the song "God Bless America" and who had her own radio show on CBS) are "unattractive." The speaker aligns his taste with Jack Kerouac, one of the leading authors of the Beat movement of the 1950s and 1960s who wrote about jazz and blues and his experiences in the gritty American counterculture in novels such as On the Road, Dharma Bums, and The Subterraneans. The tone of this stanza is smug, almost arrogant, as he lumps the reader in with "the rest of you." Stanza 2: Like the first stanza, this one begins with a rhetorical question. There is nothing to say, the speaker suggests. He underscores this with a play on these famous lines from Lord Alfred Tennyson's poem "In Memoriam": "Tis better to have loved and lost, / Than never to have loved at all." Making these lines part of a non-sequitur also illustrates the Beat sensibility, which set itself apart from high art and saw sacredness in the everyday. His references to linoleum and living rooms, though apparently nonsensical, underscore the inferiority and shallowness of middle-class tastes. Stanza 3: Baraka continues with the playful tone of the poem, again beginning a stanza with a question. He is obviously not a sage, but he also wants to point out that neither are public figures who often lay claim to sage status. Mandrake is Mandrake the Magician, the hero of a comic strip of the 1940s and 1950s written by Lee Falk and Fred Fredericks. Oral Roberts is an evangelist well known for soliciting funds over the radio and television.
Bishop Fulton J. Sheen delivered the first radio message from Radio City, and was the first to host a regular series of religious radio broadcasts. His national NBC show was called "The Catholic Hour." Hitler, of course, was the genocidal German leader of World War II responsible for the systematic extermination of Jews and others in death camps. Baraka uses the phrase "gaschamber satori" ironically to emphasize the moral murkiness with which we perceive public figures, and how bad is often seen as good and good as bad. A "satori" is a state of spiritual enlightenment in Zen Buddhism, itself a popular religion among some of the Beats.
Stanza 4: The reader is told what has only been suggested so far, that good and bad, evil and love exist dialectically. That is, one cannot exist without the other. To attempt to understand love is folly, the speaker implies. Not even a poet can understand love.
Stanza 5: These two lines elaborate on the kinds of shows that the speaker listened to as a child. Red Lantern was a character from the children's show Land of the Lost. He was a fish who led kids down below the sea to search for their lost toys. Let's Pretend, also a children's show, dramatized the Grimm's fairy-tales for radio. The speaker makes the link between his childhood activities of pretending while listening to these shows with his activities as a poet, where he also uses his imagination and "pretends."
Stanza 6: This stanza refers to the Shadow, first mentioned in the opening stanza. To combat evil, the Shadow had the ability to make himself invisible ("the transformation"). "The transformation" also echoes a religious idea, the transformation of bread and wine into the body and blood of Christ during the act of communion. Indeed, by describing the Shadow in terms of his adversaries, the "unbelievers" who would throw stones, Baraka ascribes to him a religious quality, which is reinforced by the Shadow's ability to see into the hearts of men.
Stanza 7: The rhythm of these last lines and the rhyme "does/love" end the poem on a breathy and whimsical note. Baraka has used his memory about radio as a vehicle for commenting on a bigger theme: the inherent duality of the world and of human nature.
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