Preface to a Twenty Volume Suicide Note

by Amiri Baraka

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Themes and Meanings

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Last Updated on October 26, 2018, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 497

The poem ultimately expresses dislocation and political stasis, implicitly questioning the role of the poet as a social voice. The meaninglessness of routinized life engenders a literary death wish. The uncertainty of direction, the inability to take action, is suggested through the poet’s construction of a “suicide” note as an ongoing literary act, a “twenty volume” discourse. The poem itself is a search for meaning and spiritual wholeness in the face of an existential quandary and malaise. Despite the personalizing of the context in the reference to his daughter, the poet also speaks for a generation of Americans facing an era of upheaval and doubt. When the speaker considers that the “groundenvelopes” him when he walks his dog, the emphasis is on the patterned regularity of the experience. Although there is little context around which to establish the speaker’s lifestyle, there are hints as to its repetitiveness, as in “when I run for a bus,” suggesting either hectic routine or keeping pace with the times.

The first stanza introduces a motif of music in a metaphorical and imagistic sense: “the broad edged silly music the wind/ Makes.” Perhaps the notion of running for the bus connotes the rapid social transformations in American culture, a transition that entraps the poet as well. This theme is echoed in the second single-line stanza, “Nobody sings anymore,” a comment that implies a turning point in an era or epoch and a loss of spirituality or emotionality. This expression of lost sensibility of song may be the poet’s way of characterizing what was then the turmoil of the civil rights era, where lyricism as a trope for social harmony is no longer attainable.

The final long stanza, in which the poet describes overhearing his daughter speaking in her room, points to a spiritual dilemma; her praying might suggest Baraka’s own inability to resolve his uncertainty about a political direction. The final stanza also implies that it is through the innocent petition of the daughter that the poet recognizes, though unstated, the irony of uncomplicated spirituality and hope. In Baraka’s own life, his growing disaffection with white liberalism and the bohemian lifestyle may have generated the searching quality of the poem. Certain dilemmas might lead one to contemplate a metaphorical “suicide” but not necessarily an actual one.

Baraka’s poetry of the 1960’s and after was more obviously political, voiced in the language styles of urban black life, the blues, and jazz. Following his trip to Cuba in 1960, Baraka began to consider his role as a social poet and later in the decade wrote black protest poetry that challenged white liberalism. “Preface to a Twenty Volume Suicide Note” does not contain strident political protest or Afrocentric iconography of the Black Arts movement, which Baraka would later embody. The poem represents an earlier persona, that of LeRoi Jones, influenced by the themes, styles, and subjectivity of Beat poetry yet on the threshold of commitment to social relevance and action.

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