Preface to a Twenty Volume Suicide Note

by Amiri Baraka

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The Poem

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Dedicated to Kellie Jones, the author’s daughter, who was born on May 16, 1959, Amiri Baraka’s “Preface to a Twenty Volume Suicide Note” suggests a turning point in the poet’s relationship to American society in the late 1950’s. Written from a first-person perspective, the poem, likely a reflection of the poet’s own concerns and personal experience, is autobiographical in tone, though the point of view could be that of a fictive voice struggling with the same issues.

Then known as LeRoi Jones, Baraka is one with the persona of the poem. In a confessional tone, he meditates upon his own existence and renders a number of observations associated with apparently daily actions of domestic life. The poet first describes becoming “accustomed to the way/ The ground opens up and envelopes” him as he is engaged in such a mundane activity as walking his dog. Immediately, there is a mood of repetition, the recurrence of daily chores or duties, but these actions are linked to more complex psychological states—the sensation of the “ground” opening up—and are beyond expected expressions of boredom connected to numbing repetition.

Certain ruminations occur at night, and the poem implies a spiritual awareness of personal vacancy associated with the thought processes set free by recognizing one’s place in the cosmos. The “I” voice also observes the “broad edged silly music” of the “wind,” which is linked to racing to catch a bus. These two activities, the walking of the dog and the catching of the bus, imply a routinized lifestyle, one which causes associations that are psychologically ironic and not necessarily linked to the actions described. The attempt to catch the bus also suggests lateness and an inability to keep pace with expected routine or with the times.

The line “Things have come to that” adds to the tension caused by a disassociation from the commonplace. The poet tells of a nightly activity, “I count the stars,” and his arriving at the “the same number”; the practice is complicated by the admission that there are also occasions when the stars “will not come to be counted,” at which time he records “the holes they leave.” Though the third stanza is unified around the counting of stars, the line that follows it, a single-line stanza, suggests a complaint against the times, “Nobody sings anymore.”

The final confession recounts “last night” and the poet’s silent walk “up to” his “daughter’s room,” where he hears her speaking behind the closed door of her bedroom only to discover when he opens the door that she has been praying in “Her own clasped hands.”

Forms and Devices

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Written in a conversational style, the poem is structured in six stanzas, and there is minimal separation between the voice of the poet and the persona of the poem. The perspective is that of a psychologically complex individual, whose race, class, and occupation are unannounced. The poet has reached a juncture at which the usual activities of life are charged with deeper meaning and the need for self-assessment. Of the three longer stanzas—those of more than one line—the first and fifth are of five lines each, and the third is four lines long. These longer stanzas are each followed by a single-line stanza, which serves as a kind of response, an answer or summation, to the stanza preceding it. The line “Things have come to that” sums up the comments in the first stanza, which alludes to the walking of the dog and the running for the bus, and “Nobody sings anymore” is an oblique summary to the activity of star...

(This entire section contains 514 words.)

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counting. The closing single-line stanza, “Her own clasped hands,” is in actuality the final phrase of the preceding sentence. Furthermore, the poet uses ellipses as a minor device, one in the first stanza at the very end, and the other after the fourth line in the fifth stanza.

The poem does not employ rhyme but uses the straightforward language of everyday thought and reflection; there is an absence of traditional meter, though the lines within the longer stanzas are often “run-on,” as in the first and second lines of the first stanza: “Lately, I’ve become accustomed to the way/ The ground opens up and envelopes me.” The third stanza uses the word “And” to initiate the first three lines, a pattern of anaphora, which adds to the persona’s sense of hopeless repetition and routinized daily experience.

Though the experience presented in the poem is deceptively simple, certain uses of language add to the complexity of the poet’s presentation of isolation and uncertainty. The line “The ground opens up and envelopes me” is obviously metaphorical in its suggestion of death, suffocation, and containment. Other natural elements are employed such as the “wind,” which makes “broad edged silly music,” an ambiguous auditory image that uses synesthesia, intersensory modality, the idea that a “broad edged” shape can be paralleled to a musical sound.

In addition to the “ground” and the “wind,” the poet employs the often conventional image of the “stars,” used traditionally by poets to connote a host of possible meanings, from fate to aspiration to isolation to ambiguity, the latter meaning suggested in this poem. The hyperbole, the counting of stars, an act that is apparently undoable, is used to support the seemingly meaningless act, a search for the finite within the infinite. Ambiguity of imagery is further evident in the continuation of counting stars despite their inaccessibility; the poet says, “I count the holes they leave,” in the absence of the stars themselves. The narrative style of the poem, its story like form, is suggested in the closing stanza and the description of overhearing the daughter’s prayers.


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