Perhaps the most influential African American poet of the last half of the twentieth century, Amiri Baraka helped define the Beat generation and served as a guide for the Black Arts movement of the 1960’s. Baraka’s work is simultaneously introspective and public; his combination of unrhymed open forms, African American vernacular speech, and allusions to American popular culture produces poems that express Baraka’s personal background while addressing political issues. Baraka’s poetry draws upon the poetic techniques of William Carlos Williams and Charles Olson, and upon traditional oratory, ranging from the African American church to streetcorner rapping.
Baraka has divided his work into three periods: his association with the Beats (1957-1963), a militant Black Nationalist period (1965-1974), and, after 1975, an adherence to Marxism and Third World anticolonial politics. These periods are marked by changes in the poet’s ideology but not in his poetic style. Early poems such as “Hymn to Lanie Poo”—focusing on tension between middle-class and poor black people—and “Notes for a Speech” consider whether or not African Americans have a genuine ethnic identity and culture of their own as opposed to a segregated existence that only mirrors white America. This theme receives more attention in poems of the 1960’s such as “Poem for Willie Best” and “Poem for HalfWhite College Students” which indict Hollywood stereotypes. Another collection, Transbluesency: Selected Poems (1961-1995), represents Baraka’s work since 1979.
Poems of the Black Nationalist period address questions of the poet’s personal and racial identity. The poems of this period suggest that poetry itself is a means of creating individual and communal identity. In “Numbers, Letters” Baraka writes: “I cant be anything I’m not/ Except these words pretend/ to life not yet explained.” Explicitly political poems, such as “The Nation Is Like Ourselves,” propose that each person’s efforts or failings collectively amount to a community’s character. After 1975, poems such as “In the Tradition” argue—with some consistency with Baraka’s earlier views—that although Marxism is the means to political progress, only an art of the people that insists on showing that “the universal/ is the entire collection/ of particulars” will prepare people to work toward a better future. “In the Tradition” and a later series titled “Why’s” present musicians and political leaders as equally powerful cultural activists, reinforcing Baraka’s idea that poetry is a force for change.