“To revere art and have no understanding of the process that forces it into existence, is finally not even to understand what art is.”
Amiri Baraka died today. And, in the death of such a seminal poet who, since the 60s, has somehow always been the effortlessly contemporary provocateur, there will be the inevitable hero worship and social media scramble to prove who touched the hem of his garment. But these will be the predictable faddish gestures that mean to say more about the idolater than the idol. It is not so much a bad thing as it is an inadequate and self-involved thing in the face of the loss of a writer who has influenced more poets than the community of poets realizes. Dipping his LeRoi Jones in Africa to glisten as Amiri Baraka, he was an artist who emerged at the forefront of a gold rush renaissance of Black poets to carve a lasting and vital body of work into the landscape of modern writing. Long before a generation of Black comedians missed the point and adopted only the surface vulgarity and shock value of Richard Pryor’s keen and lacerating comic storytelling, many writers—and, both sycophantic and skittish readers alike—clung to the so-called (but, let’s keep it real, justifiable) bitter and vitriolic to the exclusion of the haunting vitality of the music of Baraka’s work. The anger, humor, rebellion, and often- caustic clarion call to racial awakening is the beautiful sinew and tuft in the content, leaving us so easily laid bare in its seductive honesty, but the it is the delivery system, the irregular blues cadence sex of it, that many current writers don’t realize they are the progeny of. And, not just blues-as-sad-and-babyleftme, but blues as the dark liquor, cigarette rasp, basement squint as spine of the poem. (And, sure, find the jazz, too, as blues afterbirth.) Baraka was nothing less than blues as Black feeling even when the subject isn’t Blackness. He was a master among masters of bringing an essential Black viscera to how to feel you into a moment and keep you there, comfortable or not. Historically, this is style as paradigm shift. So, in Amiri Baraka’s passing, we who read and we who write poetry would do well to take the opportunity not to just low key cool pose in the online mirror in our effusion about what we understand so well about his work, but, to take the time to luxuriate in his classics and esoterica, re-read our own and our favorites’, and study just how much we didn’t know how much our poetry and the poetry we read and hear today owes a woefully unacknowledged debt to a man who has always been and will always be in our wordly lives. Let us hope that Amiri Baraka will rest in peace as we get to work.