With his controversial 1964 play Dutchman (written under his given name, LeRoi Jones), Amiri Baraka made a defiant entry into the rapidly shifting mid-century United States literary scene. At the time, this racially charged drama--about a young black man badgered and cajoled into rage by a flirtatious, violent white woman sharing his subway car--announced a new and fearless African-American voice. Shortly after the play won an Obie Award, Baraka shed his "slave name" and embraced the highly charged politics of Black Nationalism, provoking the ire of moderate blacks and whites alike. However, Baraka's writing career began with poetry, and up until his death in 2014, he never stopped writing verse.
S O S: Poems, 1965-2013 provides a comprehensive compendium of the best of Baraka's 50 years of poetry. Selected by Los Angeles poet, broadcaster and anthologist Paul Vangelisti, these poems cover the ebbs and flows of the modern African-American struggle for freedom and identity--but always in the lively, street-savvy, music-centric, angry voice that Baraka shouted on the doorsteps of academic critics, Harlem organizers and Upper West Side intellectuals.
Forerunners of rap and hip-hop, his poems toasted the earthy heart of the black man's experience. Listen to these lines in "To a Publisher... Cut-out," published in the early '60s:
"But who am I to love anybody? I ride the 14th St. bus
every day... reading Hui neng/ Raymond Chandler/ Olson…
I have slept with almost every mediocre colored woman
On 23rd St... At any rate talked a good match. [And]
I addressed several perfumed notes to Uncle Don
& stuffed them into the radio. In the notes,
Of course, crude assignations, off color suggestions,
Diagrams of new methods for pederasts, lewd poems
Or these concluding lines to "Monk's World" from the more recent 1995 collection Funk Lore, where Baraka was still singing of the power and beauty of black culture:
"Oh, man! Monk was digging Trane now
w/o a chaser he drank himself
in. & Trane reported from
the 6th or 7th planet deep in
Where fire engines screamed the blues
& night had a shiny mouth
& scatted flying things."
There may be no better time than now to experience the lyrical, funny, dynamic, and provocative poetry of Amiri Baraka--a black man who even in his mellowing old age could brandish his political voice in the recent poem "Mississippi Goddamn!" (referencing Nina Simone's 1964 song of the same name) to challenge black support of Hillary Clinton:
"I saw Hillary Clinton in Mississippi with two giant coons
One on each side, like Mandrake the Magician
With her own two Lothars...
Is this the meaning of integration or the effects of segregation?
That we would rather guard capitalism's whore than struggle
For ourselves and with ourselves to achieve something more."
S O S: Poems, 1965-2013 is the perfect place to hear the voice that influenced, if not defined, decades of black political struggle when few were listening--and even fewer were doing anything. Baraka did something. Man, he did plenty. --Bruce Jacobs, founding partner, Watermark Books & Cafe, Wichita, Kan.
Shelf Talker: This well-selected compendium of 50 years of Amiri Baraka's poetry captures the consistently provocative but lyrical voice of an unflinching advocate of black independence and culture.