Writer Amiri Baraka was born Everett Leroi Jones in 1934, but changed his name in 1961. Baraka’s poetry included insightful and incendiary critiques of social mores and politics during a time when the American way of life at home and at work, in the bedroom and the boardroom and at the ballot box was being held up to a harsh light and called into question.
In his musical, propulsive verses, Baraka asked a lot of questions of his country and his neighbors and himself. He was also that rare artist who transitioned from the philosophizing and experimenting of the Beat culture of the 1950′s to immerse himself in the direct action of the creative revolutions of the 1960′s. Kerouac couldn’t manage the cross-over, but Baraka did, following right behind Allen Ginsberg — the Beat writer whom Baraka’s insistent lines most clearly recalled. Here’s what Reality Studios has to say about Baraka’s Beat credentials:
My interest in Jones centers on his Beat phase lasting until the mid 1960s. This work would make an outstanding collection. In 2000, Brown University showcased its Jones holdings and the Beat pieces really spoke to me. I was especially struck by Jones’ work as an editor. It seems like he had his hands in every major magazine coming out of New York City in the late 1950s and early 1960s. Yugen, Floating Bear, Kulchur. This does not include his founding of Totem Press and that press’s publications with Cornith Books. Jones published Michael McClure, Allen Ginsberg, Jack Kerouac, Frank O’Hara, Charles Olson, Gary Snyder, Philip Whalen, Ed Dorn, Diane Di Prima, and Paul Blackburn.
More recently, Baraka proved he still knew how to ruffle feathers in high places when his 2002 poem “Somebody Blew Up America” questioned the official story behind the 9/11 attacks, creating enough controversy to lose Baraka his status as New Jersey’s Poet Laureate. Here’s the Beatdom take on the controversial poem:
With the death of Reverend Martin Luther King, Jr., (who visited Baraka’s Newark home a week before his murder), he left the mostly-white Bohemian literary scene and the environs of the East Village to take up a more radical stance towards Black Nationalism. But despite his distancing himself from the Beats in the mid-sixties, Baraka read poetry and attended panel discussions at Beat-haven Naropa Institute through the 1980-90s, and remained friends with Ginsberg until Allen’s death in 1997.
More recently his poem, “Somebody Blew Up America,” brought an end to his New Jersey “Poet Laureate” post when Governor Jim McGreevey took umbrage to the poem’s questioning of the events surrounding the 9/11 destruction of the World Trade Centers. The “Who?’ of the exploding owl in the poem echoes the angst of Ginsberg’s voice in “Howl.” Having heard Ginsberg recite live from ten feet away, this writer finds both poems equally as exciting and important.
Here is Amiri Baraka reading “Somebody Blew Up America”
The poet died today. He was 79.
If you’re interested in more about Baraka’s Beat roots, download this outstanding, complete .pdf collection of Yugen from Reality Studio.