Friday, March 23, 2012

Defining Encounters with the Sound of Amiri Baraka's Poetry

There's an extended moment in his tribute poem to John Coltrane entitled "I Love Music," where Amiri Baraka begins to shout and wail and wile out. I imagine that his loud projections of wordless phrasings are quite strange or unsettling for many of my students who likely never heard a poet do what Baraka does in his reading. Of course, Baraka's willingness to stretch out and make sounds that are unusual for poetry have contributed to establishing him as one of our most revered poets.

Yesterday, my students used audio devices to listen to Baraka reading several poems, including "Dope," "Jungle Jim Flunks His Screen Test," "RhythmBlues," "I Love Music," and a few different low coup poems.  After listening to Baraka read, several students were anxious to talk about what they heard, but they struggled to find what they considered to be the right words. I knew the feeling.

I first heard his poem "Dope" in the spring of 1999, my senior year of college, during a visit to Pennsylvania State University where I was considering attending graduate school. "You should listen to this," a graduate student told me as he pulled up Baraka's poem on the CD for Call and Response: The Riverside Anthology of The African American Literary Tradition.  I was blown away when I heard the piece.

Never before had I heard an elder established poet utilize so many different vocal inflections. And rarely had the spoken word poets I was listening to at the time infused so many specific historical and socio-political references in their pieces. I had read Baraka's poetry prior to that day in 1999, but listening to that recording was a defining moment in my encounters with his work.

I suspect that many of my students will remember their encounter yesterday with the far out sounds of Baraka reading his poetry. They were likely familiar with such sounds in the music that they listen to, and some of his wails and screams were akin to what some of them hear in those black churches were shouting takes places. But in a literature class? What Baraka offered was unfamiliar and unsettling, strange and wonderful.

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