Friday, May 3, 2013

49 years ago, Amiri Baraka reviewed a grab bag of works for Poetry magazine

March 1964 issue of Poetry magazine
This week, folks, well, at least a few folks in poetry and black lit. circles, have been buzzing about Amiri Baraka's review "A Post-Racial Anthology" Angles of Ascent: A Norton Anthology of Contemporary African American Poetry edited by Charles Henry Rowell. Baraka offers several critiques of Rowell's editorial approaches and especially how Rowell directly and implicitly unfavorably represents authors of the black arts era. This current review is not Baraka's first for Poetry; he wrote one for the periodical 49 years ago.  

Baraka's review "A Dark Bag"* appeared in the March 1964 issue of the magazine. At the time, Baraka was known as LeRoi Jones. His review offered assessments of an assortment of books, including  American Negro Poetry edited by Arna Bontemps, Poems from Black Africa edited by Langston Hughes, Song of a Goat by John Pepper Clark, Heavensgate by Christopher Okigo, African Songs by Leon Damas, Jean-Joseph Rabearivelo's 24 Poems, African Heritage edited by Jacob Drachler, and Swahili Poetry by Lyndon Harries. All the books were published in 1963.

At one point,  Baraka advocates for the kind of poems that interest him. "I do believe, desperately, in a 'poetry of ideas,'" he writes. "Poems have got, literally, to be about something. And the weights of love, murder, history, economics, etc., have got to drag whoever's writing in a personally sanctified direction or there will be no poems at all."

He also offered a general statement about collections. "Anthologies are usually taste-manuals, fashion reinforcers, or, at best, reflections of the editor's personality and total grasp of his material." He noted that American Negro Poetry was "a grab bag of pretense and amateurish misunderstading, in much the same way that most anthologies of Negro writing have usually been."

Similar to his recent assessment of some of the writers in Rowell's anthology, Baraka offered a brief class analysis concerning African American writers:
Most of the Negroes who've found themselves in a position to become writers were middle-class Negroes who thought of literature as a way of proving they were not 'inferior' (and quite a few who wanted to prove that they were). Negro music does not suffer generally from such pathology, to show a specific contrast, simply because most of the great Negro musicians never felt the need to show anything in their playing but the power of their insights.
The attention to class and music as well as the infusion of humor in that passage have remained central to Baraka's work for at least 49 years.

*Note: The link for Baraka's review in Poetry is currently down. The review also appears in Baraka's collection, Home: Social Essays.

A Notebook on Amiri Baraka     

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