Monday, February 1, 2016

Amiri Baraka's Metaphors and Ferocious Name-calling

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Of the hundreds of poets – black, white, Asian, Latino, and Native American – that I have read over the last 20 years, few of them compare to Amiri Baraka when it comes to hurling insults in verse. In his poem “Jungle Jim Flunks His Screen Test” alone, I counted more than 60 direct insults. Taken together, those insults are outrageous, comical, and razor-sharp, and among other things, they confirm Baraka's commitment to employing metaphors to conceptualize ideas and characterize actions.

The fictional hero Jungle Jim was devised as an alternative to Tarzan. Notably, after actor Johnny Weismuller played the lead role in a dozen Tarzan films, he took on the star role in 13 Jungle Jim movies. In remarks prior to public readings of his poem, Baraka would note to his audience that once Tarzan became overweight, he put on a shirt and became Jungle Jim. The title of the poem suggests reasons why the disguise or alteration was insufficient, and why Jim was in fact worse than his predecessor. 

Baraka opens his poem by informing James (a formal version for Jim) that "you shd know How the world Makes you ugly. You is, you know, James Veddy ugly. You-gly." Baraka devotes the poem to informing Jim -- a stand-in for any new version of old problematic people -- in multiple ways that "you uglier than...." The recurring simile, persisting throughout the poem, allows Baraka to display an extensive catalog of various other people and things he views as ugly, but slightly less ugly than "you."

"The essence of metaphor," explain George Lakoff and Mark Johnson in their classic Metaphors We Live By, "is understanding and experiencing one kind of thing in terms of another." Accordingly, in his effort to make You understand just how ugly you are, Baraka must prompt you to understand that ugliness in relation to other ugly things. At one point, he writes:
You uglier than Papa Doc, Hitler, and Mobutu
You uglier than Mussolini Franco
and the Swedish Angel
Is yr twin. You uglier than zombie vomit
Uglier than zoo dirt. You the ugliest thing in the
human family
If the recipient of Baraka's charges is worse than those brutal leaders, Papa Doc, Hitler, Mobutu, Benito Mussolini, and Francisco Franco, then we gain a sense of how horrifying the person is. Transferring the malevolent behavior and terrible reigns of those men to physical repulsiveness is the essence of Baraka's metaphorical use of ugliness. 

From those political figures, Baraka swiftly moves to an unattractive professional wrestler, Tor Johnson, known by his moniker the Swedish Angel. Johnson, it's worth noting, performed the roles of monster and beast in horror films. The eclecticism of Baraka's references and his insistent linkages to disparate people and things further reveal his dynamic use of metaphors.   

The high quantity and hilarity of name-calling give "Jungle Jim Flunks His Screen Test" its force and ferociousness. On the one hand, Baraka directly associates real people with the trait of ugliness. On the other hand, he offers multiple insults for his target. By employing a range of people -- Clarence Thomas, Jeffrey Dahmer, Armstrong Williams, John Ashcroft, Jerry Falwell --  and things -- devil doo doo, white supremacy, 'a cracker lynch mob, the backward dead, Hitler's last meal -- to conceptualize ugliness, Baraka continually reminds us of the power of metaphor to quickly transport us from one thing to another. 

The students in my classes are often surprised and amused by Baraka's poem. For years now, at the start of the semester, I have run short surveys asking students to list the most notable topics and functions of poetry. They reference "flowery language," "love," "emotions," and so forth. They never suggest name-calling and comedy. Baraka became memorable to many of my students over the last decade in part because he defies their preconceived notions of what a poet is.

Amiri Baraka

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