Monday, August 1, 2016

Amiri Baraka's Presence in Of Poetry and Protest

Photograph of Amina and Amiri Baraka at their home, Of Poetry and Protest

"I wrote poetry 'cause I always had something to say. 
Always." --Amiri Baraka

I was surprised and pleased to see that Amiri Baraka's work appeared in Of Poetry and Protest: From Emmett Till to Trayvon Martin (W. W. Norton & Company, 2016) edited by Philip Cushway and Michael Warr. Although Baraka passed away in January 2014, he apparently completed his submission to the project prior to that time.  The book includes an essay "Protest Poetry," which Baraka was commissioned to write for the anthology, a short reflection on how his childhood shaped his experiences as a writer, and his poem "Wise 5."

For much of his "Protest Poetry," Baraka explains why the label "protest" poetry, assigned to black poetry is problematic. "I have always resented the term 'protest poetry," he opens, "because it seems to me that it was dropping the poetry I felt closest to in a lead box so it wouldn't contaminate the dull ass mainstream." He reflects on how his own poetry was rejected "at light speed" from the pages of literary journals such as Sewanee, Partisan, Kenyon, Hudson, and Southern.

He came to realize that the poems he was reading in those venues had little to do with his own experiences. "So, it wasn't 'protest poetry' I wanted to write,' he explains, "it was simply to continue the tales about our own lives. I always thought the term 'protest poetry' was, to put it badly, 'some corny white shit.'" Baraka closes noting that "the main thrust of the term 'protest poetry' is to stigmatize the literature that questions the given, the status quo."

I wonder if the editors for the anthology were thinking of "protest poetry" in a contemporary sense as related to the organizing against police brutality and not the troubling "protest literature" assigned to African American literary works during the 1940s and up through the 1960s. At least the phrasing "poetry and protest" offers a little more clarity or distance in relation to the old-school use of "protest literature."

Amiri Baraka in Of Poetry and Protest

The book includes two photographs by Victoria Smith, who produced the photographs of all 43 contributing poets. One image shows Baraka at his home with  his wife Amina. They are sitting at a table. Baraka appears to be making a point to Amina and she looks on and listens.

Another photograph of Baraka appears on the opposite page of his reflections on his childhood writing activities up to becoming a poet. The photograph is a really vibrant image of one of our most treasured poets. Baraka is smiling and peering slightly off, away from the camera. He's full of life in the image, and every time I look at the photo, I miss him more.    
Baraka's presence in Of Poetry and Protest extends beyond his own writings. Various contributors to the book mention him by name as an influence. Cornelius Eady, Major Jackson, Yusef Komunyakaa, devorah major, Evie Shockley, for example, cite Baraka as a force for inspiration and or artistic guidance.    

Of Poetry and Protest and its aesthetic forces
Photographs of Black Poets Matter: Victoria Smith and Of Poetry and Protest  

1 comment:

Jim Smethurst said...

Also, you can see why the notion of "protest poetry" would bother AB because it really doesn't have any content. I think that is why the notions of the "real" (and I don't mean in the sense of Lacan) and "real life" and of "tradition" were so important to Baraka.