Tuesday, April 25, 2017

Amiri Baraka's searing critiques of U.S. Presidents

I was reading an article about poets becoming politicized in efforts to oppose President Donald Trump in their poems. Well, let's hope some of them study the poetry of Amiri Baraka, who perhaps had the longest running critiques of U.S. presidents. Richard Nixon, Jimmy Carter, Ronald Reagan, George W. Bush, and Barack Obama all ended up on the receiving ends of some of Baraka's poetic assaults.

In "When we'll worship Jesus," Baraka writes,
We'll worship Jesus
When Jesus do
When Jesus blow up
the white house
or blast nixon down

Baraka's poem "Real Life" presents a scene with Nixon and his wife Pat doing drugs. In Baraka's poem, "Nixon slobbers on the phone, wetting the cocaine on the desk he and pat have been snoring since early morning."  The poem also references Gerald Ford and Ted Kennedy.

Mel Watkins wrote an article in The New York Times on Baraka in 1971 and noted that "for many, Baraka is viewed simply as a wild eyed radical who is incidentally a writer." Watkins noted that the poet's reputation as a militant was linked in part to "his well known quips." As an example, he presented a then popular statement from Baraka: "I can lean something from anything, I can learn something from a pile of Nixon under the stoop."

Imagine that: a poet, in the paper of record, alluding to a sitting U.S. president as trash. Baraka was just getting warmed up.

In his poem "Dope," Baraka repeatedly states that "jimmy carter wdnt lie," with the joke being, of course, that the president would. After all, Baraka reminds us that "nixon lied, haldeman lied, dean lied," references to corruption by Nixon and his aides H.R.  Haldeman and John Wesley Dean.

In an unpublished poem "The Mind of the President," Baraka takes a title from The New York Times article of the same name abou Reagan. Baraka takes listeners through the first instances of Reagan as an infant learning to speak. Baraka takes on the persona of baby Reagan crying and attempting to speak until eventually arriving at his first word: "Kill."

During the Bush years, Baraka was especially active with biting critiques. In "Lowcoup Linguistic," Baraka announces that "in Mandarin, the word 'Bush' mean DUMB MOTHERFUCKER." In "Memo for Bush 2," Baraka says to the president, "The main thing wrong with you is you ain't in Jail."  In "Somebody Blew Up America," Baraka suggest that other sinister forces put Bush in power:
Who own the suburbs
Who suck the cities
Who make the laws

Who made Bush president
Who believe the confederate flag need to be flying

Finally, Baraka chides Obama in his poem "The New Invasion Of Africa." Baraka finds it troubling that the president would authorize the bombing of African nations. "So it wd be this way,” Baraka notes, "That they wd get a negro / To bomb his own home / To join with the actual colonial / Powers."

Few, if any, major poets were as relentless and audacious in their opposition of U.S. presidents within the actual poems. You might catch Baraka at an anti-war protest march, denouncing the actions of governmental figures. But you could also depend on him to make his opposition known in print. Needless to say, Baraka would have had a field day with Trump.  

Amiri Baraka

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