LeRoi Jones's (Amiri Baraka's) career has been a lightning-rod for the plight of the marginalized Black African American Writer in America, for the last six decades. His biography reads like an improbable fictionalized cartoon of a man beset by a series of florid delusions, no one of which seems to fully account for his resentment, suspicion and violent hatred for American behavior and government policy, and he has repudiated or repented many of his radical positions over the years.
What are the implications of acting-out a sequence of intense criticisms, over a long life, spitting out vituperation and provocative sneers in an agon of impotent rage? For a man of his impressive intelligence and intuitive creativity, such behavior may seem like the romantic indulgence of wounded genius, and in much of his early poetry, this is precisely the stance that predominates. The persona of his early poems gives a very clear picture of a man committed to an honest expression of his dilemmas and preoccupations, in the years before his personal life had undergone the contorted dislocations which he himself would largely orchestrate.
Jones's first book, Preface to a Twenty Volume Suicide Note . . . . [with four dots, please, the ellipsis implying, in this case, that its author was going metaphorically to take his own life, or to exorcise some part of his own nature in the course of the writing] [New York: Totem Press/Corinth Books, 1961], was self-published (Totem Press was his concern). Jones's next collection, The Dead Lecturer [New York: Grove Press, 1964] is omitted from his Wikipedia entry, which would suggest that he's disowned it completely. But Preface to a Twenty Volume Suicide Note . . . . probably still continues to count in his personal sense of literary identity, since it clearly enunciates many of the frustrations and indignations which would animate him for the rest of his life.
Reading Preface, now, fifty years after it was published, one is impressed not only by Jones's rhetorical flourishes and directness of address, but by his ability to convey the ambiguity of his plight as a Black Man making his way in the literary world of the dark post-War years when prejudice and marginalization of difference were at their height. Hypocrisy reigned everywhere in those days, particularly where it wasn't even acknowledged. Jones could see how the official accommodations open to him would neutralize the shame and guilt and rage he felt towards himself. This conflicted persona is the sub-text and subject of nearly all his early poems.
One Night Stand
We entered the city at noon! High bells. The radio on.
Some kind of Prokofieff; snaring the violent remains of the day
in sharp webs of dissonance.
We roared through the old gates. Iron doors hanging
all grey, with bricks mossed over and gone into chips
dogs walked through.
The river also roared. And what sun we had
disappeared into the water, or buried itself
in the badly pitched tents of the wounded soldiers.
There, also, at the river, blue steel hats glinted
on the sparse grass, and brown showed through
where the grass was trampled.
We came in, with our incredulousness, from the north.
On steely highways from the marble entrails of noon.
We had olives, and the green buds locked on our lutes.
Twisted albion-horns, rusted in warm rain, peasant carts,
loud black bond-servants dazed and out of their wool heads,
wild shrubs impecuniously sheltered along the concrete,
Rumble of the wheels over cobblestones. The green knocked out.
The old houses dusty seeming & old men watching us slyly
as we come in; all of us laughing too loud.
We are foreign seeming persons. Hats flopped so the sun
can't scald our beards; odd shoes, bags of books & chicken.
We have come a long way, & are uncertain which of the masks
In seeking to sort out the options and opportunities for himself in the world of the American 1950's, Jones sounds a confused jumble of tendencies. At this point in his life, language is both a means to the liberation of his lyrical gift, and a perceived compromise. In a style that seems to owe much to Ginsberg and Duncan (and behind them, Whitman and Crane, perhaps even Langston Hughes and Countee Cullen), he sings with a seeming confident note of his own good-natured, but occasionally guarded, enthusiasm of his camaraderie with fellow (white) poets.
"We have come a long way, & are uncertain which of the masks/is cool." Were truer words ever spoken? The poems in Preface are like a cry of despair, of unresolved aspiration--to discover in himself, or his milieu, an adequate adjunct to the muse's diadem. Jones was still putting together the pieces of the mosaic of that record of Black Culture in America which had been bequeathed to him. For starters, he had Ralph Ellison, and James Baldwin, both conflicted de-facto Uncle Toms who had made their peace with White America, as exemplars. The Jazzmen were better heroes. They hadn't had to define themselves in terms borrowed from the slave-owners' archive. Jazz belonged to Negroes, to African American descendants; it was their music, appropriated by the White media culture, but still surviving intact, in an under-current of deep blue mystery, Louis & the Duke, Parker & Coltrane, Miles & Dizzy, Monk & Mingus.
(# for wieners & mcclure)
I have forgotten the head
of where I am. Here at the bridge. 2
bars, down the street, seeming
to wrap themselves around my fingers, the day,
screams in me; pitiful like a little girl
you sense will be dead before the winter
I can't see the bridge now, I've past
it, its shadow, we drove through, headed out
along the cold insensitive roads to what
we wanted to call "ourselves."
"How does the bridge go?" Even tho
you find yourself in its length
strung out along its breadth, waiting
for the cold sun to tear out your eyes. Enamoured
of its blues, spread out in the silk clubs of
this autumn tune. The changes are difficult, when
you hear them, & know they are all in you, the chords
of your disorder meddle with your would be disguises.
Sifting in, down, upon your head, with the sun & the insects.
(Late feeling) Way down till it barely, after that rush of
wind & odor reflected from hills you have forgotten the color
when you touch the water, & it closes, slowly, around your head.
The bridge will be behind you, that music you know, that place,
you feel when you look up to say, it is me, & I have forgotten,
all the things, you told me to love, to try to understand, the
bridge will stand, high up in the clouds & the light, & you,
(when you have let the song run out) will be sliding through
"The changes are difficult, when you hear them, & know they are all in you, the chords of your disorder meddle with your would be disguises. . .it is me, & I have forgotten, all the things, you told me to love, to try to understand, the bridge will stand, high up in the clouds & the light, & you, (when you have let the song run out) will be sliding through unmentionable black." The bridge here is a symbol in the way it had been for Crane, though for Jones/Baraka, it signifies a bridge to nowhere, or at least an unclear destination, fraught with uncertainty, and risk. Jones seems completely vulnerable in these lines, these poems, and that honesty and raw sensation is what makes them good. Rather than cauterizing his pain and presenting a hardened mask to the world at large, he throws out his cry of despair with unabashed candidness. "I've forgotten the head of where I am."
. . .
Asked to be special, & alive in the mornings, if they are green
& I am still alive, (& green) hovering above all the things I
seem to want to be apart of (curious smells, the high-noon idea
of life . . . a crowded train station where they broadcast a slice,
just one green slice, of some glamourous person's life).
& I cant even isolate my pleasures. All the things I can talk about
mean nothing to me.
This is not rage. (I am not that beautiful!) Only immobile coughs
& gestures towards somethings I don't understand. If I were lucky
enough to still be an adolescent, I'd just attribute these weird
singings in my intestine to sex, & slink off merrily to mastur
bate. Mosaic of disorder I own but cannot recognize. A glass stare.
Resolution, for the quick thrust of epee, to force your opponent
cringing against the wall, not in anger, but unfettered happiness
while your lady is watching from the vined balcony, your triumph,
& years after, you stand in subways watching your invisible hand
bring the metal to bear again & again, when you are old & the lady,
(o, fond memories we hide in our money belts, & will not spend)
the lady, you young bandits who have not yet stolen your first purse
the lady will be dead.
And if you are along (if there is something in you so cruel)
You will wonder at the extravagance
This is dramatic writing, with flexible elaborations and taut expedient poses. Jones teeters on the edge of a resolution, conceived in the terms of a (for him) pointless antinomy. How to achieve a meaningful and manly détente with the prevailing power-structure, while subsisting in the daily stay of mortal execution. There are words for what he thinks to say, but will not say them. There are ways out, but the words are only placekeepers for his energy.
In Jones's work--especially the early poetry in Preface and The Dead Lecturer--you have the feeling of a man out of time, late to the party, too young, too old, too predictable, too strung out, too careful, too impulsive, too extreme. But it was precisely that degree of excess that he longed for, and in the ensuing decades would lead to the radical gestures of presumed commitment that would define him. He had to vanquish the tendencies in himself that felt wrong, but what he should put in their place was a question. He would be unable to resolve the contradictions between his art and his place in the world--to discover how one could serve the other, to enable him to make himself into a whole man. That has been Jones's tragic destiny.