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On "Black Art"


Werner Sollors

One of Baraka’s most typical nationalist poems, "Black Art" . . . is an expression of his Black Aesthetic, but is striking for its venomous language and for its rhetorical violence. The poem characteristically casts the "negro-leader," the "Liberal," the "jew-lady," or the Eliotic "owner-jews" as the enemies. The "abstract" and arbitrary sounds "rrrrrrrrrrrr . . . tuhtuhtuhtuhtuhtuh tuhtuhtuh" are now the volley-shot sounds of "poems that kill" these enemies. The poem itself is to commit the violence that Baraka considers the prerequisite for the establishment of a Black world. By becoming an "assassin" the poem becomes political; and art merges with life by leaving its artfulness behind. Only this process makes an art that is as organic as a "tree." Admittedly, the poem must abandon poetry in order to perform this function. "Black Art" implies that poetry must die so that the poem can kill.

But why does Baraka’s poem kill Jews—who had once been his metaphor for Blacks? Precisely for this reason. In Baraka’s nationalist world view, Jews remain images of assimilated Negroes (who are not spared Baraka’s poetic violence, either). Baraka now regrets and renounces his own anti-Semitic phase and sees it as a "reactionary thing," an aberration suggested by bourgeois Black nationalism. (The Nation of Islam, e.g., distributed revised versions of Czarist anti-Semitic propaganda.) As a reaction to the success of the Black-Jewish alliance in the civil movement, anti-Semitism became, perhaps, even a matter of radical chic among Black nationalists of the late 1960s. Furthermore, if we follow the paradigms of Bohemianism and avant-gardism for an understanding of Baraka’s development, we may see the period of anti-Semitism as a reactionary swing on the antibourgeois pendulum. . . . .But more than the result of abstract Black nationalist influence, or a version of the reactionary side of Bohemianism, Baraka’s anti-Semitism was also an intensely personal exorcism of his own past; and his anti-Semitic references included his former wife and literary milieu in New York.

From Amiri Baraka / LeRoi Jones: The Quest for a "Populist Modernism." Copyright 1978 by Columbia University Press.


William J. Harris

In the poem "Black Art" (first published in the Liberator, 1966) Baraka declares, "poems are bullshit unless they are / teeth or trees or lemons piled / on a step" (BMP, p. 116). For the new Baraka the black poem had to be an active agent, not a vehicle of escape to "another world." Yet even here Baraka’s apparent rejection is only partial. In rejecting [Allen] Ginsberg’s otherworldly poetics he employs the techniques and poetics of the imagist-objectivist tradition. Like the imagists-objectivists, Baraka wanted to place real objects in his poems. His intent, however, was radically different from that of his predecessors. While [William Carlos] Williams and [Ezra] Pound, for instance, wanted to place real objects in their poems because their antisymbolist stance mandated recreation of the things themselves, Baraka wanted to place real objects in his poems to create a black world that would reflect the lives of black people . . . . Baraka wanted concrete images in his poems so that his black readers would recognize themselves and be inspired to revolt against their circumstances. Throughout the period when he changed from a Beat to a political poet, Baraka used objectivist techniques to signal the need to destroy the white world:

We want "poems that kill."
Assassin poems, Poems that shoot
Guns.

From The Poetry and Poetics of Amiri Baraka: The Jazz Aesthetic. Copyright 1985 by the University of Missouri Press.


William W. Cook

"Black Art" is as close as the poet came to an ars poetica for the new poetry; such a poetry must avoid "artiness," and the poet demonstrates this in its avoidance of the lyrical voice and of stock poetic diction, and in its use of ideophones.

            Airplane poems, rrrrrrrrrrrrrrrr
rrrrrrrrrrrrr . . . tuhtuhtuhtuhtuhtuhtuhtuhtuhtuh
. . . rrrrrrrrrrrrrrrr . . . Setting fire and death to
whities ass.

The poem employs suggestions not only of the poem as airplane straffing the enemy but also the death of that enemy.

Aggh . . . stumbles across the room . . .
Put it on him, poem. Strip him naked
To the world!

Poetry is not, as art form, separate from the violent struggles of the people; it is and must be a weapon in that struggle.

                        We want live
Words of the hip world live flesh &
Coursing blood. Hearts Brains
Souls splintering fire.

Poems must be fists, daggers, and poison gas. They are the weapons of the warriors who will accomplish that destruction which will usher in a new world. They will "clean out the world for virtue and love." They will be about love only when the new day arrives, that day on which

                Black People understand
That they are the lovers and the sons
of lovers and warriors and sons
of warriors Are poems & Poets &
All the loveliness here in the world

Neither language nor form here can be directly attributed to early models (Creeley, Olson, Ginsberg). The language is that of the black community ("put it on him," "girdle mamma mulatto bitches," "red jelly stuck / between ‘lizabeth Taylor’s toes.") and, shocking for many readers, names the enemies of that community ("wops or slick half white / politicians," "the Liberal / Spokesman for the Jews," "a Negro leader pinned to / a bar stool in Sardi’s," "cops and niggers"). This is hardly the lyrical effusion of the postromantic divided and alienated self of the first two volumes. Popular culture remains a reference, but it is no longer a site for nostalgic musings on the Green Lantern, the Shadow, and other popular figures (see "In Memory of Radio"), now becoming source and justification of a violent resistance central to new life.

From "The Black Arts Poets," from The Columbia History of American Poetry. Copyright 1993 by Columbia University Press.


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