I had been looking forward to reading Claudia Rankine’s most recent book of poetry, “Citizen,” having heard her read from and discuss her work on NPR, but now, as I try to absorb her review of Amiri Baraka’s ‘S O S’ (NY Times Book Review 2/15/15), a posthumous collection of Baraka's work, I look forward to her poems less, if at all. I know that's my loss, there clearly being, from my brief exposure to it, intelligence, depth and subtlety to her work. My sense is these are poems we need. But all of that is challenged, if not necessarily negated, by her uncritical applause for the works of Amiri Baraka.
First, there's nothing she quotes in her review of his posthumously published work that lives in the page, not a single poem, nor a single line. For example: “We want a black poem. And a / Black World. / Let the world be a Black Poem / And Let All Black People Speak This Poem / Silently / or LOUD.” This may be a speech, even a rousing and arguably necessary one, for the right audience at the right time, but it is awful, dead on delivery, on the page.
Let me say that I've heard Amiri Baraka speak, rage, and orate. I can attest to his fury and declamatory power, even though his subject that time was Maoism and the need to adhere to Mao's doctrine of Cultural Revolution, or else the Communist Party would devolve into a Fascist Party.
Well, lots of us at one time or another may have espoused radical — and in retrospect, radically stupid — political ideas. I certainly did (details available on request). Baraka did without ever making a public effort to digest and transcend what may have seemed so ineluctable at the time. Mao and his Cultural Revolution. Mao and the Little Red Book.
Baraka was revered too much and criticized too little, from quarters where it might have made a difference, even to him, from the likes, that is to say, of writers like Claudia Rankine.
Let me go back further and say I remember Amiri Baraka as Leroi Jones — yes, I am that seasoned — and as an author of plays that depicted racism and anti-racism in scenes and words that captured the traumatic violence running wild in our country when the best were assassinated with terrible consistency, riots were exploding in our cities, and all the while we were dropping napalm on the Vietnamese. I honor that Leroi Jones cum Amiri Baraka. I don't see that he improved as an artist when he turned from strident nationalism — "Let the world be a Black Poem" — to dogmatic Maoism. Those were terrible times and I'd like to suggest that his talent was crushed by them.
But let me cut finally to what I find absolutely unendurable about Rankin's review of Baraka. It's not just her salute to inferior work, an insult, in the end, to her own. It is, finally, Baraka's sick anti-Semitism.
Here's how Rankin discusses it, re: "The controversial 'Somebody Blew Up America' — a poem that cost him New Jersey’s poet laureate position when its speculations were described as anti-Semitic . . . "
"Described as anti-Semitic?" It wasn't? In that hideous screed, Baraka said the Jews knew in advance about 9/11, as proven by the fact that all the Israelis high-tailed it before the planes hit.
Rankin says of Baraka that in this and other regards he took "an anti-Zionist position." When confronted with flagrant nonsense of that sort I do tend to laugh out loud. Let me resist that impulse long enough to declare that Baraka was going after Jews, then apologizing for it, then doing it again, in ways that can't be reduced to or explained by the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. This is not anti-Zionism. It is an addiction called Jew-hatred, the temptations of which Baraka could not finally overcome.
Rankine then attempts to give Baraka's anti-Semitism a literary provenance, when she notes that Paul Vangelisti, editor of the collection, sees Baraka's views on this subject as descending from Ezra Pound, as in: "No American poet since Pound has come closer to making poetry and politics reciprocal forms of action".
This is meant to recommend Baraka? Pound's Jew hatred led him to broadcast for Mussolini and to his being imprisoned post-War for treason.
I hope that when I sit down with Claudia Rankine's poems, as I still mean to, I find them superior to, and with no trace of the apologia she penned, oh so dutifully, for Amiri Baraka.