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'The Words Are Purposes. / The Words Are Maps': on the Social Turn in Poetry (Part 1)

Amiri Baraka

Contemporary social, political, and broadly historical themes have become more inescapable for me as a poet, and while they were present in my earlier work, this content now assumes a new centrality—as I’ve sought to develop diction, phrases, lines, stanzas, and forms adequate to some part of our dynamic present.

Some of my recent work attempts to reenact loosely a familiar story in modern and postmodern poetry, and typified by the mid-career work of Amiri Baraka and Adrienne Rich (two poets I’ve turned to in recent years): namely the struggle against craft and personal inclination to become a more public writer, to make a social turn in poetry. The aesthetic associated with such a turn is often a return to the idiomatic, or the colloquial, a loosening up of diction and syntax, a more communicative and informal mode: opening a way for the still complicated immediacy of content or subject. I’ve gone back to both of these poets in part because we are living through a part of the late postmodern period where poetry that emerged out of social struggles of the 1960s resurfaces with the illuminating power of daylight.

By the late 1960s, Adrienne Rich, who started as a traditional if unconventional poet, totally abandoned the prosodic metronome of her early books. She had not quite yet become the increasingly well-known public intellectual of the 2nd wave feminist movement. She now considered traditional forms “asbestos gloves” and discarded them for a “barehanded treatment” of language and experience. But the language of lyric poetry, however unadorned or bare, is inevitably evocative and suggestive: “the words / get thick with unmeaning,” as Rich memorably put it. Yet one might add that this thickness of linguistic encounter is socially and politically important; it’s the feeling in poetry of disrupting the reified clichés of cultural discourse.

Rich’s poems from the late 60s and early 70s, mutating and readjusting in historical circumstance, settled on a complicated and felt symbolic mode: this is particularly true of a poem like “Diving into the Wreck.” In this text of initiation, the speaker readies her becoming-androgynous self in clipped, plainspoken lines for a descent into the wreck of the civilization:

First having read the book of myths,
and loaded the camera,
and checked the edge of the knife-blade,
I put on
the body-armor of black rubber
the absurd flippers
the grave and awkward mask.

Each element in the first series (book, camera, knife), seemingly part of simple description, is also a charged and thwarted metaphorical emblem, estranging us from our static or naturalized cultural heritage, that great “wreck.” The equipment and garment (wetsuit, fins, oxygen tank) of the next series begins a “narrative” of such instances in which that poetic inheritance comes to look historical, contingent, and ultimately changeable. In the poem’s central moment, “The words are purposes. / The words are maps,”—that is, the words, the cutting blades of conversational rhythms and expressiveness, are tasked with the instigation of political and historical consciousness. Rich’s poetry from the late-60s on, whose conceptual and aesthetic complexity grew as this style evolved, found a wider audience in part because of this new technique, a technique which developed out of her progressive political commitments.

The social turn in Amiri Baraka’s work was also marked by an aesthetic shift, reflecting and riffing on the technical changes in avant-garde jazz of the period. But rather than isolate some new technique (Baraka was never a formal traditionalist), I want to focus on this poet, editor, playwright, music critic, essayist, and political activist’s acute sense of social audience in the inaugural moments of the Black Arts movement, when a Beat poet’s scorn for “square” materialism was gradually transformed into a more aggressive and politically focused critique of capitalism coupled with solidaristic third world internationalism. The “changing same” features of Baraka’s work—jaggedly enjambed lines, fragments, neologisms, ellipsis, ranting discontinuity, and muted allusiveness—were being put to a new purpose in this political and social shift in his work. Like that aforementioned jazz, perceptual numbness is impossible in Baraka’s poems, as they are written with the urgency of a scrambled SOS, everywhere liberating the dormant poetic energies of familiar words.

The early poetry’s bluesy, William Carlos Williams inflected lyrics are a kind of autobiographical chronicle of personal catastrophes written around and for the downtown New York scene of writers, painters, and musicians—a scene he broke with deliberately, dramatically, and painfully. His new mode of poetry, collected in the late-60s volume Black Magic, works with what Houston A. Baker calls “an art of specific recall” (i.e. one more social and slightly less elliptical than his earlier “autobiographies”) where Harlem and later Newark are projected as black urban community models for a new world of black humanism. The shift in Baraka’s work is a matter of content more than form but also a matter of audience, as he writes to and for a radicalized black mass movement in the late 60s.

This audience, however, is conceived in no straightforward way. His most famous poem from this period, “Black Art,” would alarm many in his sought after audience (he was neither MLK nor Malcolm nor Stokely nor Angela), with its combustible mix of violence and love, sloganizing solidarity and anti-Semitic as well as misogynistic bigotry. The opening lines of this long winding molecule of phraseological instances burn like a fuse:

Poems are bullshit unless they are
teeth or trees or lemons piled
on a step. Or black ladies dying
of men leaving nickel hearts
beating them down. Fuck poems
and they are useful, wd shoot
come at you, love what you are,
breathe like wrestlers, or shudder
strangely after pissing.

The prideful line “love what you are” in the heart of this mix of ars poetica and center-will-not-hold passage teaches a quite complex lesson. Rather than allow us to settle into an angry denigration of social types that the poem will in many other ways engage in, the oddly slotted but proud resolve in the line “love what you are” goes against this grain. Thus a poem, even a poem like “Black Art,” should always be disinclined to play to what readers readily approve. The estrangement-effect (Verfremdengseffekt) here works against the habits and inclinations of even sympathetically politicized audience members, as their affirmation (“love what you are”) can emerge solely in this negative or dissociative context. The poem remains irreducibly controversial and radical like the history out of which it emerged.

Originally Published: April 28th, 2014

Poet David Lau grew up in Long Beach, California. He has described his family as a “Chicano-Chinese and Anglo household.” He earned degrees from UCLA and the Iowa Writers’ Workshop. The poems in his first book, Virgil and the Mountain Cat (2009), were described by the Believer’s Dominic Luxford as...