Baraka's stay at the Greenwich Village in the 1950s marked a start for his journey in poetry (Watts 148). The seeds had already been planted when he was serving in the United States military. Baraka was mainly inspired by the white avant-garde artists of the beat generation such as Allen Ginsberg, Frank O'Hara, and Sorrentino (Watts 148). His initial style of poetry was exclusively derived from the beat generation. He himself became a beat poet and was of the view that poetry should have a freestyle dictated by the preferences of the author. His views reflected the anti-establishment philosophy of the beat poems especially in terms of writing style.
Baraka's notable collection of poems during the beat phase was released in 1961 titled "Preface to a Twenty Volume Suicide Note". One of the poems had the same title as the name of the publication. The structure of the poem first diverged from the conventional norm of grouping stanzas using the same number of lines throughout the poem. Baraka instead uses one-line stanzas that alternated with multiple-line stanzas. The single lines achieved the desired impact of the author by serving to summarise the preceding stanzas. For instance, an excerpt from the poem:
"Lately, I've become accustomed to the way
The ground opens up and envelopes me
Each time I go out to walk the dog.
Or the broad edged silly music the wind
Makes when I run for a bus . . .
Things have come to that." (Jones 5)The first two stanzas of the poem bring to light some of the stylistic devices employed by Baraka during this literary phase of his life. The author uses vivid imagery to capture the audience by telling of his routine activities such as running. Moreover, he speaks of the sound made by the wind when running. The poems also employs the use of metaphors effectively, to express a sardonic tone of the poem. This is seen in the line "The ground opens up and envelopes me" (Jones 5). Generally, the poem introduces a "rebellious" rhythm which signifies the beat poems. Such rebellion is seen as the stanzas proceed on a smooth flow, which is then punctured by abrupt breaks followed by the single-line stanzas. This is a perfect example of how the rhythm of beat generation poems inspired hip-hop music.
Further analysis of the poem shows the use of allusion to illustrate various themes. First, he alludes to a lifestyle of hopelessness among poets as seen in the first chapter. He also alludes to a life of meditation and solitude - "And now, each night I count the stars" (Jones 5). Finally, in the last chapter, he makes an allusion to the existence of a higher power that his daughter prayed to. The poem also shows the infusion of a musical aspect right into its core. A good example is the fourth line of the first stanza describing the musical sound produced by the wind. This perhaps shows how jazz music inspired the literary styles of beat poets. The lines of the poem also portray a rhythm of blues music due to the recurrent sardonic tone throughout the poem. Application of the poetry devices by Baraka show how he was greatly influenced by the avant-garde beat poets. His work stepped out from the formal structures to address life challenges boldly while using a romantic and lyrical tone.
During the beat phase of his life, Baraka's poetry emphasized on black nationalism through the use of non-abrasive stylistic devices. The assassination of Malcolm X in 1965, however, was the hallmark of Baraka's metamorphosis. The assassination triggered identity, religious and philosophical changes (Richards and Omidvar 49). All these changes were reflected in his poetry in the following years, as his poems became more polemic in an attempt to liberate the black nation from the jaws of oppression. Baraka's subsequent philosophical change to Marxism further emboldened his abrasive style in his poems during the Islamic phase.
Baraka's Islamic phase saw him publish a number of poem collections including "The Black Magic" in 1969, "It's Nation Time" in 1970, and "Hard Facts" in 1975. Most of the poems in his collection reflected political activism. Baraka's poems in the Islamic phase had both differences and similarities to those he wrote during the beat phase in terms of style. For instance, here is a close look at an excerpt of a poem from The Black Magic titled "Leadbelly Gives an Autograph":
"But it is rite that the world's ills
erupt as our own. Right that we take
our own specific look into the shapely
blood of the heart.
Looking thru trees
the wicker statues blowing softly against
Looking thru dusk
thru darkness. A clearing of stars
and half-soft mud" (Baraka 120)This stanza shows the care-free nature of alignment of the poem's verses. It is the sort of open verse style inspired by the beat poems. The poem is also woven with vivid imagery and a hip-hop style rhythm that also characterized poems of the beat phase. A crucial departure, however, is Baraka's extensive use of Ebonics evidenced in the words "Looking thru trees" (Baraka 120). This use of Ebonics is an indication of how Baraka was engrossed in the emancipation of the Black masses and protecting its culture. The poem also uses a confrontational tone rather than the sardonic or romantic tones that dominated his beat poems.
The concept of Marxism that was adopted by Amiri Baraka advocated for a violent approach in the liberation struggle. These beliefs hardened Baraka to become a resistant and confrontational character who always sought to evoke emotional responses. There is an instance in the poem where this is portrayed:
"Pay me off, savages.
Build me an equitable human assertion." (Baraka 122)Of all Baraka's controversial poems during the Islamic phase, none attracted more public outcry than "Someone Blew Up America?". The poem was penned down as a response to the twin tower terrorist attacks in the United States. The whole nation was condemning the despicable acts of the terrorists but Baraka wanted to address the "bigger" picture of the issue in his own view. His aim was to bring to attention all the criminal acts against the black community in the times preceding the attack.
"Who own them buildings
Who got the money
Who think you funnyWho locked you up
Who own the papers
Who owned the slave shipWho run the army
Who the fake president
Who the ruler
Who the banker
Who? Who? Who?" (Amiri 43)This poem was a rich assortment of repetition, rhetorical questions, and alliterations. Baraka combined these three literary devices the best way a literary genius can to take the audience on a trip down a dark memory lane. Repetitions and rhetorical questions, in particular, were the stand out stylistic devices in this poem. However, he rarely used them in the beat poems. These particular poetic devices were necessary for the Islamic phase because they were effective in emphasizing the key issue of racial discrimination and stirring up violent emotions among the readers. Additionally, there was the abandonment of the use of metaphors as he named people directly to lay out the naked truth according to him. This style was of course based on the open verse framework similar to that of the beat generation poets. It also had a hip-hop style rhythm but dominated with a militant tone in contrast to his "softer" poems during the beat phase. The poem also features Ebonics.
In a nutshell, Baraka's poems during the beat and Islamic phases employed similar open-verse frameworks and lyrical styles. The main difference in the two phases is seen in the violent tones of the Islamic phase poems. These Islamic phase poems employed the use of literary devices like repetitions, alliterations, and rhetorical questions. Moreover, Baraka demonstrated his political activism by using Ebonics instead of formal English.
Amiri, Baraka. Somebody Blew Up America: & Other Poems. New York: House of Nehesi, 2003. Print.
Baraka, Amiri. Black Magic: Poetry, Sabotage, Target Study, Black Art, 1961-1967. The Bobbs-Merrill Co., 1969. Print.
Jones, LeRoi. Preface to a Twenty Volume Suicide Note. Totem Press, 1961. Print.
Richards, Anne R. and Iraj Omidvar. Muslims and American Popular Culture. ABC-CLIO, 2014. Print.
Watts, Jerry. Amiri Baraka: The Politics and Art of a Black Intellectual. New York: NYU Press, 2001. Print.
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