In a recently published book, Amiri Baraka: The Politics and Art of a Black Intellectual, the scholar Jerry Watts invokes Baraka in iconic fashion. He prefaces the book with the following admonition:
In the best of worlds, it would be unwise to call out the name
Amiri Baraka in a crowded hall of black intellectuals. To bring
up Baraka in a symposium on art and politics is to bring a
conversation to a standstill. One of the most controversial
Afro-American intellectuals of the last forty years, Baraka is
admired, hated, feared, dismissed, adored, and despised. (x)
The recent broil over Baraka's recital of the poem "Somebody Blew Up America" has only served to intensify the poet's controversial status. With calls by some state and local officials to force Baraka to resign from his post as New Jersey's poet laureate, one could add to Watts's alliterative list of verbs the darkly descriptive dethroned.
But Watts's perspective on Baraka's position as an intellectual is of lesser relevance, for this essay's purposes, than is Watts's position on Baraka's poetry. Of his second poetry collection, It's Nation Time, Watts opines:
None of the three poems [in the book] is impressive. The redundancy
and tendentiousness of the themes make it appear as if Baraka had run
out of ideas.... [He] may have done himself a disservice in trying to
force his strong polemical impulses into a poetic form. His didactic
intentions overwhelm his artistic sensibilities and make the poetry
Watts diametrically opposes the polemic and didactic to the artistic and the poetic, rendering Baraka's form as distinctly separate from--instead of an extension of--verbal content. Watts's critique highlights the time-worn division drawn between art and politics (as opposed to art as politics), and his method for critical analysis entails focusing on the semantic substance of the poems on the page. Thus, he disregards the poems' formal structure and the performance environment in which they emerged and through which Baraka planned to articulate them. This neglect of the potential presentation context leads to what might seem to some to be a well-founded dismissal of Baraka's poetry, especially work penned during his prolific outpouring in the 1970s such as It's Nation Time.
Ironically, Watts's censure of "It's Nation Time," and concurrently Baraka's poetics, occurs in the same chapter, "Amiri Baraka as Black Arts Poet and Essayist," which readily acknowledges, first, Baraka's talent and popularity a a performance artist, particularly during the Black Arts Movement (BAM), and, second, the importance of performance (poetry and drama were the favored genres of Movement participants) as one of the political strategies Baraka and other Black Arts artists employed to reach a black mass audience. Indeed, Watts proclaims, "One had to hear Baraka in order to experience the Imamu," or spiritual leader (237). Yet Watts's inattention to the dynamic effects of Baraka's speaking voice when he recites his poetry amounts to a mishearing and, consequently, a misreading of his corpus. More specifically, I contend that, through the arena of performance, a dimension of Baraka's poetics emerges that counters a one-dimensional interpretation of his poetry as appallingly flattened by his poet cal motivations. As the poet and critic Charles Bernstein justly observes, "... performance, in the sense of doing, is an underlying formal aesthetic as much as it is a political issue in Baraka's work" (7). If a primarily page-based analysis of Baraka's poetics leads to its underestimation, then a formal audio and visual analysis of Baraka's poetry-in-performance can potentially enrich our appreciation of his poetics.
As this essay will demonstrate, Baraka's additions to and alterations c verses, his shifts from speech into song, and his imitations of the sounds of instruments while performing his poems all suggest that, in a performance context, his work engages in a process of revision modeled upon the improvisatory ethos of jazz. …