Academic journal article African American Review

LeRoi Jones/Amiri Baraka and the Limits of Open Form

Academic journal article African American Review

LeRoi Jones/Amiri Baraka and the Limits of Open Form

Article excerpt

   Only ideas,
   and their opposites.
   he was really
   nowhere. ("A Poem for Speculative Hipsters," Transbluesency 110)

In a well-known passage from his autobiography, Amiri Baraka--then called LeRoi Jones--remembers a moment in which his own fascinations run headlong into the sort of ill-defined ideological wall with which culture can tend to divide us. Jones at this point is not yet a published poet, playwright, and critic, but rather a twenty-two-year-old college dropout stationed in Puerto Rico, a "weather gunner" in the U.S. Air Force. Just as feelings of class alienation at Howard University have led him to seek refuge in the Air Force, so now his alienation from the Air Force's bureaucratic tedium and structures of "class and caste" have led him to seek refuge in literature. A year or so before, a visit to a literary bookstore in Chicago had awakened in Jones a fascination for difficult poetry and prose, and in Puerto Rico he has been reading Proust, Joyce, Faulkner, Melville, Dostoevsky, Flaubert, cummings, and Pound, among others. He has also begun keeping a journal, "writing poetry more regularly," and submitting poems to the literary magazines he has recently discovered: The New Yorker, Harper's, The Atlantic Monthly, and the "Partisan, Hudson, [and] Kenyon reviews" (Autobiography 103-04, 117). (1)

Yet this passage from Baraka's autobiography isolates a new feeling of alienation, one that we are told penetrates his incipient literary consciousness as he wanders through San Juan with his New York Times and his New Yorker:

   I'd stopped at a bench and sat down near a square. It was
   quiet and I could see a long way off toward the newer, more
   Americanized part of the city, the Condado Beach section,
   where I could only go if in uniform, so they would know I
   was an Americano and not a native. I had been reading one of
   the carefully put togeether exercises The New Yorker publishes
   constantly as high poetic art, and gradually I could feel my
   eyes fill up with tears, and my cheeks were wet and I was
   crying, quietly, softly but like it was the end of the world.
   I had been moved by the writer's words, but in another, very
   personal way ... I was crying because I realized that I could
   never write like that writer. Not that I had any real desire to,
   but I knew even if I had had the desire I could not do it. I
   realized that there was something in me so out, so unconnected
   with what this writer was and what that magazine was that what
   was in me that wanted to come out as poetry would never come
   out like that and be my poetry. (118)

Baraka wrote his autobiography during forty-eight weekends in 1979, a good five years after he began his turn to Third World Marxism and long after this mid-1950s moment in Puerto Rico. (2) This passage is a careful reconstruction of a particular moment of revelation, one that is political in nature though not yet translated into the fully politicized terms the writer has access to in 1979. Thus, for instance, though the young LeRoi Jones of this passage understands that people of color can circulate freely in certain sections of San Juan only if they are American soldiers, he does not, at this point, articulate any sort of (even preliminary) postcolonial critique of such segregation. Nor does he attribute his alienation in the face of this "carefully put together exercise" to race or class, but instead to something within him "so out" that the verse he is reading somehow excludes him and to the fact that this particular verse form and magazine will never express what is "in" him.

Yet his social position in a U.S. context--he knows himself as a member of the African American lower middle class--becomes clearer as the passage continues:

   The verse spoke of lawns and trees and
   dew and birds and some subtlety of
   feeling amidst the jingling rhymes that
   spoke of a world almost completely
   alien to me. … 
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