Most major news media outlets were fixated on the New Jersey bridge traffic scandal and Governor Chris Christie’s claims to have no knowledge of an intentional traffic block. However, a more personal loss in the poetry world was also announced today. Early Beat, iconic Black Arts Movement poet, and playwright Amiri Baraka was confirmed dead at age 79 today. He was admitted to Beth Israel Medical Center in December 2013 for unknown reasons, and the cause of death is not clear at this point.
Baraka hosted the Kimako’s Blues readings at his home in Newark and continued to publish work in recent years, including Transbluesency: The Selected Poetry of Amiri Baraka/LeRoi Jones, 1961-1995, the essay collections Razor: Revolutionary Art for Cultural Revolution and Digging: The Afro American Soul of American Classical Music, and a short story collection Tales of the Out and Gone. His recent essay “A Post-Racial Anthology” on the Poetry Foundation blog criticized Charles Rowell’s Angles of Ascent and has been circulating on social media since May 2013.
A prolific author, his most popular works include his notable music-related writing in Blues People, the Obie Award-winning play “The Dutchman,” and the highly controversial poem “Somebody Blew Up America” about 9/11, which eventually led to the dissolution of the New Jersey Poet Laureate post. He was also a recipient of fellowships from the Guggenheim Foundation and the National Endowment for the Arts.
These are some of the details that will appear in most of the articles, like tonight’s New York Times and USA Today, on NPR and BET, and in the New Jersey news. What it will not say is how Baraka was inimitable and still reached out to poets everywhere and kept addressing controversial political stances until the end. Even if people didn’t agree with Baraka, he did challenge people and make them think, which is certainly the occupation of a poet.
Baraka reciting "Something in the Way of Things (In Town)" which is also featured on The Roots' 2002 album Phrenology.