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September 14, 2021


A very generous review of Baraka, whom I haven't been able to read since he defamed the Jews in his infamous 9/11 poem.

Tony, thank you for your comment. I too have difficulty with some of Baraka's statements, in poetry and prose. The most glaring of those was in the poem you refer to, "Somebody Blew Up America." I would only recommend, as in all other cases, reading (or re-reading) the original text in its entirety before deciding. Gerald Stern, one of the poets who nominated Baraka to be NJ Poet Laureate, said about the stanza in question, "I am sensitive to what appears to be the anti-Semitic utterance, which reflects that Jews knew in advance [about the Sept. 11 attacks]. I'm sensitive as a Jew. However, a man is allowed to be paranoid." And Robert Pinsky noted, "Poets are people; their works are human works. We all likely know, or can easily imagine, people capable of saying stupid, vicious things who also sometimes say beautiful or wise things... In other words, each of us, and each of our works, is to be judged on the merits. Moral viewpoint is among the merits, I think."

Also keep in mind, the stanza referred to "Israeli workers" not "Jews".

Robert Pinsky is a diplomat but I attended a talk in which he excoriated Baraka for that poem in no uncertain terms. Be that as it may, there are those who believe Baraka was a more interesting writer when he was Le Roi Jones. Do you have an opinion? My MFA adviser told me he and Frank O'Hara were good freinds, and that he is Roi in "Personism."

Jill, that is a good question. My short answer is no, I think Baraka is interesting throughout. I recommend getting hold of a copy of SOS: POEMS 1961-2013 and reading it all the way through. I think Baraka evolved as a poet, adapting different techniques and modes to changing situations. His gift as a verbal wizard remains throughout. That gift is also palpable in much of his prose writing. Check out the story "The Screamers" among others. And yes, he and O'Hara were very good friends: "[Personism] was founded by me after lunch with LeRoi Jones on August 27, 1959, a day in which I was in love with someone (not Roi, by the way, a blond)." He also features in O'Hara's "Personal Poem" in LUNCH POEMS.

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