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September 14, 2021

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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.

as a teenage poet in the late 1950s on the periphery of the beat scene, three of my favorite poets were diane di prima, ray bremser, and leroi jones (as he was known then), who was from Jersey, like me and wrote about locations and neighborhoods I knew well. I read and dug everything he wrote, especially his story collection TALES, and followed all his changes from air force vet (like me) to radical (like me) and continued to love his writing but not the antisemitic and homophobic language he was beginning to use in his talks...in my memory I challenged him about that at a public forum in DC in the early 1970s (where I was teaching his work, prose (BLUES PEOPLE and TALES), PLAYS, AND POERY) when I was equally if not more strident from my own evolving politics (feminism, gay liberation etc.)...I know I wrote about it, with arrogant assurance that my analysis was correct in noting the roots of his anti-gay and anti-jewish rhetoric in his need to distance himself from his having been lovers with frank o'hara (as I was told by their mutual friends) and from his marriage to hettie jones...I continued to reread his earlier work and still love most of it (especially TALES, still) but didn't want to keep up with his later work, until now and your post motivating me to check it out, so thank you for that vincent...

Thank you for the openness & generosity of this comment Michael & for allowing us to catch up with you for a minute!

Thank you Jill Newnham for "diplomat" (I think!) and thank you Vincent Katz for the quotation. Less diplomatic is my poem "The Forgetting" in _Gulf Music_, where Baraka appears as "the guy"

https://bigthink.com/videos/robert-pinsky-reads-the-forgetting

As per Vincent Katz's advice, I read the poem in its entirety, and I'm afraid that it falls in the "stupid and vicious" camp, to use Robert Pinsky's terms. Anti-semitism is a prejudice completely founded on paranoia, so Gerald Stern's comment ("a man is alllowed to be paranoid") makes sense only if the paranoia generates a brilliant novel, say. But a rant victimizing the Jews after 9/11 is not just bizarre but very harmful.

Robert and Sarah, thank you for your comments. "The Forgetting" is powerfully complex poem. Thank you for sharing that great recording of it. It mentions Pound and reminds us that he and Eliot, among others, suffered from the same problem Baraka did, and it affected their poetry, and consequently our reactions to it. In regard to "Somebody Blew Up America," I would again suggest that a reading of the entire poem reveals a querulous, maybe paranoid, mind, posing questions regarding any number of tragic abuses, including:

Who put the Jews in ovens,
and who helped them do it
Who said "America First"
and ok'd the yellow stars

Who killed Rosa Luxembourg, Liebneckt
Who murdered the Rosenbergs
And all the good people iced,
tortured, assassinated, vanished

Many tormented questions are asked in this poem, including the passage that most offends people, which I would again note refers not to Jews but to Israeil workers and Sharon.

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