This paper proposes to look at Amiri Baraka’s poem ‘Black Art’ and analyse the effect of the nocous language, the rhetorical severity and incendiary polemics implicit in the verse. The paper attempts to analyse the construction of the poem that is considered representative of Baraka’s Black Aesthetic, and delve into the chronical of controversial radical dissent and nationalist stance which constitutes the rubric of ‘Black Art.’ In attempting to delineate the above, the paper in the turn of its denouement, wishes to foreground the much-contested choice of form and style, and whether the chosen deployment serves to accentuate the actuated purport and force of a revolutionary verse as ‘Black Art’ and how it enables the readers to be singed in overwhelming emotions of guilt, violence and sometimes catharsis. Therefore, the aim of the paper is to establish a concrete analysis of Baraka’s verse, the form it deploys and the impact it has on the activism that is inextricably linked with the purpose of the poem.
It is not hard for any critic, commentator, reviewer, academician or even a well-versed reader to decipher the manifestations of Baraka’s political thinking in his poetry. However, what remains masked within the veneer of such a blatant reading of his verse is his ingenious task of deploying an experimental poetic form to posit (or should one say ‘shoot’?) his message. In doing so, he remains true to his many-a-times professed stance of derision towards the early African-American literature, especially those produced by the Harlem Renaissance writers, who, according to Baraka, adhere to a conformist paradigm of white writing. Needless to point out, Baraka chooses to deviate in his own writing to a form that he models after and appropriates, in favor of the Black Aesthetic and its concerns, thereby vouching his unwavering allegiance and loyalty to the Black Power Movement. It is in the light of such a reading that ‘Black Art’ comes to acquire the privileged position it enjoys in Baraka’s literary canon and the whole tradition of Black Art writing.
The poem is written in a hithertofore unprecedented style, deliberately debunking earlier prototypes and models and also casting aspersions on the ‘trivialised’ import of ‘romanticised’ verse ‘recollected in tranquility.’ Then what exactly constitutes its ‘artiness,’ one may ask? This leads us to a consideration of the poem from two critical vantage points simultaneously- the social and the artistic. While there is little doubt about the seditious and inflammatory content of ‘Black Art’, in its obvious relation to a vivid, acute and highly exacerbated awareness of the anguished black self- a tortured and repressed being (both the individual and the body politic-the black populace), the poem is also a blazing exemplar of the deployment of a new poetic style that not only refuses to concur to earlier poetic forms, but turns them on their head to pitch its own staccato, in the interest of the blacks. This form, then, is a castigation of all artistic forms, as no discernible artistic mold befits its purpose and obtains its design. In doing so, it comes across as an avalanche of highly incensed rant of the black body politic, an expression of the social grievances of the black against a dominant white regime. Written in around fifty-five lines, most of which carry-over to the following line, ‘Black Art’ is as close as Baraka ever came to an ars poetica for the new form, in which the style, or should one aver, the conspicuous ‘lack and avoidance of style’ is a deliberate and incisively scathing ploy to serve its purposes of political enlightenment. In accomplishing this exercise, the poet avoids any lyrical style, use of stock poetic forms or diction and instead, bombards the reader with a variety of forceful images, one after the other that implicate the white in their oppressive ideology and serve to reiterate the poet’s vision of a just, fair and equal utopia. This serenade vis-à-vis imagery is also inseparable from the concrete, tangible manifestations of the black people’s struggle:
we want "poems that kill."
Assassin poems, Poems that shoot
guns. Poems that wrestle cops into alleys
and take their weapons leaving them dead
with tongues pulled out and sent to Ireland. (From ‘Black Art’ by Amiri Baraka)
In using such powerful imagery, a language deeply rooted in the black community ("put it on him," "girdle mamma mulatto bitches," "red jelly stuck / between ‘lizabeth Taylor’s toes.") and arbitrary, random abstract sounds (rrrrrrrrrrrr . . . tuhtuhtuhtuhtuhtuh tuhtuhtuh), Baraka challenges the white dictum of artistic writing, inverts it and instead, announces the arrival of his own ‘volley of shots’ (words that shall be fired through muzzles) as an expression of the revolutionary paradigm, the radical steps it shall take to actuate the change the poet wishes to see. To commit this reactionary act, the ‘poetic’ in poetry has to be abandoned and the violence that is a prerequisite for attaining the utopic idyll the poet has his eyes on, the same violence has to be organically assimilated into the rubric of the poem. This objectivist fashioning of his verse into a ‘weapon’ becomes his ‘chant’ for the destruction he foresees and deems necessary so as to be able to make a foray into and usher in a new world. There is no dearth of language that has been often a times been alleged to be obscene, offensive and derogatory but Baraka’s radical stance is unsparing, his pen that fires blood onto paper is explicit in naming his enemies (“wops or slick half white / politicians," "the Liberal / Spokesman for the Jews," "a Negro leader pinned to / a bar stool in Sardi’s," "cops and niggers") and this creates an acute sense of identification with the concrete symbols and images of black life encaptured in his poem. They help to further his aim of exhorting the people to adopt a stance of revolt and rebellion against the current milieu. In its unsparing detail, Baraka remains critical and wary of the 'assimilationist' blacks and thereby, serves to uphold an objective reflection of reality, albeit rooted in frustration and the rage that he felt necessary for establishing the scope for real liberation.
Thus, one finds that Amiri Baraka’s experimental mode of verse does not, in any way, subdue the cause he upholds and wishes to promote. His novel poetic form does not diminish the radical nature of the content of the poem. The nocous language, the rhetorical severity, forceful imagery, powerful symbols and incendiary polemics implicit in the verse are all tokens and nominals of his revolutionary stance and serve to enhance and bolster the cause he is fighting for.
---. ‘Black Art’ in Selected Poetry of Amiri Baraka/LeRoi Jones (includes “Poetry for the Advanced”). Morrow New York, NY. 1979.
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