When I finished my doctoral dissertation in 1998, I felt an acute need to detox from the over-sophistication of academic discourse that had come to have a little more of a hold on me than I wished it had. Of course, I still hoped to use this degree to land a full-time tenure track academic gig, and wasn’t going to renounce the Ph.D. or anything. But I felt a burning need to return to what I had lost after plunging into a Ph.D. program after my mother’s death in 1992—hopefully with the added hindsight of time.
So, aside from Laura (Riding) Jackson whose writing I read obsessively, I found myself turning back to an intense self-directed study of two living writers whose work had been central inspirations for me: Leonard Cohen and Amiri Baraka, two Libras born in 1934, whose work were in various ways marginalized by academia (although they were both more popular than those more sanctioned in academia). These two male (and obviously male) writers had much of the intelligence that I admired in (Riding) Jackson, but they also had many obvious differences…and they were still very active into their 70s.
These three writers were important to me, in part because they had all begun their public(ation) journey with fine examples of gem-like lyric poetry, but soon broadened the range and scope of their work in defiance of the narrowness of genre conventions. In poetry, they went beyond the “Perloff-Vendler” continuum, in whose parameters I safely operated in my 1996 “Against Lineage” essay, and even the “Raw Vs. The Cooked” debates of 1960 if updated and applied to the contemporary literary landscape at the turn of the 21st century. These writers even went beyond the wider narrowness of “literature itself”--most markedly in the case of Riding and Baraka (by comparison with these two, Cohen operated in a less inclusive Tower of Art).
The three formed a triangle; if these three proper names can be reduced to points in a constellation (the stars that are really burning suns far more vast than may seem when you view them in Orion’s belt), I found in this imagined triangle more than enough space for every literary possibility I cared about. If I were stuck on a desert island, and could bring only three (3) writers—poets—with me I’d choose these three—over, say, Ashbery, Shakespeare, Creeley and Dickinson--etc.
As I thought of what it was that drew me especially to these writers (who are not usually spoken in connection with each other), on one level I was still thinking academically (I was, after all, still teaching): thinking that my next book of critical prose—after my Shakespeare book—should focus on a comparison and contrast of Laura (Riding) Jackson and Le Roi Jones/Amiri Baraka—emphasizing some little noted or commented on similarities. For instance, both these writers became known as “controversial” and even difficult (as in difficult to work with) when they went through profound transformations of writing style—which they announced publically and dramatically with a name change—as Laura Riding became (Riding) Jackson circa 1940, and Le Roi Jones became Amiri Baraka after Malcolm X’s death.
Perverse as this may seem, I felt that they changed their names for many of the same reasons—in service of the mode of “truth” that poetry often ghettoizes, a freedom not permitted by "free verse,"in standing against the “show, don’t tell” mode that came to dominate the ostensibly wide range of contemporary American poetry sanctioned until today. In order to break from such confines, both knew they had to change their names. Both clearly struggled against white patriarchal culture, and--—with mordant brilliance and a love that becomes words—provided alternatives to it. Both were theatrical (even in Riding’s alleged disavowal of theatre—which is more complicated than her ‘purist’ fans—as well as her detractors--or those who will offer her conditional love for her poetry of the 20s and 30s--will admit). Both used as many rhetorical tools as they could get their pens on against the master’s house while working to reconstruct a new master-less one that would be better than a new movie).
Both Riding and Baraka were deep thinkers, and obsessive writers who used the “normative discourse” that male Euro-American culture calls Philosophy (and more recently Theory) against itself and its institutional setting. They cast a wider, yet more existentially more rooted, net. Philosophers become characters in their work, like they did in Shakespeare’s plays. A (Riding) Jacksonian or Barakian reading of, say, Derrida or Ezra Pound could yield more ethical fruits and truths than a Derridean reading of Baraka or Riding, but this maneuver is more than the standard academic division of labor between primary and secondary texts could handle.
This may partially explain why both writers were so baffling and/or threatening to the literary/critical establishment, then and now (Experts Are Puzzled) and why, in that world, both are placed in the outskirts of the so-called “canon.”
Yet, my interest in Baraka differed from my interest in Riding in at least one very profound immediate way: Baraka’s love of music (or one could even say music of love) was and is so central to his oeuvre that his work has been closer to my heart. In this, for me, Baraka went deeper, and was more revolutionary, than Riding—especially because he was still alive and working as a populist, as a public intellectual—or what could be termed “griot” for the mass culture era (Baraka didn’t need to renounce electricity, though much of the jazz he loves is acoustic). The music and the movement were one.
This spirit in the non-verbal aspects of art, the complex symbiotic relationship between page and stage, always spoke to me, and I think our times (our post-song lyrics-as-poetry times)—even had his content not been as blatantly revolutionary as it was, this in itself was a political act that I felt was necessary if poetry and literature was to ever do anything in the burning house of contemporary reality even if Baraka had to fan, rather than douse, the flames (though with much more prophetic foresight than burning his own neighborhood after the death of MLK).
Baraka’s work, even in its most Marxist manifestations, cannot be understood except in service of this (black) music which must live beyond the (white) page. And, academically speaking, I could see this project, as a return to the primordial unity of word and sound that the academics saw most acutely in Ancient Greece (as, say, Trimpi’s study of the pre-socratics like Hesiod—The Muses Of One Mind).
But even that Greek “starting place,” I soon discovered (with Baraka’s help, once freed from the shackles of a Ph.D. in English) was a watered down borrowing of an African sense of art and culture. And in America, as Baraka taught, the African-American tradition has been a vital parallel tradition to the Euro-American one, a tradition that existed somewhat underground—or unacknowledged, unlegitimized by white folks (like drums being taken away by slave masters on Congo Square, for instance). Sometimes it was even unacknowledged by black folks: “Oh, we don’t really have a literary culture like the white man does.”
Some called bullshit on this before Baraka, but he went much further in theorizing and enacting it than any before him. As William J. Harris argues, the fact of Amiri Baraka did, and does, change American literature. Some know it…some don’t, or fear to admit it to themselves. And this is part of why the fight (of love, of music) must and does continue after his death. His legacy can be seen in his biological offspring---his artist daughter he had with Hettie, or his mayor son with Amina, as well as his daughter who was brutally murdered by a homophobe who taught him to understand more intimately the struggles of the LGBT community. But Baraka has a larger family….
I must stop myself at this juncture to revisit my love-hate relationship with Leonard Cohen. Cohen, by most measures, is not nearly as radical or revolutionary as either Laura (Riding) Jackson or Amiri Baraka. But an interesting essay or book could be written, and an interesting course could be proposed, to show how Cohen and Riding (both Jews) challenge the gendered aspects of Western Religion and metaphysics since the erasure of Lilith from the Bible. Furthermore, like Baraka, Cohen embraced music (they both released their first album in 1967, after their publications of poetry and narrative prose).
To be sure, it is a very different kind of music than Baraka’s, a much more Euro-American (or Euro-Canadian-American) music that emphasizes the popular song, the formal rhyme schemes of ballad, and the near rhythmless “singer/songwriter” craftsman—but, still, a music with words, or words not confined to the “unheard sounds” so beloved by those who crave and promulgate the well-wrought urn of gem-like lyrics, or even the hybrid texts of the Vendler/Perloff continuum. And this becomes radical, or challenging, in the context of contemporary American “Poetry”—especially because, like Riding and Baraka, he also worked within those confines.
Cohen’s songs, and song-like texts, could also be set to, or enlivened by, many different kinds of music than the styles he himself performed them in: from Philly punk band Ruin to Buffy St. Marie’s psychedia to R&B and soul: “When it comes to lamentations, I’d much rather listen to Aretha Franklin than, say, Leonard Cohen,” as he put it in his book Death of a Lady’s Man, as if he too knew the necessity of the Black Art Aesthetic, or even suspected its superiority to the tradition he worked within more as a reformist than a revolutionary).
Cohen wasn’t even rock and roll (though he was inducted in the rock and roll hall of fame the same day Madonna, who wasn’t really rock and roll either), much less R&B or Jazz, but some of his songs were like blues and spirituals (especially if sung by Nina Simone), and matriarchal at that, as he gladly risked charges of being called a sexist or chauvinist to be more matriarchal than many male feminists who don’t take that risk. In a secular society, Cohen’s lyrics are often understood in terms of “the battle of the sexes,” but his back and forth stranger/manger bipolar dichotomy between a (non-Western Judeo Buddhist) sense of God and woman cuts far deeper than, say, Bob Dylan (who David Berman, back in 1998, accurately called mean spirited and misogynistic.)
Part of my renewed obsession with the range of art embodied by Cohen around 1999 (coinciding with the publication of the second edition of the Le Roi Jones/Amiri Baraka Reader) was due to the somewhat fortuitous accident of having worked closely on a somewhat legendary album by David Berman and the Silver Jews. Berman had been called—by some—the Leonard Cohen of my generation (X), and certainly there were some notable similarities. Many who loved this band also loved Cohen—especially Death of a Ladies’ Man—the album, if not the book. And from the perspective of the world I was either trying to widen, overthrow, or simply leave, the Silver Jews, as well as Leonard Cohen, represented a legitimate opening---albeit one that was still met by resistance from many who still had a stake in keeping “poetry” generically specialized and distinct for the slightly more popular song.
I tried to fight on this front primarily, in the largely white world during this time—though it was difficult not to get bogged down and tangled up in the material conditions, the daunting logistics of trying to make some kind of peace with the contemporary entertainment industry (since Cohen and Berman were often termed "rock stars”—as well as poets, authors, and thinkers). So I could puff myself up with statements that seemed unheeded by the recalcitrant entrenched on either side of this reductive divide: art is entertainment; entertainment is art; stand-up comics are teachers and vice versa. Don’t you see! Don’t you hear! It’s not that crazy of an assertion---this is a compromise position, or something I thought we could establish first without me scaring you away as a “vulgar Marxist” or “Black Supremacist.” My mistake? I was too timid to alienate my old audience with one dramatic gesture?
In short, in contemporary poetry (excluding Riding, or Shakespeare, et al and others who were dead), I developed a Cohen/Baraka duality that I thought could explain my mission as a teacher and writer more than the (narrower) word “poet” could. While Cohen may not be especially useful on the political sphere (“democracy is coming to the USA”) as Baraka is, Baraka could be seen as less useful when it came to male-female relationships, or so-called “love poems,” especially for men or women who love “psychological romance.” But Baraka, like the band Cameo (on their charming 1986 hit “Word Up!”), doesn’t have the time for psychological romance. That doesn’t mean that Baraka didn’t write love poems (see his great 1966 poem to the woman who would become his wife)—only that he didn’t need psychological romance as much as Cohen and his admirers—both male and female—did and do.
Someone (I forget who) once told me they were in a creative writing class Baraka taught in which someone brought in what many would recognize as a “love poem” (a man to a woman, a woman to a man, a man to a man, or woman to a woman, etc). Baraka said something like, “Great, but when are you gonna write a love poem for the rest of us!” Indeed. Baraka believed in his best poems as love poems to black people, and eventually to all oppressed people---collective love poems. I say this not to diminish Cohen’s accomplished oeuvre, but only to show that the political doesn’t have to be “personal” to be intimate.
And I found myself wrestling with both writers intensely, as a way to achieve balance as a writer, reader and culture worker. Yes, wrestling---perhaps a very male-ist term to describe the process (Duncan spoke of a process, a conk) of response, and you may put this in your “anxiety of influence” pipe and smoke it. And the balance is just the set up, the outlines; some “me” or fragmented community of “self” emerges in all this, as I began to realize I could actually do more good if I traded the crown of poet laurel for the teacher’s dunce cap.
But what this tells you about “me” isn’t as important as what it speaks about contemporary possibilities in literature—the contexts in which it is written and read. This is why around 2003, I began feeling a burning need for something like an “MFA Degree in Non-Poetry” to supplement the MFA Degrees in Poetry (as the school in which I taught had begun an Degree in Non-Fiction to supplement the degree in Fiction). And, by “Non-Poetry,” I mean something different than what Oren Izenberg does (though there are some overlaps with Izenberg’s definition, which could be the subject for another essay). I bring up writers like Riding, Cohen, and Baraka because they all brought a wider sense of “the whole art” into the 20th century notion of poetry that threatens to be the 21st notion of poetry.
Each of them provides models that, in their own ways, profoundly challenge the dogmatic adherence to lyric, and provide very useful tools to restore poetry to what it was in a less specialized and insular era. You may call it “the return of the repressed.” But these three writers—as well as many others—fought to free themselves from being confined in what Riding calls “The Poet Role.” This inevitably paves the way for a more engaged poetry. In an essay on Aime Cesaire, Baraka quotes the latter saying: “Even tho I wanted to break with French Literary traditions, I did not actually free myself from them until the moment I turned my back on poetry. In fact, you could say I became a poet by renouncing poetry.” Genre isn’t just about genre (unless you’re stuck in one; non-poetry, unlike what’s called poetry these days, is not a jealous god—but can make room for performance, politics, philosophy, drama, fiction, stand-up comedy, music, dance, and even revolution….as well as the "poet's poetry" that is currently called poetry…
….to be continued….(do I have a choice?)