‘WISE WHY’S Y’s: The Griot’s Song/Djeli Ya” By Amiri Baraka

9780883780473I bought this not long after Amiri Baraka passed away, read the first few poems, but when I put it down, neglected to pick it back up again. Well, I did pick it back up again and I am better for it.

Let’s just get this out of the way. Amiri Baraka/LeRoi Jones is a difficult, problematic, and prickly figure. LeRoi Jones was deeply involved in the poetic circles in and around New York City, apparently had lovers of both sexes. As Amiri Baraka, he was angry and militant and, I’m afraid, made more than a few anti-gay remarks. But he was also still LeRoi Jones, in that he was deeply influenced by the major currents of the twentieth century, especially the New York School, the Black Arts Movement, and (like another revolutionary poet, Aime Cesaire) Surrealism. Baraka was also much more political and a major figure in building black political power in Newark, New Jersey.

WISE WHY’S Y’s is deeply political, unyielding, and is weighed on heavily by the history (and, therefore, the legacy) of slavery.

We are bullets into
              tomorrow
    We are Changerers

these limpid blue
that packed sky
(the lost key of
              which
        like my own
        dry frenzy

is part of the hatred
     that’s good
          for us.

That’s from a poem entitled #20 Borders (Incest) Obsession and is intended to be read with musical accompaniment. He actually lists a bunch of tunes to go with the poems (John Coltrane comes up a lot). Because bop and post-bop jazz is the rhythm to these poems, they are often jagged. There is often rhyme, but without a rhyme scene, reflecting the work of jazz musicians like Ornette Coleman and Dizzy Gillespie.

In another poem is this stanza:

                                    (Not Sociology & Social Democratic
                                                     political
                                                    Bohemianism)

I know that he’s mocking the shallow, meaningless political talk of white, coffeeshop revolutionaries… but good lord, don’t you want to be a ‘political Bohemian?’ I hate myself for thinking that, because Baraka is also right to criticize the wordy, windy impotence of ‘slacktivism’ and other such skin deep dissent.

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