Classroom Issues and Strategies
The typical problems in teaching Baraka's poetry have to do with what
has been called his "unevenness"--perhaps more accurately attributable
to the tension inherent in balancing Baraka's role as poet and his role
as activist--and the strident tone of some of his poems--also related to
his political activism.
Both problems are probably best addressed directly by inviting the students
to describe or characterize their impressions of the impetus for the poems
as they read them (stressing "their reading" is critical and
complements what current reading theory regards as the essential role of
the reader in any reading paradigm), then asking them to substantiate textually
those impressions. Such a strategy finesses the temptation to engage in
a definitive debate of the politics of the time as the genesis and raison
d'être of Baraka's poetry. Further, such a strategy allows students
to explore the aesthetics as well as the politics of his poetry and understand
better the inter/inner-(con)textuality of the two.
Because the "sound" of Baraka's poetry is essential to texturing
or fleshing out its meaning, readings aloud should contribute to discussions
as well as to the introduction to his work.
Students respond almost always to the intimacy of Baraka's poems; sometimes
they are offended by that intimacy, and this posture often leads to discussions
of poetic necessity. Students also raise the question of the paradox of
Baraka's clear aesthetic debts and his vehemence in trying to tear down
that very Western ideal.
Major Themes, Historical Perspectives, and Personal Issues
It is important to emphasize the themes of death and despair in the
early poems, moral and social corruption with its concomitant decrying
of Western values and ethics, the struggle against self-hatred, a growing
ethnic awareness, and the beneficent view of and creative energy occasioned
by "black magic."
The issues to focus on historically involve the racial tenor of the
decades represented by his poetic output as well as the poetic aesthetics
of imagism, projectivism, and Dadaism--all of which influenced Baraka to
From the perspective of personal issues, his bohemian acquaintances
of the fifties ( Olson
and Allen Ginsberg,
for example), his marriage to Hettie Cohen, his visit to Cuba, his name
change, the death of Malcolm
X, and his Obie for The Dutchman are all important considerations.
Significant Form, Style, or Artistic Conventions
It is appropriate to refer to the question of "school," here
again in the context of the poet's use of sound and images as the articulation
of form and meaning. I would further encourage the students to pay careful
attention to Baraka's use of repetition--at the lexical, syntactic, semantic,
and phonological levels. What is its effect? Does it inform? If so, how?
Are there aspects of the poems one might regard as transformations? If
so, what might they be? What effect might they have? How might they function
in the poem?
Baraka's consideration of the significance of "roots" appears
to evolve in his poetry. How might you characterize it?
A consideration of progenitors and progeny provides a convenient point
of departure for a discussion of audience for Baraka's work. Students interested
in imagism and projectivism, for example, will certainly value Baraka's
efforts as an effective use of those aesthetic doctrines toward the shaping
of poetry of revolution appropriate for the time.
Baraka's influence is apparent in the poetry of Sonia
Sanchez and Ntozake Shange. What aspects of this influence, if any,
might contribute to considerations of audience with regard to time and
Comparisons, Contrasts, Connections
In considering Baraka's conscious use of language for poetic effect,
comparisons with Carlos
Williams (for the use of the vernacular and the idiom) and with Ezra
Pound (for its communicative focus) are appropriate. Sometimes in discussions
of Baraka's early poems, the criticism compares them in tone and theme--moral
decay and social disillusionment--with T.
S. Eliot's The Waste Land.
Questions for Reading and Discussion/ Approaches to Writing
1. Frank Smith discusses the "behind the eyeball" information
a reader brings to text. Louise Rosenblatt discusses the expectations and
experiences a reader brings to "transact" or negotiate meaning
with text. Given these considerations of the reader, prediscussion questions
might be designed to elicit from the reader whatever information or preconceptions
he/she has about the author and/or his work. If the students are totally
unfamiliar with Baraka, then questions eliciting experiential responses
to the broad issues of theme or technique would be appropriate--"What,
if anything, do the terms social fragmentation and/or moral decay mean
to you?" "What would you imagine as a poetic attack on society?
Or a poetic ethnic response to a dead or dying society?"
2. Writing assignments and topics for the students are derived from
the assumption that as readers their participation is essential to meaning.
Topics are not generally prescribed but, rather, derived from the questions
about and interest in the author and his (Baraka's) work. These assignments
sometimes take the form of poetic responses, critical essays, or "dialogues"
Brown, Lloyd W. "Baraka as Poet." In Lloyd W. Brown's Amiri
Baraka. Boston: Twayne Publishers, 1980, 104-35, Chapter 5.
Harris, William J. "The Transformed Poem." In The Poetry
and Poetics of Amiri Baraka: The Jazz Aesthetic. Columbia: University
of Missouri Press, 1985, 91-121.
Lacey, Henry. "Die Schwartze Bohemien: 'The Terrible Disorder of
a Young Man' " and "Imamu." In To Raise, Destroy, and
Create. Troy, New York: The Whitstone Publishing Company, 1981, 1-42,
Sollors, Werner. "Who Substitutes for the Dead Lecturer?: Poetry
of the Early 1960s." In Amiri Baraka/LeRoi Jones: The Quest for
a Populist Modernism. New York: Columbia University Press, 1978, 83-95.