AMIRI BARAKA: the name still sounds strange. One still wants to say Leroi Jones. It is Jones we know best; it is he, after all, who wrote The Toilet and Dutchman , the play Norman Mailer has called "the best play in America." Baraka, on the other hand, we know less well, perhaps want to know less well, because we feel less comfortable with him, he who has forced his rage and hatred upon us.
Jones, after all, may have chided us in "In Memory of Radio" with such lines as: "Who has ever stopped to think of the divinity of Lamont Cranston?/ (Only Jack Kerouac, that I know of: & me./ The rest of you probably had on WCBS and Kate Smity,/ Or something equally unattractive.)," but it is Baraka who wrote in "Forms of Emptiness": "Smaile, jew. Dance, jew. Tell me you love me, jew./ I got/ something for you now though. I got something for you, like you/ dig, /I got. I got this thing,/ goes pulsating through black everything/ universal meaning. I got the extermination blues, jewboys. I got/ the hitler syndrome figured...."
Much more than Jones, Baraka repels and frightens us. But he fascinates us too, and we want to know who he is -- this man who has been called "the committed artist par excellence." We want to know who he is, I think, just because he keeps changing, because he seems willing to risk all to find out who he is.
Of the numerous, almost voluminous, works written about Baraka, none has come as close to enabling us to understand the man who is both the "Malcolm X of literature" and a "Black Baudelaire" as has Werner Sollors' Amiri Baraka/Leroi Jones: The Quest for a "Populist Modernism ". Sollors' study is a richly sensitive and perceptive work, one which fully realizes its author's ambition to offer both a new interpretaton of Baraka's work and to "increase our understanding of the cultural climate of contemporary America, black and white." Sollors' approach, as he writes in his introduction, "is located somewhere between American Studies/Black Studies and Comparative Literature." This enables him not only to take seriously Baraka's literary voice in the context of such movements as Symbolism and Absurdism; it also allows him to shed light "on the social dimensions of a Black writer in confrontation with the political and ethnic reality of America."
What Sollors is most concerned with, what his study essentially focuses upon and what makes the work so important, is the way these converge. For what finally is most extraordinary about the career of Amiri Baraka is that despite the changes, the risks, there is a persistent sameness about his concerns: in all his work there is a demand for a populist modernism, for a unity of life and art, of literature and society. It is what Baraka in a discussion of rhythm and blues music -- and Sollors in his study -- refers to as "The Changing Sameness."
The say this, however, is not to say all that must be said about Baraka. Change may well be the only constant in his literary career, and, as Sollors brilliantly demonstrates, the very dynamic which led Baraka from Beat poetry to political and ethnic protest, from Cultural Nationalism to Maoism, "has an element of constancy in Baraka's antibourgeois cultural strategy of populist modernism." But -- and it is a "but" that must not be ignored if we are to understand the importance of Baraka -- that strategy demanded the assumption of different artistic shapes by Baraka. And as Sollors also notes, in striving for a unity of literature and life, "Baraka preferred the risk of losing artistic complexity (which he had achieved in the early 1960s) to the prospect of becoming a man whoi would fight his targets only within the confines of formal literature."
Of course, and Sollors notes this too, the risks Baraka has taken have resulted in an unevenness to his work. As Baraka has moved further and further away from his early writings, which showed the influence of Eliot and Williams and were admired by Allen Ginsberg and Charles Olson, his works have become more and more like that of many left-wing writers of the 1930s -- only for Baraka art is not so much a weapon in the class war as it is "a weapon of revolutionary struggle." The brilliance of his early poetry, the excitement of Dutchman , is seldom to be found in Baraka's most recent writing. Sollors is quite right: much of Baraka's Maoist work is consumed by hammering slogans, and what "Baraka perceives as a political strength in his new commitment may well be a crucial poetic weakness: he knows exactly what he wants to say at all times."
Yet we at least know why Baraka now writes as he does. In Hard Times he tells us: "We want to raise the level of the people, but to do that we must start where they are which is on a much higher level than the majority of intellectuals and artists. We also want to popularize, to make popular, to make popular mass art. To take the popular and combine it with the advanced. Not to compromise, but to synthesize. To raise and to popularize." In short, that is, "We need a poetry that directly describes the situation of the people and tells us how we can change it." This, of course, is a part of Baraka's Marxist aesthetic, yet one can see how, despite their modifications, Baraka's much earlier ideas about populism and literary avant-gardism -- his "populist modernism" -- have survived; it is, again, the notion of a changing sameness.
At this point in time, most of us no doubt think of Baraka primarily as an angry and violent man, one who has yet to learn to transform his anger into art, whose contributions to literature may be remarkable but whose contributions in the area of commitment -- as Addison Gayle, Jr. has written -- are even greater. But to think of Baraka this way is to miss what Werner Sollors allows us to see, indeed, insists that we see: that Baraka is an important figure in both political and aesthetic avantgardism, that his "eternal concern" has been with the question of politics and literature. He is a writer whose work exists in the highest modernist tradition but who believes that popular culture remains in the lifeblood of any kind of art; whose commistment to himself has made him a social figure with a mass audience; and, perhaps most importantly, as Sollors contends, he is "a visionary who tries to be a practical man."