Amiri Baraka: "The only thing you don't know is what you will have to face. . . ."

Spring '12 TOC

The bourgeoisie or what you wanna call the ruling class—
whoever you wanna call the big sticks—
what they have done is eliminate the world from 1950 to 2000.
So that all the things of the people that we love and hold dear,
and the work that we did and struggled to complete,
they have eliminated it.
So that aside from an occasional article about Allen Ginsberg,
who we all love, and who was crazier than you can ever appreciate,
and more brilliant than you can ever appreciate,
still, aside from that,
they're only a dit and a dot, and a dit and a dot, and a dit and a dot..

The names, if we look for people's names,
of the people who actually were part of the New York School,
the O'Haras and the Ashberys—
well, Ashbery gets over more than anybody else—
but the real leader of that was Frank O'Hara.
The great poet of that period was Frank O'Hara.
That's gone..
We hear about Frank every once and a while,
a funny aside, you know..
Ashbery gets another fellowship—
which I'm not grabbing about—
but underneath that, beneath that,
the Barbara Guests and all the periods,
people that came with the New York School,
where is that?

We have those poetry readings at the St. Mark's Theater,
where we talk about the Black Mountain people.
We talk about the Charlie Olsons, the six foot five behemoth that changed all of our lives.
Charles Olson, who created a whole new poetics,
the poetics of place.
Who took Pound's poem of history and converted it to humanism
rather than the kind of elitism and fascism that Pound ended up with,
may he rest is peace wherever he is.
But where is the Charlie Olsons?
Even the Bob Creeleys, the great living Bob Creeley poet, where are they?
Not to mention the Joel Oppenheimers, the Gil Sorrentinos,
the Joe Earlys, all the little poets that came under the Black Mountain poets—
where are the John Wieners at?
The Michael Rumakers, great prose writers like that—where they at?
Covered up, covered up.

Instead, we get the latest batch
from the Kenyon Review, Sewannee Review, Hudson Review, Partisan Review.
and I thought we had killed all those people.
Because when I came to New York we tried to form a united front.
That's what magazine Yugen was.
We tried to get all the poets together who were anti-academy.
So we got the New York School; we got the Black Mountain School.
We had to listen to Fielding Dawson tell us endless stories
about Black Mountain College,
into the night over the eighty-eighth beer.
But it was beautiful, it was beautiful
'cause we found out about Franz Kline and DeKooning.
We found out about the Bauhaus and how the Bauhaus was connected to Weimar
in the last democratic thrust of Germany.
We found out where modern art came from.
The Philip Gustons and the Dan Rices, where are they?
My old drinking buddy and boxing companion, Basil King, where is he?
All these great people that I met as a young man in the Village being artists,
thinking that we would rule the world,
thinking that we could kill all these little thugs
from the Partisan Review and the Sewannee Review and the Hudson Review.
We thought we could just beat them out of existence with our mouths.

And Allen, of course, talking about the Beat Generation—
of which there never was a Beat Generation except people who found out about it later—
Allen Ginsberg was one of the most intelligent people you will ever meet in your life.

So I came back from Puerto Rico after being in the service.
First I got kicked out of college, so I went to the Air Force,
and then I got kicked out of the Air Force.
Now they wanna kick me out of the Poet Laureate spot.
I think it's something I said, probably.
But coming back there to New York, 1957, you know how long ago that was?
Looking for the world class intellectuals.
"Where are they? I know there are some bright guys."
I had spent twelve hours a day for two years reading books.
I was the night librarian in Puerto Rico, Strategic Air Command under Curtis LeMay,
who I once saw riding down the runway on a go cart.
And I said, "That's the guy who controls the future of the world.
In that go cart."
So as my Airman Second Class two-striped self,
we formed a little group of people in that library,
and every night we taught ourselves the history of Western literature
and the history of Western music.
I knew nothing about, you know, motets, Gregorian chants, Bach.
We went all the way through that every night.
Then we started with literature, the same thing.
I read 19th century literature which, I to this day still hate, English literature.
I even read Proust, stuff that you wouldn't touch with a stick, I read.
Why? Because I wanted to find out what was happening.
I didn't understand that understanding and knowledge were important.
I didn't understand that learning,
that the raising of your consciousness is the most important thing that you can do.
I was in my little boy scout suit—it wasn't a boy scout suit then—
it was an Air Force uniform, in Chicago,
and I came to this place called the Green Door; it's a bookstore.
And I looked in the window there.
I had just got thrown outta' college.
I'd just gone through basic training and set a new record for KP,
twenty-two times in a row.
But I didn't understand the importance of learning.
All you would-be writers,
you can never write if you don't learn,
because you won't have anything to write about.
So I stood there and it come to me and I said,
"I know, I should try to learn something every day."
You know, a little boy, I must have been twenty years old.
'Cause I looked at the names on the books and I didn't understand what they were saying.
I didn't know what they meant.
I didn't understand the language.
Seven Types of Ambiguity—what did that mean?
What did 'dissociation' mean?
I knew what a metaphor was.
I had finished at least two years of college before I got kicked out.
I had read James Joyce. Jesus, I knew something.
I even read a couple of poems of Pound's.
I had always read Langston Hughes.
Langston Hughes was my man since I was a little boy.
I'd always read Langston.
I read Richard Wright since I was twelve years old. I knew them.
But out in the whole world; who was Baudelaire? What did he have to do with anything?
What was Fleurs du Mal, what was that?
Who was Cezanne?
What was the difference between Cezanne and Matisse?
Ya' understand, those were the things I was grappling with in the Air Force.
But the one great thing was that I was the librarian, so I could order anything.
So they would come up to me and say, "Jonesy, Jonesy —
Airman Second Class Everett L. Jones—Jonesy, what's a Kafka?"
"Gees, I don't know what a Kafka is. I'll check that out. Let's check it out..
Hey here it is, Franz Kafka, Austrian. The books: Metamorphosis, The Trial."
Ordered the whole box load of Kafka.
And our boys, we would sit there and study.

So when I came to New York, I was prepared then to be an intellectual.
How you think, "Oh now I know things."
But the only thing you don't know is what you will have to face.
You don't know the nature of the struggle that you have to get in.
So I arrived and I'm standing in San Juan one afternoon crying
because I'm reading a poem in the New Yorker.
I said, "I can never write a poem like that."
About bird baths, trips to Connecticut,
the 5:08 outta' New York to Connecticut.
I could never write that.
And so I said, "Gees, there must be something I can do with my life.
I know what, I can write my own poetry.
I can write it; it comes outta' me.
As messed up as that is,
as broken down,
as urbanely-challenged,
as ethnically-squashed,
that will be my poetry!
And I will be so arrogant as to claim it.
To say: 'This is my poetry, right here.'"

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