SOS: Poems 1961-2013 by Amiri Baraka is a collection of poetry spanning the author’s lifetime and reflecting his views particularly on racism. Baraka was a novelist, playwright, and a revolutionary African American poet. He served as Poet Laureate of New Jersey surrounded by controversy. Baraka refused to step down, and, with no way to remove him from the position, the position was abolished by the state legislature and governor.
I grew up in a very segregated city of Cleveland, Ohio in the 1960s and 1970s. It was not just a black and white segregation, but like most big northern cities even whites segregated themselves into neighborhoods by European heritage. I saw SOS as a way to try and learn what I was sheltered from growing up from a first hand source. I know there are histories written by both black and white authors, but I was hoping that the poetry would speak more to the personal feel than a socially acceptable history. Race in America is charged subject and perhaps a poet can capture it in a way we all can understand.
How amazed the crazed negro looked informed that Animal
Rights had a bigger budget
than the naacp!
~ The Heir of the Dog
SOS opens with a detailed introduction by Paul Vangelisti which is extremely helpful and informative. This is a difficult collection. I found myself struggling for the first half of the collection until the poetry moved into the late 1960s and early 1970s. My personal recollection of the time period helped me gain some traction. There is a reference to Rimbaud early on, but little else for me to relate to. Then suddenly there is Nixon, Kissinger, and Ford and a connection is made. Baraka is angry.
Dude asked Monk if he was interested
The Mother Land
“I was in the
Mother Land before
& some mother fucka
brought me over here
to play the
~Four Cats on Repatriationology
Baraka criticizes politics,economics,and the arts. He speaks with a frank and direct language.
The whimpering pigment of a decadent economy, slashed into
as Yeats’ mad girl plummeting over the nut house wall, her
broken knee caps rattling in the weather, reminding us of lands
our antennae do not reach.
~ The Politics of Rich Painters
He is equally critical and displays anger at all races in a reverse racism of Black Art. Black Art contains a violence of its own and a violence of poetry:
We want “poems that kill.”
Assassin poems, Poems that shoot
guns. Poems that wrestle cops into alleys
and take their weapons leaving them dead
with tongues pulled out and sent to Ireland. Knockoff poems for
dope selling wops or slick halfwhite politicians.
Baraka leaves no stone unturned in his rage politics, class, and religion :
We’ll worship Jesus
When jesus do
When jesus blow up
the white house
or blast nixon down
when jesus turnout congress or bust general motors to
yard bird motors
jesus need to be busted
we ain’t gonna worship nobody
but niggers gettin up off
Not all is anger. Baraka like his music AM/TRAK speaks of Trane in a sharp play on trains and Coltrane. There is also a play on an angry Sisyphus who hates rock and roll because the gods who punished him created a band called The Rolling Stones, just to rub it in. If Elvis Presley was the king, then who is James Brown, God? The Beatles are not seen quite as favorably in Baraka eyes.
Baraka has sharp words and makes no attempt to hide his personal feelings. This is a rough collection of poems that resides outside polite society. It is for people, not just black, who see the construct of American culture and politics and realize it is not the clean and sanitary image that we are trained to see. The change we think we see is not always there:
Revolutionary War gamed
The Tories still in control
of the culture
~There was Something I Wanted to Tell You