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The Power of Solidarity in the Conquest of Justice: How Sixteen White Poets Banded Against Police Brutality and Stood Up for Amiri Baraka in 1968

A beacon of searing solidarity by Denise Levertov, Charles Olson, Allen Ginsberg, Robert Duncan, Lawrence Ferlinghetti, and other politically awake titans of poetic might.

The Power of Solidarity in the Conquest of Justice: How Sixteen White Poets Banded Against Police Brutality and Stood Up for Amiri Baraka in 1968

On a recent visit to the archive of the Academy of American Poets, which dates back to the 1930s and includes a wealth of ephemera by and about nearly every major poet of the past century, I chanced upon something that stopped my breath with its potency and timeliness — a 1968 open letter by an impressive roster starring some of the most prominent writers in the country, concerning the beating, arrest, and sentencing of Amiri Baraka (October 7, 1934–January 9, 2014). The morning of my visit, almost half a century after the letter was written, news had broken of another heartbreaking case of police brutality with racial dimensions.

Some necessary context first: A prolific poet, essayist, playwright, music critic, novelist, and short story writer, Baraka, born LeRoi Jones, was a literary polymath with a strong political bend. His politics were radical and revolutionary, yes, but his writing was responsive rather than reactive. One of the most important and influential black voices in literary history, alongside titans like James Baldwin, he modeled the art of choosing poetic response over reflexive reaction amid a culture whose propensity for the latter and paucity of the former have only intensified in the half-century since.

Amiri Baraka in 1964
Amiri Baraka in 1964

Baraka urged black artists to cease measuring themselves against the standards of the white middle class, which are bound to always end in a repression of their authentic voice and a sense of personal failure. He influenced beloved writers like Nikki Giovanni and Adrienne Rich, who wrote at the end of her long life:

I would urge any serious student of the human scene, certainly any poet, who has not recently, or ever, read [Baraka’s 1964 poetry collection] The Dead Lecturer: borrow a copy from the public library, from a friend’s bookshelf, or get hold of it secondhand.

But Baraka became an exponentially contentious figure as he marched along the axis of his life. Having started out in the kinship circle of the Beats, with Allen Ginsberg and Jack Kerouac as his peers, he traveled to Cuba in 1960 in Langston Hughes’s stead on a delegation of black writers invited to celebrate the first anniversary of the Cuban Revolution. A gifted twenty-something hungry for the spirit of rebellion, Baraka had his first taste of radical politics and was instantly intoxicated. “My mind and my life were changed forever,” he would later reflect on the trip.

Upon returning to New York, Baraka became increasingly awake to racial injustice. The assassination of Malcolm X in 1965 unsettled him into a new phase of life. He left his wife and two daughters, moved from the Village to Harlem, founded The Black Arts Repertory/Theater School, and was instrumental in advancing the Black Arts Movement. His writing became increasingly incendiary, animated by a restless sense of injustice, which in turn rendered him increasingly controversial. To be uncontroversial in one’s devotion to political change, of course, is to be ineffectual, for it is impossible to upend the status quo without the status quo shrieking “Fiddlesticks!” at the upender. But in his crusade against racial bigotry, Baraka danced dangerously close with other kinds of prejudicial propaganda.

I should note here that while I am among the many troubled by the misogynistic, anti-Semitic, and homophobic remarks in some of Baraka’s writings, as well as by his pro-violence stance in explosive opposition to Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr’s ethic of love and nonviolence, I am of the firm belief that if we are unable to make space for simultaneous contradictory truths, we are floundering at a basic task of being human. And what remains true is that, despite these questionable statements, Baraka has made an enormous and lasting contribution to the social, political, and poetic discourse in this country.

More than that, any human being who is fully alive and awake to the world has a duty to be continually changing her or his opinions, always evolving, like the universe itself, toward greater complexity. To judge who a person “Is” on the basis of their views at a particular point in time is to deny them the dignity of continual being, for at any given moment we are only ever seeing a static slice of the person’s dynamic becoming, which stretches across the evolving context of an entire lifetime.

Baraka is a supreme example: Late in life, in an introduction to a new edition of his 1965 collection Home: Social Essays (public library) — most of which he had written in his twenties — he reflects:

One heavy and aggravating problem with these early writings is that I’ve long since changed my views on some topics… For instance, the homophobic language in several of the essays … using the word “fag” homeboy style to refer to the right-leaning liberalism of too many Americans, males as well as females, is wrongheaded and unscientific… Now I must openly regret and apologize for the use of that metaphorically abusive term that was then part of my vocabulary.

In 1966, a year after the essay collection was originally published, 32-year-old Baraka — still LeRoi Jones at the time — moved back home to Newark. He recounts:

It was on my return to Newark in 1966 that what I knew superficially was thrust forcefully upon me to fully understand: that there were classes and class struggle among black people, just like all peoples. Coming home and seeing these struggles around real social and political issues transformed me from cultural nationalist to communist.

The following year, after traveling to Los Angeles and becoming enchanted by Kawaida — an activist philosophy celebrating indigenous African names — he changed his name to Imamu (honorific Swahili for “spiritual leader,” from the Arabic imam) Amear (derived from the Arabic for “prince”) Baraka (“divine blessing” in the Islamic tradition), which he eventually condensed into Amiri Baraka.

That July, riots broke out in Newark over the systemic police brutality to which the city’s black residents had been subjected. In The Autobiography of LeRoi Jones (public library), Baraka recounts what happened late the first night of the upheaval:

The streets were quiet, eerie quiet, and it was pitch black and maybe one in the morning. We were moving slowly down South 7th Street … when we saw the lights. Red lights like vicious eyes blinking. A riot of red lights blinking. Like Devils or pieces of hell. We were slowing down, and the lights seemed to get frantic, batting and winking, little silent splinters of scream. Then we could see under the streetlights piles of police cars, maybe five or six. For one instant we started to stop and back up or try to U-turn or even speed up on the sidewalk and go past. But the fantasy had stopped. All of us could sense that if we did anything we would die. We could see the shotguns and helmets. They had the street blocked and as we slowed pulling up to them we looked at each other and got ourselves ready.

A mob of police surrounded the van, two of them pulling open the front and back doors. They had their shotguns and handguns trained on us as they dragged us out the doors. Shorty, Barney, and I. I heard one guy say, “These are the bastards who’ve been shooting at us!”

Another shouted, “Where are the guns?”

Then another cop stepped forward, I think he was saying the same thing. What was really out is that this cop I recognized, we had gone to high school together! His name was Salvatore Mellillo. The classic Italian American face. “Hey, I know you,” I said, just as the barrel of his .38 smashed into my forehead, dropping me into half-consciousness and covering every part of me with blood. Now blows rained down on my head. One dude was beating me with the long nightstick. I was held and staggering. The blood felt hot in my face. I couldn’t see, I could only feel the wet hot blood covering my entire head and face and hands and clothes. They were beating me to death. I could feel the blows and the crazy pain but I was already removed from conscious life. I was being murdered and I knew it.

Eventually, onlookers from nearby buildings attempted to intervene by shouting and throwing household objects at the police. To avoid a public scene, and possibly to escape the legal ramifications of eyewitness testimony, the cops shoved the three bleeding young men into a police car and took them to the station. Baraka was thrown in jail. Meanwhile, 23 of his fellow citizens were killed in the streets — 21 black and two white, a policeman and a fireman. That was the official count — but Baraka believed that many more blacks were killed, their bodies and records hidden away. The city incurred material damaged estimated at $10 million, mostly to the black community.

Baraka, with a visible wound on his forehead, after his arrest (Photograph: Fred W. McDarrah / Getty)
Baraka, with a visible wound on his forehead, after his arrest (Photograph: Fred W. McDarrah / Getty)

The police cited gun possession as the reason for Baraka’s arrest, but the poet insisted that he never had any weapons. He was tried by a racist judge, who read Baraka’s poem “Black People” during the trial and who was later removed from office for misconduct. The poet was released on a $25,000 bail — around $180,000 in today’s money, adjusted for inflation, and a record at the time — which his mother and her friends had scrapped together by putting up their homes as collateral. The trial, which Baraka later called “a comic opera,” only escalated the civil unrest. Eventually, the National Guard was sent into Newark and stationed in a vacant lot across from the jail.

The National Guard in the streets of Newark, July 1967 (Photograph: Don Hogan Charles / The New York Times)
The National Guard in the streets of Newark, July 1967 (Photograph: Don Hogan Charles / The New York Times)

On November 6, Baraka and his two friends were convicted on charges of illegal possession of two revolvers. Until his death nearly half a century later, the poet maintained that the evidence had been manufactured.

And so this brings us to what I found in the archive of the Academy — a hope-giving beacon of searing solidarity amid an episode of harrowing darkness both in the poet’s particular life and in the common life of our larger civil society.

Written in January of 1968, this open letter to the country’s creative community is co-signed by sixteen of the most important poets alive at the time, including Denise Levertov, Charles Olson, and Allen Ginsberg, all of them white. In a clever play on both the police and the Congress of Afrikan People (CAP) which Baraka had founded, they called themselves the “Committee on Poetry” — COP.

leroijones_letter

C.O.P.
Committee on Poetry

We believe LeRoi Jones, not the Newark Police, that the poet carried no revolvers in his car, no revolvers in the car at all; that the police beat Jones up and then had to find a reason, thus found phony guns; that after the double-whammy of his beating and rabbit-in-hat guns, his trial before an all-white jury was triple-whammy. Lo & behold, fourth execrable whammy! — the Judge recited LeRoi’s visionary poem to the court (a butchered version) … and gave him a long 2½-3 year sentence because of it.

Mr. Jones’ whitekind is that self-same demon we call tyranny, injustice, dictatorship. As poet he champions the black imagination; as revolutionary poet his revolution is fought with words. He scribes that the police carried the guns. Lyres tell the Truth!

We herald to literary persons: get on the ball for LeRoi Jones, or else get off the poetic pot. LeRoi Jones is not only a black man, a Newark man, a revolutionary, he is a conspicuous American artist imprisoned for his poetry during a crisis of Authoritarianism in these States.

Signed:

John Ashbery
Gregory Corso
Robert Creeley
Diane di Prima
Robert Duncan
Lawrence Ferlinghetti
Allen Ginsberg
Kenneth Koch
Denise Levertov
Michael McClure
Charles Olson
Joel Oppenheimer
Peter Orlovsky
Gil Sorrentino
Philip Whalen
John Wieners

Baraka didn’t serve the sentence, and perhaps these sentences served his case — over the months that followed, public awareness of and outrage over his fate continued to gain momentum; a different judge overturned the verdict for lack of evidence in 1969.

And so today, when half a century of temporal progression has yielded shamefully insufficient cultural progress in the plight of civil rights, when we wonder what we can do about the anguishing injustice of it all, may we never forget the power of solidarity with our brothers and sisters of different stripes, those repressed and oppressed for any dimension of their identity. May we never forget the power of standing on the side of justice and speaking up, publicly and unflinchingly. May we never forget the power of the poetic as a vehicle for political change.

The Academy of American Poets, while enormous in scope, legacy, and cultural significance, is a modest organization powered by a tiny, passionate team. Join me in supporting their tremendous work of poetic advocacy with a donation, which will help, among other things, digitize and make widely accessible their extraordinary analog archive.

BP

Schopenhauer on What Makes a Genius and the Crucial Difference Between Talent and Genius

“Genius is the power of leaving one’s own interests, wishes, and aims entirely out of sight… so as to remain pure knowing subject, clear vision of the world.”

Schopenhauer on What Makes a Genius and the Crucial Difference Between Talent and Genius

“Genius gives birth, talent delivers,” Jack Kerouac asserted in contemplating whether great artists are born or made. “Talent is insignificant. I know a lot of talented ruins,” James Baldwin cautioned aspiring writers as he considered the real building blocks of genius. More than a century earlier, Thoreau made a vital distinction between an artisan, an artist, and a genius.

But perhaps the most useful and timelessly insightful take on the perennial puzzlement over the difference between talent and genius came the year after Thoreau’s birth from the great German philosopher Arthur Schopenhauer (February 22, 1788–September 21, 1860) in his 1818 masterwork The World as Will and Representation (public library).

Schopenhauer’s central premise is that talent achieves what others cannot achieve, whereas genius achieves what others cannot imagine. This vision of a different order, he argues, is what sets geniuses apart from mere mortals, and it arises from a superior capacity for contemplation that leads the genius to transcend the smallness of the ego and enter the infinite world of ideas. He writes:

Only through [such] pure contemplation … can Ideas be comprehended; and the nature of genius consists in pre-eminent capacity for such contemplation. Now, as this requires that a man* should entirely forget himself and the relations in which he stands, genius is simply the completest objectivity, i.e., the objective tendency of the mind, as opposed to the subjective, which is directed to one’s own self — in other words, to the will. Thus genius is the faculty of continuing in the state of pure perception, of losing oneself in perception, and of enlisting in this service the knowledge which originally existed only for the service of the will; that is to say, genius is the power of leaving one’s own interests, wishes, and aims entirely out of sight, thus of entirely renouncing one’s own personality for a time, so as to remain pure knowing subject, clear vision of the world; and this not merely at moments, but for a sufficient length of time, and with sufficient consciousness, to enable one to reproduce by deliberate art what has thus been apprehended.

But although a superior capacity to imagine is a centerpiece of genius, Schopenhauer cautions against mistaking the imagination for the entirety of genius:

Imagination has rightly been recognized as an essential element of genius; it has sometimes even been regarded as identical with it; but this is a mistake. As the objects of genius are the eternal Ideas, the permanent, essential forms of the world and all its phenomena, and as the knowledge of the Idea is necessarily knowledge through perception, is not abstract, the knowledge of the genius would be limited to the Ideas of the objects actually present to his person, and dependent upon the chain of circumstances that brought these objects to him, if his imagination did not extend his horizon far beyond the limits of his actual personal existence, and thus enable him to construct the whole out of the little that comes into his own actual apperception, and so to let almost all possible scenes of life pass before him in his own consciousness… The imagination then extends the intellectual horizon of the man of genius beyond the objects which actually present themselves to him, both as regards quality and quantity. Therefore extraordinary strength of imagination accompanies, and is indeed a necessary condition of genius. But the converse does not hold, for strength of imagination does not indicate genius; on the contrary, men who have no touch of genius may have much imagination.

But the curse of the extraordinary, Schopenhauer suggests, is a certain loneliness with which the person of genius walks through life, always slightly apart from the ordinary world in being slightly above it:

The common mortal, that manufacture of Nature which she produces by the thousand every day, is, as we have said, not capable, at least not continuously so, of observation that in every sense is wholly disinterested, as sensuous contemplation, strictly so called, is. He can turn his attention to things only so far as they have some relation to his will, however indirect it may be… The man of genius, on the other hand, whose excessive power of knowledge frees it at times from the service of will, dwells on the consideration of life itself, strives to comprehend the Idea of each thing, not its relations to other things; and in doing this he often forgets to consider his own path in life, and therefore for the most part pursues it awkwardly enough. While to the ordinary man his faculty of knowledge is a lamp to lighten his path, to the man of genius it is the sun which reveals the world… The man in whom genius lives and works is easily distinguished by his glance, which is both keen and steady, and bears the stamp of perception, of contemplation.

In the second volume of his treatise, Schopenhauer revisits the subject of talent versus genius through the lens of time — talent, he argues, speaks brilliantly to the moment and is of the moment, while genius speaks of the eternal and to eternity. He writes:

Mere men of talent always come at the right time; for, as they are roused by the spirit of their age and are called into being by its needs, they are only just capable of satisfying them. They therefore go hand in hand with the advancing culture of their contemporaries, or with the gradual advancement of a special science; for this they reap reward and approbation. But to the next generation their works are no longer enjoyable; they must be replaced by others; and these do not fail to appear.

The genius, on the other hand, lights on his age like a comet into the paths of the planets, to whose well-regulated and comprehensible arrangement its wholly eccentric course is foreign. Accordingly, he cannot go hand in hand with the regular course of the culture of the times as found; on the contrary, he casts his works far out on to the path in front (just as the emperor, giving himself up to death, flings his spear among the enemy), on which time has first to overtake them… Talent is able to achieve what is beyond other people’s capacity to achieve, yet not what is beyond their capacity of apprehension; therefore it at once finds its appreciators. The achievement of genius, on the other hand, transcends not only others’ capacity of achievement, but also their capacity of apprehension; therefore they do not become immediately aware of it. Talent is like the marksman who hits a target which others cannot reach; genius is like the marksman who hits a target … which others cannot even see.

The World as Will and Representation — one of Oliver Sacks’s favorite books and the source of Schopenhauer’s abiding insight into the power of music — is an indispensable read in its totality. Complement it with Schopenhauer on the intellectual rewards of boredom, then revisit William James on the habit of mind that sets geniuses apart and mathematician Mark Kac on the two types of geniuses.

* See Ursula K. Le Guin’s brilliant commentary on the gendered language of yore

BP

Allen Ginsberg on the Tyranny of the Closet, Coming Out to His Loved Ones, and How Buddhist Meditation Helped Him Stop Seeking Approval

“Wanting approval … is a kind of aggression.”

Legendary Beat poet and LGBT icon Allen Ginsberg (June 3, 1926–April 5, 1997) endures as one of the most visible and vocal spokespeople for the queer community. Out since before Stonewall, he referred to the lifelong love he shared with his partner, the poet Peter Orlovsky, as their “marriage” half a century before marriage equality entered the global human rights agenda. So it is both strange and strangely assuring to learn that even Ginsberg was once in the closet, struggled with the fear of ridicule and intolerance, and had to undertake the painful, transcendent process of coming out to his loved ones as he came into himself.

In this excerpt from a 1978 interview from the program Stonewall Nation on Buffalo’s public radio station WBFO-FM, preserved by the terrific PennSound archive at my alma mater — which also gave us Adrienne Rich on love, loss, and public vs. private happiness and Gertrude Stein on understanding and joy — the beloved Beat discusses his experiences of coming out to his friends and family, and how his Buddhist meditation practice helped him recognize the artificiality of outside approval and rejection in inhabiting one’s inner reality:

Wanting credentials, wanting confirmation, wanting approval … is a kind of aggression.

In another excerpt from the same show, Ginsberg recounts his experience of being in the closet as a young gay man and timorously coming out to Jack Kerouac, on whom he had a crush and who welcomed the uncomfortable revelation with great graciousness and friendliness:

Complement with Ginsberg’s performance of Blake’s “Songs of Innocence and of Experience” and his favorite borscht recipe, then revisit the greatest queer love letters and these archival photographs of the world’s first Pride parades.

BP

Thoreau on the Difference Between an Artisan, an Artist, and a Genius

“The bird of paradise is obliged constantly to fly against the wind.”

Thoreau on the Difference Between an Artisan, an Artist, and a Genius

“Talent is insignificant. I know a lot of talented ruins,” James Baldwin admonished in his advice to aspiring writers as he considered the real building blocks of genius: “Beyond talent lie all the usual words: discipline, love, luck, but most of all, endurance.” Two decades before that, in pondering whether great artists are born or made, Jack Kerouac proclaimed: “Genius gives birth, talent delivers.”

More than a century earlier, Henry David Thoreau (July 12, 1817–May 6, 1862) — one of humanity’s greatest artists, in the most expansive sense of the word — brought his formidable intellect and spiritual genius to this question in his 1849 masterwork A Week on the Concord and Merrimack Rivers (public library).

Right around the time he was contemplating the myth of productivity and the true measure of meaningful work, Thoreau writes:

The Man of Genius may at the same time be, indeed is commonly, an Artist, but the two are not to be confounded. The Man of Genius, referred to mankind, is an originator, an inspired or demonic man, who produces a perfect work in obedience to laws yet unexplored. The Artist is he who detects and applies the law from observation of the works of Genius, whether of man or nature. The Artisan is he who merely applies the rules which others have detected. There has been no man of pure Genius; as there has been none wholly destitute of Genius.

Thoreau — who wrote beautifully about the dignity of defining one’s own success — argues that true genius is often met with resistance; that the test and mark of genius is how well one is able to stay one’s course amid external pressures to conform to the beaten path:

To the rarest genius it is the most expensive to succumb and conform to the ways of the world. Genius is the worst of lumber, if the poet would float upon the breeze of popularity. The bird of paradise is obliged constantly to fly against the wind, lest its gay trappings, pressing close to its body, impede its free movements.

He is the best sailor who can steer within the fewest points of the wind, and extract a motive power out of the greatest obstacles. Most begin to veer and tack as soon as the wind changes from aft, and as within the tropics it does not blow from all points of the compass, there are some harbors which they can never reach.

Not unlike we use the word “artist” today, Thoreau uses the word “poet” in more than its literal sense, connoting not just writers of poetry but creators who enlarge our poetic appreciation of beauty and truth through their work, whatever its nature. He writes:

It is the worshippers of beauty, after all, who have done the real pioneer work of the world.

The poet will prevail to be popular in spite of his faults, and in spite of his beauties too. He will hit the nail on the head, and we shall not know the shape of his hammer.

To the artists whose genius goes unrecognized in their lifetime, Thoreau offers the consolation of a vaster perspective:

The poet … will remember only that he saw truth and beauty from his position, and expect the time when a vision as broad shall overlook the same field as freely.

Complement the immensely rewarding A Week on the Concord and Merrimack Rivers with Thoreau on the sanctity of libraries, the art of walking, how silence ennobles speech, the value of useful ignorance, and what it really means to be awake, then revisit this lovely children’s book about his life and legacy.

BP

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