I believe you have to be true to people. You have to write something that people understand, but, at the same time, something that’s profound enough to have meaning past, say, the six o’clock news.
(Amiri Baraka, interview with Bill Moyers)
Amiri Baraka is a poet and playwright born in 1938 whose work focus has been about race and class in America. The Newark, New Jersey native writes with a manner that is provoking, designed to shock and rouse audiences to the political concerns of black Americans. Baraka's own political stance has changed several times, each time finding expression in his plays, poems, and essays so that his works can be divided into periods. Today his socialist art is addressed to the black community, which has, he believes, the greatest revolutionary potential in America and supporters from other ethnic groups recognize Baraka as opening "tightly guarded doors" in the white publishing establishment.
Somebody Blew Up America by Baraka, has been in the news recently prompting New Jersey Governor Jim McGreevy to ask for the immediate resignation of the state's Poet Laureate. Composed in October 2001, the poem, published in November 2001 has a twenty-nine-word verse; a small part of a rambling 1,180-word anti-imperialistic discourse composed just after the September 11th terrorist attack that is causing the most controversy. Mr. Baraka has read the poem in public several times since he composed it, but it wasn't until he was named New Jersey poet laureate this past summer that anybody paid much attention.
In it, he asks who is accountable for a wide assortment of existing and historical atrocities, including the September 11th terrorist attacks on the World Trade Center. That part of "Somebody Blew Up America" implies that Israel knew in advance about the attacks. It reiterates discredited reports circulating in Arab nations that thousands of Israeli personnel at the Twin Towers did not show up for work that day, and that Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon canceled a trip to the United States that week.
A reader has to begin by defining what their ideas are about poets and poetry. W.H. Auden was sympathetic to communism, and he was a good poet when he had matured, accepted religion and became anti-communist. Rudyard Kipling was a great poet, regardless of his imperialist politics and anti-Semitism, just as Cesar Vallejo was a great poet, in spite of his rather simpleminded Marxism. Archibald Mac-Leish was a mediocre poet notwithstanding being a good liberal. Some good poets are very engaged politically; their convictions and emotions inform their poem while other good poets are not so engaged. A poet’s first moral duty is to write a good poem---if he can’t do that, he is of no use to anyone, at least not as a poet.
Somebody Blew Up America
They say its some terrorist,
It wasn't our American terrorists
It wasn't the Klan or the Skin heads
Or the them that blows up nigger
Churches, or reincarnates us on Death Row
It wasn't Trent Lott
Or David Duke or Giuliani
Or Schundler, Helms retiring
The gonorrhea in costume
The white sheet diseases
That have murdered black people
Terrorized reason and sanity
Most of humanity, as they pleases
They say (who say?)
Who do the saying
Who is them paying
Who tell the lies
Who in disguise
Who had the slaves
Who got the bux out the Bucks
Who got fat from plantations
Who genocided Indians
Tried to waste the Black nation
Who live on Wall Street
The first plantation
Who cut your nuts off
Who rape your ma
Who lynched your pa
Who got the tar, who got the feathers
Who had the match, who set the fires
Who killed and hired
Who say they God & still be the Devil
With careful attention to the use of repetition--at the lexical, syntactic, semantic, and phonological levels. What is the effect of Baraka's poem? Does it inform? If so, how? Are there aspects of the poems one might regard as transformations? His themes are of death and despair, moral and social corruption with its concomitant decrying of Western values and ethics, the struggle against self-hatred, and a growing ethnic awareness.
Who own the oil
Who do no toil
Who is not a nigger
Who is so great ain't nobody bigger
Who own this city
Who own the air
Who own the water
Who own your crib
Who rob and steal and cheat and murder
and make lies the truth
Who call you uncouth
Who live in the biggest house
Who do the biggest crime
Who go on vacation anytime
Who killed the most niggers
Who killed the most Jews
Who killed the most Italians
Who killed the most Irish
Who killed the most Africans
Who killed the most Japanese
Who killed the most Latinos
Who? Who? Who?
In considering Baraka's conscious use of language for poetic effect, it compares with William Carlos Williams for its use of vernacular and idiom. It’s communicative like Ezra Pound, the criticism compares them in tone and theme--moral decay and social disillusionment--with T. S. Eliot. His issues are mixed with the racial tenor of the past decades represented by the poetic aesthetics of imagism, projectivism, and Dadaism. Problems in understanding Baraka’s poetry has been identified by some scholars to be what is conceivably attributable to the tension intrinsic in pairing his role as poet and activist. It may be that the strident tones of some of his poems are related to his political activism.
Who own the oil
Who want more oil
Who told you what you think that later you find
out a lie
Who? Who? Who?
Who found Bin Laden, maybe they Satan
Who pay the CIA,
Who knew the bomb was gonna blow
Who know why the terrorists
Learned to fly in Florida, San Diego
Some poems are intended to persuade a reader to believe something they didn't already believe. Others are planned to make the reader choose sides. Those varieties seem to rightly deserve the label "political," Do poems with such purposes have a place in the world of "serious" verse?
Who set the Reichstag Fire
Who knew the World Trade Center was gonna get
Who told 4000 Israeli workers at the Twin Towers
To stay home that day
Why did Sharon stay away?
Who? Who? Who?
Such poems set up a difficult standard for success. It's been said that poetry makes something happen. So if nothing does, the poet fails. If the reader is neither persuaded nor polarized, the poem fails.
Explosion of Owl the newspaper says
The devil face cd be seen
Who make money from war
Who make dough from fear and lies
Who want the world like it is
Who want the world to be ruled by imperialism and
oppression and terror violence, and hunger and
Who is the ruler of Hell?
Who is the most powerful
Who you know ever
But everybody seen
Like an Owl exploding
In your life in your brain in your self
Like an Owl who know the devil
All night, all day if you listen, Like an Owl
Exploding in fire. We hear the questions rise
In terrible flame like the whistle of a crazy dog
Like the acid vomit of the fire of Hell
Who and Who and WHO who who
Whoooo and Whooooooooooooooooooooo!
The question Baraka asks is a complex one and he doesn’t try to give an answer, in fact he contradicts himself over and over alluding to various points in history that may or may not connect with one another, technically. But, the connection he has made between them is that they are some of the gravest mistakes of humanity. As a poem, it has done its job -- it gets across Mr. Baraka's ideas and opinions with rhythm and word-play. America has been designated as the core of this entire ordeal. More specifically it’s white men who are responsible for a number of racial genocides and terrorism of the highest degree. He no doubt attempts to create a poem that will remain relevant for the ages. By pointing out the various atrocities committed; to some his message is a very important one to get out; Lest we forget.
Everyone in the media and mainstream consumes propaganda at an accelerated rate. This poem has a lot more to do with the "war on terror." The Jews the Irish, the Africans the Native Americans the Armenians had their holocausts the poet mingles images with one question; juxtaposing the races and incidents. Many people are outraged by this poem. They must not read much poetry, because worse can be found at the local library. Baraka defends it saying the value lies in the fact that the poem accepts nothing as truth. Relating that he made a deliberate effort to place the following lines adjacent to each other:
While Israel put Sharon in power the Jews certainly didn’t back Hitler. He also begs the question: who sold the blacks into slavery? The answer to that question is sadly more than one race. Some Africans sold prisoners from other tribes into slavery.
Perhaps if poetry did try and engage more than its tiny coterie of readers, by widening its view beyond its own back garden, it would once more become the force for change. The market driven media has blurred the lines of an urban legend surrounding the 9/11 conspiracy theories, much as they did after the Kennedy assassination, and history tells us from experience that some of his questions will never have satisfactory answers. It’s poetry, not the nightly news.
Read during the Geraldine R. Dodge Poetry Festival in Stanhope on September 19, 2001 Baraka’s Somebody Blew Up America has been characterized by the Anti-Defamation League as an insult to Jews:
Conspiracy theories about Sept. 11 abound in Arab and Muslim nations. The pernicious lie that continues to resonate, one that has been gaining ground among some Muslims in the United States, is that Israel somehow was directly involved.
This dangerous blame game is a rebirth of the big lie, and, sadly, not nearly enough is being done to halt the rise of this ugly, historic phenomenon.
As we have witnessed time and again, such charged rhetoric invites extremists to step in with incitement. Incitement creates an environment conducive to, and accepting of, terrorism. As the U.S. and other nations join in the battle against worldwide terrorism, there must be renewed vigilance against purveyors of anti-Semitism and hatred.
The battle will not be won until we can change the minds and hearts of those leaders who permit anti-Jewish, anti-Israel and anti-American propaganda to proceed.
(Abraham H. Foxman, National Director of the Anti-Defamation League )
Good poetry creates dialogue and inspires emotions in readers. It sparks heated dialogue, Baraka replies:
"I will clarify my position that I can criticize United States imperialism and Israeli imperialism, and I can take a position of support of the Palestinians' right to
self-determination without being slandered as an anti-Semite,"
He adds that the myth that Israel destroyed the World Trade Center is one that has spread throughout the Arab world and says he welcomes a debate on his ideas. "It's all over the Internet,''
Baraka said of his poem. "I don't feel any kind of threat to my integrity."
Currently Baraka holds the position of Poet Laureate in the state of New Jersey. The position was created in 1999 and pays $10,000 per two-year term. The recommendation to name Baraka as poet laureate early in 2002 came from the New Jersey Council for the Humanities, in consultation with the New Jersey State Council on the Arts. Brushing aside calls for his resignation the 67 year old has run up against Jewish groups in the past for previous anti-Semetic comments. He maintains that the poem meant what it said; that Israel knew of and had a role in planning the attacks on the World Trade Center. Calling the Governor's request for him to resign absurd, he refuses to change his mind and doesn’t consider his remarks anti Semitic in spite of criticism from Jewish groups.
The poem, takes issue with many others. Over the course of its six pages, Baraka lashes out at everyone from President Bush and his national security adviser, Condoleezza Rice, to former Mayors Rudy Giuliani of New York and Bret Schundler of Jersey City. Terrorism is not new and it doesn't belong to the Arabs and Muslims. Every government and religion is guilty Baraka is purposefully asking a set of complex questions all with different answers.
The terrible reality is that there are terrorists in every civilization. Terrorism lurks in the heart of many. The owl asks the haunting question Whooooo? We all do.
One post at a web site mocks Baraka and his poem:
Who took the money, who called himself a poet?
who beats his chest and thinks he is a laureate.
who chooses to point fingers, who refuses to lead...
who says the fault of the world is the white man...
Whoooooooooooooooo is enjoying this moment ?
you know who.
Poets live in the political world along with everybody else and have taken a multitude of stances toward that world. Scads of poems were written against the Vietnam War, however, no more than two or three of them are readable today. This poem employs a parable to expose something about human nature and exposing its blind spots of certain political views or of particular politicians. Irony can expose hypocrisy and injustice more effectively; that can be a reasonable test of a political poem. Poetry can be manipulative as an extension of rhetoric that aims to convince the already convinced or those who hover marginally at its edges. Suppose that political heaven on earth is established--there is only one criterion for consciously political poetry - protest.
There is a place in the world for political poetry. If it makes me think about something in a new light, in a concerned way, in a way that makes me want to change "something", speak out then the poem is successful. I think that the job of poetry, its political job, is to refresh the idea of justice. While I support Baraka’s freedom of speech, applaud his successes and congratulate him on his many achievements; there is a vivid line drawn in the US Constitution between the Freedom of Speech and how taxpayer’s monies are to be spent. As the poet laureate Amiri Baraka is required to give at least two public readings a year and promote poetry throughout the state. Poetry should educate, not propagandize and in my opinion I don’t think Mr. Baraka’s should be allowed to promote a personal political agenda in his current position. What were these elected officials thinking when they made him poet laureate? In all fairness Mr. Baraka brought his political leanings to their rather short attention span.
How shrewd is this quarrelsome owl? A lack of political passion has nothing to do with the quality importance or usefulness of a poets work. It goes without saying that poems are, to some degree, historically having to do with the speech and ideas and worldview of their times. They also have something to do with ethics, but that is a very complex matter. Is Baraka saying that evil comes in all colors or something more? Is Someone Blew Up America simply poor taste in portraying his opinions? What purpose does it serve Baraka to wrap up a lie that Israel was responsible for the World Trade Center? Is this propagandizing disguised as art? Is he covering a personal agenda by deliberately placing unfounded rumor in a collage of confusing questions? Confusion that began on September 12th in Lebanon, circulated the Internet and took on a life of its own; one in a series of anti Semitic outbreaks around the world. Choosing to perpetuate an inflammatory and venomous web tale of anti-Semitism is his right. However another important question is Who pays Baraka to read this in public twice a year? The New Jersey taxpayers, some of who lost loved ones on September 11th. The title of poet laureate and the grant money cannot be rescinded, and the decision to resign is entirely up to Baraka. Legislation giving the governor of New Jersey the authority to end Amiri Baraka's two-year term was introduced in October 2002. Baraka refused to resign his post so the position was eliminated via the political process. On Dec. 14th, 2004 on Sundance a film aired called Poetic License. It recollects the quarrel between New Jersey's poet laureate Amiri Baraka and his government patron, which in 2003 stripped him of his funding and title as the state’s Poet Laureate after this poem about the events of 9/11-triggered charges of anti-Semitism.
Many thanks to dannye for recommending the following web site.
It's a very well informed Op/Ed piece about the poet and his poem.
Read the entire poem at:
You can also read the poet's somewhat rambling response to this debate
STATEMENT BY AMIRI BARAKA, NEW JERSEY POET LAUREATE 10/2/2002
I WILL NOT “APOLOGIZE”, I WILL NOT “RESIGN!”
The Boston Globe online. 27 Sept. 2002; Somebody Blew Up America
New York Daily News, Blaming Jews For 9/11 Must Stop Nov. 27, 2001.