I’ve seen this several times across Facebook and Twitter. Amiri Baraka died, January 9, 2014, after a prolonged illness. Several times, with various hash-tags and commentary, various articles defending the beauty of his words or remembering the offensive nature of them.
“RIP Amiri Baraka.”
My heart hurts when a poet dies
I will always have their words, but there will be no more. That’s part of the benefit of loving writers that are already dead. I don’t have to feel pain when I realize Emily Dickinson is gone, because, well, she’s been gone.
I came late to a love for poetry. As a teenager, I didn’t seem able to get it, and in my undergraduate years, so much of what I read didn’t really seem to be directed at me. I still don’t really like it much, compared to some of my colleagues and peers. I’ve always been a fiction kind of girl.
I found certain poets that resonated—Emily Dickinson made sense to me. I liked her fickle relationship with punctuation. Why use a comma or a period to end a line when a dash can say so much more?
There was something stark in Robert Frost—both his name and his lines—that also appealed to me. I inwardly rolled my eyes when people quoted “The Road Not Taken” as their favorite, because to me, remembering the road I didn’t take seemed agonizing, rather than an homage to taking the less frequented path. Wouldn’t you always wonder what was on the other road? “Fire and Ice” was more my style.
Oddly enough, at 16 I found and loved William Blake. He made absolutely no sense, but I liked the sense of confusion he produced, like “The Divine Image.” I’m still not always sure what’s going on when I read William Blake.
Pablo Neruda… need I say more? Just Google any poem. I recommend “A Lemon.” It’s delicious.
When I was seventeen, in my freshman composition course, I read an article, “When We Dead Awaken” by Adrienne Rich. That led me to her poem, of the same title. Then I met Anne Sexton, Sylvia Plath, William Carlos Williams, Edna St. Vincent Millay… I met them in a flood and realized that, yes, I do love poetry. It just took me a little while, and reading something that wasn’t “The Song of Hiawatha” with its monotonous heroic couplets and mind numbing rhythms.
I didn’t meet Amiri Baraka until I began my PhD.
I won’t say that he “changed my life” because he didn’t. Other poets can claim that role in my life, though they didn’t necessarily “change” my life, they just changed my way of perceiving life, the world.
When I did meet him, I wondered why I hadn’t heard of him before. I wondered what it was in my undergraduate courses that had taken dominance over him. I read so much Walt Whitman, plenty of Emily Dickinson, Robert Frost, William Blake, Wordsworth, Shelley, Keats, Pope, Swift, Milton, etc., but no Baraka.
I read a lot… just not him. Why not? Surely my professors knew who he was. I went through my undergraduate career thinking I didn’t like American writers, and certainly not liking anything written post-1900, because if Hemingway and “The Snows of Kilimanjaro” was what American Modernism was all about, I wasn’t interested. (I appreciate and enjoy Hemingway now, I guess it just wasn’t the right time, or the right presentation, when I met him as a teenager and as an undergraduate).
I could pose a few theories, as to why my professors selected some poets over others, but that’s outside of the scope of this post. It’s possible that, had I met Amiri Baraka earlier in my life, I wouldn’t have understood. I may have despised him, or, worse, felt nothing. The same for all of the other poets I’ve met throughout the years.
As it is, I met him at a time when I could respond to his words.
And because of when I met him, I can be saddened by his passing.