Poetry for, uh, dummies? Blasting the Baraka Brouhaha

By Maralyn Lois Polak

A forceful editorial, according to “Writing for Print” – a classic journalism text – must be timely, compact, clear and persuasive, carrying “vigorous … conviction.”

And so we have the unsigned Oct. 3 Philadelphia Inquirer editorial, “Apology Awaited,” all but convicting New Jersey poet laureate Amiri Baraka of barbarous crimes against humanity, and revoking his poetic license.

Baraka, you might have heard – unless you were shivering in a media-less stormshelter somewhere along the ravaged path of Hurricane Lil – is at the epicenter of a firestorm of Political Correctness excoriating him for having the temerity – the audacity, even – to recite his brutally powerful 9-11 poem, “Somebody Blew Up America,” at a Garden State poetry festival.

Gosh and golly.

The Thought Police insist Baraka’s 1,200-word poem – which some dismiss as a chaotic rant, pointing to three specific lines as a vile slur against Israel and Jews – is anti-Semitic, and are barbecuing his rump, or, barring that, calling for his resignation from his $10,000-for-two-years post as Jersey poet laureate.

Cushy job, huh? Well, for a poet, that’s a windfall.

Ironically, New Jersey Gov. McGreevey can’t fire the poet laureate – it’s an irrevocable, politically-impervious appointment the Gov. himself made a while back – so now the pol wants the radical rhymester to resign.

Whatever did McGreevey have in mind hiring him to begin with? Baraka’s a revolutionary, not some tractable simp, for Lawd’s sake, and you can’t fence those fellas in, the governor should know better.

Hey, has anyone actually read the complete poem?

It’s messy and sprawling and mesmerizing and incantatory and luminous, not something you would find Bill Moyers rhapsodizing about over tea and crumpets on PBS, thank you.

Sigh.

Baraka’s poem kicks butt, and so does the poet. His poem takes no prisoners. His poem afflicts the comfortable, not comforts the afflicted. His poem eats censorship for breakfast. His poem wants to tick you off. His poem is haunting sociopolitical critique of America’s massive corruption and global hubris, in the angry Ginsbergian “Howl” tradition.

Meanwhile, those hypocritical prisses at that stuffy paradigm of mainstream media rectitude, the Philadelphia Inquirer – which, I must reveal in the interest of full disclosure, is a former newspaper employer of mine where, long ago, I saw them crack “Jew jokes” at the office – wants Baraka to beg … forgiveness of “the Jewish people,” the folks his poem supposedly “offended.”

Puh-leeze!

In their narrowest of narrow PC minds, Baraka’s dithering detractors – like too many others in the U.S. and elsewhere right now – equate criticism of Israel with anti-Semitism.

Take it from this Semite, it’s not. We must be able to objectively engage in dispassionate discourse and discussion of Israel’s imperfect policies and practices without being dismissed, or slandered, or smeared, as Anti-Semites.

Literature is speculative and imaginative, not factual. Though poems certainly have their own resonant emotional “truth,” poetry is not journalism nor is it supposed to be. SO WHAT if Baraka riffed on an unfounded rumor in his poem – lies, myths, innuendos, insinuations, rumors, canards, tales are the stuff of the richness of literature, and, besides, that rumor wasn’t the thrust of his piece, but a mere blip along the road to Armageddon.

No poet should ever have to defend their work. Nor repudiate it. Nor amputate it, bowdlerize it or abridge it. That’s preposterous. And being state poet laureate doesn’t mean Amiri Baraka’s the court poet, obligating him to churn out official “Odes to A Toxic Waste Dump in Tom’s River,” either.

But wait – I thought Baraka wrote a poem, not a piece of commentary! Aren’t poems supposed to be able to say anything without the poet being declared an Enemy of the State and off with his head?

In a free country, sure.

Clearly, Baraka, a black man, has “misbehaved” in their eyes by questioning the status quo.

Look, let’s face it, in America, the public perceives poets as wimps and wusses – boozers jumping off boats in iambic pentameter, sissified Prufrockians going insane for the sake of the perfect ghazal, while elsewhere, like Latin America, there’s the civilized tradition of the poet-statesman whose insightful pronouncements fling him into the fray, yet above it.

And get this: The Philadelphia Inquirer’s commentary page editor is a Ph.D. and erstwhile English professor who seems to be something of a poetry fancier. Despite his elitist credentials, fellow’s edited one book titled – I kid you not?”Poetry For Dummies,” and another, “It Could Be Verse.”

Could it? In this current climate of cultural repression, I wonder.