Baraka’s “Blues People” at 50 and the “New American Poetry”

The other day, NPR posted a good piece marking the 50th anniversary of Blues People, the landmark book on African-American music, from blues to jazz, written in 1963 by Amiri Baraka (then LeRoi Jones).

The piece, by Eugene Holley, Jr., discusses the groundbreaking nature of the book — “a panoramic sociocultural history of African-American music” and “the first major book of its kind by a black author” — and its powerful influence on later scholars and critics.

Not surprisingly, the article refers to the young Baraka who wrote the book as a “Beat poet” — this is the standard shorthand way of understanding the stages of Baraka’s career. However, as I’ve argued at length elsewhere, Baraka had deep and important ties, which are often overlooked, to the New York School of poets, especially in the late 1950s and early 1960s, just at the moment he was writing Blues People in fact.  (He was close friends with Frank O’Hara, his poems were included in an issue of Locus Solus that John Ashbery edited, he in turn published work by the New York poets in his magazines Yugen and The Floating Bear, he worked with O’Hara and others as editors of the journal Kulchur, and so on).

My point isn’t that Baraka should be described as a New York School poet instead of a Beat, but simply that our old, deeply entrenched categories of literary groups and movements (like “Beat,” “New York School,” “Black Arts Movement,” and so on) often fail to capture the messy, complicated interactions out of which literature and creativity actually spring.

Baraka wrote Blues People while he was right at the center of the “New American Poetry,” the overlapping network of (primarily white) avant-garde writers that emerged in the 1950s and 1960s.  (As is often pointed out, Baraka was the only African-American included among the 44 poets in The New American Poetry, Donald Allen’s epochal 1960 anthology).

A neat illustration of Baraka’s relationship to this scene — in relation to Blues People, in particular — can be found on this hand-drawn cover of The Floating Bear, the mimeographed and stapled little journal that Baraka edited with Diane Di Prima.

In my book, Beautiful Enemies, I discussed this image (though I wasn’t able to include a reproduction of it at the time): 

The cover of the 1963 Christmas issue of the Floating Bear neatly captures Baraka’s centrality to this universe.  It features a Santa Claus figure sitting on a toilet – the Toilet being a title of a 1963 Baraka play – reading Baraka’s newly published book, Blues People, surrounded by a wide variety of names, almost entirely of white writers involved in the intertwined circles of the bohemian, “New American” poetry scene – there are New York School poets like Frank O’Hara, on the right side, Beats like Ginsberg behind his head, Black Mountain-affiliates like John Wieners, the painter Robert Rauschenberg, journals like Locus Solus, Partisan Review, Evergreen Review, as well as predecessors like Ezra Pound at the top (notably placed at the source of the water for the toilet) (168).

I went on to write that:

During a crucial eight year period as the 1950s turned into the 1960s, Baraka came to embody an exciting experiment in collaboration, friendship, and intertextuality across traditional boundaries of race, at a moment when American writers had both the opportunity and the desire to establish productive alliances in a space outside the officially sanctioned discourses of American identity and community.  The moment, however, was an unfortunately brief one.  Few, if any, major African-American writers have ever been as thoroughly enmeshed in a community of white writers, lovers and friends as Baraka, and few have so dramatically extricated themselves from this kind of interracial dialogue.  Utterly immersed in the bohemian world of Greenwich Village, in the heady days when integration seemed both “hip” and possible, where his wife, closest friends, and influences were white, yet pressured by the increasingly urgent racial politics of the time to reconsider and rediscover his connection to African-American culture, Baraka found himself painfully caught between black and white cultures, communities, and identities.

Blues People is a remarkable book, written at a fascinating moment in cultural and literary history, and it’s great to see it getting some well-deserved attention and respect.

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