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Amiri Baraka (Le Roi Jones 1934-2014)

Amiri Baraka (Le Roi Jones 1934-2014)

When Le Roi Jones’s volume of poems, Preface to a Twenty Volume Suicide Note, appeared from Totem / Corinth in 1961 it had a Basil King drawing on the cover and it had a poem titled ‘Way Out West’ half way through it.

 

As simple an act

as opening the eyes. Merely

coming into things by degrees.

 

Basil King was over here in England at the end of last year and he talked and read, along with his wife Martha, at Kent University amongst many other places. Basil had also worked alongside Le Roi Jones in the late 1950s when he provided the covers for the magazine which Le Roi edited along with Hettie Cohen, Yugen. Yugen closed down in 1962 after number 8 but not before the starting up of The Floating Bear, a newsletter, edited by Jones and Diane di Prima.  The Addenda to that issue number 8 of Yugen gives its readers the following information:

 

The newsletter, The Floating Bear, and its editors, Le Roi Jones and Diane di Prima, were cleared in April of obscenity charges stemming from their publication of a section of Jones’ System of Dante’s Hell and William Burroughs’ satire, The Routine.

 

That little note at the end also gives an update on what Le Roi Jones was up to, including editing Corinth’s fiction anthology, Avant Garde American Fiction, ‘which will include such prose writers as Fielding Dawson, Burroughs, Kerouac, Rumaker, Selby, Creeley, Douglas Woolf, Irving Rosenthal, Herbert Huncke, Paul Metcalfe, Diane Di Prima, and others’.

Had he had lived Amiri Baraka was due to come over to London this year to attend the University of Canterbury’s one-day conference, Baraka at 80, to be held at the ICA on 12th April.

 

The very last sentence in that last Yugen issue is:

 

‘At all other places they cremate them; Here we bury them alive’.

Farewell to a most important poet, dramatist, short-story writer, editor and major figure throughout the past fifty years.

 

Ian Brinton January 10th 2014

 

 

Reading ‘Couch Grass’

Reading ‘Couch Grass’

The association of couch grass (Elytrigia repens) with the tenacious world of the living is emphasised by one of its country names, ‘quick grass’ or ‘wicks’ from the Old English word cwic, (‘characterized by the presence of life’ O.E.D.). The word’s association with both the living and loss is not only to be found in the Apostle’s Creed (‘the quick and the dead’) but in the opening section of the Old English elegy, ‘The Wanderer’: ‘None are there now among the living [cwicra] / to whom I dare declare me thoroughly, / tell my heart’s thought.’

It recently struck me that one of the clear associations between English poetry of the seventies and the American influence of Charles Olson can be found in John Hall’s beautifully produced volume, Couch Grass (Great Works, 1978, produced in an edition of 200 copies). As all gardeners know, couch grass spreads its roots underground and is almost impossible to eradicate. Like the tangled ‘nets of being’ in Olson’s ‘As the Dead Prey Upon Us’ these roots  remain below the surface to thwart and constrict our actions and John Hall’s poem opens ‘you choose the life or the life chooses you / what you have become being that kind of person / you do not owe yourself to the others / how could you / be sure any capitalist notion of the self / has you as the debtor / if you accept the story the part is fixed’. For Olson any attempt at escape from these nets, the untangling of the webs of inheritance which bind us, is the act of the moment: ‘Purity / is only an instant of being, the trammels / recur’ and our lives are made up of the interwoven nets which precede us, moving below the surface, prompting who we are. Towards the end of his poem Hall points to ‘A sense of incompleteness’ which ‘keeps you from saying / you have finished’ and as the poem closes he accepts the living centrality of the movement of couch grass by pointing to the classification of the plant as a ‘weed’ by those who cannot accept the intricate complexities of which we are made up:

 

weeds are quite simply

what the single-minded don’t want

and poison re-inforces their point of view

persuasively

 

The other poem by Olson which I found myself wanting to put alongside John Hall’s is the short 1950 piece which Fielding Dawson refers to in his The Black Mountain Book, ‘These Days’:

 

whatever you have to say, leave

the roots on, let them

dangle

 

And the dirt

 

Just to make clear

where they come from

 

The text of John Hall’s poem can be found in the selected poems, else here, published in 1999 by Nicholas Johnson’s Etruscan Books. Both ‘These days’ and ‘As the dead prey upon us’ can be found in The Collected Poems of Charles Olson, University of California Press 1997.

 

Ian Brinton

 

 

Thought for the Day

Fielding Dawson’s account of life at Black Mountain College first appeared in 1970 before being reissued with a lot of new material in 1991. On May 23rd 1990 he wrote the following from New York:

‘Before established narrative will change, ideas must change, and through a speech involving many varied, still changing ideas, a new formula will present itself for us to follow. We’re on the edge of it, have been for most of this century, but our problem—and failure—is we won’t change. And, therefore, we will be stuck with the stylized successful slime that characterizes our bland, and boring, vicious culture.
But a few individuals here and there, including me, do change, and I’m not fool enough to overlook, or deny my responsibility in it. Change must become a discipline’.

More on Fielding Dawson and the British small-press publishing scene to follow and a reminder to those who knew (alert to those who didn’t) that there is a one-day conference at the University of Salford on Saturday 31st March from 9.00-5.00: Writing and the Small Press. For details contact Lucie Armitt at the School of Humanities, Languages and Social Sciences, University of Salford, Salford, M5 4WT.

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