Amiri Baraka, the great Amiri Baraka, was born on this day in Newark, New Jersey, October 7, 1934.
To celebrate the occasion, we reprint his contribution to The Poem That Changed America – Howl 50 Years Later (2006), edited by Jason Schinder – “Howl” and Hail”
“Howl” reached Puerto Rico, late ’55, whenever the early Village Voice did. I was there disguised as a colored Airman second-class, lower left gunner and weatherman on a B36. Reading at nights and 12 hrs every day under the Latino sun , while guarding someone else’s airplanes, and scoffing every stationary word in English Literature, all the best-sellers in the New York Times and with 7 or so comrades in an underground airman professional killer salon learning the history of western music and literature as night librarian at Ramey Air Force Base, Strategic Air Command, Aguadilla, Puerto Rico. At least two of these guys, both photographers, lurk somewhere even now in NYC, to tell the tale. James Lucas and Phil Perkis!
We read and kicked Hardy, Proust, Kafka, Hey, What’s a Kafka, we yelled? I dunno…Hey Roi order it. And the night librarian did, plus a fifth of Rum, Motets, Gregorian Chants, Bach, Ulysses, Tess Durberville. I mean some under the earth dull as shit, but Ulysses, Rimbaud, Baudelaire, Satie. We were getting our under over graduate readiness preparation to return to Civilization, we thought , after roaming the sky scaring the world with nuclear frustration, American ignorance, and young arrogance, wondering what the big world wd be.
For me, the Voice was just more confirmation that like my high school hero Allen Polite, who I first was turned in to The Writer, him still a great unpublished poet. HE said, we thought, the VILLAGE, YEH, that’s where everything was at! OH yeh. That’s where the world-class intellectuals and knowers wd reside Oh Yeh.
And finally, 1957, they booted me out of the service as undesirable, you bet, I had already got booted out of College as likewise, but now as a fucking commie Buddhist colored guy, busted for books and an alarming hostility to dumbness. You ever dig Curtis LeMay on his stomach on a go-kart speeding across the flight lines Saturday mornings. Wd instruct the hell out of you. With both stripes now ripped off along with the secret clearance, Gone, Gone, and so we shot off in ecstasy to the City, the Apple, New York, Bohemia, The Village, to try out our vicious learning on those we were sure wd dig how heavy we had got,
And it was “Howl’ again . Plus Allen Polite and his cohorts, Cunningham, Cage, Charlip, Czernovitch [Nicky Czernovitch, lighting designer for The Living Theater] RHBlythe, Suzuki, Zen, gals in black stockings, Yeats, Poetry, Poetry, Poetry, that brought us panting into the Village. 1st crib 104 E 3rd St, $28 a month, 3 rms no heat, my mother wept. But hey wasn’t this the joint?
But Alas! And Alack and Alack IT was not that what that was in my head.Not the GV of PR. The west village was full of poseurs and empty bags of old pretense, where was Poetry? Where was heavy intellectual outness after all? But “Howl’ was emerging full then. Being talked about Given Ink emerging full and clear. What struck me (and does still)…an Audaciousness I needed…in that McCarthy Eisenhower 7 Types of Ambiguity 50s. That oatmeal lying world. In Puerto Rico I’d send my stuff to Kenyon, Sewanee, Hudson, Partisan, and all the cemeteries, and it came back almost before being mailed. The New Yorker‘s poetry actually made me weep, at the deep nothingness they touted as feeling, yeh, but only of deep disgust.
So “Howl” – the language, the stance. The sense of someone being in the same world, the defiance. Yeh – to the dead and to somebody else’s version of Bohemian Intelligentsia there was here this “Howl”. So I wrote Allen on a piece of toilet paper to Git Le Coeur asking was he for real. He answered on French toilet-paper, which is better for writing, that he was tired of being Allen Ginsberg. And sent a broad registration of poetry for the new magazine Yugen And that began some forty years of hookup.
Allen was finally what I thought was everywhere in the Village, a genuine book-stuffed intellectual ands well, a publicist, perhaps the best we knew of poetry itself. There were many bullshitters and tasters and energetic imitating Marlon Brandos. Except Jack Micheline wasn’t imitating , in those jazz sessions he was who Marlon Brando was imitating.
And we remained friends, Allen and I, for 40 years. His takes on Williams, and the variable foot, American speech, the breath phrase, the existence of an America language and literature , which the colleges still deny, was what was most important to me. The anti-Moloch heavy anti-imperialist line that wove through “Howl” – “AMERICA Go FUCK YR SELF WITH YR ATOM BOMB! ” Now that was poetry! Plus talking to Allen about Western poetry was always part of a course. On Blake, Smart, Rimbaud, the troubadours, we visited Pound and he apologized for being anti-Semitic, at least Allen heard that, that crazy mitherfucker. William Carlos Wms funeral, we trooped over for, and before that to Weequahic high school to do a reading, in Newark, where we were both burned. Howard U, that historic trek, reading on the campus, refused from all buildings.
Allen was. font of ideas, and publicity for the new word, a new generation, on prosody, America and intros to the whole united front against dead people “they don’t like the way we live” was the way AG summed it up. And for this, that we cd bring the San Francisco School, the Beats, Black Mountain, O’Hara and the New Yorkers together to do battle against the zombies of Euroformalism, neo colonial death verse was where our deepest comradeship was formed.
Allen and I argued relentlessly, soon as he and me, we went our separate ideological practical day two day paths. Malcolm‘s murder shot me out of the village for good, and our greetings and meeting became measure less frequent.The gap between Black nationalism and Tibetan Buddhist. I wanted to make War, Allen to make peace. For all our endless contention, often cloud and accompanied by contrasting histrionics , we remained, in many ways, comrades in and of the world, partisans of consciousness!
The day before he split Allen called and sd he had to see me. Very important he sd. Can you come. Yeh, what’s up…Well…he paused, then as usual, matter if fact – I’m gonna die…OH bullshit. Allen Why’re you saying that? No – It’s true. I just got out of the hospital..Maybe a couple of months…not long.Hey don’t say dumb shit like that. No. No. its true…Anyway you need any money?. Money? Naw Naw I don’t need no money…and you ain’t gonna die. Well, you still gonna come Monday, it’s important. Yeah, I’ll be there…but nix on that death shit. OK, see you…we exchanged our outs…the phone hit. Then the next day, the newspapers carried their stuff. Big drag…Man, a big big drag you know, Because the fundamental struggle for American poetry. For our speech and consciousness as part of the energy and power of the United States against the dead and their Ghosts. The anti-imperialist revolutionary democratic struggle itself is still running and we must raise it again to more intense levels.
But then a last word for Allen, gone now, turned completely into spirit on us. What we uphold is the defiance and resistance to “Moloch”, in the collective tongue of the multinational multicultural American tongue and voice. What it was I first dug in “Howl”. And that great line from “America”. “America go fuck yrslf with yr atom Bomb”. Now that’s poetry! That still rings and will ring true. And for this sentiment and stance, and revolutionary democratic practice, part of revolutionary art for cultural revolution, we say Hail and Farewell my man, Hail and Farewell.”