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Amiri Baraka and Edward Dorn: The Collected Letters (Recencies: Research and Recovery in Twentieth-Century American Poetics)
University of New Mexico Press, 2013
248 pp., $59.95
"It's the Swing Itself I Dig"
In 1965, after the assassination of Malcolm X, the poet LeRoi Jones left his wife, Hettie Cohen, and their two daughters to start the Black Arts Repertory Theatre School in Harlem. He cut ties with his white friends, many of them poets he had published as editor of the small literary magazines Yugen and Floating Bear and of Totem Press. He also changed his name, first to Imamu (Spiritual Leader) Ameer Baraka (Blessed Prince), later shortening it to Amiri Baraka, and would go on to become known for his zealous Marxism and occasional incendiary remarks. When a white woman once asked him how she could help the black cause, Baraka replied: "You can help by dying. You are a cancer." And in his 1996 poem "Forensic Report," he wrote that white people "cd / be killed / in the right / Situation."
How serious he was in such remarks is unclear. Baraka recounted in a 2008 speech that after he had left his wife, a fellow poet supposedly rushed to Frank O'Hara to tell him that "LeRoi … wants to kill all white people." O'Hara responded, Jones told the audience, "probably without putting down his drink": "Well, he won't start with us!" Yet, he still turned away from his friends, many of them progressives, and came to disdain the left and right alike. Why? Put another way, how did LeRoi Jones become Amiri Baraka?
Amiri Baraka & Edward Dorn: The Collected Letters, which gathers the correspondence of the two poets between 1959 and 1965, offers a partial answer—the transformation was fueled by pride, an increasingly simplistic (and inflexible) reasoning, and a real desire to do something meaningful. The letters also show Baraka to be an occasionally insightful critic, a good friend, and a virtuoso prose stylist.
Baraka and Dorn started writing when Baraka asked the latter for some poems for Yugen. The two poets met after Dorn made the long and, for him, expensive trip to New York from Santa Fe, ...