S.O.S.: Poems 1961–2013 by Amiri Baraka, Grove Atlantic, 532 pages ($30). Here’s a scene from a backstage history of poetry in Buffalo as yet unwritten. One of the best and most gripping and convincing of all jazz-and-poetry performances ever was the duet of poet Amiri Baraka and virtuoso tenor saxophonist David Murray. They performed at the Tralfamadore in Buffalo on May 16, 1983. Baraka read from his poetry passionately accompanied by Murray. And then he disappeared for very long stretches while Murray played extraordinary unaccompanied saxophone solos. At the end of the night, Baraka confessed that while Murray was playing his solos, he was disappearing backstage to watch the 25th Anniversary Special of Motown on NBC (yes, that’s the one where at the end of his performance of “Billie Jean,” Michael Jackson caused America’s collective jaw to drop by unveiling the Moonwalk).
Two decades earlier, Baraka – whose name back then was LeRoi Jones – was making huge waves as part of the remarkable platoon of writers and poets brought to the University at Buffalo English Department by Al Cook. A folk tale attributed to Baraka in his Jones period is this one: Imperious White Dowager – “Mr. Jones, what can I do to further the cause of civil rights in America?” Baraka/Jones apocryphally: “Die, baby, die.”
In this essential book’s introduction, Baraka is called by Paul Vangelisti “one of the most important and least-understood poets of the last century.” Who can argue in a book beginning with 1957’s “Preface to a 20 Volume Suicide Note” which ends with the poet hearing his daughter praying? And is quickly and burningly averring “we’ll worship jesus … when jesus turn out congress or bust general motors to yard bird motors … we worship revolution.” OJ isn’t just Othello Jr. to Baraka but Norman Bates and is “freed” by “Moorish women.” His Murrah Building poem is called “Oklahoma Enters the Third World.” And here, among a plethora of brilliant jazz poems, is one named after Monk’s tune “Well, You Needn’t” – “Are You/Thelonious Monk?/The Conductor asked?/”I already answered that!” Monk said./Looking at his/Wrist/Like he had/a watch.” – Jeff Simon