While T.S. Eliot and Amiri Baraka have seemingly opposing philosophies concerning the role of the poet’s identity in art, their work shares similar cultural realities; both attempt to address the inequality of the modern world, specifically as it relates to the identity of marginalized members of society.
In 1919, T.S. Eliot explained in his essay “Tradition and the Individual Talent” that the poet is distinct from the poetry they are writing and that poetry “… is not the expression of personality, but an escape from personality,” (Eliot 42). Eliot’s view of the individual’s identity can hardly be surprising in the context of when this essay was written so soon after the end of WW1. Mechanized advancements in warfare, such as the airplane and long-range artillery, had depersonalized the value of human life by turning the battlefield into a meatgrinder where the value of the individual is little more than a stain upon the vastness of an apocalyptic wasteland where death comes at any moment from an entrenched and unseen enemy.
Eliot’s depersonalization and loss of identity is reflected in his poem “Preludes” where he describes the modern city not through the individual people who inhabit it, but through the stains left behind from these collective masses. His lines, “The burnt out ends of smoky days”, “The grimy scraps”, and “… faint stale smells of beer” (Kalaidjian 34) build up an image of humanity’s waste to allude to the idea of humanity as waste.
Eliot also argues that the role of the poet in creating art is a process of “continual surrender of himself,” (Eliot 39). Here he is explaining that the artist is part of a tradition, the classical Western Tradition, that is greater than himself and that this tradition is totally inescapable. Eliot is arguing that the artist writes “not merely with his own generation in his bones, but with a feeling that the whole of the literature of Europe from Homer and within it the whole of the literature of his own country,” (Eliot 37). Eliot’s definition of the artist is not as a unique individual, but is someone who is part of a process of the past and the present. Eliot’s artist has no individual identity but whose “mature” mind is a catalyst (“a filament of platinum,“) (Eliot 39) that causes a chemical reaction between two previously existing gasses to form a new substance but that ultimately destroys the catalyst. Eliot uses as analogy the impersonal advances of science and technology to define the identity of the artist.
Nearly fifty years after Eliot’s essay, the poet Amiri Baraka will stand at the front lines of the Civil Rights movement and use his poetry as a force demanding that the individual – specifically the African American – be recognized and taken seriously as a part of American (Western) society. Baraka is part of a generation who no longer is willing to accept an identity of the African American as being “Invisible”, as Ralph Ellison uses the term in his 1952 novel, “Invisible Man”. Baraka is not willing to be a filament subsumed by the white world, rather he will use art violently against a “static reality,” (Reilly 168).
Amiri Baraka seems to stand in sharp contrast to Eliot in that he is an active (even violent) agent of protest against the classical Western Tradition in order to “free himself, and his people,” (Reilly 15) as he, still known as LeRoi Jones at the time, stated in his 1966 interview with Stewart Smith and Peter Thon when asked about what happens to “a creative person when you start to give yourself over entirely to protest activities,” (Reilly 15).
In “Poem for Black Hearts”, which eulogizes Civil Rights leader Malcolm X, Baraka (Jones) uses his poem as a call for black men to literally avenge Malcolm X’s death, “Malcolm’s assassination demands retribution from black men against white men,” (Watts 112). It should be noticed, however that Baraka is saying white men will call black men “faggots” if black men do not fight back, a call to action which seeks to move discrimination off onto another marginalized group.
“Poem for Black Hearts” further contrasts to Eliot in that Baraka is not only an active agent for (violent) change, but he is breaking from the tradition and forms Eliot believes the artist is beholden to. Baraka is writing in free verse, of which Eliot said “No verse is free for the man who wants to do a good job” (Perloff) because Baraka is, in effect using new methods to express his refusal to be lumped in with the “static” hegemony of the Western Tradition. The lines of Baraka’s poem swell in length as they continue down the page and as they become more impassioned and more insistent that action be taken, unlike “The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock” where Eliot’s narrator waffles with the same indecision as Hamlet and ultimately just grows “old” with “the bottoms of my trousers rolled,” (Eliot 15). Where Eliot uses ironic rhymes, “tool” and “Fool”, “meticulous” and “ridiculous”, “use” and “obtuse” to describe the sad state of the narrator, Baraka uses the phrases “stupid animal” and “dumb white man” (Watts 111) to describe whom he is fighting with no lack of certainty.
Yet despite these seemingly ungulfable differences, both poets are exploring the everyday life of the disenfranchised in a modern world which has taken on the qualities of a prison. For example, Baraka writes in “KA ‘BA” that black people “sprawl in grey chains,” (Kalaidjian 294) while in Eliot’s “Preludes” the state of modern man is like “Women / Gathering fuel in vacant lots,” (Kalaidjian 36). Even Prufrock’s waffling can be seen expressed in the confused dual-consciousness Baraka alludes to in “Dope” where Baraka is both preacher and slave parishioner, drug addict and the hustling dealer. Prufrock himself lives under a sky that is “Like a patient etherised upon a table,” (Eliot 11) which shares the themes of society and religion as being like a drug (dope) sedating us.
Though Eliot may hold his definition of the Western Tradition in highest regard, he is not saying poetry is only a product of this ancient tradition. Eliot writes, “The poet must be very conscious of the main current, which does not at all flow invariably through the most distinguished reputations,” (Eliot 38). These undistinguished reputations which the poet must take into consideration when creating art can include everything from pop-culture to black activists (for they lie outside the hegemony) and so he is saying it is vital to have a finger on the pulse of the times.
For Eliot the state of the modern man is in doubt, as we have seen with Prufrock. War has ravaged the nations whose culture make up the majority of the Western Tradition and so man is described by Eliot in “Gerontion” as being “A dull head among windy spaces,” (Eliot 31) who is in debt to the foreign banks (here described with the racist stereotype of “the jew”, which is not even given the dignity of capitalization, and draws a racist scapegoat comparison with Baraka’s use of the derogatory “faggot”), who owns a goat that “coughs”, and whose maid “Sneezes”. Everyone is sick and it is a “dry month” and they are “waiting for rain”. There is no relief and our narrator is so weakened and ineffectual he has lost his senses, his “sight, smell, hearing, taste and touch,” (Eliot 33). All is uncertain, the old symbols are twisted, Christ is no longer a lamb but now comes as “the tiger,” (Eliot 31).
Baraka, too is reacting to the state of the world as he sees it. In “Square Business” he writes about the hegemony,
… They own each
Other. They own
my mother. They own
and own, go on, what else
Time. Time is. (Watts 111)
Baraka is showing us how greed motivated society is while alluding to how his own people have been and still are owned by a structure with so much power that it owns time itself. This section of the poem demonstrates this through rhymes that are enjambed into the next line, as if those in power are reaching down into the next line to take as much as they can there, too. When Baraka writes of his own people, they “kill each other” and live “on a dirty courtyard,” (Kalaidjian 293), which could perhaps be the same courtyard from Eliot’s “Preludes” where,
a gusty shower wraps
The grimy scraps
Of withered leaves about your feet
And newspapers from vacant lots; (Kalaidjian 34)
Eliot gives us a society that is old and sick, and Baraka gives us one that continues to enslave the people. Both Eliot’s people and Baraka’s are faceless, and we only see pieces of them, “the yellow soles of feet” (Eliot 34), (emphasis on the pun with soles and souls), or “full of masks and dances and swelling chants / with african eyes, and noses, and arms,” (Kalaidjian 294). In both examples the individual is depersonalized into a modern art jumble of body parts or is hidden behind a mask whose greater spiritual meaning we can’t fathom or has been utterly degraded.
Yet as Eliot’s generation grew out of the violence of WW1 to inform his mechanized worldview of the depersonalized individual full of Hamlet’s uncertainty, Baraka turns the violence right back around and uses it to give meaning and purpose back to the individual. He writes in “Black Art” (Benston 115),
we want “poems that kill.”
Assassin poems, Poems that shoot
guns. Poems that wrestle cops into alleys
and take their weapons leaving them dead
with tongues pulled out and sent to Ireland.
Baraka is giving his audience the stage directions he believes they need to break the chains of oppression, something he alludes to with his stage / performance directions in “Dope”, and he is giving direction to what had previously been the uncertainty that wracked the minds of generations. In “Gerontion”, Eliot’s narrator did not fight at the “hot gates” (Eliot 31) at Thermopylae, but Baraka’s generation fights at the hot gates of the inner city ghetto against the new forces of oppression, the “cops”. Baraka removes Hamlet’s doubt and returns his agency to act, even if it is bloody violent and might end in his own death – at least there will be decision and change! Perhaps Baraka is speaking “the sacred words” that will “raise up / return, destroy, and create,” (Kalaidjian 294) not just his people, but all people who have for too long been disenfranchised.
In 1957 Eliot wrote in his essay “The Music of Poetry”, “Every revolution in poetry is apt to be, and sometimes to announce itself to be, a return to common speech,” (Harris 55). Just two years after Ginsberg’s “Howl”, Eliot is in effect saying that poetry (and thereby the poet) can give agency and voice to the people whom society has silenced. The same year Eliot was penning his essay on a potential “revolution in poetry”, The Little Rock Nine were being escorted to their classrooms by federal troops; black people would finally begin the process of integration into the white American educational system and thus become accredited members of Eliot’s Western Tradition.
Yet poetry alone was not going to open wide the gates of American institutions to the African American. While Eliot had been writing to and about an audience that while depersonalized at least had the agency to act, Baraka had been “given an ‘undesirable discharge’” from the military on the grounds that “he had been a communist” (Watts 27), and by 1964 he would write in his poem “Short Speech to My Friends”,
/ The perversity
of separation, isolation,
after so many years of trying to enter
their kingdoms, (Rich)
Adrienne Rich, herself an artist who explores the role of the oppressed and marginalized in her own work, describes Baraka’s disillusionment as that “… of a young artist doing what some few manage or dare to do: question the foundations of the neighborhood in which he or she has come of age and received affirmation,” (Rich). Just at a time when it would seem African Americans were beginning to be included as a legitimate segment of American society, Baraka only grows disillusioned with the idea of being subsumed by white America and by 1966 wrote in his essay collection “Home”, “The Black Artist’s role in America is to aid in the destruction of America as he knows it,” (Watts 175). Baraka doesn’t want to be part of Eliot’s Tradition, rather he writes in 1969,
… Hard work. Brutal work…. Build a house, man.
Build a city, A Nation. This is the heaviest
work. A poem? One Page? Ahhhh man, consider
200,000,000 people, feed and clothe them, in the
beauty of god. That is where it’s at. And yeh,
man, do it well. Incredibly Well. (Watts 196)
Baraka is calling for real, concrete action to aid the disenfranchised and voiceless. Poetry is a vehicle for revolution in the real world, not just in language as Eliot believes.
Baraka is honoring his people by leading them in a new direction, and in fact honoring his people is a concept in his 1965 novel, “The System of Dante’s Hell” where he puts the heretics, not the treacherous as Dante had, into the lowest levels of hell. Honoring his people and not selling himself or them out is more important than anything else and he is unwilling to let Eliot’s Tradition continue to define him and his people. Yet the irony here is that he is still using the Tradition; Eliot famously quotes Dante in an epigraph for “The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock”. He may have evicted the traitors and rearranged the furniture in hell, but it’s still Dante’s, and by tradition, Eliot’s hell. And so while Baraka rejects a tradition that, “continues to function in the artist’s work for the simple reason that a conscious act of repudiation does not necessarily constitute an expunging,” and that “there will always be a tension between the artist’s proclaimed repudiation and the continuing role of that heritage in his work,” (Benston 72). Baraka goes as far as to put Eliot (as well as Pound and Joyce) in hell, but he is still acknowledging their influence by merely mentioning them.
I have spent much time here accusing Eliot of being little more than the establishment, but he too was a voice for changing cultural norms. In his 1915 poem “Cousin Nancy” he writes,
Miss Nancy Ellicott
Strode across the hills and broke them,
Rode across the hills and broke them –
The barren New England hills –
Riding to hounds
Over the cow-pasture.
Miss Nancy Ellicott smoked
And danced all the modern dances;
And her aunts were not quite sure how they felt about it,
But they knew that it was modern. (Cooper 8)
Eliot is aware the times are changing and that society and art will have to find new modes and methods to express itself. However, “Eliot’s deliberate association with popular culture, and with its largely African American roots, provided a way of laying claim to revolutionary cultural power while simultaneously acknowledging ambivalence about his relationship to it,” (Cooper 7). Just as Baraka has an uneasy relationship with the Western Tradition, Eliot’s relationship with the people he is writing about is just as complicated.
In conclusion, both poets give voice to the disenfranchised, yet both poets were not immune to the forces of oppression their work explores. Eliot was an anti-semite (Kakutani), and Baraka’s objectification of women, “the white woman understands that only in the rape sequence is she likely to get cleanly, viciously popped,” (Watts 332) is incendiary. And while I do not argue that their personal flaws negate the messages of their art, it is important to recognize the dualities present in each poet since it highlights the complexity of these issues of the poet’s role in their art. Eliot gives voice to the everyday person yet lionizes a system that has for centuries held little regard for anyone who is not white. Eliot’s world seems unsustainable as humanity is reduced to gathering scraps in a courtyard or as they ride over “barren New England hills”, and Baraka, though he fights against Eliot’s inherently racist and oppressive tradition in hopes of revolutionizing a better world, he nevertheless participates in homophobia and misogyny because this seemingly legitimizes him in the eyes of the black male community. Both poets are keenly aware of a tradition they are a part of and though Eliot chooses to conform to it – in fact has become the face for these traditional views – while Baraka fights against it, both reveal the struggle of the ordinary individual who must try to make sense of a world that is inherently oppressive.
Baraka, Amiri. “Dope.” Poetry Foundation. 2009. https://www.poetryfoundation.org/poems-and-poets/poems/detail/58015
Benston, Kimberly W., editor. Imamu Amiri Baraka (LeRoi Jones) A Collection of Critical Essays. Prentice-Hall, Inc., 1978.
Cooper, J. (2000). T.S. Eliot’s orchestra : Critical essays on poetry and music (Garland reference library of the humanities ; v. 2030). New York: Garland Pub.
Eliot, T. S. Selected Poems. San Diego: Harvest, 1998. Print.
Eliot, T. S. “Tradition and the Individual Talent.” Perspecta, vol. 19, 1982, pp. 36–42., www.jstor.org/stable/1567048.
Harris, William J., The Poetry and Poetics of Amiri Baraka. University of Missouri Press, 1985.
Jones, LeRoi., The Systems of Dante’s Hell. Grove Press, Inc. 1963.
Kakutani, Michiko. “Bigotry in Motion”. The New York Times Magazine. 16 March 1997. http://www.nytimes.com/1997/03/16/magazine/bigotry-in-motion.html
Kalaidjian, Walter., Understanding Poetry. Houghton Mifflin Company, 2005.
Perloff, Marjorie., AFTER FREE VERSE: THE NEW NON-LINEAR POETRIES, 1998. http://epc.buffalo.edu/authors/perloff/free.html
Reilly, Charlie, editor. Conversations with Amiri Baraka. University Press of Mississippi, 1994.
Rich, Adrienne. “What Country Is This? Rereading LeRoi Jones’s The Dead Lecturer.” Boston Review. 01 Mar. 2009. http://bostonreview.net/what-country-is-this-rereading-leroi-jones-adrienne-rich
Watts, Jerry Gafio., Amiri Baraka The Politics and Art of a Black Intellectual. New York University Press, 2001.