This is the poem that inspired what I am writing my thesis on and I wanted to capture why this poem and Eliot’s “Preludes” feel so similar to me and so a lot of this is my free-form thinking about what I’m shaping into my thesis.
“on a dirty courtyard, and black people” is the line that made the connection for me between this poem and Eliot’s. In Eliot’s poem he writes, “The conscience of a blackened street”, and though he’s probably not writing about black people darkening the street, the connection between the poor and dispossessed as seen from the “ancient woman” (whore) watching them “gathering fuel in vacant lots” speaks to the same sort of desperation and deprivation both poets are exploring. I very much imagined the woman in Eliot’s poem watching the “black people” in the “dirty courtyard” from Baraka’s poem.
Baraka’s poem also shares a similar method of describing the masses in that we never get a full picture of anyone, only pieces, “african eyes, and noses, and arms”, just as Eliot only gives us “With all its muddy feet,” and “insistent feet” and “short square fingers stuffing pipes” (drug use?). We never see actual people, only the mechanical bits and pieces of them – Baraka goes as far as to even give his characters “masks”.
Eliot tells us that the people on the street are “Impatient to assume the world” and Baraka tells us “We are beautiful people” who “want the sun” and so there is agency here, yet there is realistically more opportunity for Eliot’s people to find relief than for Baraka’s people to “make our getaway”. In fact the world’s each poet’s inhabitants want to “assume” are far removed – Eliot’s people want to “assume” the “blackened street” whereas Baraka’s people just want to get the fuck out of here.
Yet both poet’s inhabitants are captured in a terrible world. Eliot’s people live in tenement houses that “smell of steaks in passageways” and cigarettes (“burnt-out ends of smoky days”) and Baraka’s people “have been captured” and live “in grey chains”. Eliot’s people are able to at least fill the streets and go to work whereas Baraka’s people “suffer, and kill each other”. However Eliot’s central character of the woman could very well be a black woman who has nothing much to live for anymore having been chewed up and used and trapped in her shitty apartment.
(I’m going to keep adding to this as I keep working on the thesis)