Leroi Jones/Amiri Baraka: The Dead Lecturer
Leroi Jones/Amiri Baraka
The Dead Lecturer
New York, Grove Press, 1964, 79 p.
Published in 1964, The Dead Lecturer constitutes a turning point in the career of its author, Leroi Jones. The work reflects the inner turmoil of a poet searching for their identity amidst the twin contexts of the poetic avant-garde and the rise of the Civil Rights Movement, both of which urged a revolution in perspective.
The poet’s individual crisis, which he calls “An Agony. As Now” is accompanied by reflections on the state of American culture, in poems that experiment with form and language and bring together both the vernacular language of American popular culture as well as references to avant-garde poetry. In the course of 42 mostly short poems, the reader witnesses the coming of age of both the poet and African-American avant-garde poetry.
As Beat poetry encountered the emerging poets of the New York School, Leroi Jones found himself undergoing an identity crisis in which he tried to decide whether to continue his experimental Beat-leaning poetry or to leave the world of Manhattan’s (mostly white) experimental poetry scene for a life closer to the African-American community and culture: “What can I give myself, trade myself, to make me understand myself?” (36). The crisis narrated in the collection marks a liminal moment in the artist’s career, shifting from the experimental poetry and legacy of modernism that marked his early work (notably in Preface to a Twenty Volume Suicide Note, 1961) to a more fully-engaged political art. These poems register the convergence of Baraka’s self-fashioning as an experimental poet and his growing involvement in politics. Two essays introduced this change in his aesthetic agenda, Cuba Libre in which he recounted his 1959 trip to Cuba and his encounter with politically active artists and Blues People published in 1963 which analyzes the influence of African-American music on American culture. The Dead Lecturer can be understood as marking the symbolic death of the ordinary life of Jim Crow America and the author’s rebirth that same year with the publication of the play Dutchman, for which he won an OBIE, the off-Broadway theater award. The collection therefore marks a biographical as well as an aesthetic in-between, right before the assassination of Malcolm X prompted Baraka’s Black Nationalist phase and the increasingly activist dimension of his work, with his name change from Leroi Jones, his move to Harlem and the founding of the Black Arts Repertory/Theater School.
The Dead Lecturer, who hovers over the collection but whose identity is never fully disclosed, puts the poems under the sign of the uncanny and makes us question the poetic voice which seems to oscillate between the shadow of the Dead Lecturer and its rebellious opponent. One might wonder whether the Dead Lecturer is not in fact the voice of the dying avant-garde which Baraka tries to substitute by promoting a more politically-conscious form of experimental poetry. “I Substitute For the Dead Lecturer” shows a poetic persona alone in a world he does not comprehend and in which the poet has lost all his tools: “They / have let me alone, where / there is no one, nothing / save who I am. Not a note / nor a word” (59). Indeed, the collection reads as a story in dispossession and violence, literally for both the African-American subject and the experimental poet. It also brings the Poet’s persona into the public glare – the inward poetic figure that is the heritage of romantic poetry is, in this substitution, a suddenly outward figure. The poems violently oppose any notion of “quiet verse” (47) and seek to initiate the reader into a different aural zone that is not “quiet” but rather a site of loud concatenations of jagged rhythms and violent images.
The substitute poet, or the younger poet trying to find his position within the frame of experimental poetry, experiences loss and disorientation as he explores the world he inhabits, in its political and cultural realities, assessing his own identity, before ultimately rejecting his past life: “I am deaf and blind and lost and still not again sing your quiet verse. I have lost / even the act of poetry, and write now for cool horizonless dawn” (47). The poems seem premised on jump cuts rather than any straightforward narrative, yet in their sequence, and by inference, they do reveal the story of a poet – always at some distance from the poetic persona, a self-conscious “substitute” coming to grips with a new definition of poetry, leaving behind his beat-influenced Greenwich-village identity and re-emerging as a new poetic and political voice.
The poet here reflects on his position as a poet in the American polis, bringing together references to African-American entertainment figures as illustrations of the violence of mainstream America, where the “Cab Calloway[s] of the soul” (11) no longer disguise the faux-liberalism of white hegemony and appropriation. As a poet and playwright, Baraka was aware of the place given to entertainers in American culture in the first half of the 20th century and the limitation of roles available to Black actors in line with the rigid rules that structured American culture in general. Willie Best (a Black actor who worked with Shirley Temple and played film parts that were almost always servant roles) appears as a Christ-like figure, representing the African-American entertainer as victim and martyr, but the Christ-like figure shifts to a wide spectrum of figures which are bound by Hollywood conventions that delineate the black man as either a victim or an over-sexualized being. The poem is a scream of refusal against mainstream representations of Black masculinity. In opposition to white mainstream culture, the poet calls for the inclusion of African American popular culture, such as the folk tradition of Crow Jane in the five poems of the series culminating in the sixth poem “The Dead Lady Canonized” and the death of “the lady who held her head up high” sung by Mississippi Joe Williams.
As both an answer to and refusal of appropriation, the poet uses strategies of shock and verbal violence, refusing any adherence to the poems which summon African-American readers and repudiating a white readership. The collection presents an intellectual landscape, both literary and social, in opposition to which the poet goes on to define his position. Its most famous poem “Black Dada Nihilismus” reads as a scream against a social order that refuses any place to African-Americans. It constitutes a call to linguistic insurrection through the use of references that seek to oppose the notion of a cultural establishment, calling for a rewriting of history from the margins. He calls for violent rebellion, premising liberation as a form of violence that will wound the Other. In “Short Speech to My Friends”, the poet explains that “after so many years to try to enter their kingdoms”, “The poor have become our creators. The black. The thoroughly ignorant”, in a show of cultural uprising and a call to re-envision the aesthetic and cultural categories that are already institutionalized, canonized, and substituted for the living conflicts out of which they are derived.
“Black Dada Nihilismus” performs an aesthetics of loudness, which highlights a common white stereotype of black culture as “too loud” – a loudness which was charged in the sixties with political import. Baraka prefigured the anthemic 1968 song by James Brown “Say it Loud, I’m Black and I’m Proud”, which was attuned to that radical moment in black history, with groups like the Black Panthers, among others, intruding into the media space as a form of in-your-face activism. Baraka’s “bitter verbal extremism”, to use a phrase by Adrienne Rich, marks the centrality of the notion of refusal at the heart of the collection, the refusal of tradition, of following the general trend, of continuing his life as he had lived it. The agony painted in the poems is what the poet calls “the yes” which “burns the thing / inside it. And that thing / screams” (16): the poet’s coming of age is accompanied with a violent scream, repudiating his past life.
In The Dead Lecturer, Baraka is directly seeking to re-orient his poetry as a form of avant-garde poetry suitable for political action. In doing so he rejects the tropes of traditional social realism of the popular and folk perspective. Baraka is well aware that popular culture had long incorporated montage, collage, elision, fragmentation and various other avant-garde and experimental gestures. The opening up of the popular to the avant-garde allows him the space to play with form and free verse, to move from short, jagged lines to long narrative ones, to present a topic, like a lecturer, and present a zigzag of references and deviations. For the most part, the poems operate with a tone of urgency and immediacy, instead of lyrical reflection. The poetry is not cast in the mold of refined literary reflection and refuses a meditative cadence or the smooth plausibility and sentiment of more traditional verse. Instead the poetry opts for surrealist juxtapositions and a raw sense of searching: the poet is sparring with himself and the violence of his unresolved condition, which is a correlate of the unresolved condition, the edging towards violence, of the social forces around him.
Baraka uses musical techniques he first discovered in Blues People, his “musical” and “socio-anthropological” (x) exploration of the formation of American culture through jazz. Yet while his ambition in Blues People was purely theoretical, trying to learn from the “scrutiny” of culture and history, The Dead Lecturer can be read as the practical application of this theoretical study. The collection owes to Baraka’s study of African-American music to which some poems such as “Rhythm & Blues” of the “Crow Jane” series directly refer. Others, and particularly “Black Dada Nihilismus”, must be read as a score to be performed.* Perhaps more a script than a poem, “Black Dada Nihilismus” suggests a profound instability between poem and performance and it is no surprise that Baraka’s career as a playwright grew from that period where performance was at the heart of his artistic endeavors. Performance is where he hoped to find the right encounter between experimentation and politics as well as between the artist and the people. In “Rhythm & Blues”, the poet calls for the end of melody: “I am not moved. I will not move to save them. There is no / “melody”. Only the foot stomped, the roaring harmonies of need. / The hand banged on the table, waved in the air. The teeth pushed against / the lip. The face and fingers sweating. “Let me alone,” is praise enough / for the musicians” (46-7). This rejection of melody in favor of harmony illustrates the poet’s rejection of lyricism in favor of the collective harmony of the rhythms of blues.
Beauty is similarly discarded in “Against beauty”: “something as stupidly callous as beauty” (68), in a poetic gesture which is concerned with the power of poetry to shake the status quo as well as with the end of the dominating and white definition of beauty. In opposition to these notions, the poet practices a fragmented and loud poetry which remains very much in line with avant-garde experiments with language and poetry. Yet experimentation is here directed at white American experimentators because although the poems are constructed in the tradition of avant-garde explosion and loudness, they pave the way for the poet’s severance from his former avant-garde milieu. It is in this light that the poems fight against poetic constraints: “Can you understand that nothing is free! Even the floating strangeness of the poet’s head the crafted visions of the intellect, named, controlled, beat and erected to work, and struggle under the heavy fingers of art” (68). Syntax is blurred and rules are bent in order to show the refusal of any type of imposed constraint as symbolized by the many open but never closed parentheses (as in “An Agony. As Now”).
The collection shows Baraka trying to find his place in an era of rapid changes and political unrest. He later explained how he sought “to take the language someplace else, just as King and Malcolm were trying to take the whole society someplace else” (Baraka 1989: xi). His poetic project was marked by the quest for a truly American vernacular (“The poem undone / undone by my station, by my station / and the bad words of Newark”, 74) and a new language “I did not want to be an imitator of neo-English but an originator of original African-American” (Baraka 1984: 102). This new language is deeply rooted in the vernacular and the folk tradition. The poet therefore mocks high culture, Lady Chatterley becoming Connie Chatterley, playing with our expectations of poetry through humor, such as in the following title: “Footnote To A Pretentious Book”. He takes a similarly deliberate “antipoetic” stance in “Political Poem”: “Though I eat / and shit as a natural man (Getting up / from the desk to secure a turkey sandwich / and answer the phone the poem undone / undone by my station, by my station, and the bad words of Newark.)”, in a similar vein to his friend Frank O’Hara’s Lunch Poems also published in 1964. This parallel is emblematic of the manner in which Baraka retains white avant-garde strategies for his own political and poetic project.
The collection presents itself as directly concerned with political art, with poems such as “Political Poem” or “A Poem for Democrats”, “War Poem” or “Political Poem” all reflect specifically on American democracy. Baraka thus situates himself within the American tradition of Whitman where the political and poetic projects overlap. Baraka’s concern with politics was consistent with the turn taken by 1960s American poetry more broadly, namely in the relationship between art and Cold War politics. His search for self-definition is equated with the country’s definition, in a moment of crisis in North-American poetry between the formal and political concerns that distinguished the sixties from the formalist retreat of the fifties.
The Dead Lecturer opens a movement towards political poetry which reached its apotheosis with poets such as Denise Levertov as the horrors of the Vietnam War grew. Robert Lowell’s For the Union Dead was published the same year as The Dead Lecturer, and took up political concerns from a more mandarin perspective: paradoxically, as the poetic shift was made to a larger engagement with the public sphere, there was a parallel shift to the confessional, to exploring the relationship between history and the self. In The Dead Lecturer, though, Baraka was similarly exploring his own rising concern with the specificities of African-American culture, applying his theoretical reflection from Blues People to the field of experimental poetry. He sought for political poetry to provoke and refuse compromise: “fake robes of egalitarianism” (75), or: “There are / regions of compromise so attractive, we daily long / to filthy our minds with their fame” (74). “Black Dada Nihilismus” presents politics as a violent tabula rasa, calling for a violent opposition to the established order.
Yet the poet offers an ambiguous definition of political art in the first line to “Short Speech to My Friends”: “A political art, let it be / tenderness”, opening up a discussion on the role of art in politics but refusing to offer any conclusive statement. Indeed, The Dead Lecturer holds a paradoxical position as a collection of poems overtly concerned with politics while never stating a clear political position, making opposition the foundation of political art.
The collection’s collage-like referentiality creates a sense of immersion in both the pop culture and the politics of twentieth-century America, registering the 1960s break from Jim Crow norms that inscribed themselves in high and low culture. The indictment includes the avant-garde and the dawn of a renewed avant-garde poetic practice, even as Baraka appropriated avant-garde forms. As such, the poems are extremely aware of the advances of the first avant-garde in poetry-making as shown for example in references to William Carlos Williams’s modernism (Paterson, “A Poem for Neutrals”), to “Valéry As Dictator”, or the allusion to Eliot’s Tiresias in the poet’s sense of in-betweenness and stasis joining the dead and the living. Baraka makes two references to Robert Duncan, showing his attachment to the New York avant-garde and contemporary poetry. In “The Politics of Rich Painters”, he reflects on the futility of celebrating the dead: “It is a cheap game / to patronize the dead, unless their deaths be accountable / to your own understanding” and takes up the idea again in “A Guerilla Handbook”: “We must convince the living / that the dead / cannot sing”.
Nathaniel Mackey remarks that Baraka characteristically moved forward in his work by repudiating his earlier work. In his Black Nationalist period, these repudiations were racialized, as in “An Explanation of the Work” at the opening of the collection Black Magic: “a cloud of abstraction and disjointedness, that was just whiteness”. Yet despite this open separation from the experimental tradition upon which he initially built his poetic career, Baraka did not turn towards more traditional poetic forms. Instead, his poems all experiment with form and language in order to create a new poetic experience, using jazz and a cinematic montage structure as formal references. Yet the embrace of a louder aesthetic, discarding the decorum of what he called the European tradition, gave him room to put his cultural agenda front and center in his poetry, in parallel to the tendency among a number of modernist poets to bring high and low culture together. There is a striking historical juxtaposition in Baraka’s choice of a loud aesthetic as a politico-aesthetic shock technique and the avant-garde performance practices that were experimented by John Cage’s discussions on the power of silence and his influential lectures at the New School. Baraka situates himself against the polished white avant-garde of Cage and opposes to it a new aesthetic of loudness and irritation, while being interested, at the same time, like Cage, in the border between noise and sense, or noise and music.
Baraka does not so much refuse avant-garde poetic strategies such as the monumentalizing of the avant-garde which he mocks in “Rich Painters”. Rather, he seeks to keep poetry in a state of process, giving it the fluctuating rhythms of jazz music, an idea which comes both from his study in Blues People as well as from contemporaries such as Robert Duncan in “Duncan Spoke of a Process”. In doing so Baraka creates a sort of unspoken synthesis between two traditions. Nathaniel Mackey has shown how Blues People calls for an end to artifacts and a rediscovery of art as process, a notion which is at work in The Dead Lecturer. Baraka’s renouncement of the avant-garde for reasons both political and racial, places him within a long history of avant-garde artists who ultimately reject the avant-garde such as the Surrealists or Situationists. His turn towards African-American culture should not so much be understood as a turning away from the avant-garde as a way of finding how avant-garde techniques could be appropriated or reinvented within an African-American context.
It has been the fate of The Dead Lecturer in the cultural memory of the United States to be mostly associated with “Black Dada Nihilismus”, which is often read as a call to physical violence rather than in light of its Dada and Surrealist forefathers. The early 2000s have seen a return to Baraka’s aesthetic and political crisis in two works which have put forward the cultural importance of The Dead Lecturer in the history of the American avant-garde.
Adrienne Rich published the poem “Rereading the Dead Lecturer” (2005) in which she explores the general crisis of the 1960s and the possibilities of political art. The poem wonders about the quest for newness in the 1960s avant-garde through the opening line “Overthrow. And make new.” (60) But these final statements which express the exhaustion of a never ending quest are countered by the poems’ open ended suggestion for the need to continue to struggle for effective political poetry: “(book of a soul contending” (61).
Similar to Rich who breathes new life into the combination of political and experimental poetry in her rereading of The Dead Lecturer, the visual artist Adam Pendleton borrows from Baraka to conceptualize the notion of “Black Dada”. His anthology The Black Dada Reader (2012) celebrates “Black Dada Nihilismus” as bridging the gap between the European Dada movement and the first avant-garde in general and the neo avant-garde, showing the undercurrents of a radical aesthetic that brings together aesthetic and political radicalisms from different backgrounds to create a cultural utopia.
These two contemporary takes on Baraka’s work show how “Black Dada Nihilismus” and The Dead Lecturer remain a key moment of artistic upheaval and reassessment of the force of poetic experimentation in the fight for social justice in America.
* A recorded performance of Baraka reading the poem “Black Dada Nihilismus” can be found here.
- Baraka, Amiri. The Autobiography of Leroi Jones/Amiri Baraka New York: Freundlich Books, 1984.
- ------. Black Magic. Indianapolis, IN: Bobbs-Merrill, 1967.
- ------. Blues People. New York: William Morrow, 1963.
- ------. Cuba Libre in Home. New York: William Morrow, 1960 (1966).
- ------. The Dead Lecturer. New York: Grove Press, 1964.
- ------. Dutchman. New York: William Morrow, 1964.
- ------. “Foreword”, Visions of a Liberated Future ed. Larry Neal. New York: Michael Schwartz, 1989.
- ------. Preface to a Twenty Volume Suicide Note. New York: Totem Press/Corinth Books, 1961.
- Lowell, Robert. For the Union Dead. New York: Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 1964.
- Mackey, Nathaniel. Discrepant Engagements: Dissonance, Cross-Culturality and Experimental Writing. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1993.
- O’Hara, Frank. Lunch Poems. San Francisco, CA: City Lights, 1964.
- Pendleton, Adam. The Black Dada Reader. London: Koenigs Books, 2017.
- Rich, Adrienne, Telephone Ringing in the Labyrinth: Poems 2004-06. New York: Norton, 2009.