ALLEN BRAMHALL Reviews
AMIRI BARAKA & EDWARD DORN: THE COLLECTED LETTERS, Edited by Claudia Moreno Pisano
(University of New Mexico Press, Albuquerque, 2013)
Dear Ed Dorn
Hi you little shit
Dear western man
Dear Mr. Jones
Hey, malo hombre
My dearest Eddie,
Dear Funky Louie
Deah lee rory**
The above lists most of the salutations used by Amiri Baraka (formerly LeRoi Jones) and Edward Dorn to begin their letters to each other. The list suggests the frisky energy that went into their correspondence. They were not always intelligible in their letters—certainly not for us peeping at this archival matter—and they were not always nice, but their letters to each other crackled with energy.
The two make an interesting pair. Baraka, an urban black man, and Dorn, a rural white man, converse at a time of sharp racial distinctions. Tho it was some years before they met face to face, they shared a great many affiliations. They often mention Charles Olson, Robert Creeley, and others associated with Black Mountain College. They have a great network.
Baraka enjoyed better connections in the poetry world. He's in New York City while western man Dorn lives in the hinterlands of New Mexico and Idaho. As the correspondence progressed, Baraka became more focused in the Black Power movement, and in the development of art for/of/by blacks. This caused a sort of centripetal push away from the white literary world.
Dorn provides Baraka with a sensitive sounding board. Dorn's astute, supportive replies to Baraka's quandary shows political intelligence. It was a complicated time, the Sixties were. The peaceful protests that Martin Luther King led dissatisfied the more militant Baraka. Instead, the radical and combative politics of Malcolm stirred Baraka. Dorn agreed with Baraka's views of the world but didn't accept the efficacy of violent response. Even so, Dorn responded to Baraka's anger sensitively and thoughtfully. The two united in the seriousness of the poetic endeavour.
The stakes differ for writers writing letters rather than their “real work”. For one thing, formality of any sort is not required. With this correspondence between two largish figures of Twentieth Century poetry, we have a lively interchange concerning writing, politics, and just getting by.
This collection covers a yeasty period that included the Cold War, ascendancy of the Beats, the Cuban revolution, Black Power, intensifying dismay in South East Asia, assassinations here and there (Malcolm X, JFK). Baraka most clearly shows the political change. He goes to Cuba in support of the revolution during this exchange, and vociferously questions his place in white society.
The title says collected letters but the book covers only 1959-1964. They continued writing to each other till Dorn's death in 1999, but those letters have not surfaced except for a few short ones that Pisano includes in this book. Indeed, Baraka's letters dominate a long stretch near the end where only his side of the conversation survived. Serial narrative (such as it is, anyway) is not the lamplight here.
Pisano supplies context to the letters, a necessity for grasping the particular intrigues mentioned by these two poets. Along with footnotes, she includes narrative interludes that help clarify whence the poets speak. That whence is pretty important, because both Baraka and Dorn were part of a pull from the institutional academic drag. Think Olson's Curriculum that he prepared for Dorn.
The book also includes a foreword by Ammiel Alcalay, preface by Amiri Baraka, and an introduction by the editor herself. Back matter includes a list of selected works by Baraka and Dorn, an extensive bibliography, and an index. In between all that, we have high and low humour, archness, vitriol, keen insight, gripes, and other all too human expressions. Both write in a flippant, often sardonic style. Baraka is particularly wild, combining erudition with almost slapstick humour. Tho shy of 200 pages worth of letters here, this book offers plenty to set your bug flying.
It gets ugly at times. The cattiness towards other writers can be fun if often mean-spirited, but the casual and not so casual anti-Semitism and homophobia are not. In fact, these are serious issues with Baraka, He seems to respect many gay writers and artists but never gets far from the fairy-fag distillate. What's his real agitation here? Baraka also reveals a stiff misogynistic streak. Deplore what we must, but look for the light as well.
The correspondence begins with Baraka requesting poems from Dorn for Baraka's magazine Yugen. It is like wellmet at a party: they hit it off. Thru out the exchange they send each other's work to friends, editors, and influential contacts. They had to hustle. You could make a buck if not a living writing poetry back in the 60s. Just that, I think, created a sense of undertaking that may no longer obtain now. Which takes nothing from the seriousness of today's poets, they/we just direct towards a different necessity.
The whole sweat of how these two writers might get money plays on just about every page. Poets were paid for their poetry and for their readings (how quaint!). They just weren't paid enough. Both taught, but not lucratively. Baraka has success writing plays, and in writing two books and numerous reviews and articles about blues and jazz. It's all tooth and nail to get by for both of them.
These are poets who are not just delighting in the flourish of springtime flowers. Their political interest is keen. Baraka shows the greatest strain, eventually quitting his family and home and moving to Harlem after the murder of Malcolm X. Dorn, less militant, saw the ecological disaster occurring, and the fearsome turbine of commercial interest chewing the country and the world. They didn't always agree but a supportive understanding of the other's views always pertained.
One can feel some envy in reading this correspondence. The connection between the two is rock solid. They write of the latest jazz recordings they've been listening to, ask for news of friends like Olson, Ginsberg, and Creeley, share personal and family news. Baraka even hangs out with John Coltrane, Thelonious Monk, and a gosh-darn litany of jazz greats. He also suffers a bad stretch, having contracted hepatitis from using dirty needles.
In reading this book, I am reminded just how dynamic letter writing can be. Corresponding seems different now. It's hard not to feel rushed when writing an email. Facebook isn't built for depth. Don't get me started on Twitter, which just seems like a testing ground for snarkiness. Of course writers are communicating with each other now, it's just feels different. Stuffing letters into envelopes and then waiting: there's something beguiling in that. The stretch of time between sent and received adds a weight that our current immediacy abides with difficulty.
Baraka and Dorn needed the letters they wrote to each other. The letters were lifelines. For all the fizzle, gripes, and sneers, this books reveals two deep and generous natures. And their energy is sublime.
Re. Allen Bramhall: A diminishing flow of poems, a continuing insistence in watching superhero movies with my son, an increasing interest in the healing, lifebound elation of creativity, and some websites: