»  National Review Online

October 11th, 2002

  Like an Owl Exploding


A question that occurs to every thoughtful person sooner or later, generally around age 17, is: Why have numerically tiny, not very well favored, groups of human beings — the ancient Jews, Greece in the 5th century B.C., Renaissance Italy, Tudor England — produced so many works of artistic and literary genius, when far bigger, more prosperous, more secure populations have dragged their weary lengths along for centuries without leaving behind them anything worth remembering?

The population of Attic Greece at the time of the Peloponnesian War was, according to Kitto, around 350,000, of whom half were citizens, a tenth resident aliens, and the rest slaves — say 180,000 free citizens. The population of my county is seven times that. Where is our Aeschylus, our Socrates, our Phidias, our Demosthenes, our Xenophon, our Thucydides? Shouldn't we have around seven of each here in Suffolk County, other things being equal?

On the same logic, the state of New Jersey, with a current population of eight and a half million, should boast around 47 Aeschyluses, Socrateses, etc. If great artistic and literary talent were spread evenly across time and space, the Garden State would be teeming with dramatists, architects, and philosophers of the highest caliber. And the leading poet of the state would be a literary genius of such authority and power that his verses would be passed down the centuries with reverence, to be treasured by our remotest descendants.

New Jersey's leading poet is in fact a fellow named Amiri Baraka. Such, at any rate, is the judgment of New Jersey's Council for the Humanities, the state's Council on the Arts, and the state governor, Democrat James E. McGreevey. Those first two bodies endorsed Baraka for the post of state Poet Laureate earlier this year, and Gov. McGreevey duly appointed him in August. The job comes with an iron-clad two-year tenure and a stipend of $10,000.

The cultural panjandrums of New Jersey are not, I hasten to add, the only people in awe of Mr. Baraka's shimmering talent. The American Academy of Arts and Letters described him as "one of the most important African-American poets since Langston Hughes" when they inducted him last year. Never to be caught napping on any matter of high cultural import, the New York Times chimed in with an editorial calling him "a powerful and respected poet."

What kind of verses does he turn out for his ten grand, this Trenton troubadour, this Hackensack Homer, this companion-in-arms of Chaucer, Milton, Poe and Longfellow? Read and savor.

Who knew the World Trade Center was gonna get bombed
Who told 4000 Israeli workers at the Twin Towers
To stay home that day
Why did Sharon stay away?

This is from a longish (226 lines) opus read out by Mr. Baraka at the Dodge Poetry Festival in Waterloo, NJ on September 20. The title of the piece is "Somebody Blew Up America."

As a former teacher of English literature, accustomed to describing and analyzing poems for the benefit of students, I should like to give you an outline of the thing. This, however, is not easy to do. I have mentioned elsewhere the criteria for poems to be submitted to the Literary Review monthly competition: they must rhyme, scan, and make sense. I have also offered my opinion that, in the present state of English-language poetry, I would happily settle for any two out of the three. "Somebody Blew Up America" scores zero. My guess is that Mr. Baraka probably regards rhyme and meter as contemptible Ice People devices, far too verkrampt to contain his ebullient African soul. Possibly he's right. Still, a little sense might have been nice. Langston Hughes didn't go much for formal structure, either, but at least his poems had some kind of internal logic. "4000 Israelis" working at the Twin Towers — including, apparently, Ariel Sharon? The entire population of Israel is less than six million. Four thousand of them in just two buildings seems like a lot. And who did tell them all to stay home? Is this a rhetorical question, or is Mr. Baraka going to let us in on the answer?

I'm not sure, but I think it's the former. Most of the poem, in fact, is in the interrogative mood. 162 of the 226 lines begin with the word "Who."

Who do Tom Ass Clarence work for
Who doo doo come out the Colon's mouth
Who know what kind of Skeeza is a Condoleeza [sic]
Who pay Connelly [sic] to be a wooden negro

A little exegesis is called for here, I think. "Tom Ass Clarence" is Clarence Thomas, a hate figure to black radicals, who think that writing his name that way is screamingly funny, even after eleven years of doing it. "The Colon" is Colin Powell — this is another thigh-slapper around the Black Studies Department water-cooler. A "skeeza" is a woman with a bad reputation. "Condoleeza" is of course Dr. Condoleezza [sic] Rice, the president's National Security Advisor, one of the smartest women in America (Nicholas Lemann has a good profile of her in the Oct. 14-21 New Yorker), and "Connelly" must be Ward Connerly, the well-known opponent of race quotas, another hate figure to the blacker-than-thou crowd.

So what is the answer to all these questions? Even rhetorical questions have answers, you know. If you have any acquaintance with black radicals, you might suspect that the answer is: the Jews. (To make a Jesse Jacksonism out of it: "The answer to the whos / Is the [13-letter-expletive] Jews / Ain't no use askin' "Why me?" / We pinned it on you, Hymie.") There is indeed some supporting evidence for this suspicion. There are the lines above, obviously, and also:

Who know who decide
Jesus get crucified

This seems to be a rephrasing of the oldest antisemitic cry of all: They killed Our Lord! And then again:

Who know why five Israelis was filming the explosion
And cracking they sides at the notion

Looks like for sure it's those bloodsucking Jews. But wait a minute: at line 162 we have:

Who put the Jews in ovens,
and who helped them do it

Mr. Baraka is a self-declared communist, you see. Line 161: "Who put a price on Lenin's head." (Whoever it was, I'd like to shake his hand. — JD) He is also a black man. Now, Hitler thought blacks were an inferior race, and he also persecuted communists. Mr. Baraka therefore feels under a double compulsion to dislike Hitler. But, whoa! — Hitler killed Jews, didn't he? And Jews are evil, aren't they? You might think this would be a tough circle for Mr. Baraka to square. Not a bit of it. Some of those Jews were communists, you see. Line 166: "Who killed Rosa Luxembourg [sic … I'm going to leave out the sics from now on — just take it from me, the spelling of proper names is not Mr. Baraka's strong suit. Spelling, after all, is just another one of those soul-constricting Ice People gimmicks], Liebneckt / Who murdered the Rosenbergs …" Communism trumps Jewishness, you see. Communists are, in fact, sort of honorary black people — even when they're Jewish! And a black communist is, of course, to die for: "Who poison Robeson / Who try to put Du Bois in jail."

This still leaves us with some puzzles. "Who backed Batista, Hitler, Bilbo, / Chiang kai Chek."  Leaving aside the Hobbit — how did he get in there? — and the pre-Castro Cuban dictator (whose regime was described by U.S. ambassador Sumner Wells as "frankly communistic," and who was praised by the communist leader Blas Roca as "the father of the Popular Front"), at least part of the answer in the case of the other two was: Stalin. The Soviet dictator went into alliance with Hitler, after all, and sold him all the war materiel he'd take. He backed Chiang Kai-shek to the very end. The last person Chiang shook hands with on the Chinese mainland, before departing for exile in Taiwan, was the Soviet ambassador.

Mere historical truth is of course beneath the notice of a poetic genius like Amiri Baraka. If you actually try answering some of his questions, in fact, you get into some very confusing terrain. "Who killed the most Africans?" Other Africans, without any doubt. Tribal warfare has been endemic in Africa since remote antiquity, except for the few brief decades when European colonizers suppressed it. "Who bought the slaves, who sold them?" Same answer, mostly. Every single pre-colonial African society was slave-owning, and some post-colonial ones have resumed the tradition. "Who killed Malcolm?" Some black radicals he'd fallen out with. "Who keep the Irish a colony?" I dunno — ask Bertie Ahern, President of the Irish Republic. (Then tell me whose navy shut down the Atlantic slave trade.) "Who got rich from Armenian genocide?" You got me on that one, Amiri. Who did?

Then, just as you start to feel that the contradictions have piled up to an unacceptable height — wheeee! With one bound our hero is free. Employing the rhetorical device poets call metastasis (change of subject, more or less) he leaps from dark speculations about the origin of AIDS and the fate of Paul Robeson to … exploding owls. Yep, you heard it right.

Explosion of Owl the newspaper say
The devil face cd be seen.

I have to confess, Mr. Baraka lost me here. Who is this exploding owl? Where did he fly in from? Could this be some sort of typo? No, twelve lines later we get showered with feathers again:

Like an Owl exploding
In your life in your brain in your self

This leads in, somehow, to a closing crescendo:

 … We hear the questions rise
 …  …
Like the acid vomit of the fire of Hell
Who and Who and WHO who who
Whoooo and Whooooooooooooooooooooo!

I never did figure out what the exploding owl is doing in there, but by the time I got to "Whooooooooooooooooooooo!" I felt pretty sure I knew the answer to all those whos. It's us white devils, the ones who aren't communists, and most especially those of us who are Jews but not communists.

Pleased with having got to the bottom of this "powerful and respected" poet's challenging production, I felt inspired to have a go at something along the same lines myself. I cannot hope to compete with such a giant of American letters, of course, but imitation is the sincerest form of flattery, and I hope Mr. Baraka will take my feeble effort in that spirit. Everybody has to start somewhere, after all. Amiri Baraka, for example, started out as LeRoi Jones, a humble organizer of race riots back in the 1960s. Who knows? If I keep at it long enough, maybe I could become Poet Laureate of New York State. I could sure use ten thousand bucks. OK, here goes.

Somebody Stuck It To New Jersey Taxpayers
                by John Derbyshire

Who took help from Jews when getting his scam started
Then turned and spat on them when a cozy sinecure came along
Who praises despots, wreckers of nations
Murderers, despoilers of innocence — Kabila, Lumumba, Lenin, Che
Who thinks Nkrumah was a benefactor of anyone but himself
Who believes the most transparent driveling antisemitic lies about 9/11
Who thinks "Tom Ass" is a really, really funny way to write "Thomas"
Who mau-maued the governor
Who put one over on the guilty white liberals at those fool Art Councils
Who's an illiterate moron
So stupid he can't even keep his racism straight …