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Contemporary Literature 45.3 (2004) 460-485

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The Aesthetics of Politics/ The Politics of Aesthetics:

Amiri Baraka's "Somebody Blew Up America"

University of Maryland, Baltimore County

American poetry now belongs to a subculture," wrote Dana Gioia in his well-known 1991 essay "Can Poetry Matter?" (1). In his view, contemporary poetry occupies an isolated place in the cultural life of the United States, and its primary appeal to a limited if loyal audience seriously compromises its efficacy in the public sphere.1 But poetry's current marginal status in American life should not suggest that throughout the twentieth century some American poets have not tried to engage, for better or for worse, in a critique of dominant values of the period. Considering that poets are not usually seen as agents of social or political change, it is important to keep in mind that some of them have been charged with treason (Ezra Pound), jailed for their conscientious objection to war (Robert Lowell), investigated by the FBI (Muriel Rukeyser), submitted to interrogation by the House Un-American Activities Committee (Langston Hughes), and viewed as a threat to national security (Allen Ginsberg). It would be a mistake, therefore, to assume that American poets have always been as far removed from [End Page 460] the public aspects of American life as Gioia considers them to be at the century's end. On the contrary, evidence shows that their poems and activities on occasion stirred up national debate and led to clashes with different forms of political authority.

This essay examines a more recent case of American poetry's emergence into the public realm, the controversy surrounding former New Jersey Poet Laureate Amiri Baraka's post-September 11 poem "Somebody Blew Up America." The whole affair provides a telling example of what happens when an American poet resurfaces from the position of cultural irrelevance and becomes the lightning rod for a rather unpleasant national debate. The way in which the episode has played out among government officials, the news media, and the general audience brings to the forefront some of the more troubling aspects of poetry's current isolation from the mainstream of American culture. Amid the almost universal condemnation of Baraka's poem, little or no attempt has been made to interpret it as a literary if highly ideological text rather than as an example of hate speech. The failure to read the poem as a verbal construct bespeaks a larger failure, on the part of the public, to understand the nature of poetic utterance—the assumptions it calls for, the devices it operates with, the stakes it sets for itself in the larger culture. Indeed, the controversy over "Somebody Blew Up America" seems perfectly to bear out Gioia's pessimistic assertion that in America, "poets and the common reader are no longer on speaking terms" (9).

The controversy over Baraka's poem also reflects the long-standing and still largely unresolved tension between aesthetics and politics in American poetry and the demands these categories place on the questions of poetic practice. This tension merits a closer examination especially now that so much of American poetry scholarship pays increased attention to the ways in which poetic texts inform and are informed by their historical environment. While standard academic discussions of American poetry tend to foreground stylistic developments, some of the most interesting works of recent scholarship have been primarily preoccupied with the idea of poetry as "social text."2 Currently, there seems to be at least [End Page 461] as much scholarly attention paid to poets like Edwin Rolfe, Sol Funaroff, Angelina Weld Grimké, Genevieve Taggard, Tillie Olsen, Sterling A. Brown, Langston Hughes, and Muriel Rukeyser as to the poets considered the great icons of high modernism such as Pound, Eliot, Crane, Frost, Williams, Moore, and Stevens. The growing scholarly interest in the poetry of social and political protest, especially that composed in the earlier parts of the century, designates an important site of opposition in American poetry between (to put it crudely) the conception...