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Reviewed by:
  • AMIRI BARAKA AND EDWARD DORN: The Collected Letters ed. by Claudia Moreno Pisano
  • William J. Harris
AMIRI BARAKA AND EDWARD DORN: The Collected Letters. Edited by Claudia Moreno Pisano. Albuquerque: University of New Mexico Press. 2013.

These letters are heady stuff, fascinating reading. It is like being catapulted into a wonderful newly discovered opera about bohemia. Of course, the music here is jazz not classical, and the heroes—yes uncompromising—are brave and idealistic albeit foul-mouthed, but they do want to save the world with their art. As fellow Beat poet Diana di Prima says in her memoir, Recollections of My Life as a Woman (2001), they had the feeling of doing “important work—the importance of getting it out” (218). With their mimeograph machines they were going to triumph over the cruel world, bring capitalism to its knees. They were willing to endure great poverty so they could create great art. But since this is not an opera but a candid look into the lives of two great American avant-garde poets and their culture, we see the warts as well as the shining armor. The heroes of the piece, of these letters between young close friends, are Amiri Baraka (then LeRoi Jones), a black well-connected East Village poet and a wheeler-dealer on New York art scene, and Edward Dorn, a white, less well-connected poet, mostly in Pocatello, Idaho, teaching as an adjunct at Idaho State University. The times were mostly the 1960s. These letters give us this world from the horse’s mouth. Unfiltered, they speak so candidly and in such intimate detail about their lives, we feel we are living through the times with them.

These letters, meticulously edited by the young scholar, Claudia Moreno Pisano, cover the years 1959 through 1981, but they focus on the 1960s, the years the New American poetry took shape—also the years of Abstract Expression, the new post-bebop jazz, and free jazz. These are the post–World War II years when American art became a force to be reckoned with in the world. Baraka and Dorn are at the center of this world—Baraka physically since he was in New York, the center, and Dorn spiritually since he was in Idaho, the hinterlands, even though he did have visitors from that world such as Robert Creeley. But this distance allows for the existence of their beautiful exchange about the arts, mostly poetry and jazz even though the painters, such as William de Kooning, are in the background and poets such as Frank O’Hara and John Ashbury, both profoundly influenced by Abstract Expressionism, are very much in the foreground. Although often sexist, these young men, radical and committed, have great insight into the arts of their time, including very astute comments about each other’s work. Dorn says of one of the difficult poems of the period: “Hegel is a nice poem. Is that part of a collection … the moving logic of it down to its feeling in the last lines. Um. You’re doing well” (21). And Baraka’s comments on such figures as Don Cherry are rough drafts for his classic jazz reviews of [End Page 134] the sixties. Here is a taste of this writing: “Not sure just what the fuck’s happening. But I did go to a wild extraordinary concert last week. Don Cherry, Billy Higgins and Wilbur! It was really beautiful. No shit, Cherry played a long slow gorgeous You Don’t Know What Love Is, that floored everybody. He has gotten to be too much” (77) and he was on the scene when Thelonious Monk played at the historic 5 Spot: “I stopped off at the 5 Spot where Monk is packing the place nightly” (153). They share jazz, discussing Sonny Rollins and other important contemporary figures (127). It turns the reader around when he/she learns that the great free jazz saxophonist, John Coltrane has been reading Baraka—in fact “he’d been reading all my stuff” (163). So how central is Baraka to the fashioning of free jazz? They talk honestly about race; I have never seen more honest talk about race between the...


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pp. 134-135
Launched on MUSE
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