Friday, July 17, 2009

STL # 89: Outsiders looking in and insiders looking out

Ray Bremser and LeRoi Jones

My last post mentioned the impossibility of keeping my own knowledge about the poets, including their future careers, out of my reading of the anthology. However, the fact that Mike McClure served as a hippie icon as soon as the hippies caught up with him really isn't surprising. LeRoi Jones makes a more interesting case. After establishing himself as, essentially, a New York Beat, Jones changed his name to Amiri Baraka and became a Black Nationalist. However, in this selection, there's barely any hint of what you'd generally consider "Black identity." Nor does the apparatus of the anthology provide his race as a context: his bio mentioned he attended Howard and his statement of poetics begins with a question in what could be heard as black vernacular ("How you sound?") The only direct reference to race in these 7 poems is in "To a Publisher": "I ride the 14th. St. bus/ everyday... reading Hui neng/Raymond Chandler/Olson.../I have slept with almost every mediocre colored woman/On 23rd St...." This is obviously denigrating to African American women, and the line's relation to his multicultural reading list suggests severely limited interest in his own cultural heritage. The poems are reference heavy to contemporary writers, European high culture (M.A. in German lit), and pop culture. Of course, it's short-sighted to make a generalization such a small sample (he did write articles about jazz in this period) and even stupider to say that Prokofiev, Gary Snyder, or the Shadow are not part of his cultural heritage. His poem "In Memory of Radio" makes clear that he spent his formative years listening to adventure serials which still influence his work. I mean, he says as much: "Saturday mornings we listened to Red Lantern & his undersea folk./At 11, Let's Pretend & we did we did & I, the poet, still do, Thank God!"The poem is based on an attachment to the hero The Shadow, who, in his secret identity of Lamont Cranston, possessed some kind of (divinity) that only he and Jack Kerouac knew about. The Shadow famously knew "what evil lurks in the hearts of men"--Jones emulates this quality and his position as an outsider who is able to formulate his own cultural identity out of the complete array of available material, picking and choosing from the 'high' and the 'low.'

That's very much the "Beat" position, which Bremser emulates in "Poem of Holy Madness." According to Bremser, the best poets of his generation include a few of the Ginsbery, Corso, Jones, and himself, so humility is not his strong suit. His poems seem to be standard issue Beatnikery, but the discourse over his cultural identity is interesting. He identifies with every conceivable category of outsider: criminals like the thrill-killer Charley Starkweather, blacklisted "traitors," prisoners on the "visionary journey out of jail," "tramps,/ and homosexual cats in drag," atheists, Jews, and especially African Americans. (He writes "give me a black / and miserable hide--and I will un-tar it!") This romanticization by white guys who "dig jazz" has become embarrassing, but that doesn't mean he didn't mean it. It is odd that Jones and Bremser both build outsider identities, but do it with different materials. In fact, Jones builds the outsider identity out of mostly insider materials--not only the references to pop culture and high culture, but in the domestic situations of scenes like watching his daughter pray in "Preface to a Twenty Volume Suicide Note." If you radically simplify things, it's as if the white Bremser is the insider looking to the outsider while Jones is the outsider looking in in order to be out.

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