Essay: Preface to a Twenty Volume Suicide Note by Amiri Baraka

The poem ultimately expresses dislocation and political inertia, subliminally questioning the role of the poet as a social voice. The purposelessness of routinized life provokes a literary death wish. The inability to take action and uncertainty of direction is implied through Baraka’s construction of a ‘suicide’ note as an ongoing literary act, a ‘twenty volume’ discourse. The poem itself is a quest for purpose and spiritual wholeness in the face of an existential difficulty and disorder. The poet voices for a generation of Black Americans facing a time of upheaval and uncertainty, in spite of the monogramming of the context in the reference to his daughter. When the speaker considers that the ‘ground opens up and envelopes’ him when he walks his dog, the emphasis is on the regularity of the experience patterns. While there is miniature context depicted that would establish the narrator’s lifestyle, there are indications as to its repetitiveness, as in ‘when I run for a bus,’ suggesting either a feverish routine or keeping pace with the cultural times.

The first stanza introduces a theme of music in a metaphorical and imagistic sense: ‘the broad edged silly music the wind/ Makes.’ Conceivably the concept of running for the bus signifies the rapid social transformations in American culture. A transition that entangles the poet as well. This theme is parroted in the fourth stanza, ‘Nobody sings anymore,’ a comment that implies a turning point in an era or epoch and a loss of spirituality or emotionality. This expression of lost sensibility of song may be the poet’s way of characterizing what was then the turmoil of the civil rights era, where lyricism as a trope for social harmony is no longer attainable.

The final long stanza, in which the poet describes overhearing his daughter speaking in her room, points to a spiritual dilemma; her praying might suggest Baraka’s own inability to resolve his uncertainty about a political direction. The final stanza also implies that it is through the innocent petition of the daughter that the poet recognizes, though unstated, the irony of uncomplicated spirituality and hope. In Baraka’s own life, his growing disaffection with white liberalism and the bohemian lifestyle may have generated the searching quality of the poem. Certain dilemmas might lead one to contemplate a metaphorical ‘suicide’ but not necessarily an actual one.

Baraka’s poetry of the 1960’s and after was more obviously political, voiced in the language styles of urban black life, the blues, and jazz. Following his trip to Cuba in 1960, Baraka began to consider his role as a social poet and later in the decade wrote black protest poetry that challenged white liberalism. ‘Preface to a Twenty Volume Suicide Note’ does not contain strident political protest or Afrocentric iconography of the Black Arts movement, which Baraka would later embody. The poem represents an earlier persona, that of LeRoi Jones, influenced by the themes, styles, and subjectivity of Beat poetry yet on the threshold of commitment to social relevance and action.

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