Brief thoughts on the death of Amiri Baraka:
I tend to see Amiri Baraka as, first and foremost, a poet. Like his verse, his prose carries a fire and intensity, a distinctive language. So, first a poet, then a writer, and only then a political figure.
This way of seeing Baraka is a personal preference, but it is in contrast, I think, to the obituaries I’ve read, which focus on his involvement in political controversy. This view – that he was a political person who chose to take action through writing – robs his work of its greatness and importance. He was a poet whose subject was often, maybe most often, righteous anger at political injustice. The depth and purity of that anger remains fresh in his writing. It is not the routine, professionalized complaining of activists (though that has its uses) but the burning fury of a soul that just missed being destroyed.
The cliché says that poets were once the unacknowledged legislators of the world, but that they no longer are; that poetry mattered once in a way it no longer does. But maybe what Shelley’s quotation means now is that change starts in the gut, and that poetry, or something like it, is the way that a person comes to understand what another person feels at the most fundamental level. Baraka wrote from the gut, and he should live on as a poet, not die as a politician.