If Poet Amiri Baraka Becomes Ex-Laureate, Is It Bad for Writers?

The one piece of art at the site of the World Trade Center is a squat cross welded of girders and mounted on a clumsy concrete footing at the eastern edge of the crater. The proportions are like something in your neighbor’s backyard.

Somehow it suits, though, because 9/11 as a place and event has been culturally sterile. Yes, some artists were killed in the attack, but the World Trade Center was always a business zone. People in the arts rarely had any reason to go there, or they tended to avoid the place as bustling, overwhelming, joyless. Information panels on the fence there now say that the W.T.C. plaza was intended by its architect to be like the Piazza San Marco in Venice and other great European plazas. It was never that. It had none of the ease, the beauty, the luxury or the history.

Then, too, since 9/11, artists have been warned away from the subject. Susan Sontag defended the hijackers against the charge of cowardice, and The New Yorker was taken to the woodshed for printing it. The Indian novelist Arundhati Roy wrote a long and moving piece about America’s historic role as a dispenser of violence rather than as a recipient, and Ms. Roy was widely condemned in this country, even as her piece moved out over the Internet.

The issue now rises in New Jersey, where the poet Amiri Baraka is on the run for a provocative poem he wrote about 9/11, “Somebody Blew Up America.” Mr. Baraka happens to be the New Jersey poet laureate. It’s chiefly an honorary position (“Two readings, it comes to about 20 G’s,” Mr. Baraka says), but leading legislators have now sponsored bills in Trenton to allow the governor to remove Mr. Baraka because of references to Israel in his poem. It’s likely to happen before the end of the year.

“You’d think one resolution would do,” said Mr. Baraka, who only just became poet laureate last summer. “It’s the Against Negro Poet Law. They want to make a law on Wednesday saying what you did on Tuesday was illegal.”

A small and dapper man with big, childlike eyes and a corrosive wit, the former LeRoi Jones has rarely been as fulfilled as he is now by the controversy. When I told him he had a lot of rage, he simply nodded and said, “Oh, yeah.” Then he adds, with a Bugs Bunny–ish glee: “They’re acting like they’re getting ready to put me in the pot.”

The press accounts about “Somebody Blew Up America” have focused on the nuttiness of a few of its 226 lines and thereby overlooked the fact that the poem is hilarious and scabrous. A rant about an unnamed group called “Who”-basically the conspiracy of white men who deliver suffering to everyone else-it is full of song and surprise:

Who say they God & still be the Devil

Who the biggest only

Who the most goodest

Who do Jesus resemble

Who created everything

Who the smartest

Who the greatest

Who the richest

Who say you ugly and they the goodlookingest

Who define art

Who define science …

Who own the oil

Who do no toil

Who own the soil

Who is not a nigger

Who is so great ain’t nobody bigger

Mr. Baraka lives in an elegantly furnished stucco house in the middle-class Clinton Hill section on the southwest side of Newark, N.J. On 9/11, he saw the World Trade Center burning from his third floor, and in the days after 9/11, he began writing a poem. Like most of Mr. Baraka’s work, it drew on black rage.

“To me, after the first thing-being frightened out of your wits, terrified-then it began to dawn on me, this hysteria over the terrorism: I’ve never seen the attendant hysteria over what black people have experienced. Oh, you get some hedging admission that you have been wronged and the people were some kind of monster. But not: ‘We got to get the Klan-let’s get ‘em!’ That massive frenzy.”

Amiri Baraka is a prolific and democratic poet. He finished the poem by Oct. 1, 2001, and promptly circulated it online, in literary and black discussion groups.

The poem’s rage was aimed at American imperialism, and Mr. Baraka had drawn on a number of conspiracy theories that live chiefly on the Net. It suggested that George W. Bush had known about the attacks ahead of time, that the Israeli government had also known, and that the employees of Israeli companies at the World Trade Center had been tipped off not to show up on Sept. 11.

Mr. Baraka travels widely. He recited his poem in a declamatory fashion all over Europe and at campuses around the United States, generally to applause.

The term of the first New Jersey poet laureate (who was Jewish) ended after two years last spring. And then, as New Jersey law requires, an advisory committee to the New Jersey Council for the Humanities and the State Council on the Arts nominated his successor-in this case, the 68-year-old Mr. Baraka.

“He is clearly a major literary figure,” says James Haba, a poet on the committee. “Every anthology of American literature in the 20th century will include some mention of him, or some of his work. He was born in New Jersey and lives in New Jersey. On what grounds don’t you nominate him?”

The job is largely an honorary citation of merit, although it also includes two public readings. The advisory committee did not notice “Somebody Blew Up America,” and the poem didn’t become an issue until Mr. Baraka read it at perhaps the country’s largest gathering for poetry, the Geraldine R. Dodge Poetry Festival in Waterloo, N.J., in September. Over 2,000 people were in a tent as Baraka read the poem on Sept. 20. The audience was raucous and excited as Mr. Baraka attacked George Bush as a counterfeit President and smeared his National Security Advisor as a streetwalker:

Who know what kind of Skeeza is a Condoleezza ….

But when he came to the lines about Israel:

Who knew the World Trade Center was gonna get bombed

Who told 4,000 Israeli workers at the Twin Towers

To stay home that day,

Mr. Baraka drew boos, and the applause at the end of the poem was mixed. “The audience was moved, but pained by part of the poem-and puzzled,” says Jim Haba, who is also the director of the festival.

The next week’s New Jersey Standard , a Jewish newspaper, attacked two poets at the gathering: Mr. Baraka for the lines on Israel, and a second poet who had said that all bombs are suicide bombs. The cause was soon taken up by the Anti-Defamation League, which called on New Jersey Governor Jim McGreevey to fire Mr. Baraka as poet laureate.

“What 9/11 served to underscore is that words of bigotry lead to acts of bigotry which in turn lead to the kind of murder that occurred on 9/11,” A.D.L. leaders in New Jersey wrote to the governor.

Mr. McGreevey lacks the power to remove Amiri Baraka. He’s called upon Mr. Baraka to apologize for the poem and step down. Mr. Baraka warned the governor he didn’t know what he was getting into. Since then, he has defended his statements that governments knew ahead of time about the attack, citing various references in the international press.

Shai Goldstein, of the New Jersey A.D.L., says that whether he knew it or not, Mr. Baraka drew on an anti-Semitic claim that has wide currency in the Muslim world. “It’s the claim that the Mossad and the Jews and the Israeli government engineered the attack, and then told the Israelis and the Jews to stay away. As if they had Dick Tracy watches on. It’s the belief that Jews have a conspiracy to run the world.”

For his part, Mr. Baraka points out that the poem expresses sympathy for Jews as victims of history. For instance, it describes the United States as helping the Nazis put Jews in ovens. “Who said ‘America First’ and ok’d the yellow stars,” the poem goes.

His criticism of Israel, the poet says, comes out of anger at its policy in the occupied territories.

“If I don’t support Israel’s right to kill Palestinians, I can be removed as poet laureate?” he asks.

His removal now appears to be a distinct possibility, and a divisive one. On the day I visited Mr. Baraka, friends came by with petitions to circulate in the black community. “No! Amiri Baraka should not apologize! He should not resign!” the petitions read.

The A.D.L. says that it has gotten major black and Christian clerics behind its cause.

“Whether you are a poet, politician or a member of the press, discussions have to have some foundation in reality,” Mr. Goldstein says. “Yes, we are entitled to our own opinions, but we are not entitled to our own facts. If we can’t agree that the earth is round, we can have no legitimate discussion.”

It’s fine to criticize individual policies of the state of Israel, he goes on, but the sort of criticism that “seeks the elimination of the state of Israel” cannot be tolerated.

The difficulty with Mr. Goldstein’s distinction is that it doesn’t leave any middle ground. What if someone wants to definitively separate American policy from Israeli policy? Is that verboten ? Can that be discussed?

The issue is ultimately one of tolerance of diverse opinion. The left gave us political correctness in the early 1990′s, and now those processes of enforcing orthodoxy have been inherited by the right and the mainstream. And the heretics only happen to be talking about the most important international questions of our time.

“The poem hits a nerve because of the reality underlying the poem,” says Jim Haba. “I think the claim about the Israelis leaving the building is wholly untrue. But this is a poem. And that is a powerful image. What is it saying? What is it doing? It’s doing a lot of things-some of them hurtful, some of them maybe revelatory. Yes, it’s crude, but we have never had an adequate conversation about American policy toward the Middle Eastern conflict and we’re about to go to war with Iraq.”

Poets would be strictly regulated in Plato’s Republic, Mr. Haba points out, because they were considered too wild and dangerous. They ground their work in the unconscious, in the imaginary, the creative processes that Mr. Baraka invokes. Many poets have been politically engaged, at least since King Lear’s fool tried to check his madness. Poets from Milton to Lawrence were politically active in their times, and suffered for it.

The byword of 9/11 seems to be, “First kill all the poets.” There’s something unbalanced about that, something unbalanced about a culture that spends such an insane amount of energy planning memorials to its own dead even as it calmly plans the deaths of many more foreigners. Amiri Baraka may be hard to embrace, but poets could help us get past the rhetoric of good and evil from the politicians and help us work through the deep wounds and the causes of the war we’re engaged in. And if New York wants to rebuild its broken downtown with grace and beauty, it will keep the artists in the picture.