Amiri Baraka, Controversial Poet Laureate
April is National Poetry Month, and Readers+Writers Journal will be celebrating with a series of poems, graphics, and information about poets.
Amiri Baraka (b. 1934, as Everett LeRoi Jones – d. 2014) was a pivotal figure of the Black Arts movement of the 1960s and is considered one of the most influential poets of the late 20th century. His political beliefs and activism, first with the Black Power movement and then as a Marxist, were controversial throughout his life and have sometimes overshadowed the enormous contributions he made to American literature. Baraka was a poet, music critic, essayist, and university professor at several major universities and had a distinguished career in academia. He was denied tenure by each institution at which he taught.
Baraka was influenced heavily by several political and social movements: the Beats of Greenwich Village in the 1950s, the Black Nationalist movement in the 1960s, and Marxism in the 1970s. He began his writing career creating experimental poetry with Allen Ginsberg and Frank O’Hara, and went on to found Yugen magazine and Totem Press to provide an outlet for new verse. With the rise of the civil rights movement, he began to pull away from his Beat influences and to embrace and express his black identity more directly. Later, Baraka befriended a number of artists and writers on a visit to Cuba in 1959 and concern for developing nations became a central theme in his writing.
Baraka taught at various universities throughout his career, though he never had a Bachelor’s degree himself. A New Jersey native who taught at Rutgers University for many years, Baraka was named that state’s Poet Laureate in 2002, but was “replaced” as Laureate in 2003, due to public protests surrounding his writing and activism.