Poetic Justice: “Who define art”  





If Amiri Baraka’s primary goals as Poet Laureate of New Jersey are, as the state defines them, “to promote and encourage poetry,” then he has certainly done his duty. After just a few short months on the job, his latest poem, “Somebody Blew Up America,” has caused a small media frenzy and spurred New Jersey Governor James McGreevey to ask, unsuccessfully, for Baraka’s resignation. The poem’s infamy stems from lines that suggest both Israel and America knew about the 9/11 terrorist attacks before they happened.

“Who knew the World Trade Center was gonna get bombed
Who told 4000 Israeli workers at the Twin Towers
To stay home that day
Why did Sharon stay away?”

Now, thousands of people who probably didn’t even know that many states have a Poet Laureate know about Baraka. However, the public has learned much more than that poets exist. The big lesson here is that Poet Laureates must represent their state government and cannot assert a voice of dissention without stiff consequences.

As a scholar of African-American literature and fan of Baraka’s unique literary antics, this is a difficult lesson for me to swallow. McGreevey’s reaction goes against all of the literary freedoms that America stands for, but this is not a simple censorship issue, it is also a question of the role of the Poet Laureate. McGreevey assumes that Poet Laureates must reflect the views of their benefactors.

Sadly, I believe that McGreevey’s response is a result of the post-9/11 anxiety towards not only outright anti-American sentiments, but also constructive critiques of American policies. In pre-9/11, Baraka’s poem would have been lauded for its skillful examination of America’s imperialist tendencies. Now, he must be reprimanded for these critiques, lest they punch holes in the unified, unwavering front against terrorism, or, God forbid, people think McGreevey supports Baraka’s views since he is the chosen Poet Laureate. Don’t worry McGreevey, it would be near impossible to conflate your opinions with Baraka’s under any circumstances.

I believe we must stop this backlash against dissenting opinions before we find ourselves loosing all the free-speech ground we have gained. Towards this end, let’s embrace the dialogue that Baraka’s poem initiates. Few McGreevey supporters have even mentioned the poem’s literary merit or poetic structure. In his poem, Baraka uses the question as a way to provoke readers to figure out the answers, and thus decide the meaning of the poem.

“Who own the mine
Who twist your mind
Who got bread
Who need peace
Who you think need war”

While it is clear from some passages that he thinks the answer is often America, or its allies, readers have room to contemplate and determine their own, completely different responses. What could be more democratic? Instead of condemning what Baraka wrote, we should, in fact, celebrate its very American ability to question the current political paradigm and to ultimately question America.

Sallie A. Hirsch is a freelance writer based in New York City.