Amiri Baraka’s Poem, ‘Preface to a Twenty Volume Suicide Note’

Photo courtesy of Carl Van Vechten, © Van Vechten Trust. Beinecke Rare Book and Manuscript Library, Yale University.

What’s the word for giving an audible, “Oof,” after reaching the end of a poem? But even “oof” does it a disservice since the reaction was more like a shudder spoken into existence, but for which, I’m not entirely sure how to articulate why. American poet, Amiri Baraka, did that with his 1961 poem, “Preface to a Twenty Volume Suicide Note,” from a collection of the same name.

First off, if that isn’t the greatest title for a work of art, poem or otherwise, then I don’t know what is. I’m envious now that that can’t be my nonexistent memoir title or at least, something I etch on my epitaph one day. Gosh, that’s great, and is one of those titles that says it all before you even get to the poem. Titles aren’t everything, to be sure, but when a good one such as this comes along, it’s worth remarking upon. It literally stopped me in my tracks this morning when searching through the Poetry Foundation’s list of poems, incidentally, under the heading of “hope.”

But before I dig into that more, let’s talk about Baraka. An activist born in New Jersey in the early 1930s, the Poetry Foundation says he was known for his “strident social criticism, often writing in an incendiary style that made it difficult for some audiences and critics to respond with objectivity to his works.”

So, I haven’t read anything about Baraka or his poetry prior to this poem, but let me go ahead and translate that for you: Baraka, as a black man, criticizing white society, caused members of said society (and one can only assume the insular white literary circles of the time) to have racist reactions to his work. Maybe they didn’t use, uh, “incendiary” phrases to do so (and maybe they did; I don’t know) and couched it as “literary criticism,” but as is even still the case now, putting up a mirror to the ills of society is bound to bring out the deniers and shouters and haters.

Also, when you say someone is “incendiary” as an artist, you have me right away. That doesn’t mean being “incendiary” is art in and of itself; there has to be substance behind it. Being a shock jockey is meaningless if you’re not saying anything meaningful. To shock for the sake of shock is a hollow endeavor, and where we used to call that a shock jockey in the 1990s, thanks to Howard Stern, it’s more known in the internet age nowadays as simply someone being a troll. Trolls are uninteresting and in many ways, the antithesis of intellectualism. So, I want to make clear I’m not holding that up on a pedestal. But incendiary in the context of what a black artist like Baraka was doing with some of his work? It’s only seen as incendiary because of that mirror effect upon white society, and being incendiary to them. And to be sure, as the Poetry Foundation notes, even someone that gets that message right at times can also dive headfirst into wrong viewpoints, such as ugly antisemitism and silly conspiracies in his post-9/11 poem, “Somebody Blew Up America.” In other words, human beings are complicated and flawed. To be clear, I’m not pretending to understand any poet when I do these poetry write-ups by merely reading a snippet of their life. I do that to help give context to the poems I read, but it seems rather obvious from the full Poetry Foundation and NPR write-ups that Baraka was indeed a complicated person.

Anyhow, here is the poem in full, and here is an excerpt:

And now, each night I count the stars,
And each night I get the same number.
And when they will not come to be counted,
I count the holes they leave.

I love that stanza, counting the holes left in the wake of stars. This seems similar in a way to the Bukowski poem I recently reviewed also about suicide, where Baraka seems rather resigned to his fate, saying, “Things have come to that.” He seems rather exhausted. And much like Bukowski’s poem, which includes his 7-year-old daughter saving him, the last stanza in Baraka’s poem involves his daughter as well, but it’s a darker, less hopeful image. In the stanza, he goes up to her room and hears her talking to someone, and when he opens the door, no one is there. Instead, she’s on her knees, “peeking into her own clasped hands.”

That last line is what I was referencing at the top of the post with the “oof” and the shudder. At first, I thought the noise was going to be her praying into her hands, but instead, she’s peeking into her own clasped hands. So, then, the two thoughts I had to interpret what this means are: 1.) is that evoking the concept of looking into the abyss? Is the daughter the stand-in image for that given the context of a suicide note? and 2.) given the context of Baraka’s experiences, is the daughter contemplating her blackness for the first time by “peeking into her own clasped hands”? In other words, is this a scene of dread for Baraka because he realizes his daughter is having that same awareness that he once had of, “I’m black,” and everything that comes with being black in American entails to him? Only further adding to the suicidal ideation underwriting this poem and poetry collection?

It’s an interesting poem because there’s two parts here for such a short poem. There’s him starting out with the ground opening up and enveloping him, and how the stars are even disappearing, leaving in their wake those holes. Then it switches to the scene with his daughter. I’m not entirely sure what to make of it all.

And to elaborate from before, I found this poem under the general heading of “hope.” I’m trying to understand what’s remotely hopeful about this poem? Everything seems rather bleak, no? And it doesn’t seem like the Bukowski poem where the daughter is a sign of hope. Instead, the daughter here seems a further sign of everything that has “come to that,” right?

I would be fascinated to know why the Poetry Foundation thinks this poem is hopeful. Alas.

What do you think of this poem? How would you interpret it? I also find it impossible to disentangle it from the Bukowski I recently reviewed and have mentioned here, so I would recommend going back and reading that here, if you haven’t already.

Pictured courtesy of NPR is Amiri Baraka, shown here in 1972. Julian C. Wilson/AP.

3 thoughts

  1. Interesting poem! I agree that it doesn’t seem very hopeful. I’m trying to figure out how it can be and I thought about the last line: “her own clasped hands.” I wonder if the “own” part is significant and could be implying that the speaker also has his hands clasped (maybe in prayer like his daughter or in a pleading kind of way?) This might be a stretch because “her own clasped hands” could simply be referring to how she is not talking to anybody but is alone looking into her clasped hands.

    But maybe it’s hopeful in the sense that he feels he is not alone. His daughter is peeking into her empty hands and could be feeling a sense of emptiness like he feels. I went back and read your post on the Bukowski poem and his poem as well, and it’s so interesting that both of them mention a daughter!

    Thank you for sharing! Although it is hard to understand exactly how it can be classified as hopeful, the poem really is beautiful in a somber sort of way.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Wow, Tirza, thank you for your time and thoughts on this poem! Ah! This is why I love poetry because you can read the same poem multiple times and keep coming away with something new and different, and other people can as well. I love the meditation on “own.” That is interesting because “her clasped hands” would have done the same work, but “own” is added in there. So, you might be on to something. And re-reading it again, I just noticed that he tiptoed to her room; why did he tiptoe, anyway? Because he was expecting her to be asleep? But she’s also awake, same as he is in the first stanza, unable to sleep, except he’s counting stars, and she’s praying or peeking into her hands. Hmm.

      Thank you for your interesting contributions to this one!

      Liked by 1 person

      1. That’s a good point about how he tiptoes into her room and she’s awake. It makes it seem like there really is a connection between both of them and maybe the father realizes this by the end of the poem. Anyway, yeah, poetry is definitely great in its ability to be seen in different ways by readers!

        Liked by 1 person

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