Appearing in 1961, Preface to a Twenty-Volume Suicide Note is Amiri Baraka's (LeRoi Jones) first published collection of verse. Published by Totem Press in association with Corinth Books, Preface contains a number of poems that had appeared earlier in such little magazines as the Naked Ear, Swank, White Dove Review, Evergreen Review, Beat Coast East, Nomad, Provincetown Review, and others. It is in this spare volume that Baraka first received the notice of serious critics, as evidenced in Denise Levertov's fairly typical review. Noting the “sensuous and incantatory” beauty of the poems, she says, “his special gift is an emotive music” (Nation, 14 October 1961). Critics of Baraka also took note of the extent to which various modern masters had influenced his early verse. Baraka himself acknowledges in a 1959 essay entitled “How You Sound” (New American Poetry 1945–1960, ed. Donald M. Allen) and in a Nomad/New York interview (Autumn 1962) his debt to, among others, Charles Olson, William Carlos Williams, T. S. Eliot, Ezra Pound, and Garcia Lorca.
Despite the acknowledgments, the young Baraka was even more pervasively influenced by the writers of the Beat Generation, a group characterized by its scorn for the forces of convention, pretense, and materialism, as well as its posture of cool disengagement. An index of the poet's attachment to the concerns of these writers is apparent in the dedication of several selections to such members of the Beat coterie as Allen Ginsberg, Gary Snyder, John Wieners, and Michael McClure. The poems uniformly reflect the angst of a thoroughly drained soul in search of meaning and commitment.
The title poem of the volume introduces the recurring themes of despair, alienation, and self-deprecation. “Preface to a Twenty-Volume Suicide Note” lays bare the weary psyche of the hipster, or Beatnik. Filled with images of the stultifying life of convention and respectability, the poem concludes on a profoundly pessimistic note that is intensified in the death-haunted lyrics of “The Bridge” and “Way out West.”
The poems of Preface evidence yet another notable characteristic of Beat artistry in the frequency of reference to images from American popular culture. Allusions to jazz and popular music and references to characters from radio, film, and comic strips are present in a good number of the works. The fascination with jazz music and musicians, evident in “The Bridge,” is, in large part, a reflection of the Beat poet's reverence for an improvisational orientation to life as well as music. The attraction to the heroes of popular cultur—most apparent in “In Memory of Radio,” “Look for You Yesterday, Here You Come Today,” “The Death of Nick Charles,” and “Duke Mantee” —is evidence of the cynical, disengaged artist's hunger for commitment and positively directed action.
The remaining poems of Preface focus sharply on the related themes of racial identity and artistic engagement, matters that would receive ever growing attention in the later poems, plays, essays, and fiction of Baraka. Although minimally present in the previously cited poems, the question of the proper uses of poetry receives its strongest evocation in works such as “Be-tancourt” and “One Night Stand.” The racial identity theme is addressed most directly in the long, sardonic “Hymn for Lanie Poo.” In the final poem of Preface, “Notes for a Speech,” the poet effects an uneasy marriage of these two themes.
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LeRoi Jones (b. 1934)