On LeRoi Jones, 'Preface to A Twenty-Volume Suicide Note'

Preface to a Twenty Volume Suicide Note, LeRoi Jones’s first book, was composed between 1957 and 1961. [1] Arranged chronologically, the book feels distinct from the work Jones/Baraka is known for. That work, tho suggested here in isolated snatches, is yet to be written. In this sense the book truly is a “preface.”

And why to a suicide note? That part makes sense only in retrospect: Jones is poised to begin a decades long struggle to kill the white part of his consciousness. A belief common to Black Nationalists of the era was that many who are phenotypically black are ideologically white, therefore divided against themselves. This concept is explored in Jones’s “Poem for HalfWhite College Students” (1969), where he writes “check yourself / learn who it is / speaking [...] who it is you are and is that image black or white.” What begins in Preface as an embrace of open form, an opportunity to dig deep in his own mind and language, will develop, over the coming volumes, into revolutionary praxis. But as yet that struggle is kept at a distance.

Preface’s style is equal parts field poetics, Beat, and NY School. [2] Jones hasn’t arrived at a style quite yet, but instead presents an amalgam of influences. Though the authors in those movements had shifting perspectives, they often had well-defined approaches, habits, motifs. By contrast, the style of Preface feels uncertain — sometimes abstract lyric, sometimes visceral and incoherent, parodic in one poem, sincere in another. There’s anger, but its object remains unclear. The issue of race lurks, yet feels mostly repressed.

The second poem, “Hymn for Lanie Poo,” is most indicative of what Jones is repressing. In it, radically fragmented voices act out contradictory attitudes towards race and bohemia. The poem seems to critique both bohemians and the black bourgeoisie, but these critiques are equally directed at Jones himself. He lampoons a black man in a café for talking about politics then turning to gawk at a blond woman; Jones is married to a white woman when he writes this poem, and writes in disgust at Black Nationalists who claim this invalidates his right to address racialized oppression. Likewise, the poem labels his sister’s boyfriend a “faggot music teacher / who digs Tschaikovsky”; but Jones, who in this book references Strindberg, Rimbaud, and Baudelaire, can’t question the character of a man “who digs Tschaikovsky” without implicating himself.

The poem is less about Jones making a critique, and more about the discourse landscape he finds himself trapped in as a black poet and intellectual. He wants a life in art, not in politics, but politics follows him everywhere. He ends a 1961 letter to Dorn — the letter that accompanies the newly-published Preface, but also recounts his recent arrest in Harlem — with “What is this all about? Who knows? It’s just that I’ve got to do something. I donno. I’m picked. What I wanted (& want) was soft music and good stuffy purity (of intent, of purpose) elegance, even (of the mind). And now I’m fighting in the streets and the cops think I’m dangerous. […] I have people, old men, on Harlem streets come up and shake my hand, or old ladies kiss me, and nod, ‘You are a good man… you will help us.’” [3]

Even at the end of Preface, which closes with eight poems written after his visit to post-revolutionary Cuba, Jones expresses no desire to move towards a political poetry. These last pieces are not much different from the rest of the book, leaning if anything more towards the lyrical and harmonious. Whereas in earlier poems anger felt submerged, was handled with parody and sarcasm, the anger in these last eight is owned, but oddly integrated into a calm lyric. These poems were written around the same time as “Cuba Libre,” his essay about the trip, and they seem to embrace its final section, where he holds to the primarily cultural rebellion of the Beats — poetry as soul nourishment, not praxis. One poem from this section, “From an Almanac” sees “our time,” as “a cruel one. our soul’s warmth left out.” In “Betancourt,” the one poem written in Cuba, he accepts poetry as something apart from the cruel world, and in a near-echo of Wordsworth writes:

            (I mean I think
            I know now
            what a
            is) A
            turning away . .
            from what
            it was
            had moved
            us . . .
                                  Looking at the sea. And some
            white fast boat.

So the poet of “Betancourt” accepts, regretfully, the poem as a “turning away.” He has had a realization about the difference between poetry and action, a realization we know will change over the coming years. But for now, he will continue his commitment to poetry as such. He will not be a revolutionary. [4]

In the closing poem of the book, “Notes for a Speech,” the word “speech” suggests a connection to activism, but feels tentative about identifying with the current configurations of the cause. It begins “African blues / does not know me” and ends “my, so called / people. Africa / is a foreign place. You are / as any other sad man here / american.”


[1] As a way of honoring the original event and its request for 750 words or less, all my serious post-event additions are in these footnotes. The complexity of Preface to a Twenty-Volume Suicide Note may be too much for so few words, and though I want to preserve what I presented, I feel concerned that my original text may be oversimplifying its topic, so in a move that would not normally stand in an ordinary academic paper, important parts of the argument are submerged in the footnotes.
[2] Amiri Baraka, The Autobiography of Leroi Jones (New York: Freundlich Books, 1984). Open form poetries offered a critical “place of first permission” for writers looking for strategies flexible enough to sustain language unfit for a more repressed, formal, 1950s poetics — what Baraka would later frame as the “lyricaljingles” of The New Yorker. Baraka, by his account in the Autobiography of LeRoi Jones (1984), first discovered poetic comrades in the scenes that would later be represented (however inadequately) in The New American Poetry. After a period of deep alienation where what he knew of contemporary poetry was mostly what appeared in The New Yorker, his discovery of poets like O’Hara, Ginsberg, and Olson gave him his first sense of possibility. In one of the most cited passages of Autobiography, he talks about a turning point in his early relationship to poetry. While stationed in San Juan in the Air Force, sitting on a bench in a park where black people weren’t allowed unless dressed in US military uniform, he was reading the poetry in the current New Yorker. Those “jingling rhymes” and “verse […] of lawns and trees and dew and birds,” he recounts, made him cry, sob “like it was the end of the world” because just as he was getting excited about poetry, this verse made him realize he was “so out.” He explains, “I was crying because I realized I could never write like that writer […] that what was in me that wanted to come out as poetry would never come out like that and be my poetry” (118). Later sections of Autobiography indicate that the poetic context leading up to The New American Poetry offered the first set of strategies Jones felt connection with (225). Whatever personal and very real shortcomings progenitors of NAP had, the writing strategies, the work, was attractive to Jones, who regularly aligned himself with those projects in the pages of his magazine, Floating Bear, edited with Diane DiPrima. A question arose at the Kelly Writers House Q&A about whether any of the presenters were nostalgic for 1960. My answer would have to be no. The socio-political context of 1960 would not allow Jones to continue seeking what he sought — a life committed to aesthetic exploration in language. Jones wanted a life more like Duncan’s at that moment, but the struggle heating up in Harlem forced his engagement with politics. Reading both Autobiography and his correspondence with Edward Dorn, one cannot avoid the fact that Jones’ turn toward revolutionary politics was long and extraordinarily painful.

[3] Claudia Moreno-Pisano, “Amiri Baraka and Edward Dorn: The Collected Letters” (PhD diss., City University of New York-Graduate Center, 2010). I am grateful to my colleague at CUNY-LaGuardia Community College, Claudia Moreno-Pisano, whose recently completed dissertation is an (as yet unpublished) edition of the Jones-Dorn correspondence. Reading this correspondence has deepened my sense of Preface, and of Jones/Baraka’s early writing and political transformation.

[4] In “Cuba Libre,” he notes that approaching the Cuba trip, he was determined “not to be ‘taken.’” He tells the story here of meeting Rubi Betancourt, a Mexican delegate from the Latin-American Youth Congress, who he says harangued him for hours about the evils of the U.S. government and what an outrage it was that he didn’t write political poetry. He says he found himself growing more and more defensive, and excused his lack of activism on the grounds of being a poet: “Look, why jump on me? I understand what you're saying. I'm in complete agreement with you. I'm a poet . . . what can I do? I write, that's all, I'm not even interested in politics.” Betancourt attacked this position, as did a group of Latin-American poets a few days later, asking him: “You want to cultivate your soul? In that ugliness you live in, you want to cultivate your soul?” He notes in Autobiography his position on this trip as the “oddball, weary traveler/tourist from the U.S. of A.” and the surprise of finding himself defending his decision to define himself primarily as an artist. He returned from Cuba changed on this count, and though still frustrated and ambivalent about the emerging Black Nationalist movement, recounts that “arguments with my old poet comrades increased and intensified” (245–7). In this light, it is also interesting to note that in the letter to Dorn accompanying the delivery of Preface, fifteen months after the Cuba trip, Jones writes for the first time in their correspondence about politics. He had only recently begun to get involved in protests in Harlem, and writes about the current state of the Black Nationalist leadership: “I am, literally, the only person around who can set them straight. I mean straight… not only as to what their struggle is about, but what form it ought to take! I meet these shabby headed “black nationalists” or quasi-intellectual opportunities, who have never read a fucking book that was worth anything in their damned lives […] and shudder that any kind of movement, or feeling shd come down to the “people” thru their fingers” (Moreno-Pisano 81). Thinking of the last eight poems of Preface being written over the period beginning with the Cuba trip and ending shortly before this letter, one can see what a conflicted process was his coming to politics, and how resistant, frustrated, and ambivalent he was about it, how almost forced into it he felt.  These poems are not yet at the level of praxis, but stand as evidence of working out a relationship between conflicted parts of a self. Where Olson, for example, is constructing a self in poetry — this will be who I have been — Jones/Baraka starts out already at an irretrievable distance from a coherent self. This book is the best evidence of that struggle unresolved.