Something in the way (PoemTalk #126)

Amiri Baraka, 'Something in the Way of Things (In Town)'

From left: Aldon Nielsen, Tyrone Williams, William J. Harris

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Tyrone Williams, Aldon Nielsen, and William J. Harris joined Al Filreis in the Arts Cafe of the Kelly Writers House to talk before a live audience about Amiri Baraka’s poem “Something in the Way of Things (In Town).” The printed poem has been published in several versions; one version can be read below. It is best known as a cut on The Roots’ Phrenology album (2002). Baraka came to the lower Manhattan studio (Electric Lady Studios in Greenwich Village) where The Roots were recording some of the album’s tracks; there Baraka performed the poem as the band backed him. The result can be heard here.

An unedited video recording of the entire PoemTalk discussion is available below. So is a twelve-minute video recording of the Q&A that followed the podcast discussion. These were filmed by Chris Martin and Zach Carduner. As usual, Zach is also the editor of the podcast audio.

Ahmir “Questlove” Thompson of The Roots wrote a remembrance of Baraka after the poet’s death. It was published on January 12, 2014, in The New York Times. The essay describes Baraka’s influence and importance. It identifies poets who had influenced the Amiri Baraka of this particular poem (Olson and Burroughs, for instance) in such a way as to complicate (in a manner the PoemTalk panelists commend) the relationship between experimental black poetics arising out of modernism and the themes taken up by Phrenology — racial profiling, social Darwinism, and “hip-hop itself.” We at PoemTalk recommend this episode for several reasons, among them this in the middle of the podcast: a fresh, detailed analysis of Baraka’s critical yet ultimately unstubborn and nuanced relationship to popular black music in his later years. This leads to a discussion more generally of the special power of Baraka’s later poetry.

SOMETHING IN THE WAY OF THINGS (IN TOWN)

Something in the way of things 
Something that will quit and won’t start 
Something you know but can’t stand 
Can’t know get along with 
Like death 
Riding on top of the car peering through the windshield for his cue 
Something entirely fictitious and true 
That creeps across your path hallowing your evil ways 
Like they were yourself passing yourself not smiling 
The dead guy you saw me talking to is your boss 
I tried to put a spell on him but his spirit is illiterate 

I know things you know and nothing you don’t know 
’cept I saw something in the way of things 
Something grinning at me and I wanted to know, was it funny? 
Was it so funny it followed me down the street 
Greeting everybody like the good humor man 
But an they got the taste of good humor but no ice cream 
It was like dat 
Me talking across people into the houses 
And not seeing the beings crowding around me with ice picks 
You could see them 
But they looked like important Negroes on the way to your funeral 
Looked like important jiggaboos on the way to your auction 
And let them chant the number and use an ivory pointer to count your teeth 
Remember Steppen Fetchit 
Remember Steppen Fetchit how we laughed 
An all your Sunday school images giving flesh and giggling 
With the ice pick high off his head 
Made ya laugh anyway 

I can see something in the way of our selves 
I can see something in the way of our selves 
That’s why I say the things I do, you know it 
But its something else to you 
Like that job 
This morning when you got there and it was quiet 
And the machines were yearning soft behind you 
Yearning for that nigga to come and give up his life 
Standin’ there bein’ dissed and broke and troubled 

My mistake is I kept sayin’ “that was proof that God didn’t exist”
And you told me, “nah, it was proof that the devil do”
But still, it’s like I see something I hear things 
I saw words in the white boy’s lying rag 
said he was gonna die poor and frustrated 
That them dreams walk which you ’cross town 
S’gonna die from over work 
There's garbage on the street that’s tellin’ you you ain’t shit 
And you almost believe it 
Broke and mistaken all the time 
You know some of the words but they ain’t the right ones 
Your cable back on but ain’t nothin’ you can see 
But I see something in the way of things 
Something to make us stumble 
Something get us drunk from noise and addicted to sadness 
I see something and feel something stalking us 
Like and ugly thing floating at our back calling us names 
You see it and hear it too 
But you say it got a right to exist just like you and if God made it 
But then we got to argue 
And the light gon’ come down around us 
Even though we remember where the (light or mic) is 
Remember the Negro squinting at us through the cage 
You seen what I see too? 
The smile that ain't a smile but teeth flying against our necks 
You see something too but can't call its name 

Ain’t it too bad y’all said 
Ain’t it too bad, such a nice boy always kind to his motha 
Always say good morning to everybody on his way to work 
But that last time before he got locked up and hurt, real bad 
I seen him walkin’ toward his house and he wasn’t smiling 
And he didn’t even say hello 
But I knew he’d seen something 
Something in the way of things that it worked on him like it do in will 
And he kept marching faster and faster away from us 
And never even muttered a word 
Then the next day he was gone 
You wanna know what 
You wanna know what I’m talkin’ about 
Sayin’ “I seen something in the way of things”
And how the boys face looked that day just before they took him away 
The is? in that face and remember now, remember all them other faces 
And all the many places you’ve seen him or the sister with his child 
Wandering up the street 
Remember what you seen in your own mirror and didn’t for a second recognize 
The face, your own face 
Straining to get out from behind the glass 
Open your mouth like you was gon’ say somethin’ 
Close your eyes and remember what you saw and what it made you feel like 
Now, don’t you see something else 
Something cold and ugly 
Not invisible but blended with the shadow criss-crossing the old man 
Squatting by the drug store at the corner 
With is head resting uneasily on his folded arms 
And the boy that smiled and the girl he went with 

And in my eyes too 
A waving craziness splitting them into the jet stream of a black bird 
Wit his ass on fire 
Or the solomNOTness of where we go to know we gonna be happy 

I seen something 
I SEEN something 
And you seen it too 
You seen it too 
You just can’t call its name