Spoor of Desire: Selected Poems
is available for $16.00 from FootHills Publishing, P.O. Box 68, Kanona NY 14856 or see www.foothillspublishing.com.

Tourist Snapshots is available for $8.95 from Randy Fingland, CC Marimbo, P.O. Box 933, Berkeley CA 94701 or see www.ccmarimbo.com.

Dada Poetry: An Introduction was published by Nirala Publications. It may be ordered on Amazon.com for $25 plus shipping. American buyers may order a copy from me for $23 including shipping.

The other books are also available from the author William Seaton. Write seaton@frontiernet.net.

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Tuesday, March 1, 2016

The Last Poets

While recognizing that these artists are best consumed through the medium of their recordings, I am here concerned only with the portion of their published work presented in two books. Some of these texts are much later than others and some of the poets on early Last Poets recordings are not included. On a Mission contains considerable prose material including an introduction by Amiri Baraka and lengthy essays from Abiodun Oyewole and Bin Hassan, while The Last Poets Vibes from the Scribes has author’s headnotes for each poem. I concern myself here with nothing but the poetry.

On a Mission: Selected Poems and a History of The Last Poets, Abiodun Oyewole and Umar Bin Hassan with Kim Green, forward by Amiri Baraka

The Last Poets Vibes from the Scribes, London: Pluto Press, 1985 featuring Jalal Nuriddin and Suliaman El Hadi.

I recall in the early seventies reading in a black neighborhood bar on San Francisco’s Divisadero Street in which I was the anomaly. Most of the poets wrote highly melodic revolutionary race-conscious verse with insistent rhythm and rhyme. The same was true of the residents of a halfway house for ex-convicts who frequently showed up at the open readings at the Starry Plough in Berkeley at Shattuck and Prince during the same era. Their poetic technique was surely in part descended from the style of “toasts” such as “The Signifying Monkey,” but doubtless owed a debt as well to popular music and advertising jingles. Readers were often backed by musicians and recordings of such experimentation includes pioneering work by Langston Hughes in the thirties, Kenneth Patchen in the forties, and Beat poets in the fifties. [1]

I thought of that experience recently upon reading two books of the Last Poets, the celebrated and, briefly, even popular writers whom I am sure those Bay Area poets knew well. Their thematic preoccupations were shaped by the history specific to that era. There is certainly no doubt that the ensemble arose in a highly specific political context, two years after the proclamation of Black Power by Stokely Carmichael (later Kwame Ture) in June of 1966. [2] The Last Poets ceremoniously conceived themselves as self-consciously radical cultural nationalists on May 19, the birthday both of Malcom X (Malik el Shabazz) and Ho Chi Minh at Marcus Garvey Park in East Harlem. They were perhaps the most prominent poetic expression of the Black Arts Movement that arose from Black Power and Black Nationalist ideologies. Among the Last Poets’ immediate predecessors in this tradition were the On Guard and Umbra groups including Leroi Jones (Amiri Baraka), Harold Cruse, Steve Cannon, Ishmael Reed, and the Uptown Writers Movement.

One of those involved in this last formation was South African Keorapetse "Willie" Kgositsile, an African Nationalist Congress activist in exile. [3] In an apocalyptic anticipation of a bloody upheaval Kgositsile had declared an end to “art talk.” “The only poem you will hear will be the spearpoint pivoted in the punctured marrow of the villain.” David Nelson (Dahveed ben Israel) added, “Therefore we are the last poets of the world.”

Various writers and musicians constituted the Last Poets group in books and recordings. Their albums [4] attracted considerable attention, even attaining a spot on the top ten list, after which they faded from public notice after the early seventies (though most members continued recording albums and writing). Today, In spite of their unquestionable historic role in American politics, the Black Arts Movement, and the renaissance of performance poetry, the Last Poets are virtually unread. Their work is very difficult to obtain. On a Mission: Selected Poems and a History of The Last Poets has long been out of print and my own local library had to borrow a British edition of Vibes from the Scribes from the Library of Congress for me.

Considering their present obscurity, I think it wise to avoid evaluation and interpretation. I shall not consider the history either of America’s troubled relation to race or to the conflicts among the ever-changing roster of bickering writers that were at different times presented under the Last Poets name. I mean to offer here only a descriptive sketch of the work of some of their number with the hope that they will gain new readers in a later era in which their poetry and their politics remain powerful and provocative.

Themes common to all the Last Poets include portrayal of American racism and exploitation of blacks and two reactions, which seem altogether opposed, but which are sometimes articulated in more subtle ways. The first is the self-destructive turn by some to drugs, reckless self-indulgence, and crime, but this is balanced by the profound redemptive quality of black art, represented by the poets’ own words on the page but also by jazz.

Each, of course, has an individual vision and a unique style. Jalal Nuriddin is sometimes called “grandfather of rap” for his work in the spoken word, called in the sixties spieling. He himself referred to his style as "spoagraphics" or "spoken pictures." His usual style is poised between conversation and declamation with three or four beats to the line, occasionally expanding to underline a point. A reserved manipulation of typeface reproduces, or at least implies, the performative aspect of the poem, and the rolling rhymes propel the verses forward. In “Jazzoetry” the poet suggests that his manner can lead to enlightenment, to “dig bop” can lead to a “new birth.” “Dig the sound of our love inside our pride.” [5] In “Bird’s Word” the recitation of a catalogue of names of great artists serves as a charm to uplift the oppressed.

The confrontation between white and black in “On the Subway” (the setting as well of Dutchman) might seem exaggerated to those who did not experience the peculiar character of American race relations a few generations ago. Setting the problem out in words well served both parties. In Nuriddin’s “Wake Up Niggers” “the cock crows” to bring the listener to full consciousness (the image appears as well in medieval Christian poetry). Here the racial epithet of the title is used neither in its racist meaning nor with the neutral or positive associations it bears sometimes in more modern rap, but to condemn those who fail to recognize the need for change. To the poet complacency can only arise in those who have been taken in by “lies” and “alibis” of “spies” (“Surprises”) but art (here represented by Miles Davis) can bring the truth. The negative consequences of slavery a hundred years after abolition are highlighted in “Jones Coming Down” and “O.D.” (which juxtaposes a “Bird Lives” graffito with a sign admonishing “PLEASE DON’T PEE IN OUR HALL.”

Suliaman El Hadi writes in the same middle-length lines but with fewer rhymes, more repetition and freer use of anaphora. In his themes he has a predilection the mythic. He quite realistically admires “Ho Chi Minh” for his (eventually successful) resistance to imperialism but also indulges in an imagined Edenic pre-Columbian era in America (“Before the White Man came”). Similarly “Hands Off” presents a mythic Afrocentric view of history and “Blessed Are Those Who Struggle” reads almost like an early 20th century labor anthem with its singable quatrains, listing heroes of the struggle including Drew Ali and Marus Garvey with Dubois and the Panthers. To El Hadi oppression is caused by deceitful Jinn (see “It’s a Trip”) while “Delights of the Garden” provides a description of paradise.

In his view birth control is an “evil design” and “it is better to use self-control.” (“The Pill”) In fact according to “This is Your Life” science itself is enwrapped in the arms race, the colonization of space, and future rule by “a mechanical race” of robots. “Get Moving” is a call to seek “freedom” in ways little defined but which include “keep your obligations to your Lord.” Here he echoes Nuriddin’s call for people to “wake up, wakeup.”

Abiodun Oyewole employs short to mid-length lines with much repetition and irregular use of rhyme. Perhaps his line in “When the Revolution Comes” noting that “some of us will catch it on TV” is in part responsible for the erroneous association of Gil Scott-Heron and his poem "The Revolution Will Not Be Televised" [6] with the Last Poets. Oyewole’s “Run Nigger,” like Nuriddin’s “Wake Up Niggers” and and Bin Hadi’s “Niggers R Scared of Revolution” condemns those who fail to move toward liberation. [7] He writes love poems as well (such as “Black Rose” and “Brown Sugar”) while condemning exploitation of women in “Gash Man.”

“Invocation” provides an identity and history of the Last Poets as a group. Telling the tale of the ritual of their founding and naming, Oyewole describes their truth-telling “mission,” noting that they aimed to be “sassy and funky and sincere,” which is to say stylishly beautiful, yet down and dirty in the realities of everyday life, with a primary loyalty to truth. “Last Rites” is a magic griot charm insisting that the group will survive and grow and be “the light to show them the way” to the apocalyptic change when “the last shall be first,/ and the first shall be last.”

In the twenty-first century, in the era of Black Lives Matter and the prison-industrial complex and widespread Islamophobia, we might do well to reread the Last Poets. At their best they incarnated what Amiri Baraka called for:

what is needed is what the Griot/Djali provided, information,
inspiration, reformation, and self determination! Mama Sky,
we cried, hook us up with the Electricity. Turn us ON. That city
of our deep desire. [r]

1. I find the performances on Fantasy of the Cellar Jazz ensemble with Rexroth and Ferlinghetti compelling.

2. Ironically Frederick Douglass had used the same phrase in the 1850s referring to the exaggerated political influence of slave-owners. Douglass optimistically predicted that “the days of Black Power are numbered. . . Liberty must triumph.” See Winston A. Van Horne, "Sustaining Black Studies," Journal of Black Studies, Vol. 37, No. 3, (January 2007).

3. Kgositsile later returned to Africa and in 2005 was named poet laureate of South Africa. His son is a hip-hop artist.

4. Right On from Gylan Kain, David Nelson, and Felipe Luciano was released in 1967 and The Last Poets with Umar Bin Hassan, Abiodun Oyewole, Alafia Pudim (a.k.a. Jalaluddin Mansur Nuriddin) and Nilja in 1969. (The Supremes released an album titled Right On in 1970. The same phrase is the title of a 1971 film using these poets on the soundtrack.)

5. Many will recall the posters with Che Guevara’s words “At the risk of seeming ridiculous, let me say that the true revolutionary is guided by a great feeling of love.”

6. On his 1970 album Small Talk at 125th and Lenox.

7. In his headnote to the poem Oyewole credits fellow Last Poet Gylan Kain for defining nigger for him in another poem: “Niggers Are Untogether People.” He also credits their colleague David Nelson for documenting the futility of niggers, writing “Die, Nigga, Die.”

8. “Griot/Jali Poetry, Music, History, Message” from Jali Kunda: Griots of West Africa and Beyond ed. By Matthew Kopka and Iris Brooks (Roslyn NY: Ellipsis Arts, 1996), 78-82.

Notes from Recent Reading 28 (Verne, Waley, Hurston)

Master of the World (Verne)

This late and hasty story suffers from a number of defects: stiff, lifeless diction, a sudden unmotivated denouement, the inclusion of odd geographical data, and a pronounced tendency toward repetition that makes the reader suspect the author was paid by the word. A sequel to Robur the Conqueror in which the antagonist had been better-intentioned, the would-be Master of the World appears here as a standard mad scientist, threatening somehow that he can enslave the world with his combo car-boat-submarine-airplane constructed on his remote island. A faint foreshadowing of the fear of insane authority Kracauer saw in Caligari does little to animate the character.

At the conclusion, the hero is a captive of Robur, sailing aloft in his marvelous machine when suddenly, in an event altogether without prior trace or present significance, the craft crashes, the villain dies, and Inspector Brock (of the American “national police”) is cast unconscious into the sea from which his “helpless body” is rescued.

Incidentally the story has some quaint aspects perhaps worth mentioning. Though written the year after the Wright brothers’ actual flight at Kitty Hawk, Verne imagines an airship with wings that beat like a bird’s. The book is set in the United States motivating side comments by Verne confirming the American scene such as the sighting of possums and plenty of gamblers.

This one I will not include even among the titles I mean to read to my granddaughter.

The Poetry and Career of Li Po (Waley)

The poet (whose name is also transliterated as Li Bai and Li Bo or Ri Haku from the Japanese form) has proven the most popular Chinese poet in the West, perhaps the only one generally educated people could have named fifty years ago. His reputation is certainly due in part to the accessibility of his extravagant romanticism, his celebrations of drinking, and his general Bohemianism. Yet Waley’s book, which was published in 1950, may also have played a role at a time when Li Po could strike the common reader as something of an Asian Dylan Thomas.

Waley’s book includes a good many first-rate translations of the sort one expects from the mn who did more than any other individual to spread knowledge of East Asian culture in Europe and the United States. (How important to me were his Three Ways of Thought in Ancient China, his version of the Tao Te Ching (Dàodéjīng), his Monkey!) He also tells the poet’s story well, in a way that is wholly understandable to those who know little of Chinese literature and history while including sufficient references to indicate his own scholarly responsibility. The book is a delight and an entertainment.

And just as Waley was a magnificent popularizer in the best sense, the series in which the book appeared from George Allen & Unwin, the Ethical and Religious Classics of East and West, represents a cosmopolitan faith in culture and truly liberal education almost lost today. The series, “which originated among a group of Oxford men and their friends,” following the horrors of Auschwitz and Hiroshima, sought to encourage “a deeper understanding and appreciation of other peoples and their civilizations.” They aimed their series specifically at “the ex-Service man who is interested in the East, the undergraduate, the adult student, the intelligent public generally.” Yet the works are all by experts, Archer on Krishna, Arberry on Sufism, Conze on Buddhism. These writers delivered the real thing, no condescending simplification, no New Age mush, but the wholesome nourishment of some of the most sublime thinking our species has attained.

Seraph on the Suwanee (Hurston)

Zora Neale Hurston would likely have been annoyed though not surprised that the first thing everyone must say about Seraph on the Suwanee is that it centers on white people. Hurston was notoriously dismissive of racial politics – a Republican, she opposed integration and even Roosevelt’s New Deal – in in this book race seems to matter little. The increasingly affluent Jim Meserve seems to wholly accept personal and working relations with a black family, and his son becomes a jazz musician who plays in such a way that he says “you could almost think it was colored folks playing that music.” The society of the shrimpers with whom he works likewise seems strangely egalitarian for the period. Most powerfully, the tensions of the plot are entirely unrelated to issues of race, and the language used by Arvay and others, while looking quite authentic (she was of course a trained anthropologist) is virtually identical, word for word in some cases, with the vernacular used by her black characters.

Hurston also goes against the grain on gender issues. Though her Their Eyes Were Watching God readily accepts a simple feminist reading, Seraph on the Suwanee ends with its heroine apparently finding peace and fulfilment by accepting the absolute authority of her husband. In fact Arvay is so agonized by anxiety, depression, and feelings of worthlessness that she is an unlikely candidate for a resolute action heroine.

The book is beautifully written, the colloquial dialect alone makes the volume worth reading. Powerful image systems at work as well.

Every Reader's Skelton

Who can resist the anecdote told of John Skelton’s presentation of his new-born son to his congregation at Diss in the waning days of Roman Catholicism’s hegemony in Britain? Understanding that some parishioners had complained about him to the Bishop of Norwich that “he kept a fair wench” who had just borne a child, he told his wife to bring the baby forward. Displaying it naked, he asked, “How say you, neighbors all? Is not this child as fair as is the best of yours? It hath nose, eyes, hands, feet, as well as any of yours: it is not like a pig, nor a calf nor like no fowl nor no monstrous beast. If I had brought forth this child without arms or legs, or that it were deformed, being a monstrous thing, I would never have blamed you to have complained to the bishop of me; but, to complain without a cause, I say, as I said before in my anthem, vos estis, you be, and have been, and will and shall be knaves, to complain of me without a cause reasonable.”

Whether it is true or not, this story expresses the poet’s qualities of wit, his broad humanity, and his sense of the dramatic. Skelton was a scholar; a number of his Latin poems are extant. He was made “laureate” through his rhetorical degrees at both Oxford and Cambridge and he tutored Prince Henry (later Henry VIII). “Regius orator” and poet-laureate to the court, he knew his Greek and Latin and was adept at the fashionably elaborate ornamentation that later came to be called Euphuism. His translation of Diodorus Siculus is called by its editors “the most extravagant specimen of aureation in our language.”

Yet he is remembered less for his for his classicism and his artifice than for poems notably vulgar in theme, unconventional in form, and colloquial in diction, with short lines and rhymes tumbling over each other in a way that seems akin to some of today’s performance poetry. The sound of a Skelton poem is unmistakable. Here are the opening lines of “The Tunnyng of Elynour Rummyng,” a portrait of the slattern who runs a public house. Skelton opens with paean to her ugliness, an inversion of the courtly blazon of the beloved.

TELL you I chyll,
If that ye wyll
A whyle be styll,
Of a comely gyll
That dwelt on a hyll :
But she is not gryll,
For she is somwhat sage
And well worne in age ;
For her vysage
It would aswage
A mannes courage.
Her lothely lere
Is nothynge clere,
But vgly of chere,
Droupy and drowsy,
Scuruy and lowsy ;
Her face all bowsy, . . .

There is a good deal more. Her patrons are of a piece with the good landlady in their inattention to grooming.

Some wenches come vnlased,
Some huswyues come vnbrased,
Wyth theyr naked pappes,
That flyppes and flappes ;
It wygges and it wagges,
Lyke tawny saffron bagges ;
A sorte of foule drabbes
All scuruy with scabbes :
Some be flybytten,
Some skewed as a kytten ;
Some wyth a sho clout
Bynde theyr heddes about ;
Some haue no herelace,
Theyr lockes about theyr face,
Theyr tresses vntrust,
All full of vnlust ;
Some loke strawry,
Some cawry mawry ;
Full vntydy tegges.

In another of Skelton’s poems one witnesses a micro-drama on a stage of twenty-eight lines. “Mannerly Margery Milk and Ale” looks a clever male female dialogue like Johnny Cash and June Carter’s Jackson” or Frank Loesser’s “Baby, It’s Cold Outside,” until one pays attention to its dark scenario. In this reworking of the pastourelle it is a cleric rather than a knight who importunes the country girl who prudently tries to send him on his way. In the chorus lines one hears the lady indignantly prodding her horses onward, but the last verse makes it clear that he has had his way and afterwards expresses only contempt for her.

Ay, beshrew you! by my fay,
These wanton clerks be nice alway!
Avaunt, avaunt, my popinjay!
What, will ye do nothing but play?
Tilly, vally, straw, let be I say!
Gup, Christian Clout, gup, Jack of the Vale!
With Mannerly Margery Milk and Ale.

By God, ye be a pretty pode,
And I love you an whole cart-load.
Straw, James Foder, ye play the fode,
I am no hackney for your rod:
Go watch a bull, your back is broad!
Gup, Christian Clout, gup, Jack of the Vale!
With Mannerly Margery Milk and Ale.

Ywis ye deal uncourteously;
What, would ye frumple me? now fy!
What, and ye shall be my pigesnye?
By Christ, ye shall not, no hardely:
I will not be japèd bodily!
Gup, Christian Clout, gup, Jack of the Vale!
With Mannerly Margery Milk and Ale.

Walk forth your way, ye cost me nought;
Now have I found that I have sought:
The best cheap flesh that I ever bought.
Yet, for his love that all hath wrought,
Wed me, or else I die for thought.
Gup, Christian Clout, your breath is stale!
Go, Mannerly Margery Milk and Ale!
Gup, Christian Clout, gup, Jack of the Vale!
With Mannerly Margery Milk and Ale.

Such vigorous vernacular serves well not only for the genre portrait of Elynour, “woundersly wrynkled,/ Lyke a rost pygges eare.” In “Mannerly Margery” the lady’s words sound like transcriptions of cries from the street: “Ay, beshrew you,” “Gup,” “now fy.” It is as real and immediate as can be, though written in imitation of centuries of literary models.

Skelton was capable of other tones: the awe-struck tremendum of “woefully Arrayed” or the richly fanciful yet fiercely satirical allegory of “The Bowge of Court.” While others were as capable of solemnity, classicizing periods and high artificiality, Skelton distinguishes himself with a jumping, squirming, sneering, joking, speedy popular rhetoric that insists on being read out loud. He was not always highly regarded. To Pope, for instance, he was “beastly,” a writers with work “consisting almost wholly of Ribaldry, Obscenity, and Billingsgate Language.” Yet today’s readers are likely to receive more kindly the style for which In Colin Clout he offers a sort of defense.

For though my rhyme be ragged,
Tattered and jagged,
Rudely rain beaten,
Rusty and moth eaten,
If ye take well therewith,
It hath in it some pith.