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High Low Country: The Baraka/Dorn Correspondence

By Benj DeMott

I’m sure you’re going to somehow manage to say the opposite but mean the same, which we two I like to think always do. It is a good necessity. I just hope we don’t get caught, isolated from each other, across the river, waving.
—Ed Dorn

...[R]isk is something I need…I don’t expect to be right, but it does profit my energies when I am. Moreover it’s the swing itself I dig, if I feel it. Ditto I think you go by that. But I do feel close to you, whatever I say or however.
—Amiri Baraka/LeRoi Jones

The 60s correspondence between poets Amiri Baraka (then known as LeRoi Jones) and Edward Dorn—collected this year in a vital volume edited by Claudia Moreno Pisano—swings you in and out of what Allen Ginsberg once termed “the era of good feeling.” At the top of the decade, bohemian Baraka’s in thrall to tribunes of the New American Poetry (like Dorn), painters and jazz musicians. But changing times push him away from the Village’s pre-political moveable feast even as he insists: “Against all that other shit kicking around, there’s still that basically human act, the drunken party.” He rustled up more than a few good ones and as you read his letters to Dorn you're there at Creation:

...a wild extraordinary concert last week, with Don Cherry, Billy Higgins and Wilber Ware. It was really beautiful. No Shit. Cherry played a long slow gorgeous You Don’t Know What Love Is that floored everyone. He has gotten to be too much. Higgins, is about the finest yng drummer on the scene. And you know Wilbur, high as he was, he came on like big time gang busters. Thing went on in a big dirty loft, and we were carrying our own jugs, and the musicians just went as far out as they could, realizing the extreme empathy, &c. of the audience. [1]

Music is often on in the correspondence between Baraka and Dorn who writes a lovely note about listening to Billie Holiday’s Lady in Satin way out West: “I still want to scream when I think of it, that death they put her thru…”

It’s very strange Billie singing in these mountains. I sat w/ my chin on the window sill and last night watched a fire started by a bug, across the valley, on the other side of the Portneuf. A nice bright blaze. The poor bastard can’t go much longer, the FBI is after him. This was something like his 7th fire and it finally made it. Beautiful light...At night it gets very cold, we have to pile the blankets on. We can see the whole other wall of the Valley across the way and in the folds of the mountains, where there is more moisture because of a northern exposure where the snow lingers, there are scrub oak, mountain maple, and other shrubs, they are now bright deep rich red, looks like blood running down the cuts of the mountain.

Along with an instinct for straight-no-chaser pathos, the two poets shared an incorrect sense of humor (“Our new little babysitter, who’s about 16...looks like she must shit caramels. Ummm.”) Both were close to Gilbert Sorrentino, who'd go on to be one of American lit’s most slashing satirists. And here’s Baraka’s rapt (if resistant) response to Edward Albee’s Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf?:

It is exactly like the mfing title; incredibly clever. I mean this cat has singlehandedly resurrected the embarrassed ghost of Oscar Daddio Wilde…But when he tried to tell you something you don’t know it’s strictly bush. Like one character walks around saying “truth or illusion.” Yeh. But Uta Hagen (coming out of a Bette Davis bag) is really great. I met Albee during the intermission (one of O’Hara’s friends) and he seems like the kinda cat who’d vomit on you if you punched him...just to get the last word.

Baraka and Dorn weren’t above macho poses, but their tough guy talk tended not to be triumphal. It usually spoke to human vulnerability:

Gild sd something to one of them, like, “You’re a prick,” and baby it was on. There was about 12 of them, and it turned out about 4 or 5 of them were like in another group...they were off-duty cops. Man, they kicked the shit out of us. I mean literally kicked. No fists much. But I backed against the wall street fighting style, and there was a cat on one side kicking me in the shins, I mean calm like he was jerking off.

It was love for poetry—not rage at violent wankers—that first brought city boy Baraka to mountain man Dorn. Their correspondence started in 1959 when Baraka wrote to ask Dorn to contribute poems to the little magazine Yugen, His letter initiated a epistolary tale of artists as young men running into the 60s—a story that makes a case (per Ammiel Alcalay’s Foreword) for putting “aside labels of schools and movements and conventional literary histories, such as exist of that period, and following the person.”

Baraka himself recalled his tight personal connection with Dorn as well as their harmonious aesthetics in a 2009 lecture that serves as a preface to the volume of their letters. Baraka affirmed the “value of what we had discussed and agreed on..."

but it was necessary for me to get away from the Village and the alienation which made me so ashamed as I stood in the Eighth St Book Store when Leroy McLucas (whom Ed collaborated with on a book about Native Americans) ran into the place in the middle of a book party shouting that they had just murdered Malcolm X. I was inconsolable. Ed could understand that but...what could he make of it himself? Was this Liberation which I now shrieked about an exclusive Black province—isn’t there an intellectual and ideological alignment that includes the willing?

Dorn’s will to imagine his buddy’s situation from within shows through in their correspondence. Dorn’s deep digging of DuBois’s Souls of Black Folks hints at why Baraka felt so brotherly toward him[2}:

Dear Roi—Just a note—I wanted to talk to you suddenly, desperately—wow you put me on to Dubois when I read your Tokenism piece—and was sort of thinking to go to the library for something of his but hadn’t until the other day I picked up a paperback The Souls of Black Folks. Reading “of our spiritual strivings” I could hardly finish that 1st chapter—I was crying that much, damn I near couldn’t make my eyes look anymore but got thru it all choked—I tried, in my excitement to read it to Helene but couldn’t do that either.

You’ve probably known the man’s work for a long time—so may not get with my present feeling—of thanks, to you, regret for myself etc. That old Hebrew use, that pull of those most powerful of the nouns we have—like [...]—that pressure of the full emotional sense of the word, like also Dahlberg’s opening paragraphs of his autobiography. Well it isn’t so much the man’s a negro—tho that stuns me too, knowing only Ellison and Baldwin, Wright etc.—Wow shit I wish I hadn’t been so slow—...Oh well, that’s not the point really—I feel I have been gripped where it most belongs by that man, you must be very proud to be of him, no?

Love, Ed

Dorn’s responsiveness moved Baraka to write candidly about rushes of shame, egotism and hubris that marked his own movements of mind early in the 60s. Per this passage from early in their correspondence which also hints at class-based biases that would (forever?) retard Baraka’s spins on the art of politics:

I’m getting to be a bigtime politico. Uptown (harlem) speaking on streets, getting arrested. Even made Senator Eastland’s list, which is some distinction. “Beatnik poet, radical leftist racist agitator,” to quote that dear man. Have a trial coming up next month (after 3 adjournments) for “resisting arrest; inciting to riot; disorderly conduct.” All true as hell. My only bitch is that I only got in one good swing before they popped me (but good). What is it 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. But what is heavy on my head is...Do I owe these people that much? Negroes, I mean. I realize that 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. Also, these stupid left wing farts whose only claim to goodness is that they know capitalism is bad! Shit. So where does that leave me? Fuck, if I know. 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.” And what? So some foul mouthed prick nationalist gets up on a box and denounces me for having a white wife! Brrr.

Dorn picked up on Baraka’s anxiety about being frozen in or out of the struggle against white supremacy long before the murder of Malcolm X. Their back and forths on this score begin to heat up after Baraka’s radicalizing visit to Cuba in 1961. "Black Mountains Beyond Mountains"—our companion post to this piece—reprints a swatch of letters from that year that amount to a sort of compaction of their entire correspondence. There were other telling exchanges during the Cuban Missile Crisis. Baraka wrote to Dorn in despair:

I don’t know what you’re thinking, but Kennedy’s speech & the last day’s events have frightened me, & mine, out of our wits. Now, the radio says the Russian ships won’t change their course, nor, I suppose, will whatever history has stacked...OH shit, I mean what shit. I mean who the fuck are these bastards to kill all of us? What futile bullshit. For what? And pompous motherfuckers like Kennedy sit & say this shit knowing, I suppose, that it won’t be their kids who get blown up. Goddam. There oughta be or I oughta start a group of terrorists whose only mission will be to bump off all the self-righteous motherfuckers who don’t believe they’re gonna die!

Dorn replied with his own protest against “the very subtle kind of death they had in mind for us all along”: “what was being outlawed was the very possibility of a private dignified death, say vaguely, what Jung talks of as the necessity of the organism, at that crucial point, to know what is happening to it.” Aware, though, of Baraka’s increasing need to act out, Dorn tried to talk him out of extremism:

Your special terrorist group, to bump off the safe ones makes great sense. A lovely idea...Unfortunately perhaps for you and others, your structure is not terrorist. You were born with other things to do, and now, no matter how funny that may seem, it isn’t. You know anyway the degree of preoccupation the terrorist must have, must be inherited. Terrorists are terrorists at birth.

A few weeks on he amped up his No in thunder to Baraka’s guilt “at not having thrown a few bombs at the right places.”

So ok, by birth you are an activist, but culturally you’re not. Now wait a minute boy! Culturally you’re really not. Now I don’t give a shit what color you are you got the same culture I got. I’ve talked to you. You got other things sure, of course that’s true, but we understand each other very well I think, and I think it’s because you came from a lower middle class liberal background and I came from a lower class conservative background. I mean right here that sociological reality, the lines of dispensation of, cutting across the whole middle patch, name your terms and the connections can be come up with...in that sense america is the great leveler, like I know goddamn well you’re too cool to throw yourself on the chest of say Adenauer with a knife in your hands as say he gets out of the lincoln continental on park ave. And you probably aren’t ultimately devious either, which takes care of the hidden aspects of the same act. Perhaps I’m wrong. But I take it your anger, insofar as it can be localized, is poetic, and I am very aware that adjective is in bad odor, but I am pronouncing it here to describe the fact that you ain’t cut out for the shit you are one of the most articulate adumbraters of, and furthermore, you mother, you ought, of all people, to know, throwing oneself against their goddamn walls is one of the most useless USELESS fucking kinds of suicide ever invented by man.

Dorn worried Baraka’s journey into politics would be a doomy trip. Though he got why Baraka would have to kill LeRoi Jones—Prince of Bohemia—to stay sane in America’s “permissive asylum.” Baraka’s letters make it clear he was drinking and drugging dangerously before he broke out of the Village to go “home” to Harlem. (That move uptown may have saved his life even as it brought him near new dangers.) There are harrowing passages in the letters about Baraka’s stay in Bellevue after contracting hepatitis from a dirty needle. (During his convalescence there in the run-up to his blacker-than-thou stage, Baraka locks on the suffering of “poor old city white men":

The all night screamers...Where have these cats been all their lives? In what hopeless furnished room or whatever. A poor Negro or Puerto Rican is one thing. Their culture is reactive, is to a large extent formed, because of the need to exist & grow in such conditions. But the old white poor person is terribly shabby & unnerving.)

Baraka didn’t get hooked on heroin because he had an “automatic thermostat somewhere that gets me very sick when I’ve had what amounts to a habit-beginning portion.” But the lure of smack’s pain reduction was strong. Especially when his partners in high crime were world-class artists.

I was hanging out with Elvin Jones and this nutty painter friend of mine Bob Thompson, which is like, if you listen to Elvin play, hanging out at the Olympics or participating in the motherfuckers. Trane is playing at the Halfnote and after the last set the three of us lit out into the snow with those cats screaming at the tops of their lungs...man did we love each other that night, I mean completely, and at a real point of ecstasy...we went to Bob’s house and used up all his skag...and that shit always makes me sick, always. But we finally ended up standing on corner, Elvin and I, talking till 8:00 Am, and I was so exhausted and high and drunk by that time I slept till evening. Completely dishonest but wow we got into something other than just standing around being suffering fucking artists. Man those cats suffer on the run, which is what I dig, and take I suppose to be the truest playback of my sensibility. But not that earnest mediocrity...that calmness and stealth. Fuck that.

That passage—and the entire Baraka/Dorn correspondence—amounts to more than a “playback” of these poets' sensibilities. It evokes the 60s livingly—the peaks one step away from the Pit.


1 Baraka goes on: “Also, as some weird added attraction! There was a cat there, from Copenhagen, a Negro cat, who was born in Denmark...can you dig that? Anyway, the cat’s been listening to records, for sho, but he’s into something very personal and very swinging. All came to their feet, after a few seconds hanging to see where the cat was going, he straightened out into this weirdweird sound and metre. Like he was huffing and puffing on an alto. Or like he wasn’t sure whether he was playing Baritone or alto, and dug Harry Carney and Hawk, but really wanted to play like Bird! Can you hear that?? Wow! John Tiinonson I think his name was. I hope sometimes we gets to hear him on some record.” Editor Pisano notes Baraka was referring to Afro-Danish saxophonist and composer, John Tchicai, in one of her many helpful addenda.

2 Hettie Jones reported in her autobiography that in 1964, after dedicating The Dead Lecturer to Dorn, “Roi was to tell me, soon, that Ed Dorn was the only white man that understood him.” (Pace Ms. Pisano.)

From April, 2014

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