I Speak of the City: Amiri Baraka

[When did pedestrian become a bad thing? When did it become synonymous with dull and unremarkable?

I ask because it seems to be the adjective of choice for a lot of negative commentary about Elizabeth Alexander’s “Praise Song for the Day.” Well, if by pedestrian they also mean that Alexander is commenting on the realities she sees while walking through Town, then I don’t see what’s wrong with being pedestrian.

Take for example the images and commentary from Amiri Baraka’s “Something In The Way Of Things (In Town).” Baraka’s poem reminds the reader that what is dismissed as pedestrian is the same thing that can save your Town, if you are open to seeing the decay in Town and around Town as symptomatic evidence of a deeper problem. Then again, you can be as pedestrian as you want to be misreading all the signs if your “spirit is illiterate.”]

Something In The Way Of Things (In Town)

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, its 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 it’s name

© Amiri Baraka

“Something In The Way Of Things (In Town)” by Amiri Baraka with music by The Roots

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  1. PEDESTRIAN: The two-dollar vocabulary work picked up by the blog critics who can’t invent their own shit.

    Luckily, I CAN invent some new language. Check it:

    BLOGODEMIA: The new pseudo-intellectual class of blog critics and “literary professionals” who now claim hold over American poetry. i.e. Punk mofos who can’t say some something to someone’s face. See also: Cabrones.

    I didn’t like EA’s poem, but so what. She doesn’t write the kind of stuff I always dig. But she’s the one Barack wanted. Life goes on, haters hate, and pa’l carajo with the rest.

  2. You can probably guess what my column will say about it, but I didn’t like the poem or the delivery. Understand that I am not dogmatically equating “delivery” with full-bore “performance” (though by definition, delivery is performance), so I’m not suggesting Obama should have picked a performance poet. I don’t think anything was wrong with the idea of picking her. I do maintain that, while a personal choice, there’s a lot of weight on a poet in that position to represent and she didn’t. Or rather, she did, but in all the wrong ways.

    It also bears noting that PLENTY of people didn’t like Maya Angelou before she even read her inaugural effort and used her effort to suggest why she was wack. It was mostly poetry-centric jabs, but it was jabs. Elizabeth is different in that she is taking a lot of non-poetry jabs; non-poets just thought, “she’s boring” and moved on (if they weren’t part of the masses of peopel who moved on literally and figuratively after Obama’s speech anyway). No one thought Angelou was boring, and I felt that even her inaugural poem, while not her best, was certainly valid and compellingly delivered.

  3. Can I also point out that while Baraka’s poem is pedestrian, it is a different strain of pedestrian. There is “Here is what I see” and there is “here is a list of things I see.” The difference between the two is that the first, when done poetically, funnels through a lens of the poet’s voice and imagination. The second is a grocery list. I’d agree that Alexander’s poem was pedestrian in tone, if not wholly as device.

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