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Poet's Words Viewed as Harsh as Sticks, Stones

Work seen by many as anti-Semitic has led to a bill seeking end of New Jersey's laureate post.

February 09, 2003|David Zucchino | Times Staff Writer

NEWARK, N.J. — When Amiri Baraka was named New Jersey's poet laureate in August, he was asked to "promote and encourage poetry."

"Well," Baraka said last week, sipping on a Miller Lite in his airy study, "I'm doing a bang-up job."

The state's governor and legislature are quoting Baraka's work at length, and New Jersey voters are suddenly aware of the power of poetry to inspire and incite -- as well as to infuriate.

A Baraka poem, "Somebody Blew Up America," suggests that Israel had advance knowledge of the World Trade Center attacks. Denounced as anti-Semitic and anti-American, the poem prompted the state Senate on Jan. 23 to pass a bill to abolish the poet laureate position.

Baraka's writings, and his rambling critiques of U.S. policy toward Israel, have also ignited a debate over artistic freedom and the boundaries of hate speech. An advocate of militant black causes and a self-professed communist, Baraka seems to revel in the firestorm he has created.

"No poet laureate has ever made poetry this famous," he said. "I don't see what the big problem is."

Baraka pointed out, with undisguised satisfaction, that he wrote "Somebody Blew Up America" in October 2001, 10 months before a five-member state panel nominated him as poet laureate. When Gov. James McGreevey presented the honor to Baraka at a ceremony in August, Baraka said, he warned the governor: "You're gonna catch hell for this."

"McGreevey told me: 'I can handle it,' " Baraka said. "I guess he couldn't."

After Baraka read the poem at a prestigious poetry festival in New Jersey a month later, he was, as he put it, "busted." McGreevey and incensed state legislators demanded Baraka resign. When he refused, they tried to fire him -- only to discover that there is no provision in state law for firing the poet laureate.

Kevin Davitt, the governor's press secretary, announced ruefully: "We are stuck with him."

The bill to eliminate the honorary position is now in committee, awaiting a vote by the full Legislature. Meanwhile, Baraka's $10,000 honorarium for the two-year post remains unpaid.

The 226-line poem contains several incendiary passages, including one that the state's Anti-Defamation League chapter has called bigoted, anti-Semitic and a canard:

Who knew the World Trade Center was gonna get bombed?

Who told 4000 Israeli workers at the Twin Towers

To stay home that day

Why did Sharon stay away?

Another passage reads:

Who know why Five Israelis was filming the explosion

And cracking they sides at the notion.

Baraka said he wrote the poem to ignite critical examination of U.S. policy toward Israel. He denies being an anti-Semite, and has challenged the ADL to debate the poem line by line.

"He hasn't attacked policy -- he's spread a virulent, pernicious lie that originated with Hezbollah," said Shai Goldstein, director of the ADL's New Jersey office, who says he has no intention of debating Baraka.

Baraka said he based his poem on Internet references to beliefs among many Arabs and Muslims that Israel had a role in the World Trade Center attacks.

Goldstein, who supports eliminating the poet laureate post as the only way to strip Baraka of the honor, said Baraka's 1st Amendment rights are not at issue.

"The issue is whether someone can hold an honorary state position while dishonoring the state by making bigoted statements," he said.

Baraka was nominated by a panel appointed by the state's Council for the Humanities and Council on the Arts. Panel members said they were not aware of "Somebody Blew Up America," but they certainly knew of Baraka's long history of radical activism and provocative, often hate-tinged poetry.

James Haba, a panel member and a poet and English professor at Rowan University in Glassboro, N.J., said Baraka was nominated primarily because of his stature as "a major figure in 20th century American poetry. He's there."

Haba describes "Somebody Blew Up America" as "not brilliantly written" and "probably hurtful, outrageous and offensive." But he said Baraka has performed a poet's duty to raise "forbidden subjects" -- in this case criticism of U.S. policy toward Israel.

"There is a noble tradition in poetry of stirring up controversy," Haba said. "I think his intention was to unsettle, to provoke, to get people to think."

Asked whether he considered Baraka an anti-Semite, Haba cited Baraka's "Confessions of a Former Anti-Semite," a 1980 article in which he tried to justify comments from the 1960s that were considered anti-Semitic.

Gerald Stern, a panel member who preceded Baraka as New Jersey's first poet laureate, said he doesn't care for "Somebody Blew Up America" as a work of art because "it smacks of paranoia and misinformation." The central issue is not anti-Semitism, Stern said, but the state's "stupid and cowardly" attempt to abolish its poet laureate position.

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