Woodie King Jr.’s Introduction to The System of Dante’s Hell
LeRoi Jones and the Emergence of Amiri Baraka
by Woodie King Jr.
The System of Dante’s Hell is an experimental novel by the award-winning poet and playwright LeRoi Jones, written some eight years before he took the name Amiri Baraka. The author’s autobiographical journey is so heavily influenced by Dante Alighieri’s Inferno that it begs the question: did the poet/activist Jones see qualities in Dante that would lead him to become Baraka, for whom art and politics were inextricably connected?
When Jones first arrived in New York City, he was searching for an identity and for like-minded artists, poets, musicians, and writers. As it often does, his search took him back to where it all started. From his childhood in Newark, New Jersey, through his time spent at Howard University and later the US Air Force, to his self-imposed exile in Greenwich Village in the mid-1950s, The System of Dante’s Hell captures the young poet/novelist “walking in memory.”
The walk is both vague and exciting to witness, as it foreshadows the emergence of a poet, novelist, and activist who would become a major force in American literature. Rereading it now, it is easy to rediscover his literary influences in Beckett, Joyce, Pound, T.S. Eliot, and the existential philosophers Hegel and Kierkegaard; his stylistic and political ties to other writers of the time like Allen Ginsberg, Corso, Ferlinghetti, Frank O’Hara, Olson, Bob Kaufman, Diane di Prima, Larry Rivers, and Nat Hentoff; and his deeper connection to fellow Greenwich Village exiles like Calvin Hicks, A.B. Spellman, Bob Hamilton, Steve Cannon, Harold Cruse, Archie Shepp, Leroy Lucas, and Roland Snellings.
In his 1984 autobiography, Baraka explained how his voice emerged from The System of Dante’s Hell:
I consciously wrote as deeply into my psyche as I could go. I didn’t even want the words to “make sense.” I had the theme in my mind . . . but the theme was just something against which I wanted to play endless variations. Each section had its own dynamic and pain. Going so deep into myself was like descending into Hell . . . I was tearing away from the “ready-mades” that imitating Creeley (or Olson) provided. I’d found that when you imitate peoples’ form you take on their content as well. So I scrambled, and roamed, sometimes, blindly in my consciousness, to come up with something more essential, more rooted in my deepest experience . . . I wrote in the jagged staccato fragments until at the end of the piece I had come to, found, my own voice, or something beginning to approximate it.
This results in a structure of free association, in which each section has headings instead of chapters. For example, the heading “Gluttony” tells us: “This place is not another. Cold white sidewalks. Time, as intimate. To myself, beautiful fingers . . .” In “SEVEN (The Destruction of America,” note the free association of riffs, not unlike Ella Fitzgerald scatting. In the heading “CIRCLE 8,” I have no idea what LeRoi means by “Ditch 5” but I do know he comes to a beautiful and lasting observation: “I am hidden from sight and guarded by demons.”
The journey into hell had already been explored by Milton, Virgil, and Homer, but found a new readership with LeRoi Jones. This new version was as experimental as free-form jazz and abstract art; however, now it was from an African American perspective. Hell occupies space in LeRoi’s head. Hell is where white people refuse to see him. He is Black. In defending his humanity to white people, he cannot ever focus on his own Black self.
Hell is in his head and is the inferno of LeRoi’s frustration.
When LeRoi Jones wrote The System of Dante’s Hell, America had not yet witnessed the Watts Riots, Malcolm had not been assassinated, the Black Arts Movement was not in ascendance, and LeRoi Jones had not yet become known as Amiri Baraka. Some fifty years later, we can see the spirit of these events anticipated in his poetic and politically charged coming of age in the bowels of hell.
WOODIE KING JR. is a producer and director of Amiri Baraka’s plays. Most recently, he produced and directed Baraka’s final play, Most Dangerous Man in America (W.E.B. Du Bois). He is author of The Impact of Race and editor of ten anthologies.
Posted: Feb 2, 2016
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