A well-known poet once defined the poets’ role as that of “forensic scientists.” But, instead of a crime scene, poets comb the world around them, looking for evidence that the poem occurred.
In that context, the speakers in T.S. Eliot’s Collected Poems: 1909-1962 and Amiri Baraka’s Transbluesency: Selected Poems 1961-1995 aren’t just concerned residents and nosy neighbors. Whether digging through mythology, religion or the news, these speakers document the ever-changing urban spaces.
In Collected Poems, Eliot’s speaker is a private investigator tasked with catching the poem in the act of being. He comes across a betrayal in the poem “Sweeney Among the Nightingales”:
Apeneck Sweeney spreads his knees
Letting his arms hang down to laugh,
The zebra stripes along his jaw
Swelling to maculate giraffe.
The circles of the stormy moon
Slide westward toward the River Plate,
Death and the Raven drift above
And Sweeney guards the horned gate.
Gloomy Orion and the Dog
Are veiled; and hushed the shrunken seas;
The person in the Spanish cape
Tries to sit on Sweeney’s knees
Slips and pulls the table cloth
Overturns a coffee-cup,
Reorganised upon the floor
She yawns and draws a stocking up;
That “the Raven” constellation drifts above the lewd acts of Sweeney and the woman “in the Spanish cape” is an allusion to two stories of Apollo and the raven.
According to the first story, Apollo’s sacred bird was the raven, once a beautiful bird with silver feathers and able to talk to humans. Apollo charged the raven with protecting his pregnant wife, Coronis. But when Coronis falls for a mortal, the angry Apollo turned the Raven’s feathers black and had his twin sister Artemis kill Coronis.
In the second story, the raven, who went for Apollo’s water cup, arrived late and blamed his tardiness on the water snake. Apollo banished both the raven and water snake to the sky.
Eliot’s poem “Sweeney Among the Nightingales” adapts those Greek myths. In that context, the unnamed woman (Coronis) engages in an extramarital affair with Sweeney (the mortal).
The poem documents London’s transformation in 1920, six years after Eliot immigrated from the U.S. to U.K. “The lifting of war time restrictions in the early 1920s created new sorts of night-life in the West End,” according to an online timeline. “Entrepreneurs opened clubs, restaurants and dance halls to cater for the new crazes: jazz and dancing.”
Sweeney and the unnamed woman are brushstrokes in Eliot’s portrait of that “night-life.” The speaker intensifies the activity by introducing another woman: “Rachel née Rabinovitch/Tears at the grapes with murderous paws;/She and the lady in the cape/Are suspect, thought to be in league.”
“Sweeney Among the Nightingales” is a poem about greed and sexual immorality, two associations with city living that goes back to the bible (the prodigal son and Sodom and Gomorrah). And, if those points are unclear, “Rachel nee Rabinovitch” is Eliot’s cue to the reader that Rachel’s a married woman with as much at stake as the unnamed woman.
Eliot’s speaker’s observations continue in “Rhapsody on a Windy Night,” which opens with a man walking the streets at all hours of the night (“Twelve o’clock/ […] Half-past one/ […] Half-past two/ […] Half-past three/ […] ‘Four o’clock’”). Eliot’s speaker appears to have lost his mind (“Whispering lunar incantations/ Dissolve the floors of memory/ And all its clear relations”).
While the speaker never says what caused him to lose his mind, “Rhapsody” in the title does enough work to set the reader up for irregular rhythms and the speaker’s sudden change of topics to intensify his ecstatic emotions. He is a mad man who talks to street-lamps he encounters each hour. Even the “woman/ […] in the light of the door” who hesitates toward him thinks Eliot’s speaker is nuts.
But the speaker’s not as crazy as we think. Re-reading this poem, one realizes it’s about mental illness and how those people are treated. My mind immediately went to St. Elizabeths in DC, a psychiatric hospital that once housed 8,000 patients (among them Ezra Pound, Mary Fuller and William Chester Minor) at its peak of operation, according to various sources. The hospital’s community-based healthcare included local outpatient facilities and drug therapy, which allowed patients near-normal lives.
My dad recalled his encounter with a patient nearly a decade ago. It happened around lunch time, in a nearby McDonald’s. Dad read his newspaper while eating his cheese burger and fries, when a man about his age approached him. Dad said the guy picked his nose, then asked him, “You going to eat that”—pushing his finger into the hamburger bun. To which Dad said, “Not anymore.”
In “Rhapsody,” Eliot’s speaker uses irregularities to bring the reader inside the mad man’s mind, which makes the reader empathetic. Moving through the world in his own way, subtlety is a trademark skill the speaker weaves through the poems in T.S. Eliot’s Collected Poems.
On the other hand, the speaker in Amiri Baraka’s Transbluesency: Selected Poems: 1961-1995 prefers an in-your-face approach. While Eliot’s speaker is content with simply catching the poem in the act of being, Baraka’s speaker not only accomplishes that but speaks directly to the reader.
Take Baraka’s “A Poem for Deep Thinkers,” where the speaker calls out decision-makers whose power and class status put them out of touch with their constituents:
Skymen coming down out the clouds land/and then walking into society try to find out/
whats happening—‘Whats happening,’ they be saying/look at it, where they been, dabbling in mist, appearing &/disappearing, now there’s a real world breathing—inhaling/exhaling concrete & sand, and they want to know what’s/
It was impossible to read those lines and not think of the current political climate, where “Skymen”—with their heads far enough up in the clouds to dabble “in mist”—claim to speak for “the American people.” What also comes to mind is the spectacle of the 2008 elections, when presidential candidates scaled down their spending and spun personal narratives to make themselves seem in-touch with working-class Americans.
John McCain’s claim was hilarious since, unlike Obama, he never advocated for people on low or fixed incomes. The kicker was when he couldn’t remember how many houses his family owned. “I think — I’ll have my staff get to you,” McCain said in a 2008 interview.
But if they were wondering, Amiri Baraka’s speaker in “A Poem for Deep Thinkers” breaks it down for the “Skymen”:
What’s happening is life itself […]/[…] stabbed children in the hallways of/
schools, old men strangling bankguards, a hard puertorican/inmate’s/
tears/exchanging goodbyes in the prison doorway […]
Baraka’s speaker also alludes to Icarus:
[…] blinded by sun, and their own images of things,/rather than things as they actually are, they wobble, they/stumble […]/[…] the skymen stumbling, till they get the sun out/
they eyes, and integrate the inhead movie show, with the/material reality that exists with and without them.
Those lines speak to failed policies for low and middle income Americans politicians passed without talking with their constituents, thinking they knew what the people needed. Also, like Icarus, politicians fall from grace when they’re “blinded by sun,” or their own self-interests.
And Baraka’s speaker doesn’t stop there. He goes on to challenge Christ and Christian fundamentalists in “When We’ll Worship Jesus.” This poem, published in 1972, addresses the scandals, atrocities and oppression of the time. During that year, the U.S. was already at war with Vietnam and Nixon was re-elected despite the Watergate Scandal, which later resulted in his resignation.
Leading up to “When We’ll Worship Jesus” being published, the draft occurred and the National Guard fatally shot four students—while wounding nine—for protesting the Vietnam War at Kent State in Ohio.
These events contextualize Baraka’s speaker’s angry tone: “We’ll worship Jesus/ When jesus do/ Somethin.”
The poem is a wish list from Baraka’s speaker to Jesus, asking for payback on a number of things: the U.S. bombing of Cambodia (“jesus blow/ the white house/ or blast Nixon down”), Muhammad Ali jailed for protesting the war (“jesus get down/ […] & box w/ black peoples/ enemies”) and police brutality (“jesus […]/ […] scare somebody—cops not afraid”), to name a few.
“When We’ll Worship Jesus” is an opportunity for Baraka’s speaker to successfully flex his hyperboles, which intensifies his alarmed tone.
Like T.S. Eliot’s “Sweeney Among the Nightingales,” Baraka’s “Jesus” is a poem about betrayal. To which Baraka’s speaker responds by reducing Jesus to the lowest of the low.
Jesus becomes everything from a prostitute (“jesus, in a red/ check velvet vine + 8 in. heels”), to a pimp (“jesus pinky finger/ got a goose egg ruby/ which actually bleeds”), to both a coon and a tom (“jesus at the Apollo/ doin splits and helpin/ Nixon trick niggers”), to even a self-deprecating Cyclops (“jesus w/his one eyed self/ tongue kissing johnny carson/ up the behind”).
At times, the hyperbole of Baraka’s speaker seemed too over-the-top, just as there were times when the subtlety of T.S. Eliot’s speaker seemed too passive. Still, both speakers opened a young poet up to possible approaches in tracking the poem down.
 T.S. Eliot, Collected Poems: 1909-1962 (London: Harcourt Brace Jovanovich, 1963), 49.
 Exploring 20th Century London. Oct. 11, 2011. <http://www.20thcenturylondon.org.uk/server.php?show=nav.40>.
 Op.Cite, 49-50.
 Ibid., 16-18.
 Ibid., 16.
 Amiri Baraka. Transbluesency: Selected Poems 1961-1995. Ed. Paul Vangelisti. New York, NY: Marsilio Publishers, 1995. 165.
 Politico, “McCain Can’t Recall Number of Homes He Owns,” 20 Aug 2008.
 Ibid., 158.
 Ibid., 159.