More Hugging, less mugging
– Richard Bartee’s calling card
When a man passes from us, the brazen finality of his acts are set in vaporous stone; one can see the metaphorical as well as the physical acts of their lives as a poetic act speaking for itself. Richard Bartee’s years of amusing and enlightening rides on the D Train was a kind of experience in which the resonances of being buried by choice in the maw of an underground train.
Going to Richard’s three very well attended memorials was an etude in seeing how somebody who was like no other human being I ever met was measured by various tailors for a store bought suit of banality. The best speech about him was made by Al Sharpton. One saw Richard’s capacious shadow at the last through mirrors.
Everything Richard did including his absence at these bashes was one more act of radical transformation. His talent at wizardry was absolute; sometimes one could mistake his alchemy for a banality. He was an Afro-American nationalist as part of being for everybody; he saw others some thought enemies as his comrades. He made a point of empowering White people as well as Afro-Americans. He was a Christian in the high sense that he saw in the life of Jesus the value and power of charity, healing, talking to everybody, hanging with bums, criminals, even American intellectuals.
He was a poet who decades before rap and hip-hop attempted to weave an elegant and witty rhyming rhetoric out of common street talk. He had all the formal credentials to accept received ideas fashionable among the au courant craven; nothing he did large or small was the same after Richard got through with it.
Nationally famous as Richard was in the Black community, beyond it few poets the White world had heard of him. His originality entirely eluded the American institutional world; in the Black community where fewer are on tenure they could more easily acknowledge his audacity.
Still Richard was like nobody. With his love of family, Richard had some much of it in complex ways along with his friends that he needed to be at a pay phone to juggle it all. Richard by himself must have financed that utility generously.
The ultimate street person, he would take up a conversation with somebody on the street; if it were not over, go home with him and occasional sleep over, still talking about life and death. The man really took everything to the end and beyond. Am I going to be one more unwitting Procrustean tailor’ I hope not.
Richard probably touched the lives of more people in America than all but movie and television stars. He translated subway cars into spiritual temples, alchemized the solarity and yet intimacy of a hellish commute. The sudden appearance of a poet guide, the amusing and witty verse of Richard Bartee, hearing his its urbane street wit as one hustled blindly through the bowels of the Earth, changed the perception of armies of commuters from aloneness in a great pit to sharing a communal trough but exhilarating experience.
A bard whose intent was charity and light, not to acquire money, Richard saw divinity and capacities for sharing charity in a subway car. In the 70s if one sat in a subterranean cage if one was lucky, alone with one’s interred myrmidons, was happy to see Richard Bartee, a big man looking like the football quarterback he had been, a sly smile on his face, dressed nattily in a suit, dapper, reading two or three poems, offering them in print for a few pennies, for nothing if one chose. Only Richard saw the D train as a proper bully pulpit for poetry, a spa for a good word from a man of the spirit.
Since then Richard has had his imitators, few of whom knew of his genius, there at bottom to pick up some spare lucre. Sometimes the first is the best. Richard picked the D train for his poetic ministry filled with commuters to and from Brooklyn and the Bronx who were mostly affluent, trying to avoid the classical woes and desperations of mortality. Richard saw they were souls who needed a boost as much as anybody. He made life in that ineluctable underground world elegant and graceful for millions of people for a decade with his poetry. Nobody had hired him, Richard was entrepenurial; he wasn’t at all about money. He had a mission only he had recognized; he took up his prophetic life with an intelligence singular to him.
Few on the D train knew that Richard also was an indefatigable reader in public schools, ran various intriguing entertainment spas in Manhattan downtown. A deeply modest man who never took up the sinister and chilly machines of any publicity engines, though he rarely spoke metaphysically, always morally, he felt that one of the regulars among the faithful in his audience was God.
If one got close to him rather in passing one got to hear shards of a fantastical life Richard had lived, was still living. Episodic, heroic, adventurous, Richard had had taken plenty of lumps, had even one dent in his head when he had been beaten by cops and prison guards in Chicago during the 1958 Yippie riots. He was a consummate maverick. Yet he spoke about his passing tormentors only in a tone of remote, mild and detached sadness; he never complained. His focus was always severely how justice might be done for everyone on the planet. In arenas of civil rights he was even for succor for the suburban affluent.
Richard was totally fearless, aggressively standing for right action. If there was sometimes a kind of fluid untidiness in Richard about getting things done, he always thought of other people before he thought of himself. He would preach about health remedies while selling water filters for a living; he never noticed what he ate.
As a result though physically an athlete, he died at 59, most poetically while taking public transportation, though the B-6 bus while going home, not a subway.
I’ve known lots of brilliant people; Richard was one of the smartest men I’ve ever met. He not only had a startling photographic memory; he would continually take the kernel of any thought, bring it three or four steps beyond anybody else. Master of the sound and sense of language. His poetry and fables were at once simple, transparent, yet had both depth and urbane morality. Aesthetically somewhere between Blake and Aesop, using an Afro-American style that derived ultimately from sources in the American streets as well as West African spirituality. Richard was a true peripatetic. Like the lightfooted Hellenes He had a lot of wisdom to teach.
Richard after publishing one book in the 70s became a pure performance poet like his street poet mentor ‘Bama’. He offered his Art on the fly. As a result his wisdom is now about to transcribe two to three hundred tapes of his performances to collect his later work in writing. It’s hard to evaluate what he did if one weren’t there. I can testify that Richard had more raw facility with words than any body I knew,. He chose consciously to create as radical a departure in rhetoric as this republic has ever had in a long time. Now, debased, smutty, lacking ideas, it’s a commercial banality in hip-hop. He will be remembered as a didactic poet like Dryden and Pope who stood for virtue as well a connection with the past in all people as well as writing in the common language of the present.
Of course one can’t write about Richard without speaking about the larger man; this is hardly true of all poets. We’d like to know less than we do about most of them. I would guess Richard’s stunning memory led him rarely to write down his poetry. He could recall it all along with the stories and anything else he cared to conjure up; why bother’ People with fewer gifts, no moral checks, no other discernable talents were able to make more of an impression in the larger literary world because they accepted the normal way one had a literary career. Richard totally eluded the larger literary world; he seemed to invent both poetry and its uses as well as everything else.
Richard was not desperate for fame as some other people are. He assumed with justice whatever he did would be adorned by his gifts. A sterling athlete, a great blues and rock and roll singer, he talked and touched the hearts of everyone. Many people who have Richard’s gifts are short on the capacity for intimacy. Richard was even better as a close friend than he was as a performer. Though he probably championed poetry more than most of the Americana poets of his time combined beyond Allen Ginsberg, his lack of large fame didn’t seem to bother him.
Sometimes one loses people whom one had in the first place. Richard was a heroic individualist in a craven time, though he had gone to college, was a real intellectual, rich in his own singular reading and education, articulate in a witty style of his own, he had been a cop in Syracuse dropped because he wouldn’t lie about a Black culprit the police wanted to frame. Richard wasn’t a person to pick his spots for acting with honor. He would tell people in city buses or on the streets not to badmouth women with whom they were intimae when he saw a public marital fight. Richard was wide open, vulnerable, fearless. He once told me that a woman he knew was trashing her ex-husband; he said to her: ‘You should talk like that; the man isn’t here to defend himself.’
There wasn’t a subject he didn’t illuminate by his passing attention. There was uncannily no sense of struggle in his talents, even in his gifts for moral inquiry. He didn’t seem to wrestle with internal self-contradictions; of course he had them. It was part of his charm as well as his passion for charity and virtue that Richard was an urbane New Yorker, never an innocent.
One of Richard’s main concerns was exploring Afro-American culture. In deep ways the Black concern for a viable nurturing past is most profoundly American. We are a big country of diverse people including our Native Americans who are in profound ways almost mortally deprived of memory. Richard wasn’t talking only about Black culture; he was moving as an American deprived of recall from the uncomfortable specific to the hopeful general. We all want to connect backwards into time to honor our ghosts, to commune with our perished flesh. It was very African of Richard to keep his poetry oral. African poets unless they are influenced by colonialism don’t write verse down. It was very American of him to connect with his African side.
African poets have steely memories, focus on the present, improvise from a lapidary honed craft, savor the always fresh miracle of the instant. African culture isn’t about measured time, calendars, precise sciences of definable substances as the thought of the West is. Masterful at blues and rock singing, many of his verse and stories had a connection with Nigerian roots. It was a typical practical healing direction for Richard. He went straight at the problem. Richard’s most well known fable, a very long creation myth about a character named Nothing, is very similar both in jocular tone and easy and suave profundity to old African divine narratives, at once humorous and metaphysical.
Nigerians have exquisitely personal relations to what we might call their saints, those who inhabit the upper world. The West has a little of it in the first verses of the Book Of Job and some of dialogues bete Abraham and God the flavor of Yoruba sacred lore. Richard’s fables had that divine intimacy and wit.
Richard’s verse was way back in the 70s very much in the manner of the couplets one can hear from the Virgin Islands to Brazil as well as our own American blues that are part of the repertoire of masters of this form. The style, which one only very occasionally sees in any American verse of any kind; it is only a shadow in the blues, more Carolina than Delta. The manner is didactic but humorous, guiding, aiming to crystalize some experience, giving it a pithy unsentimental comedic quality. Richard’s versions of this genre weren’t at all laconic; they were generously expansive. They preached for civil rights or against cigarette smoking with the same good humor.
Richard was a tireless punster. His nimble mind picked up every word he or others said in conversation for its potential lateral significance. Gifted with this allusive imagination that often focused on words as well as images sort of the way James Joyce did, he didn’t let a sentence go by without at least thinking of some pun in the lateral anatomy of language that illuminated the word itself. His puns weren’t random; they might be whimsical. They always enriched the linear drive of the word.
One might ask what value African poetry and culture has to a world that is very aggressively trying to escape into a realm of comforts and machines. Any direction away from the human center invokes follies that eventually bring one back to one’s point of departure as a refuge from the excesses of any linear trek. African culture is crystallized at that center. We aren’t going to escape its message anymore than we can flee our nature. Whether we should want to attempt to escape ourselves at all is a deeper matter; some try, don’t they’
Yet let us not ever think that Afro-America culture is marginal; it’s central. If we think of the metaphysics of Yoruba religion with its three worlds, mischievous divine beings that can move back and forth from them, how we in the middle worlds can implore their aid, we are looking at another version of Keltic lore, the English middle earth of Tolkein, a sense of cosmic place in the world that was yesterday everybody’s religion. When we savor the ten dimensional cosmos of which we perceive only three dimensions according to our current physicists we might well wonder whether Richard in taking up African ideas wasn’t as usual right at the center.
In a curious way the European White colonial depiction of African culture as closer to nature is true. Nature doesn’t have a direction, isn’t leading anywhere in a simple linear way, doesn’t have resolutions that end the action of life, hasn’t got closed systems, beginnings and ends. Richard didn’t make a mistake when he re-invented himself as a sort of African living in America; it’s our incapacity as Americans to acknowledged nature, irrespective of African culture, our notion of Creation as a malleable slave, that has made us all at least a little crazy. Richard didn’t push his spiritual side on anybody; his poetry appealed to everyone, transparent yet deep. Richard wrote with a rhetoric that garnered life from spoken language yet was artfully sculpted. Nurtured in the milk of severe spiritual disciplines he practiced every moment of his life, with someone less gifted than Richard his style could have been doggerel; it certainly walked a tightrope with suave attractiveness, aiming for the witty in the flimsy and filmy guise of the ordinary. It was never obvious in the 70s that Richard was inventing a rhetoric with both African roots and charged with an urbane modern music that really didn’t have too many American or non-American antecedents.
Richard was not in any way a grumbling or dour jingoist or separatist. He’d talk with people he civilly disagreed with, honoring them no matter how crankish their opinions were. He didn’t gossip or trash anybody; evil and trouble at most roused Richard not to indignation but problem solving or a desire to shoo away vice as one would a mosquito.
I always wondered how Richard had developed from a football star, a game which is all about mayhem, inflicting and taking injury, to this elevated spiritual condition. I never heard how he did it; it must have been a remarkable story. If one were to tell his tale it would be about spiritual growth. I don’t know the details of how from a master of the primal American game of focused violence and big man on campus for it as an high schooler he become an adept at loving his enemy, non-violence, seeing Creation as a complex riddle directed by benign forces. I will miss his memoirs.
Richard’s utter fearlessness as a man defined him centrally. Richard never shrugged or walked away from any dilemma. Walking down the street with him was an adventure, almost scary sometimes; he refused to turn away from anything. He was always ready to joust with evil. He was in my life in this empire one of the few. I think these are also the qualities that make a poet. Richard helped other people to be brave because he was courageous. When people saw that Richard stood up for justice, that nothing happened to him beyond a few arrests they became themselves through his example stronger in spirit. That is Richard’s legacy; it is the equivocal benefice of all heros and poets.