Stanza I starts off with a heart-constricting and terrifying statement: "I am inside / someone who hates me," (lines 1-2). From the first few lines of this poem, readers are clued into the fact that this poem will constitute some sort of psychological and identity-based experience. When taken literally, it can be jarring to think about the idea of a person—an "I" who sees the world similarly to how we do—that is trapped inside their body. This body "hates" the person that is trapped inside of it (line 2). The speaker has no means of escape from his body and therefore is stuck in a limbo of internal division and internalized malice. The mood, even from the first few lines, certainly is hopeless and horrifying—it is difficult to imagine the torture of being in that kind of situation. The speaker says he "looks out" from the eyes of the body and experiences every physical sensation that the body experiences, including the gross smells he breathes in and his romantic interactions with women (lines 3-6). These women are described as "wretched," which continues the moods of loathsomeness and internal degradation throughout Stanza I.
Baraka offers more descriptions of the psychological state of the speaker in Stanza II. The speaker experiences "slits in the metal" designed to let in sun (line 7). The speaker describes the body in which he is trapped as made out of metal; the body feels mechanical, foreign, cold. The opening two lines of Stanza II also offer a greater sense of the speaker's psychological state—it is as if he is in some metal coffin or jail that has tiny openings that let in light. The speaker is completely removed from the natural world, which streams in only through small openings in an impenetrable barrier. The speaker finally feels something tangible—his own eyes "sit turning" in his head observing his enclosure and the things outside of it (line 8). The speaker reveals that his corrupted body experiences physical pleasure: an erotic situation is brought up again. This situation, however, is just as problematic as that of the previous stanza: even though there is skin-to-skin contact, the people that the body interacts with have "hard" flesh and they are seen as soulless creatures "without shadow, or voice, or meaning," (line 11). While the speaker is stuck in some kind of malicious trap that is also his own body, the other bodies he interacts with are creatures whose bodies are completely unfeeling. Their skin is hard and machinic like the speaker's own. At this point, it seems like the speaker is not the only one who feels a separation between their body and soul. More evidence of other people experiencing this state will come in later stanzas.
Stanza III opens up the qualities of the speaker's "enclosure": it is made of "flesh" in a world so cruel that "innocence is a weapon" (lines 12-3). The speaker feels trapped in his flesh because he lives in a society that preys on the weak for their very weakness—their innocence is wielded against them in the hands of their abusers. This enclosure is "an abstraction"—it is figurative rather than literal, using the power of ideas or thoughts or beliefs, rather than physical restraint, to hold him in. And yet, the entrapment feels physical, and so the speaker records his sensations: for example, "Touch," (line 14). This touch does not come from the speaker himself or from another person, who he directly addresses as "you," but rather from some unknown outside presence. He then goes on to describe this other person, the "you": someone who the speaker knew in a past life. In this past life, the speaker didn't have eyes to see out of ("I was blind") and was surrounded by "enemies" who interacted with him in some kind of ritual procession (lines 15-6). The speaker in this scene from the past was carried around as if he were "a dead man" because of his beauty and the pity they felt for him.
The speaker lists pain in many different forms starting in Stanza IV. The first pain is described as what the speaker is feeling at the moment: "As now, as all his / flesh hurts me" (lines 19-20). This pain is connected to the separation between himself and his body. His flesh turns against him and wounds him. The second kind of pain listed is reminiscent of a time in his past when a woman ran away from him into a forest—an eerie and threatening image (lines 21-2). The image of a woman escaping into the woods brings up associations of abandonment or desertion.
Stanza V continues the list of the different kinds of pain the speaker is experiencing. There is the pain of losing your mind so that it "spirals" and "whirls" in the sky, reaching magnificent and impossible heights (line 24). Or this pain could be connected to "the other," which could be an allusion to the "othering" of certain groups of people through societal divisions and prejudices that are largely institutional (i.e. racism, homophobia) (line 26). This "other" is connected to "the yes": an affirmation rather than a command, a keeping of the status quo rather than a questioning of the systems in place (line 27).
A parenthetical statement splits Stanza V in half, in which Baraka inserts an image of an old man looking through all of his books with fingers like "whithered yellow flowers," (line 29). This image calls up associations of previous scholarship and some sort of literary canon. It is also slightly ominous: before we see the old man, we see his fingers inserting themselves into his books. An image is given of wrinkly and liver-spotted fingers clawing at a page. Once again, at the end of Stanza V, the speaker addresses the "you," the person who he abandoned in a past life: "you will, lost soul, / say 'beauty'" (lines 29-30). This beauty is connected to nature since it is "practiced" in a way that likens it to trees, a river, and a "white sun" (lines 30-1).
There are two different things going on in Stanza VI. First, the speaker asserts that the beauty he describes could also be "the cold men in their gale" and develops this image over the course of several lines (line 32). This is an image that brings people into nature, which connects to the ways that beauty is manifested through nature in the previous stanza. The description of the men as "cold" is reminiscent of the metal bodies referred to in the first few stanzas in its eeriness and detachment. The cold men's robes are flapping around in the wind and their dishes have no food in them (line 33). The cold men "chant" at the speaker's heels, but not at the heels of the person from the speaker's past life (line 34).
Along with the descriptions of the cold men in the gale, there are fragmented lines in Stanza VI that contain images that are much more abstract. The speaker sends out a sensation: "Ecstacy," (line 32). Like "Touch" in line 14, he lets it stand alone which gives it immediacy and fills it with importance. Next, he uses enjambment and grammar to mark a separation between body and identity: "flesh / or soul" (lines 32-3, emphasis added). The separation between flesh and soul is repeated later on in the stanza and given a qualifier: "corrupt," (line 35). The flesh is corrupt or the soul is corrupt; maybe both. An intense kind of degradation must be occurring for the speaker to find himself in this kind of psychological state. The ultimate meaning of all of this, or "the answer," is hard to pin down and is too shifty to fully grasp (line 35). The speaker can find no sense in the chaos of his surroundings. The complete disaster of his experience proves to him that "God is a self, after all" (line 36). This line can be read in two different ways: either God has the consciousness of another human "self" and is brought down to the level of humans, or a particular human is lifted up to the level of God.
The opening line of Stanza VII brings us back to of the opening line of Stanza II: "Cold air blown through narrow blind eyes," (line 37). The speaker no longer explicitly associates himself with this image, and instead, the image becomes more general as well as more lifeless. These "narrow blind eyes" don't necessarily belong to the speaker, since he did not say that they are his. In fact, they likely do not to belong to the speaker: remember that it is revealed in Stanza III that the speaker used to be a "blind man" but no longer is (line 15). It might be useful, therefore, to think of these eyes as belonging to someone who is not the speaker. The flesh of this blind person is "white hot metal"—think of the glowing white color that metal becomes after it is put into a fire or a kiln (line 38). This white colored metal glows brightly, like the sun. The speaker then reveals that he lives in a "human love" (line 39). This is an important moment; up until this point the speaker has been feeling trapped in his bodily surroundings, and now he rises above the body to live in an emotion instead. This human love is a "bony skeleton" that is recognizable as "words or simple feeling" (lines 39-40). This is a revolutionary thought. Instead of being trapped inside his body, the speaker instead recognizes that his real being exists in "love" and in his relationships with other people. You know the people you love not because of what they look like but because of who they are and how they make you feel.
Stanza VIII returns to an examination of the white-hot flesh: "it has no feeling," (line 41). The implicit meaning is that people cannot actually live in their flesh because the flesh is not connected to personhood in the same way that words, feelings, and actions are. The metal, as an object, cannot feel emotions like love (lines 41-2).
Stanza IX leaves the poem on a terrifying and pessimistic note. Because people are forced to live inside of the "metal" of their flesh rather than existing purely in human emotion and connection, their souls experience continual torture and degradation. The soul that is trapped inside the body "screams" in the final line (line 45). We are given no solution to the problem posed by the separation of the soul and the body. Instead, we are left with an image of continual torture and suffering, of which there is no means of escape.
Stanza I introduces this poem's major theme of separation between body and soul. It gives us a first glance at a character who feels separate from his bodily processes and has to suffer through them because there is no way of stopping them. The speaker suffers through a psychological terror that is completely unique—what would it be like to live in a body without having any control over what it sees, smells, tastes, hears, and touches? Baraka uses simple language; there are no long words meant to elevate the speaker's tone or throw off the reader. What is hard to understand, instead, is the incomprehensible situation in which the speaker finds himself.
Baraka wrote "An Agony. As Now" while he was still going by the name LeRoi Jones and living with other avant-garde artists in Greenwich Village. This poem has many of the defining characteristics of the avant-garde movement on the mid-20th century. The fragmentation and abstraction of this poem, for example, is reminiscent of the poems of other avant-garde writers of the time, including John Ashbery and Charles Olson. In this poem, Baraka is trying to give readers a specific sense or feeling about life in the United States in the mid-20th century. Rather than describe events or images in clear language, Baraka conducts a psychological experiment wherein he hypothesizes about the consequences of living in a body that is treated like an object. The images are meant to be vague but suggestive; instead of focusing on the exactness of what Baraka is describing, readers might find it more beneficial to focus on things like mood and tone. Some questions that you can ask yourself to look for meaning as you read: What kind of feeling are you left with after reading this poem? What kinds of themes emerge through the fragments and scenes in this poem? What is the speaker saying about identity and the body? What kind of things can you discover as a reader if you put yourself in the speaker's shoes?
Much of the way that Baraka creates meaning in this poem is through tone and mood. The speaker's tone is tense and accusatory. Multiple times in the poem, he addresses a "you" that is alien from him. When the speaker encounters the chanting men, he professes that this "you" is not going through what he is going through: "They chant at my heels, not at yours" (line 34). The speaker stresses that the torture he experiences is individual; it comes from his deeply fragmented psyche. However, this doesn't mean that the speaker isn't the only one in this fearful situation. The separation between the soul and body happens to many people outside of the speaker in this poem (e.g. the people with the "hard flesh" in Stanza II or the "cold men" of Stanza VI). The speaker's voice is highly individual and slightly prophetic. He is the only one that can see the reality of the situation around him.
Baraka's descriptions in "An Agony. As Now" are meant to terrify and disturb. If you take a look at the poem, there are very few "happy" words to be found. Even the "flowers" in Stanza V are shriveled and close to dying. The speaker is alienated from the natural world; he gets sunlight only indirectly through the "slits" of his body (line 7). Even when he does get sunlight, it is not warm. Instead, the sun is described as scalding and "white" (line 31). The speaker is also constantly threatened by an ominous group of chanting men. The mood throughout the entire poem is fear, darkness, and despair.
There are many important metaphors at work in "An Agony. As Now." Throughout the poem, Baraka uses metaphor to compare flesh to metal. To the body, metal is a foreign substance, and it connotes industrialization and the machine age. Metal is always hard, cold, and lifeless, except when it is heated and becomes dangerously hot.
While reading "An Agony. As Now," you may have noticed that Baraka uses unconventional punctuation, including using parentheses that do not have a pair and interesting end-stops. Baraka's use of unconventional punctuation has three purposes. First, it helps to create a feeling of discomfort in the reader, which extends the overall mood of the poem. There is a sense of uneasiness and incompletion when one encounters a parenthesis that doesn't have an opening or close. (For reference, look at Stanza II—you can see three open-parenthesis that never close.) Distracting a reader with weird punctuation prevents her from becoming fully immersed in a poem's narrative. It encourages the reader to extend a critical eye to the form of this poem as well as its content. Secondly, unconventional punctuation helps to create rhythm. The reader's voice unconsciously pauses when it encounters any kind of sentence punctuation, meaning that it can slow down and speed up as it reads a sentence. (To get a better sense of this, look again at Stanza II and read the first line in your head. If you are like me, your voice will speed up by "enclosure" but then pause slightly before moving on to "flesh.") Finally, using unconventional punctuation helps Baraka remove himself from the Western literary tradition that he is working against as an avant-garde poet. By experimenting with new punctuation, he is rebelling against the conventions of the English language. Instead of conforming to the norms, he is putting language to his own uses in new and interesting ways.
Many scholars read "An Agony. As Now" as an allegory for race relations in the United States at the time that Baraka wrote this poem. The word "Now" in the title of the poem marks it as a contemporary issue: the speaker of the poem is going through this agony as he tells us about it. In 1964, the year that Baraka wrote this poem, racial tensions were smoldering across America, especially in the urban centers, including New York City, where Baraka lived. Baraka focused a lot of his poetry on the effects of race on human consciousness on the individual and collective levels. The easiest way to think about how this poem would be an allegory for race is to consider what it means to be in a body that is institutionally oppressed solely because of the color of its skin. Baraka's continual descriptions of flesh as "metal" points to this kind of objectification; bodies in this poem are unfeeling and completely disconnected from the true personhood of the souls inside them. Instead, as Baraka reveals in Stanza VII, souls are truly located in the things that emanate from the soul: like feelings, writing, and emotional connection. This poem is a rebellion against all of the physical signifiers that are used to define us as "humans"—our bodies, the way we look, and the way that we interact physically with the world. In this poem, the speaker's senses are not up to his control and he seems to loathe everything that comes in through them. The smells he takes in are "fouled tunes" and the women that he sleeps with are "wretched" (lines 4,6). The soul, in Baraka's poem, rebels against these things; he hates them. Ultimately, the body's flesh causes suffering: it "burns" the soul inside it and that soul "screams" (lines 44-5).
As the speaker explores the separation between soul and body, he also experiences a conflict with an unnamed and hard-to-pin-down group of men. In the first stanza, he calls this group his "enemies" and they carry him around in a ritual-like procession, where the speaker feels like "a dead man" (lines 16-7). This image is confusing and hard to pin down, but the main thing to focus on is the mood it creates. It is certainly a scary situation, putting the speaker's life in question. Is it his funeral? Are the enemies celebrating his death—have they killed him? Next, a man (this time old) appears again in Stanza V, reading a book and sticking his whithered fingers into it. This could be an allusion to the Western literary and academic canon; the studies of old that created and upheld the broken society that Baraka lived in. Baraka understood that race relations in the United States weren't created in a vacuum. Instead, they were the product of the systematic oppression and disenfranchisement of people of color in a country that founded itself and thrived on that very oppression. The speaker is uneasy about this old man. The reader only experiences his description in pieces, starting with his old, "whithered" fingers sitting inside the pages of his books. A group of men appears for the final time in Stanza VI. This final image is the most ominous of all. They stand together, chanting in a windy place. They are hungry for something. There is a sense of incantation, ritual, and danger. They are antagonistic towards the speaker, following him closely. When looking at this poem through the lens of race, it is clear that these men can stand for the institution of white supremacy in the United States. Their eyes are "narrow" and "blind" as they hunt down the speaker, who used to be blind (Stanza III) but no longer is. The speaker has experienced some sort of enlightenment or awakening that shows him the internal degradation and torture caused by society.