Stanza I opens with a rhetorical question: "Who ever has stopped to think of the divinity of Lamont Cranston?" (line 1). Lamont Cranston is the the name of a fictional superhero otherwise known as The Shadow. He is able to change people's minds with his superpowers and momentarily halt their mental faculties by putting a "cloud" around their minds. The speaker then answers his own question in the following parenthetical statement in Stanza I: "(only jack Kerouac, that I know of: & me)" (line 2). Here, the speaker is setting himself apart as part of some special class that includes Jack Kerouac, a Beat writer and friend of Baraka's in the 1950s, when he was still known as LeRoi Jones. The speaker then goes on to generalize what everyone else besides Jack Kerouac and himself are consuming, saying that they "probably" were watching/listening to WCBS and Kate Smith. WCBS is the acronym for CBS New York and Kate Smith was a popular singer of the mid-19th Century. From the very first stanza, the speaker sets himself apart from the masses and elevates the type of media he consumes (superheroes that can change people's minds) above the media that is consumed by the masses (news and popular music).
In Stanza II, the speaker gives us two more rhetorical questions: "What can I say? / It is better to have loved and lost / Than to put linoleum in your living rooms?" (lines 5-7). Here, the speaker adopts a popular American idiom for his own uses. The original idiom is "'Tis better to have loved and lost than to have never loved at all" and it originally comes from Alfred Lord Tennyson, a British poet from the 19th Century. It means that love is worth the risk of the pain that accompanies its loss; even the emotional roller-coaster of lost love is better than simply being alone. Rather than look for the particular meaning of these questions, it might be more helpful to think about what kind of associations come from "linoleum" and what it feels like for a common idiom to be changed up over the course of a line-break. The re-appropriation of this idiom is supposed to be both surprising and playful.
The speaker continues the rhetorical questions into Stanza III: "Am I a sage or something? / Mandrake's hypnotic gesture of the week?" (lines 8-9). In the second line of Stanza III, Baraka mentions the mandrake, which could also be an allusion to Mandrake the Magician, an early 20th-century superhero who fights crime using hypnosis. By alluding to Mandrake the Magician, Baraka is bringing up yet another superhero that would have been well-known to children in the 1950s. As with his usage of “Lamont Cranston,” Baraka pulls the reader into the specific popular culture of the time which can only really be understood within that historical context. Like The Shadow, Mandrake the Magician stuns his opponents by affecting their minds, this time through hypnosis. Stanza III ends with three lines placed into a parenthetical, wherein the speaker talks about his own feelings of inadequacy when it comes to these questions. He says that he cannot heal the public in the same way that Oral Roberts, a famous televangelist, can; and he has no advice on how to save your soul or make money like F.J. Sheen, another famous Christian preacher and televangelist. Baraka ends Stanza III with a jarring group of lines: “I cannot even order you to the gaschamber satori like Hitler or / Goody Knight.” In WWII, just a few decades before Baraka was writing this poem, Hitler led the mass genocide of Jewish people that we call the Holocaust today. During the Holocaust, Jews and other societal outcasts were taken to concentration camps where they were starved, worked to death, or killed in a variety of ways. The gas chamber was one of the most widely-used killing machines of the Holocaust because of its efficiency; many people could be killed at one time. “Satori” is a Japanese Buddhist term for enlightenment. Goody Knight was governor of California from 1953 to 1959 who ran on a conservative platform. There is a huge juxtaposition between the words “gaschamber” and “satori”—who can think of a genocidal enlightenment? The phrase is almost an oxymoron. Baraka uses the tension between the two words to highlight that perhaps being able to say and do great things has deadly consequences. Hitler convinced a nation that killing off an entire ethnic group was a good thing to do. Maybe it is for the best that the speaker does not have the oratory powers of men like Oral Roberts and F.J. Sheen, because it also means that he doesn’t have Hitler or Goody Knight’s power, either.
In Stanza IV, the poet plays with words and winks at the reader. The speaker asserts that love “is an evil word” because when it is spelled backward the result, “evol”, sounds like “evil.” The speaker here re-establishes the playful and childlike tone. This wordplay ultimately has no meaning—the spelling of love does not incidentally mean that it is evil. The poet, however, seems to acknowledge that he is not saying anything of substance: “& besides / who understands it?” (lines 16-7). The poet asserts that the risks one makes for love aren't necessarily worth it, as he "certainly wouldn't like to go out on that kind of limb" (line 18).
Stanza V introduces a collective that the speaker used to be a part of: "Saturday mornings we listened to Red Lantern & his undersea folk" (line 19). The Red Lantern Corps were an organization of anti-heroes in the DC universe. This group also listened to Let's Pretend, a radio show for children that tried to foster their imagination. The speaker says that he and the collective did pretend when listening to that show and that he still does: "& I, the poet, still do. Thank God!" (line 22). Here, the speaker of the poem sets him apart from the rest of the masses yet again. This time he is set apart because of his identity of a poet, which keeps him looking back to the past and remember his own childlike imagination.
In Stanza VI, the speaker of the poem goes back to The Shadow/Lamont Cranston and connects the motif of popular culture to the motif of love/evil. Once Lamont Cranston has transformed into The Shadow, "the unbelievers couldn't throw stones" (line 24). Once he is "safe," The Shadow tells what he knows about humans: "'Who knows what evil lurks in the hearts of men? The Shadow knows.'" (line 25). The speaker leaves the reader with a sense of foreboding before moving on to the final stanza of the poem.
Finally, the speaker ends the poem with a sing-songy reflection on the motif of love: "O, yes he does / O, yes he does / An evil word it is, / This Love" (lines 26-30). The speaker narrows his focus onto the "word" love instead of the figurative emotion, which stresses his particular point-of-view as poet.
As in many Baraka poems, the speaker uses tone in order to create meaning in this poem. The first stanza sets up a separation between the speaker and the world as well as develops the speaker’s voice as someone who perhaps rejects the mainstream in a self-satisfactory way. Note the intentional misspelling of “haved”—Baraka is adopting a more childlike tone that would not feel out of place in a poem about memory and retrospection. He also is pushing against the American Western standards for the “proper” way to spell certain words. Baraka is begging the question of why “haved” is any less proper than “have,” if “haved” is the way it is said aloud. The speaker's playful tone re-emerges in Stanza IV, when he uses wordplay and turns the word "love" backwards in order to show that "love is an evil word" (line 14). The speaker of "In Memory of Radio" weaves together the playful tone of this poem with a more ominous tone that is connected to the motif of love. This ominous tone has The Shadow cackling in Stanza VI: "'Heh, heh, heh. / Who knows what evil lurks in the hearts of men? The Shadow knows" (lines 24-5). The speaker creates a dramatic tone in order to dramatize his previous wordplay and add a deeper dimension to his fun conclusion that "love" is evil because of its spelling.
In "In Memory of Radio," Baraka constructs a specific image of American culture in the 20th century. To do this, he imbues the poem with several well-known pop-culture and political figures. Another way the speaker depicts American culture in this poem is through the usage of popular idioms and American buzz-words. One such idiom is "'Tis better to have loved and lost than to have never loved at all," by Alfred Lord Tennyson. Baraka pulls this idiom apart and gives it his own unexpected ending: "It is better to have loved and lost / than to put linoleum in your living room" (lines 6-7). Linoleum is an American cultural cliché; even if they couldn't describe what it is, every American has heard the word "linoleum" before. What could Baraka mean by putting "linoleum in your living room”? In the mid-20th century in the United States, linoleum was a widely-used floor covering because of its inexpensiveness and durability. It was mostly reserved for high-use and public areas, however, and was not necessarily considered a “high-class” floor covering. Wealthy and middle-class people would probably rather furnish their living rooms with hardwood or plush carpet than linoleum. Linoleum is also made of plastic, and is associated with middle-class, suburban conformity—the very thing Greenwich Village poets like Baraka and Keroac were rebelling against Therefore, Baraka is bringing up questions of class in Stanza II: what kind of families would put linoleum in their living rooms? How is the materiality of the living room floor connected to the loss of love? And how are class, loss, and love all interconnected? These questions are not necessarily given answers within the larger scope of “In Memory of Radio,” but it is important to remember that Baraka is utilizing the voice of a culture in this poem in order to make some sort of psychological revelation about the speaker/poet. The fact that a common idiom and the word “linoleum” bring up many visceral associations to the American reader is not lost on Baraka.
"In Memory of Radio" is, above all, concerned with the role of the poet and the power of words to effect change in the minds of readers. The fact that the speaker refers to himself as "the poet" in Stanza V clues us in to the fact that we are dealing with a poem that is as much about writing as it is about remembering. By including the idiom discussed above coined by Alfred Lord Tennyson, Baraka calls upon a long-standing poetic tradition. Baraka consciously makes the decision to break from that tradition by breaking the idiom and making it his own. The poet in this poem both recognizes tradition and moves beyond it.
The theme of tradition works with the motif of memory/remembering when it comes to the role of the poet in writing about the past. The title of this poem is "In Memory of Radio," which makes it a retrospective poem in which the speaker is looking back at a specific period in his life. There is the sense that even if the rest of the world stopped remembering the elements of the speaker's past, the speaker still will because he is a poet: "Saturday mornings we listened to Red Lantern & his undersea folk / at 11, Let's Pretend / & we did / & I, the poet, still do. Thank God!" (lines 18-22). The speaker finds great importance in the fact that he is still looking back at the culture he consumed in the past. Additionally, he continues to "pretend" like he used to when he was a child listening to that radio show.
Throughout "In Memory of Radio," it is unclear whether or not the poet recognizes the full power of his role. In line 8, he asks, “Am I a sage or something?” It is slightly ironic for the speaker to be asking this question: he is elevating himself above the general public by suggesting that he is smarter than them, but at the same time he is unsure about whether or not he is actually above the general public, which makes his wisdom uncertain. You can’t really have a sage with uncertain wisdom--that doesn’t make sense. The tension in this question speaks to the larger theme of the identity (or individuality) of the poet in this poem--how can the poet know enough about the world in order to write poetry while also being uncertain whether he knows anything at all?
What does it mean for Baraka to refer to himself as “Mandrake’s hypnotic gesture of the week”? Well, in a poem that is largely concerned with memory and the specific identity of the poet, Baraka is making a claim about the poet’s role when writing a poem. The poet himself can’t turn to cliches because they are overused and therefore have become obsolete, so he breaks them up instead (remember what he does to the idiom from Tennyson). The poet asks whether he actually has viable wisdom that he can share through his art (“Am I a sage or something?”) or whether he is simply creating an illusion of meaning, like the hypnotic gestures that Mandrake the Magician uses when facing evildoers.
There are points throughout "In Memory of Radio" when it seems like the speaker is only creating an illusion of meaning. For example, he finds meaning through wordplay, something that is traditionally thought of as fun but undeniably superficial. However, for the speaker, the spelling of love is enough evidence to prove that the word itself is evil: "& love is an evil word. / Turn it backwards/see what I mean? / An evol word" (lines 14-6). It’s silly to think that love would be decidedly evil just because of the way it happens to be spelled. However, it does spell "evol" backwards, which places it under the category of words that sound like/bring up associations with evil.
Baraka leaves the poem open-ended about whether or not the speaker has any real influence as a poet to effect change over his readers. While perhaps it does not leave the modern reader with anything more substantial than the fun realization that "love" backwards spells "evol," the speaker does bring up certain questions about the role of the poet in changing times. Is it up to the poet to look back and only write from his memory, resulting in an overflow of obscure pop-culture references? Or is it up to the poet to only play with words, leaving the poem devoid of any deeper meaning? Perhaps instead the role of the poet is to fall somewhere in between, where meaning and form work together harmoniously.