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The Greatness of Ron Allen


By John Sinclair

“I search for wholeness, the complete organism. It is a Buddhist idea. I do not dissociate intellect, body and soul. I want to interact with my community, and my art should be a bridge between unformed and formed. Life is all vibrations and rhythm.”

The late, great Ron Allen was a close friend and an inspiration to me during the 1980s and ’90s.. As a fellow poet who continued to experiment with fusing poetry and jazz, which is exactly what I’ve been doing since around 1964, Ron and I performed our works together several times and even shared the same ensemble of musicians on occasion.

Ron Allen was a unique poet and performer with a brilliant mind, vast poetic skills and an incredibly dynamic delivery. I wasn’t familiar with his dramatic works, but I studied his poetry and listened carefully while he was reciting it.

“I search for wholeness, the complete organism,” Ron said, and his work was a whole thing. It encompassed his realities of living a bohemian existence in a hostile environment, his years of self-abuse as a dope fiend and alcoholic, his position in the working class (Ron was a great and very popular chef at the Cass Café for some years), his interpretation of life in racist America, and his visions of a better future for all of us.

Like the greatest of artists, Ron Allen wasn’t the least bit interested in anything but artistic success. Financial gain was not in his picture, for like almost all poets he found there was no reward for his work in verse other than its positive reception by its audience. When I knew him, Ron lived in a tiny apartment atop the First Unitarian Church at Cass & Forest and his life was entirely consumed by his work in verse and drama.

But his audiences went crazy with love and respect for this inimitable poet and performer, whose works rang out unaccompanied or were lifted even higher by a musical ensemble improvising behind him. Ron’s presence was as riveting as his verse, and he kept the audience’s attention for every minute he stayed before them. 

Another aspect of Ron Allen’s important work in poetry was his co-authorship of the Horizons In Poetry (HIP) performance series that was rooted in neighborhood locations like Cobb’s Corner Bar, where I served a music booker for some years in the 1970s and ’80s. In concert with Willie Williams and John Mason, Ron took HIP to dizzying levels of success and public acceptance. Following a considerable period of silence for public poetry after the demise of the Detroit Artists Workshop and other community-based poetry presenters, HIP brought verse back into the public ear in a really big way.

Our paths crossed in many ways, not least of which was our mutual interest in and commitment to the Heidelberg Project of artist Tyree Guyton, who transformed a dilapidated, run-down east-side Detroit neighborhood into a vibrant work of public art. 

My poem “monk’s dream” w \as commissioned by Tyree to be delivered at the official opening of the Heidelberg Project, and Ron created a theatrical work called “Squatting in the Circle of the Elder Mind,” which was summarized by HIP participant James Perkinson, a Detroit educator and poet, as an example of how Allen was “somebody who could take all the color and the repurposed garbage and entropy that was dumped on the inner city by the suburbs and run it through his mouth in a way that matched what Tyree was doing with color. Ron’s tongue and Tyree’s palette were very much simpatico.”

I left Detroit in 1991 to relocate in New Orleans and, in 2003, moved on to base myself in Amsterdam for the next 15 years, so I missed Ron’s development as a playwright and dramatist and his move to Los Angeles in 2007. 

But I shared several performance bills with Ron Allen and his ensemble while visiting in Detroit, and in the present century I had the extreme pleasure and privilege of performing with Ron and fellow Detroit poet M.L. Liebler at an event in Los Angeles organized by Ron and his band Code Zero. This was a very well-received gathering of three Motor City poets who shared an interest and active practice in working with appropriate musical backing for our works in verse.

Thinking about Ron Allen always brings warm feelings of love and affection as well as an overwhelming awe at the brilliance and depth of his work. I’ve been writing poetry and performing with musical accompanists for almost 60 years now, and I’ve never felt closer to another poet and his work as I do to Ron Allen. 

It gives me great pleasure to join in the efforts of Ruby Woods and other of our poetic colleagues to establish a Ron Allen Memorial site and help keep his work alive now and in the years to come. Congratulations! And thanks for asking me to participate. Long Live Ron Allen! May his works live forever!


Februry 26, 2023 

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