Tuesday, August 2, 2016

Life is jazz-shaped

Jazz PoemsJazz Poems by Kevin Young
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

After spending such a long time being obsessed with jazz music, I guess it was only a matter of time before I also started reading jazz poetry.

I keep telling my students (I'm currently teaching spoken word poetry to kids) that poetry = music = poetry. Jazz Poems, with its selection of poems written about the genre and for its musicians, confirms this idea through and through. Like a band, the collection is divided into numerous sections: Vamping (early jazz poems), Swinging (my favourite, obviously), Bop, Horn Section, etc. Each section has its own gems, but all demonstrate the undeniable link between poetry and music.

Some poems use onomatopoeia to convey the sound of jazz:
"go husha-husha-hush with the slipper sand-paper"
- "Jazz Fantasia," Carl Sandburg
"Plink plank plunk a plunk
Plink plank plunk a plunk
- "Jazz Band," Frank Marshall Davis
Other poems apply a subtler approach, creating rhythms from the form itself. In "Bringing Jazz" by Maxwell Bodenheim, an author's note at the top of the poem informs us that readers should speak the odd-numbered lines slowly and the even-numbered ones quickly. Here are the first four lines of the poem, to give you an idea:
"Last night I had an oboe dream
Whistlers in a box-car madness bringing jazz.
Their faces stormed in a hobo-gleam,
Blinding all the grinding wheels and singing jazz."
In "Jazz is My Religion" by Ted Joans, the irregularities in punctuation/spacing/letter case echo the improvisational nature of the dance itself, the range of dynamics, the changes in tempo, and so on.

But jazz poems are not exclusively about the music itself. In the introduction to the collection, Kevin Young writes that jazz, apart from inspiring experiment, has "just as often inspired elegy" in poetry. Indeed, numerous poems are written as tributes to jazz musicians. The whole last section of the collection, Muting, consists of poems written for Billie Holiday. One of the pieces I found mot memorable, Lawson Fusao Inada's "Listening Images," pairs composers' names with a couplet:

Acorns on the roof -
Syncopated oakestra


Sunrise golden
At the throat"
The poems in this collection also reflect the historical roots of jazz and its musicians (indeed, Lindy Hop originated from the folk dance created by African slaves). Lewis Allan's "Strange Fruit," for instance, is a poem about racism that was later turned into a song and made famous by Billie Holiday.

And, like jazz, many poems in this collection are bold and unapologetic:

In the last few lines of AM/TRAK, an elegy written for John Coltrane, Amiri Baraka tells us to:
" Live!
& organize
yr shit
as rightly
Baraka's performance of the poem, which you can watch here, also demonstrates the necessity and beauty of performing jazz poems.

As Jazz Poems delightfully and poignantly demonstrates, music is poetry. The rhythms, rhymes, and words that are inherent in both forms create a pulse that inspires dance and song.

So, "Go to it, O Jazzmen!"

View all my reviews

No comments:

Post a Comment