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!"

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The whole world was this symphony, and there was not enough of her to listen

The Heart Is a Lonely Hunter  The Heart Is a Lonely Hunter by Carson McCullers
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

Carson McCullers's The Heart Is A Lonely Hunter is a tragedy told through the lives of five main characters who are ultimately unable to overcome the condition that afflicts them all, loneliness, in a Southern town polluted with racial inequality, poverty, and the disseminating promises of the American Dream.

Without spoiling too much...
Biff Brannon, who runs the café that is the main setting of the novel, struggles with not only defining the nature of his feelings for young Mick Kelly after he becomes a widow, but also his own gender and sexuality. Mick, who is the novel's protagonist and dreams of becoming a conductor one day, must pursue her ambitions alone in the aftermath of a turbulent adolescence and lost friendship. Dr. Copeland is too intellectual for his own good and is unable to rally allies who can understand his views on civil rights, while Jake Boult's plans for violent revolt destine him for isolation. Even John Singer, the deaf-mute who is a "home-made God" to characters like Jake and Mick, cannot escape loneliness. Despite the frequent visits that others pay him, Singer remains lonely due to his separation from his long-time and dangerously obese friend, Antonapoulos, for whom he never ceases to feel an intense (and absurdly deferential) attachment. All these characters, who differ in race and status, are linked in more ways than it may appear at first glance .

Indeed, some kind of disability also afflicts them all. Apart from the fact that a blind/deaf/mute character is always bound to be symbolic, the ideal of disadvantage is particularly important to this novel, which focuses on characters that are unfavored due to reasons that range from class to skin color. Singer and Antonapoulos are both deaf, Biff has "a special friendly feeling for sick people and cripples," Blount gave people the impression that "something was deformed about him," and even the seemingly picture-perfect Baby does not make it out of the novel unscathed (her fate is a harsh reminder that her mother's dream for her child to be in the movies is but a fantasy).

Reading the novel, I was fascinated by the way characters depend on Singer through divulging their feelings to him and considering his stoic silence an anchor of security. Somehow, through his soundless responses, Singer becomes whatever people want him to be (which makes his 'real' life all the more intriguing by comparison, for he himself is ironically and disastrously dependent on Antonapoulos). McCullers captures the core of the desperation in such dependence best as she writes,
"Maybe when people longed for a thing that bad the longing made them trust in anything that might give it to them.” 
"... in some men it is in them to give up everything personal at some time, before it ferments and poisons--throw it to some human being or some human idea."
And such longing/relinquishment of everything personal highlights the need for escape and self-validation in an era and environment of helplessness.

Terrible deaths happen in this novel due to illness, murder, and suicide; love is often unreciprocated; mutual understanding is cripplingly difficult. Perhaps Mick's ending can be interpreted as hopeful as she still aims to pursue music, but I was definitely struck by a sense of defeat at the end of the novel. It's the kind of book I think I would teach in a classroom - there's so much in it that is worth writing about.

I'm utterly blown away that Carson McCullers published this novel when she was only 23; with its complex characters and intricate structure (fun fact: the book was split into three parts to imitate a fugue), The Heart is a Lonely Hunter is a work that lives up to its name.

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