When Two Arts Beat as One: Jazz Poetry and its Tenants

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Caroline Kelly explores the genre of Jazz Poetry and its variety of themes.

At the heart of modern poetry is a frenetic pulse often mediated through several complementary aesthetics: music, visual art, and other such mediums. This mediation gave way to a new poetic form within Black communities which championed two aesthetics equally: Jazz Poetry. But the axis on which Jazz Poetry turns is its refusal of a single definition. Developed during the Harlem Renaissance, Jazz Poetry is a form of expression that remains resistant to the mainstream. Poets once constrained by the formalities of classical poetry were able to take the improvisational, rhythmic, and raw expression of jazz and infuse it with their writing. 

Jazz Poetry is a form of expression that remains resistant to the mainstream. 

This attention to the syncopated nuances of jazz music and poetry is present in the work of Gwendolyn Brooks. In Brooks’ poetry, jazz and Black vernacular drive themes such as Black identity, cultural pride, and memory. The message and poetic content is interwoven with the poems’ honeyed melodies and harsh dissonances. Her poem “We Real Cool” (1959) not only employs Black language but also communicates a kind of syncopated metric that is consistent with the “Jazz June” line of the last stanza: 

         The Pool Players.

        Seven at the Golden Shovel.

            We real cool. We   

            Left school. We

            Lurk late. We

            Strike straight. We

            Sing sin. We   

            Thin gin. We

            Jazz June. We   

            Die soon.

The poem demonstrates a mastery of rhythm, as well as the musicality of Black dialect and vernacular. Leaving out the verb in each line of “We Real Cool” not only creates its musical rhythm, it grants the reader an immediate sense of who the pool players are, where they are from, what kind of groups they might belong to. By this, music does not merely create meaning, but also carries it; as The Swallows sing: “It ain’t the meat, it’s the motion.” 

Poet and musician Gil Scott-Heron whose syncopated spoken style and caustic criticisms of racism, politics and mass media made him a notable voice of Black protest culture in the 1970 and a pillar in the canon of Black and Jazz poetry. Scott-Heron’s commitment to social justice forged an intersection between political poetry and musical performance together, which helped pave the way for the emergence of hip-hop. A self-defined “bluesologist,” Scott-Heron draws on the traditions of blues, jazz and Harlem renaissance poetics. Where poets such as Langston Hughes and Gwendolyn Brooks wrote poetry inspired by jazz music, Scott-Heron created an intermedial harmony between spoken word and music, often reciting poetry over jazz and blues melodies. Recorded over jazz-soul instrumentals, poems such as “Lady Day and Coltrane” (1970) calls on the music of jazz giants, Billie Holiday and John Coltrane, to alleviate personal dilemmas of alienation and existentialism in an ever-changing world. 

The poetry of Tim Seibles approaches themes of memory and language, racial tension, class conflict and the body. In a 2010 statement in From the Fishouse, Seibles shares, “I think poetry, if it’s going to be really engaging and engaged, has to be able to come at the issues of our lives from all kinds of angles and all kinds of ways: loudly and quietly, angrily and soothingly, with comedy and with dead seriousness. […] Our lives are worth every risk, every manner of approach.” This sentiment of risk drives his collection Fast Animal, published in 2012. In Fast Animal, Seibles reflects on his teenage years, addressing the importance of memory, race, and consciousness. There is an underlying musicality that accompanies Seibles’ poetry: it is a lozenge that sits under the tongue, dissolves into the membrane and is thrown to the back of the head. Seibles’ words sit with you,  slowly saturating the holes of the head until they are a part of you. The starkness of his poetry lends itself to the jazziness of its delivery: every syllable is accounted for, every word is metered. 

His poetry is a lozenge that sits under the tongue, dissolves into the membrane and is thrown to the back of the head. 

The subject of jazz music is reflected in the poetry of many Black writers. Rhythm or imagery, and sometimes both, are guided by this aesthetic concern. In pursuit of identity, contemporary Black poetry has largely devoted itself to the ideas of freedom, protest and cultural pride; it also typically discusses racism, violence and bondage. Such themes are often mediated through a musicality of verse. By dramatising jazz as a pride of place in an ongoing cultural tradition, Black writers continually remind us of the close connection between poetry and music. 

Black poetry, especially Jazz poetry, does not include a roster of writers marching in lockstep. It is rather a radius, an umbrella term, comprising several formal innovations and an underlying historical thread for Black poets to springboard from. 

Recommended Works:

The Weary Blues (1926) by Langston Hughes

The Bean Eaters (1960) by Gwendolyn Brooks

Small Talk at 125th and Lenox: A Collection of Black Poems (1970) by Gil Scott-Heron

So Far, So Good (1990) by Gil Scott-Heron

Hurdy-Gurdy (1992) by Tim Seibles

Fast Animal (2012) by Tim Seibles