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Jazz Poetry Roundup

Highlights from Issue 34: Jazz

(WhiteWalls Books)

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Sunday, March 02, 2008

By Greg Purcell


The magnetic connection poetry has for jazz makes one ask the novice to beg off for a while. It’s like marrying your next-door neighbor at an underripe age: One could lay odds that a marriage so conceived will function on into eternity. Yet think of all the weird, sentimental tchotchkes that cloistered family is bound to start collecting. Why not instead try something fortifying and broad-minded, like heavy metal? Yet a few — a very few — such marriages can be both sweet and interesting.

Steven Dalachinsky uses neologisms, open-field composition and lots of exclamations (“the scratch of gut on vilestring” is my favorite), which is to say, he’s immediately identifiable as a jazz poet. Like Jayne Cortez, however, he has a subtle, snaky feel for the way words can sound like the flex-and-release patterns of jazz, repeating a measure one minute and exploring in plain air the next. He makes evident the connection jazz shares with the human voice. Dalachinsky is a friend of the avant garde musician Charles Gayle, and his latest collection, The Final Nite & Other Poems (UDP), is a journal recorded at two decades’ worth of Gayle’s performances in and around downtown New York. When reading this collection, one is often transported to those performances, as on one cold February night in 1992 at the New Music Café, where outside “white lines cross at the crosswalk/forming shadows on the window.”

There is not much to add to the jazz-poetry tradition, which doesn’t add or subtract so much as it accretes, like rust on a classic car. Still, Dalachinsky fits firmly within it, next to his contemporary Merry Fortune (whose excellent 2004 collection Ghosts by Albert Ayler, Ghosts by Albert Ayler is still available through Futurepoem books), as well as more established practitioners like Nathaniel Mackey, Amiri Baraka and Cortez herself.

Now, what if you want your poetry directly from the horse’s mouth? Herman Blount — aka Sonny Blount, aka Le Sony’r Ra, aka self-proclaimed interplanetary traveler and universally acknowledged jazz pioneer Sun Ra — was a man truly ahead of his time. He spent a fair share of the Fifties in Chicago assembling his “Arkestra,” writing street corner pamphlets and preaching the same. These sermons are now collected in an anthology by John Corbett called The Wisdom of Sun Ra (WhiteWalls Books). They are crude, weird, illuminating and a must-read for anyone interested in visionary language, bizarre etymologies (especially as they concern racial epitaphs), numerology or the music of the man himself. Is it poetry? Not precisely. Is it written in the Queen’s English? Don’t let’s quibble, especially when we find within these pages the following blood-curdling exchange, all in caps: “QUESTION: WHY DO NEGROES SING ‘I KNOW THE LORD LAID HIS HANDS ON ME?’ ANSWER: HE TOUCHETH THE MOUNTAINS AND THEY SMOKE.” These transmissions from God or the universe sometimes enervate, but then some passage or another pops out and leads one to believe that Ra was a direct answer to that other great visionary, William Blake. At the very least, one returns to the music better informed about the man who made it.

 

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