About jazz. About jazz musicians. In my view, most so-called “jazz poetry” is about jazz and jazz musicians, as opposed to approaching writing improvisationally or emulating in language the technical features of jazz (swing or syncopation, for example). Though there are of course significant exceptions, the bulk of such writing—such as “jazz poetry,” which I often very much admire—is merely written with apparent looseness: it seems to insist on rhythmic irregularity; their lines tend to be elastic; neologisms abound (e.g. “parkerflights,” from Bob Kaufman’s “On”); scat-like phrases frequently appear (“Pitter patter, boom dropping” from Kaufman’s “O-Jazz-O,” or “doo doot doo Where is Dick Gallup” from Ted Berrigan’s “String of Pearls”). This kind of jazz poetry can be extraordinary, and I find Kaufman’s work in particular profound. Still, the technical features of this writing is very rarely akin to the technical features of jazz, because the latter relies too heavily upon tempo and key, music’s inbuilt (or, more likely, ingrained) expectations. Jazz is built upon the antagonization or swerving of expectations, and though jazz poetry does indeed swerve from more traditional poetry, whose compositional decisions are based on meter or syllabics or stanzaic patterning, they nevertheless establish themselves as regularly irregular, predictably unpredictable. Whereas a jazz tune attempts to break the expectations established by the tune itself, “jazz poetry” attempts to break the expectations of poetry in general.
A tune is in fact innumerable tunes with the same title. Put another way, the jazz tune is—like a canvas in an action painting—the arena in which works of art collide.
There’s another wonderful early scene in Basquiat. Benny Dalmau (Benicio del Toro) is showing Jean-Michel a makeshift music video of one of their band’s songs. Jean-Michel mutes the television, and Benny says: “What, you don’t like it with the music?”
“I like it like this,” says Basquiat.
On the screen: a black-and-white, stop-action sequence of a man prancing down a sidewalk toward the camera.
“It’s boring like this,” Benny replies. “Like—it’s—. It’s like looking at a painting. You need music. You need sound.”
Of course, in the context of the film, this reveals Basquiat’s artistic sensibility and foreshadows his greatness as a painter. But the scene also excites me because the viewer confronts this aesthetic quandary, too, and may feel very differently. I, for instance, despite my love for visual art, always want to turn off the hyperactive video and simply listen to the music, which has a nice funky bassline.
Ellen Bryant Voigt, from The Art of Syntax: “A great jazz musician needs a group, a trio, a partner instrument to maintain the ghost of the pulse against which the idiosyncratic improvisations can occur. It is the counterpoint we respond to.”
How can writing and music be combined, or even talked about, without producing this effect, this desire to choose one discipline over another? I’m not sure I have an answer. Yet the desire not to choose is in part this essay’s raison d’être, and indeed the field of composition incorporates, champions even, multimodality more and more. Though admittedly less multimodal than cross- disciplinary, my own writing, and therefore my approach to the teaching of writing, is far more indebted to my experiences in and knowledge of music (jazz in particular) than to the experience in and knowledge of writing proper.
Suzan-Lori Parks: “‘Repetition and Revision’ is a concept integral to the Jazz esthetic in which the composer or performer will write or play a musical phrase once and again and again; etc.—with each revisit the phrase is slightly revised. ‘Rep & Rev’ as I call it is a central element in my work; through its use I’m working to create a dramatic text that departs from the traditional linear narrative style to look and sound more like a musical score.”
Most of my students presume that the writing produced in college should be—strives to be—intelligently impersonal, dictatorially controlled. They don’t realize that the writing of both students and professors often “use mistakes,” as Picasso asserted, or “deny mistakes,” as Pollock (revising Picasso) claimed. They don’t realize that engagement with the world, however clumsy or arbitrary or angular it may be, is inescapably personal and, as in jazz, as in stage acting, as in sports, as in interpersonal relationships (this list could go on and on), it requires significant in-the- moment collaboration/improvisation.
Writing is not a wholly non-improvised art, even if it is in this regard, compared to jazz, rather tame. I once heard a story—who knows if it’s true?—about James Joyce writing Ulysses. Beckett was taking dictation, because Joyce was by then as blind as a mole, and during a particularly intense compositional moment—he was “writing” at quite a clip—there came a knock at the door. Joyce, without pause, said: “Get the door,” so Beckett asked: “Do you want me to get the door, or do you want me to write, ‘Get the door’?” Instantly Joyce barked: “Both!”
Last semester, I had a student who had been riding and boarding horses since she was a little girl, and I could tell in her prose how much care and attention, how much work, she put into many of her paragraphs, which no doubt sprung in part from the ritual of stepping into her boots and lumbering in the predawn dark toward her barn, where she would feed, brush, bathe, and saddle her horses. She also knew, almost intuitively, how and when to simply ride the language, to let language—itself a smooth muscular fast- running animal—carry her from here to there. “As I walk into the white, steep- pitched barn,” she wrote in one essay, “I am greeted by the distinct smell of hay and straw and manure and soap and lemon oil and leather and old brick and wood and time.”
Geoffrey Sirc: “A primary goal now in my writing classes: to show my students how their compositional future is assured if they take an art stance to the everyday, suffusing the materiality of daily life with an aesthetic.”
I began to skateboard when I was eleven or twelve years old, and I worked at it the way other kids ran scrimmages or went to the batting cages or rehearsed an after-school production of Macbeth. Though it was almost always fun—my friends and I wouldn’t have skated every day until dark or later, risking punishment, if it wasn’t fun—skating nevertheless requires a lot of practice, patience, determination, resilience, stubbornness, guts (among many other things), even though none of us was ever quite good enough. Then again, no skater worth his or her salt is ever quite good enough: there seems to be a principle of failure built into the practice. That’s why most skate videos have “fall sections” (montages of hard, sometimes brutal spills), why even our best skaters very frequently fall or “bail” (abandon the board mid-trick), and why I wasn’t pissed at my dad for asking one afternoon, after he’d stood around for a while stroking his mustache, pursing his lips, watching a bunch of us skate a launch ramp and a knee-high box: “Don’t you guys ever get tired of messing up?” I knew this question, never mind its indelicate phrasing, was an attempt to understand the general practice of skateboarding —and even now, some seventeen years later, I can think of no truer response than the terse one I’d given him. “Skating’s hard, Dad.”
Those who say they don’t understand jazz or specialized writing have not been exposed to them deeply enough. They are expecting these disciplines to be accessible, general, transparent —to speak to them, in short, like pop music or a car manual. Instead, both disciplines simply speak in their own languages, and what happens afterward, in the domain of the general public, as opposed to the domain of enthusiasts/ practitioners, is either fortunate (your book wins a Pulitzer; your record goes platinum) or unfortunate (your book gets banned or burned or taken to court for obscenity; you get beaten up outside an LA club, like Ornette Coleman).
Students sometimes think my views on writing are prescriptive, that I’m looking for some particular brand of “difficult” writing. This couldn’t be further from the truth. On the spectrum ranging from, say, total obfuscation to depthless accessibility, there is so much room to play; I merely prefer, aesthetically and intellectually, writing that challenges both reader and writer—writing that, like jazz, struggles with itself as it progresses.
Isn’t oblivion the ultimate unfortunateness? Perhaps for most writers the answer is resoundingly yes, seeing as the posterity of one’s work largely depends on reprinting: the reprinting of individual books, the reprinting of one’s collected work (we should be so lucky), and perhaps especially the anthologizing of individual, so-called “representative” essays or poems or short stories. Jazz, however, is an ephemeral art, which is just to say that jazz musicians live with oblivion every night: the work is produced (via a concert) and never heard again, even if it lives on in the unreliable memories of listeners and musicians. For writers, the act of making a text is ephemeral, whereas the text itself has, one hopes, a long(er) shelf life. I do not lament the ephemerality of writing—after all, I can at any moment simply write something new—but instead feel rather contemptuous of my own “finished” texts, which are now separate from me, which have (as set-in-stone artifacts) turned me, the writer, into a reader-voyeur, and which have the potential, however unlikely, to go on without me. As a former jazz musician, in other words, I am quite comfortable with oblivion: it doesn’t seem to me the most unfortunate public response to one’s work at all, seeing as it doesn’t even involve the practitioner, who can simply continue (unlike somebody imprisoned, say, such as Ai Wei Wei) to compose, to make, to “play.”
Will Self: “After all, one of the great things about writing, as opposed to other media, is that it makes no claims on people unless they engage with it: words, no matter how torturous, don’t leap out of books and articles and assault you.”
Marvin Bell once told me that Robert Creeley— at a small private poetry reading in New York City, in the mid-1960s—read the same poem again and again, intent on reciting its rhythms precisely. For a time, there was in the poetry community a somewhat contentious argument (very bizarre, in my view) over the validity of pausing at the ends of lines, which Creeley and Denise Levertov and many other terrific poets believed in. Years later—at the Kelly Writers House in 2000—Creeley would bring to a public discussion about his work a now- primitive computer program that could read a text on a word processor aloud. He seemed proud to have finally obtained objective proof about the matter: the robotic voice reciting one of his poems clearly paused at the ends of lines.
After reading a recent work of mine, one writer friend told me that, because of its punctuation, he felt like a passenger in a truck whose driver was just learning stick.
My students are always talking about “flow.” They want their texts to flow. Good flow, they believe, means good writing. There’s some truth to this: if readers have to reread every other sentence, as a result of clumsy phrasing or grammatical no-nos, then there’s usually some work to be done. Still, a text that requires no rereading, a text whose every phrase bleeds seamlessly into the next, tends to be too safe or superficial or tidy. No struggle to speak of.
In music, syncopation refers to rhythmic displacement—placing beats or accents unexpectedly—which of course relies upon rhythmic regularity: one can only play “off” if playing “on” has been established. A jazz soloist tends to syncopate against the steady downbeats of a drummer’s ride cymbal and/or a bassist’s walking. So how does one syncopate in his or her writing, which is, so to speak, a solo performance? In my view, to syncopate in a text is to syncopate against that text’s rhythmic expectations, and the commonest way to establish rhythmic expectations is to simply write in received forms. Let us examine briefly the poetry of Shane McCrae, for example, who almost always transforms received forms via rhythmic displacement, what might be called “poetic syncopation.”
Nearly every poem in McCrae’s debut collection, Mule (2011), is a sonnet or a series of sonnets, and though these sonnets are in many ways straightforward—they’re iambic, they consist of 70 beats, they often rhyme and posses a volta—they don’t look at all like sonnets:
Horses Running Fast
We married in an open field a wide
And open field a field of wild and run- / ning
horses wide a field of horses run- / ning through
we married in an open wide
Running and full of horses open
field / And in we married in and in we mar- / ried in in
one direction they the hors- / es they
disguised the wind as horses in the wind / The horses running
fast in one / Direction
as the horses running through / The horses as the horses run- / ning through and each of us as me and you / As horses running fast
In one direction and
no animal outruns its past
By shattering the sonnet’s typical appearance with caesuras and virgules (as well as by disregarding a sonnet’s somewhat arbitrary necessity to be fourteen lines), McCrae allows himself to syncopate against the metrical regularity of a sonnet: the poem’s virgules indicate the line breaks of the sonnet proper, and the majority of the actual line breaks, along with the caesuras, are experienced as syncopation, unexpected accents and pauses, over and against the sonnet’s rhythmic expectations (iambic pentameter). In other words, the perceptive, sonnet-savvy reader will feel—at the virgule—that he or she has moved, or ought to have moved, to the next line, even though the line continues. This is an effect enhanced, moreover, by McCrae’s use of repetition: the poem is always moving forward even as it fractures itself and returns to a former compositional moment. In this way, “Horses Running Fast,” which is formally indicative of McCrae’s work in general, has become a field—“an open field a wide / And open field”—wherein regularized sound and sense (fourteen lines doled out in iambic pentameter, without his backstitch-like repetition) combat peculiar, seemingly improvisatory syncopation and repetition.
Punctuation, paragraph breaks, section breaks, line breaks, caesuras, virgules, etc. etc.—all of these are, in a sense, rhythmic notation: they attempt, among other things, to objectivize a text’s pauses and emphases. Even so, every text remains, for good or for ill, susceptible to the idiosyncrasies of a given reader, whose natural cadences or respiratory rhythm or sense of pause-for-effect will not likely match the writer’s. Not such a big deal. After all, even the most formal of poems, the most rhythmically controlled writing I can think of, would be very awkward indeed if read “perfectly”—to a metronome, say. And would we then also supply texts with time signatures and tempos? No, these seem to me distracting accoutrements, and most formal poems aspire for naturalness, anyway, so that its sound and its content are experienced as a single, inseparable entity. (Auden’s “As I Walked Out One Evening,” naturally read in 4/4, can be read in any other time signature, too: the accents (emphases) merely fall on—the pauses merely fall between—different words or syllables that do not reflect the poem’s abovementioned rhythmic notation.) Like, say, Michael Brecker playing “Naima,” the “tempo” of a text (that is, the expectations established by its general rhythmic characteristics) tends to be fairly elastic. Thus, even if readers are merely witness to an event in language, the act of reading/witnessing—to say nothing of content —is significantly individual.
Adorno: “Even the creations of phantasy that are supposedly independent of time and space, point toward individual existence—however far they may be removed from it”
Do readers personalize texts sonically, the way jazz musicians personalize melodies? Maybe. But readers have, compared to musicians, little to no control. A “personalized melody” would be akin to a reader replacing words, shifting clauses, adding a few lines here and there—in effect destroying the autonomy of the text by ignoring its implicit singularity. On the other hand, a jazz tune, whose centerpiece is almost always improvisation, is implicitly non- singular and therefore demands personalization. In short, the writer whose texts are supposed to be singular artifacts still has—paradoxically—less control than the jazz musician whose compositions are supposed to be different each and every time they are played.
Sometimes, when a student reads a text aloud for the class, he or she will bestow it with a cadence, a real music, that was not at all apparent to me on the page.
On the old ten-inch 78s, a tune could be no longer than three or so minutes; consequently, jazz musicians sometimes shortened heads (or omitted them altogether) in order to lengthen their solos.
A “head” is a tune’s primary theme or melody, with its corresponding chord progression. The head establishes, for soloists, the harmonic vocabulary and rhythmic expectations, though almost every worthy solo stretches a tune’s harmonic vocabulary and challenges its rhythmic expectations. For many jazz musicians and enthusiasts, the head is the most expendable appendage.
Lisa Robertson: “This object furnishes hospitable conditions for entering and tarrying; it shelters without fastening; it conditions without determining.” Pretty good definition of a fake book. Pretty good definition of my student’s in-progress essays, too.
In “Isle of Java,” from Jackie McLean’s Jackie’s Bag (1960), tenor saxophonist Tina Brooks plays “Mary had a Little Lamb” in the middle of his solo, though of course he plays it “out”—a half-step sharp, if memory serves—so it’s hip, not cutsey. Brooks makes Western European children’s music sound very hip indeed.
About three minutes in:
Is Brook’s dissonant “Mary had a Little Lamb” all that different from Dora Malech “dismember[ing] this night forever”?
I frequently tell students to find a voice or form in which to write—a stylistic or rule-based mode, respectively, within which to “improvise.” As a head suggests harmonic vocabulary, as a tempo and a time signature suggest rhythmic possibilities, so voice and form (among other writerly traits) help writers, experienced and in-, see or hear or feel when their writing has derailed . . . or ought to.
Nobody quite “used” silence like Miles, whose solos often feel like erasures of previous solos. One can almost hear the notes between the notes.
The jazz musicians with whom I used to play generally refused to talk about our music before we played, because it—the music—was its own conversation, and we didn’t want our ordinary talk to prescribe or limit or confine in any way our musical “talk.” Still, between sets, we often swapped stories about playing on the road, about our worst gigs, worst audiences, worst venues—I once played at the end of a long narrow vomit-reeking hallway, just outside the doors of a gilded theater (“success” dangling, so to speak, before my eyes), where a more popular group was set to play when we were finished—or else we shared anecdotes about famous jazz musicians. These stories not only deepened and made indelible the experience of playing, but also returned us to the stage reinvigorated, enriched: they unexpectedly colored or patinated our (or at least my) playing. And had the audience been privy to our betwixt-set convos, wouldn’t it have colored their listening, too?
Phillip Lopate’s “Notes Toward an Introduction,” which opens his 2003 essay collection, Getting Personal: Selected Writings, consists of five “unfinished” vignettes about some aspect of essay writing (“On the Confessional Mode,” “ On the ‘I’ Persona,” “On Style,” and so on), followed by an “Afterword” purportedly written by a Dr. Horst Shovel. “These scattered notes were found on the desk of my late friend,” the doctor writes, “after his fatal aneurysm. They were meant to form the core of an introduction to his Selected Writings.” What follows is a conversational evaluation of Lopate’s oeuvre, alternately aggrandizing and deprecating. The kicker, the expectation-breaker, my perceptive students realize, is that Lopate is still alive, and Dr. Horst Shovel is in fact his invention.
Students think such a conceit requires a great deal of inventiveness, and maybe it does. But I like to believe that Lopate, no doubt a voracious reader, had chanced upon a similar approach to an introduction elsewhere.
In Walter Benjamin’s “Unpacking My Library,” Benjamin discusses a rare, sought-after book called Fragmente aus dem Nachlass eines jungen Physikers [Posthumous Fragments of a Young Physicist]. “This work,” writes Benjamin, “has never been reprinted, but I have always considered its preface, in which the author-editor tells the story of his life in the guise of an obituary for his supposedly deceased unnamed friend—with whom he is really identical—as the most important sample of personal prose of German Romanticism.” Sometimes, I tell my students, creativity begins simply as imitation.
Balzac, on his deathbed, was said to have called out for a Dr. Bianchon: “Bianchon, the fictitious Bianchon, a doctor who existed only in the mind of Balzac.”
Writing as a site for the expression of predetermined content perplexes me; the contents of my own work seem occultly awakened through language-play, which very often, even if the texts themselves are quite bad, surprise me. “Looking back on it,” said E.M Forster of the artist at work (a quote I’m culling from Ellen Douglas’s essay “Advice to Young Writers”), “he will wonder how on earth he did it. And indeed he did not do it on earth.” However New Agey or sophomoric or naïve it may sound, I can’t help but approach the blank page the way a jazz musician approaches a solo: I have nothing in mind—no agenda at all—except perhaps some self-imposed technical challenge (I’ll try the Egyptian scale on the turnaround).
In William March’s fable “The Young Poet and the Worm” (1940), an ethnocentric white male poet appraises both “this rich, perfect world which God created for man’s pleasure!” and his own “plump, pink body.” Whereupon a worm, down below, replies: “I don’t know about that, but there’s one thing I do know from my own experience: the perfection of man was assuredly made for the pleasure of worms.”
Writing this essay, if indeed it is an essay, I keep thinking of Bernard Malamud’s short story “Pictures of an Artist,” wherein the protagonist, the artist Arthur Fidelman, travels from place to place digging holes, “a succession of spontaneously placed holes, each a perfect square, which when seen together constituted a sculpture.” An ominous association, of course, since Fidelman is later visited by a stranger described rather like the reaper “wrapped in the folds of a heavy cloak” who soon “smote[s]” Fidelman with his own shovel, “a resounding blow on the head, the sculptor toppling as though dead into the larger of the two holes he himself had dug.”
When she accidentally skips a few lyrics in a children’s song, my daughter will yell: “Papa! I missed a page! I missed a page, Papa!”
The spirit or psychology of the jazz musician— in whose hands failure is inevitable, who is accepting of partial failure, who deems perfection a chimera, whose very art depends upon not looking back, upon concentrating wholly on the present and to hell with mistakes —has helped me laugh at overblown claims (Shelley: “Poets are the unacknowledged legislatures of the world”; Emerson: “[The poet] stands among partial men for the complete man, and apprises us not of his wealth, but of the commonwealth”) about writing and the role of writers in the world.
The first books I fell in love with—Cormac McCarthy’s early novels in particular—were ingested in great chunks of enthralled ignorance. I had no idea what was happening in these books, and I didn’t care, either. I was simply smitten with—well, the music of language. I no longer find this an embarrassing admission, though I still occasionally feel (whilst reading) a deep- seeded insecurity. “Wait a second,” I say to myself, dropping the book in my lap, “am I doing this right?”
Four years in a row, we were hired by a mortuary to play upbeat New Orleans-style jazz for All Souls’ Day. One year, they had us set up in front of a small building out among the candlelit headstones. “This is an all-time low,” our guitarist said, looking around. “Playing for dead people.”
When I got off the phone with my father, who had called to tell me his own father, my grandfather, had died, I did not put on a record. I did not lift from its red case the old Hohner 64 chromatic harmonica that he gave me one year for Christmas. No. Instead I walked—floated?—to my bookshelf and pulled down Louise Glück’s A Village Life (2009). I believed, in the soundless vertigo of grief, that one of these villagers’ lost, elegiac voices was in fact the voice of my grandfather.
It’s a cliché, but it’s true: Writing, like most worthwhile undertakings, combats the finality of death.
Years ago, when Kali and I lived in San Francisco, we would occasionally stop at a small café on 9th and Irving, where a framed black-and-white photograph of Billie Holiday hung: the once-gorgeous singer standing before a studio vocal mic, haggard, unable (it appears) to lift her head, carrying in one hand a gin or vodka on the rocks. We are meant, I believe, to admire her in this photograph, as though the image contained the same strong fragility of her voice, or as though she was the Ancient Mariner—and she was not—even if her head hung as though an albatross weighed it down. Why else would the photograph be so elegantly framed? In truth, Holiday couldn’t have been older than forty-four, and was no doubt suffering from cirrhosis of the liver, which is what would soon kill her.
and I am sweating a lot by now and thinking of
leaning on the john door in the 5 SPOT
while she whispered a song along the keyboard
to Mal Waldron and everyone and I stopped breathing
—Frank O’Hara, from “The Day Lady Died”
Geoff Dyer, from But Beautiful: A Book About Jazz (1996): “No other art form more ravenously investigates T.S. Eliot’s famous distinction between that which is dead and that which is already living.”
Fermata: A Landscape
He had imagined himself onto the edge
Of a great precipice. Wind and woodwinds,
White light and the smell of fawn hides
Over the olive stones. Sometimes a woman
Soaping her breasts in the purple rapids,
Greater even than Coltrane playing Chopin
On the soprano sax. He had had his life
In the Russian Hill apartment, shooting her
Among the cartons of Chinese take-out
And in the tangled orange sheets of his bed . . .
Feeling her lips on the back of his neck
Each new morning, and peering over at her
Just to be sure. He had made it through
Like a man teetering in darkness, thrusting
His hands into unidentifiable pots, then
Smearing the contents over his naked body.
Now he was content to watch the goats
Graze in the hot scrubland. The young boy
Chiseling a serpent into his maple flute . . .
Understanding Monk’s instinct to abandon
His piano, his quartet, in Charlie’s solo,
Just so he can dance. The sound of absence
Will outdo one’s sound. Still, he dances—
In memoriam, J.G., February 18, 1925 – November 13, 2012
[first appeared in december]