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The Jazz-Poetry Connection Barry Wallenstein This is the final part of a two-part essay on jazz-poetry. The first part appeared in PAJ 11 (Volume IV, Numbers 1 and 2). Considering the long history of jazz-poetry, no two figures dominate its modern phase as do Kenneth Patchen and Kenneth Rexroth. In the 1950s, bop was the emergent jazz form, and jazz talk was a potent force, a magical language for the new poets. Those poets who were stylistically opposed to the allusive and intellectualized work of the Pound-Eliot school seemed to gravitate towards jazz rhythms and the poetic language of jazz. So while Langston Hughes [see PAJ 11] was actually transmitting that language into his verse, thus preserving an ethnic tradition, Rexroth, Patchen, and the entire school of beat poets developed a separate and distinct poetry. That is to say, their poetry was less derived from the folk tradition than from the poet's ego. They did, however, still reflect the tradition Hughes defines so clearly by incorporating the idiom of the jazz man and, of course, the rhythms of the music. Both Langston Hughes and Kenneth Patchen were poets of the 1930s-the "years of protest" in the arts and politics, and both sympathized with the leftist thinking of the proletarian movement. Hughes brought ethnic consciousness to the general awakening of the white intelligentsia, while Patchen started as an iconoclast or radical. As readers of the famous "Joe Hill Listens to the Praying" know, Patchen is a writer of social consciousness. In 1958 Kenneth Rexroth published an appreciative essay on Patchen's work and verbalized a theme of the 1950s: "There is no place for a poet in American 122 society." Yet Rexroth goes on: "The bobby-soxers do love him. Against a conspiracy of silence of the whole of literary America, Patchen has become the laureate of the doomed youth of the third world war. He is the most widely read younger poet in the country." The idiosyncratic speech of his poetry and what Rexroth called his "integrity and moral earnestness" place him in a line of independent voices that loosely stretches from Whitman through Vachel Lindsay and Carl Sandburg-all people's poets. But more than these others and even more than Rexroth, Patchen stands with the anti-literature writers, the mavericks such as Henry Miller who more or less worked in isolation from trends and movements. Patchen's first recording of jazz and poetry came out around the time of Rexroth 's essay about him. Either Rexroth hadn't yet heard the record or chose not to comment. I must believe the former for once heard the record demands attention. The poet recites or half sings a wide range of his poems, all of which appear in the 3rd edition of his Selected Poems. The music on the record is by Allyn Ferguson and his Chamber Jazz Sextet. It often sounds like a swing band, with the solos introduced in the manner of the big band. There is also the suggestion of the "cool" style of a Miles Davis. More than any other attempt at combining poetry with music, Patchen's record achieves a genuine synthesis and a varied sound. In the liner notes, Ferguson discussed the "pact" between himself and the poet: When first discussing the possibility of setting poetry to jazz, Kenneth and I agreed that the usual procedure of setting text to music would have to be abandoned. The final product, we felt, should be conceived in terms of the poet's interpretation of the text. It seemed evident, however, that the music would be quite unnecessary were there no attempt to bring about a meaningful union between the two mediums. We decided, therefore, to tape-record the readings and underscore them. This procedure would have the double value of retaining the spontaneity of original reading while still allowing freedom for the creation of a significant musical entity. The music, then, was composed to the poet's readings-and designed to fortify the emotional content of the poetry. It is ironic that Ferguson goes on to call their fusion a new medium, for it really had precedents in the...

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Additional Information

ISSN
1537-9477
Print ISSN
1520-281X
Pages
pp. 122-134
Launched on MUSE
2018-01-03
Open Access
No
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