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Callaloo 25.1 (2002) 66-91
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Orality and Textuality
Meta DuEwa Jones
How does literature "write music"? How do the graphic techniques of black literacy translate, or transport, the particularities of black orality onto the page?
The above questions posed by the scholar Brent Edwards capture the core of the enduring and engaging critical debate within African-American literary study over the nexus between orature and literature, or orality and textuality. Edwards' exhorts scholars of African-American poetics to refocus our critical lens so that it blurs the facile dichotomies made between "orality/literacy, craft/politics, and (inarticulate) music/ (articulate) writing" (Edwards 580). Such an adjustment might successfully yield an appropriate sense of the dynamic interplay between vocal and visual characteristics in musically influenced Black poetry. A scholarship that recognizes the oral and textual as imbricated, not disparate, elements in African-American poetics would enrich our understanding of how the vocal and visual are performed across the geographic space of the page. In fact, some of the most prominent African-American practitioners in the craft of verse have called attention to the intrinsic interconnection between orality and literacy as an essential element of a Black aesthetic. For example, in an interview in The Furious Flowering of African-American Poetry, Michael Harper marked the presence of "a certain kind of intelligence" and a "certain kind of literacy which is not necessarily written down . . . which is always in dialogue because we're always participating in what I call a long dialogue" (Gabbin 85). More succinctly, in the introduction to Soulscript, An Anthology of Afro-American Poetry, June Jordan declared, "poems are voiceprints of language"; they are "soulscript."
The concepts of "voiceprint," "soulscript," and unwritten literacy as metaphors for the presence and performance of Black poetry are compelling. They associatively link the technology of writing with the sign of racialized speech, what the African-American linguist John Rickford characterized as "Spoken Soul." As scholars, we would do well to heed the cue for interpretive possibilities that these metaphors open up in our readings of African-American literature in general and poetry in particular. One of the dangers of the traditional reading--in the sense of critical interpretation-- [End Page 66] of the orally inflected features of African-American literature is a tendency to overlook its textually specific resonance. The poet Harryette Mullen rightly notes that "any theory of African-American literature that privileges a speech based poetics, or the trope of orality, to the exclusion of more writerly texts will cost us some impoverishment of the tradition" (670-71). Furthermore, as Mullen explains, African cultural traditions of developing "indigenous writing or script systems" are overlooked in scholarship by Henry Louis Gates and others which argues that "black literary traditions privilege orality" and that "the quest for freedom and literacy" is a motif "that informs all black writing" (671). It is true that a racially inflected "speech based poetics" can be found in much African-American literature, from the slave narratives to modern variations of the "speakerly text." Yet it is also true that the sound of language has a visual dimension and that the "speakerly" and "literary" characteristics of African-American literature are interconnected.
This essay examines poems within the tradition of African-American jazz poetry and focuses on both its oral and textual elements. I intend to focus on the visual performance of jazz-influenced texts as indicative of poets' unique approaches to scripting African-American musical and verbal sound. My goal is four-fold: 1) to discuss the debates concerning orality and textuality as they relate to an aesthetic of and evaluative criteria for jazz poetry; 2) to describe a prosody of jazz poetry that accounts for its visual and vocal characteristics; 3) to delineate a textually-based criticism of an orally-inflected text; and finally, 4) to engage in a comparative analysis of jazz-influenced poems by Sonia Sanchez, Amiri Baraka, Elizabeth Alexander, and Michael Harper. I will examine the range of textual evidence within poems by each of these authors that exhibits the influence of jazz. I will do so...