Ode to a Drum
Ode to a Drum
Included in the first section of Yusef Komunyakaa's 1998 collection, Thieves of Paradise, "Ode to a Drum" describes an African drum maker talking to the gazelle he has killed, while nailing the gazelle's hide to wood, and the music that results from the drum he creates. The poem was also included in the album Love Notes from the Mad House, Komunyakaa's musical collaboration with saxophonist John Tchicai.
"Ode to a Drum" represents many of the themes and subjects Komunyakaa has been known to address in his poetry, particularly the importance of music among African Americans and in African American history. With its short lines, jazz-influenced rhythms, and conversational diction, the poem is also written in a style representative of many of the poems in Komunyakaa's extensive oeuvre. Having grown up in the Deep South listening to blues and jazz artists such as Louis Armstrong and Ma Rainey and having been greatly influenced by such jazz legends as Charlie Parker and John Coltrane, Komunyakaa fuses the rhythms of blues and jazz into many of his poems. Since he grew up in the segregated Deep South, Komunyakaa's poetry often addresses African American issues and historical subjects.
While "Ode to a Drum" is, on a literal level, about a drum maker talking to the gazelle he killed in order to make his drum, it is also a poem about the power of music in the African and African American traditions. The drum maker has killed the gazelle to create the drum, but once the drum has been finished, it can burst into song, giving the gazelle the power to rise up once again, this time not as the hunted but as the hunter.
Yusef Komunyakaa (pronounced "koh-mun-yahkuh") was born April 29, 1947, in Bogalusa, Louisiana. The oldest of five children, Komunyakaa grew up listening to blues and jazz through a radio in his mother's living room, which, along with the experiences he had in the segregated South, would influence much of his poetry. In 1965, after graduating from high school, Komunyakaa enlisted in the army and began a tour of duty in Vietnam where he would eventually become a correspondent and editor for the Southern Cross, the military's newspaper. He was awarded a Bronze Star for his work with the paper, and after leaving the military in the early 1970s, Komunyakaa entered the University of Colorado where he received his bachelor's degree in 1975.
In 1978, Komunyakaa received his master's degree from Colorado State University, and in 1980 he went on to receive his master of fine arts degree from the University of California at Irving. His first two self-published editions of poetry, Dedications and Other Darkhorses and Lost in the Bonewheel Factory, were released in 1977 and 1979 respectively, and his first commercial book, Copacetic, was published in 1984.
In 1985, Komunyakaa married the Australian writer Mandy Sayer, whom he later divorced. In July 2003, Komunyakaa's second wife, poet Reetika Vazirani, and their two-year-old son, Jehan Vazirani Komunyakaa, were found dead from what is believed to be a murder-suicide. Komunyakaa has taught at several colleges and universities and has served as a professor of creative writing at Princeton University.
He is the author of twelve collections of poetry, including Neon Vernacular: New and Selected Poems, the winner of the Pulitzer Prize for poetry in 1994, the $50,000 Kingsley Tufts Award, and the William Faulkner Prize from the Université de Rennes. Thieves of Paradise, from which the poem "Ode to a Drum" is taken, was published in 1998. He has also edited several anthologies of poems, among them the two-volume The Jazz Poetry Anthology, published by Indiana University Press, and his work has been included in many of the nation's premier poetry journals.
In addition to the awards garnered for Neon Vernacular, Komunyakaa has received two National Endowment for the Arts Creative Writing fellowships; the American Library Association Best Books for Young Adults selection for Dien Cai Dau; and a National Book Critic's Circle Award nomination for his 2001 collection, Talking Dirty to the Gods.
Gazelle, I killed you
for your skin's exquisite
touch, for how easy it is
to be nailed to a board
weathered raw as white 5
butcher paper. Last night
I heard my daughter praying
for the meat here at my feet.
You know it wasn't anger
that made me stop my heart 10
till the hammer fell. Weeks
ago, I broke you as a woman
once shattered me into a song
beneath her weight, before
you slouched into that 15
grassy hush. But now
I'm tightening lashes,
shaping hide as if around
a ribcage, stretched
like five bowstrings. 20
Ghosts cannot slip back
inside the body's drum.
You've been seasoned
by wind, dust & sunlight.
Pressure can make everything 25
whole again, brass nails
tacked into the ebony wood
your face has been carved
five times. I have to drive
trouble from the valley. 30
Trouble in the hills.
Trouble on the river
too. There's no kola nut,
palm wine, fish, salt,
or calabash. Kadoom. 35
Kadoom. Kadoom. Ka-
Doom. Kadoom. Now
I have beaten a song back into you,
rise & walk away like a panther.
Komunyakaa, the author of "Ode to a Drum," is an African American poet, born to working-class parents in rural Louisiana. A profoundly intellectual man who spent time in Vietnam as a correspondent, Komunyakaa addresses a wide range of social, political, cultural, mythical, and intellectual issues and themes in his poems. His poems are often written in conversational tones and often use jazz-inspired rhythms and diction in some significant ways reminiscent of the poems of Langston Hughes and Amiri Baraka, among many others.
"Ode to a Drum" takes on themes of African music and traditions that are familiar to readers of Komunyakaa's poetry, and, like much of his work, the poem can be read on several levels. On a literal level, the poem is an account, through the eyes of an African drum maker, of the making of a drum: the killing of a gazelle, the stretching of its hide, the nailing of the hide to the carved wood, and the resulting music from the drum. On another level, "Ode to a Drum" is about the importance of music, particularly the drum, in traditional African societies: The drum maker refers to trouble in his home that the drum will help to drive away. But because of Komunyakaa's own background, one can also read into the poem the powerful influence that music has among African Americans. The gazelle, an animal of prey, is dead at the beginning of the poem, but by the poem's conclusion, through the transformational powers of the drum maker, it has taken on the form of a panther, one of the most feared predators on the African continent. Likewise, African Americans long held down through years of racism and oppression can metaphorically rise up, not as the "hunted" but as proud "hunters," like panthers. Although no direct correlation is implied in the poem with the 1960s and 1970s political and cultural black power group, the Black Panthers, one only needs a basic understanding of African Americans' history of political struggles to understand how this image can resonate among American blacks.
- Komunyakaa, along with many international poets, can be heard reading several poems in the Rhino/World Beat CD entitled Our Souls Have Grown Deep Like the Rivers: Black Poets Read Their Work (2000).
- As part of the acclaimed Lannan Foundation series of readings, Komunyakaa reads from Thieves of Paradise and is filmed in conversation with poet Tori Derricotte in this one-hour video.
- "Ode to a Drum" is set to music, along with several other poems, in the CD Love Notes from the Mad House (1998). The CD is a collaboration between Komunyakaa and saxophonist John Tchicai.
Odes have a long and storied tradition in poetry. From the Greek meaning "song," the form's earliest known examples were written by Sappho around 600 B.C. Among the most famous odes are those of John Keats, the British poet whose "Ode on a Grecian Urn" and "Ode to a Nightingale" are among the English language's finest examples. While Komunyakaa's "Ode to a Drum" does not share the elaborate stanzaic structures or technical formality that odes have been known for, it does share the ode's proclivity for addressing important sentiments and ideas. And like "Ode on a Grecian Urn," this poem takes a physical object—in this case, a drum—as the basis for examining those important issues. By offering an ode to a drum, Komunyakaa is extolling the historical, spiritual, and cultural significance for Africans and African Americans of this simple but powerful instrument.
Though "Ode to a Drum" has strong lyrical tendencies, as do most of Komunyakaa's poems, the prevalent mode here is narrative. The poem tells a story, from the second-person point of view, of the making of a drum. The first lines of the poem—"Gazelle, I killed you / for your skin's exquisite / touch"—are straightforward and set the stage for the narration. The voice is that of an African drum maker, talking to the spirit of the gazelle as he begins to build his drum. The process of the drum making involves the killing of the animal for its hide, the scraping of the hide, and the stretching of the hide on a flat board, as mentioned in line 4.
Standing above the results of his latest hunt ("the meat here at my feet"), the narrator, in a near apologetic tone, explains to the spirit of the gazelle the reasons for his latest kill—the hungry prayers of his child. It is not anger but necessity that compels the drum maker to hunt. These lines provide a clear picture of the respect the narrator has for the animal kingdom. He goes on to compare the killing of the gazelle several weeks earlier to a sexual act, and at the same time he reminds the gazelle of the purpose of his death: "I broke you as a woman / once shattered me into a song / beneath her weight." Just as the man was "shattered . . . into a song," he "broke" the gazelle into a "grassy hush" that will soon, through the drum, also turn into song. Although African music predated and provided the ultimate influence for American blues, Komunyakaa, with the inclusion of the image of a sexual relation with a woman, juxtaposed with verbs like "broke" and "shattered," has instilled a touch of the blues into the poem.
On a literal level, these lines continue the narrator's description of his drum making: the tightening of the lashes, the shaping of the hide, and the tacking of the brass nails that help hold the hide in place. However, these lines also underscore the profound belief that the drum maker has in the metaphysical aspects of the drum. Images of body parts are used in the drum's descriptions: a ribcage, the "body's drum," and the carved ebony face of the drum. As the drum begins to take its final form, the drum maker sees the gazelle becoming "whole again." In fact, by the act of shaping the hide around the drum's body and securing it, the drum maker ensures that no "ghosts" can "slip back" in. The gazelle, though no longer in the form of an animal, has begun to take the form of the drum. One more thing to note in these lines is the imagery of the predator that makes its first appearance in the poem. The drum maker compares the lashes he is tightening to "bowstrings." Up to this point, the gazelle has been the prey; from this point forward in the poem, it will gradually become the predator.
In the poem's final ten lines, the motivation of the drum maker makes itself known. There is "trouble" in the area, and he must drive it away. As in American blues, the trouble includes poverty: "no kola nut, / palm wine, fish, salt, / or calabash"—all staples to the drum maker and his community. But now, with the help of the drum, he can drive those troubles away, and through the act of killing the gazelle and the making of the drum, he has turned the hunted gazelle into a panther, one of the most feared predators on the continent.
Although drum making exists as a craft and as an art form around the world, references to the gazelle clearly place this poem on the African continent. This is important to Komunyakaa's sense of his own identity as an African American. A sub-text of the poem is that of political and cultural re-birth, or reincarnation. Just as the gazelle was defeated in the hunt, Africans were defeated at the hands of white colonialists. But like the gazelle who was given new life as a panther through the music of the drum, Africans will also rise up strong again with the help of their music and culture.
No direct mention of slavery is made in the poem, but through the evolution of the gazelle from existing as a preyed-upon and hunted animal to a mighty and feared panther, along with references to the "trouble" that exists on the river (the primary way slave traders traveled inland to procure their slaves), Komunyakaa has placed the existence of slavery in the background to the poem.
Cycle of Life
Through the drum maker's gifts, the gazelle has been given a new life. The drum maker also makes reference to his reverence for animal life by telling the gazelle that it was not "anger" that made him kill, but rather it was a need to feed his child whose prayers for meat did not go unheard. In this way, the drum maker recognized the cycle of life that he and his family, along with the animal world, were a part of.
Traditional African cultures relied on rituals in their everyday life. The art of crafting a drum, and drumming itself, was a part of rituals that were necessary to keep villages safe.
Man versus Nature
In traditional African villages, men relied on their ability to hunt in order to survive. Without strong and successful hunters, a village could not survive. However, although the hunter found success in a kill, the poem clearly shows the reverence Africans have for the animal kingdom. The drum maker in "Ode to a Drum" has the highest respect for the gazelle, and part of the reason for his craft is to make the gazelle "whole" again through the making of a drum from the animal's hide.
African American Identity
Like Africans before them who were colonized by white Europeans, African Americans suffered their own forms of colonialism through slavery and segregation. After segregation was ruled illegal in the 1960s, the legacy of that history remained, and Komunyakaa addresses that legacy in many of his poems. In "Ode to a Drum," just as the gazelle evolves from a defeated animal to a proud and mighty panther, African Americans, through the strength of their culture, can do the same.
Topics For Further Study
- During slavery times, whites passed a law prohibiting the ownership of drums by blacks. Research other laws slaveholders passed that affected the ways blacks practiced their culture or religions. Write a paper detailing these laws. When did these laws change? What was the immediate impact?
- Odes have a long and storied history in poetry. Odes have been used to address important objects and ideas, and they were often written for important occasions. In contemporary times, poets have come to use odes ironically. Research the poetry of the past twenty years and find examples both of the serious uses of odes as well as ironic uses. Then, try writing each type of ode yourself using techniques you have read about.
- Drum making and playing were considered sacred to many African societies. Research the backgrounds of African and Native American drumming and drum making. What are the similarities between the uses of the drum, and what are some of the differences?
- The poem makes a reference to ghosts. Research how different cultures view ghosts and spirits. Write a paper comparing your findings. Consider how religious, economic, and racial influences affect a culture's belief in ghosts. Have people's ideas about ghosts changed from generation to generation?
- Both in the opening and closing lines of the poem, animals are mentioned. How is Komunyakaa using these animals and for what purpose in his poem? How is he making use of personification? How is the speaker showing respect to both these animals? Why do you think Komunyakaa specifically refers to the gazelle and the panther? What kind of symbols are attached to these animals? Look into how different cultures treat animals and write an essay about your findings.
Faith and Spirituality
The drum maker is not simply a craftsman; he is an integral part of his people's belief system. There is great power given to the drum—the power to drive evil spirits away and the power to unite people through song. The drum is an essential component of that belief system, which Komunyakaa brings out through the drum maker's talk with the spirit of the gazelle.
Stanzaic Structure and Lineation
"Ode to a Drum" comprises a single stanza of twenty-nine lines of four to nine syllables each, with the majority of the lines five or six syllables long. Technically, the poem is considered free verse, although Komunyakaa closely controls the poem's lineation (that is, the way each line breaks) to control the poem's rhythm and to emphasize the poem's meaning. Most of the lines also carry between two and four stresses each, which help to give the poem a drum-like drive as it is read, particularly toward the end as the drum maker lists the necessities his family lacks. "Kadoom," the drum sounds, "Kadoom. Kadoom," as if punctuating the mounting emotions he is feeling from all his troubles. The line breaks also help underscore the meaning of the drum maker's monologue. The first line, "Gazelle, I killed you," offers a terse and dramatic opening to the poem, whereas the rest of the sentence goes on to explain the killing as a step in the act of the drum making. Lines 16 through 20 become shorter and tighter to reflect the tension he is creating from tightening the lashes and stretching the hide.
Diction and Tone
"Ode to a Drum" is written in the second person, from the point of view of a drum maker addressing the spirit of the gazelle he has killed. The drum maker, from a traditional African village, does not have a formal education, as we know it, but neither is he considered "simple." He must be a wise man with a reverence for the work he is doing, and the diction must reflect that. As a result, Komunyakaa uses a conversational, informal diction in the poem. The words are simple, but not overly so, and as a result the tone of the poem reflects the reverence the drum maker has for the life he has taken. He is neither angry nor sad over what he is doing; he knows this act is necessary for his survival, and he clearly respects the gazelle's role in this act.
The combination of stress and short lines gives the poem a driving rhythm, with the stresses punctuating the reading like a drum punctuating the air. Komunyakaa has tight control over the rhythm of each line, stretching some lines further, as the meaning of the poem dictates, and shortening others.
"Ode to a Drum" is very much about recreation: the drum maker has turned the gazelle into a mighty panther through the making of his drum. As such, the drum he has created is not merely a fabrication of hide and wood; it also possesses the soul of the gazelle. The drum itself is described, using images from the body—a ribcage and face, in particular. There is also an undercurrent of sadness, an infusion of the blues, in the poem, and words like "broke," "shattered," and "pressure" help underscore that connection. As the drum maker begins to use the gazelle hide on the drum, he compares his work to that of stretching "bowstrings," which helps to highlight the fact that he is turning this animal of prey into a mighty predator who will be ready for the hunt and who will protect his people from troubles.
Komunyakaa is a product of the segregated Deep South. As a young boy who loved to read, growing up in rural Louisiana in the 1950s and 1960s, he was not allowed into the public libraries or many other public places, because of his race. The one cultural form of expression he had direct access to was music, through his mother's radio, and it was through that contact that he came to love jazz and the blues. And as he advanced in his writing career, those influences, along with his reading of African and African American literature and history, came to play major roles in his verse. Poets like Langston Hughes and Amiri Baraka, both known for the ways they fused music with their poetry, came to influence Komunyakaa's work significantly.
"Ode to a Drum" is very much a reflection of Komunyakaa's experiences and influences. In it, the influences of African history, music, and political and social struggles are apparent, all taking form in an allegory about a drum maker, an allegory that can also be read in the context of the struggles African Americans have had in the United States, the struggles that he grew up around and understood from firsthand experience. Through the power of culture, and music in particular, African Americans have the same potential powers as the panther; they do not have to think of themselves as gazelles waiting to be hunted down.
Drum makers and drummers were, and continue to be, vital members of traditional African societies. (And, of course, in American jazz and blues music, drummers are essential to the African American tradition as the ones who maintain the beat.) Drumming has long been used for rituals in cultures around the world. The poem makes reference to keeping "troubles" away with the drum. These troubles can range from plagues and pestilence to enemy invasions. Drumming, dancing, and singing, as well as hunting, played and continue to play sacred roles in traditional African societies.
Though the poem clearly takes place in Africa, it is significant that the actual date in which the poem takes place is indeterminate. It could be during the time of slavery; the "troubles" the drum maker refers to could be slave traders coming up the river. Or the "troubles" could be colonial administration officials in the early twentieth century coming to take away the village land to build a road to the rubber plantations. Or perhaps the setting is more contemporary, and the drum maker is referring to AIDS or some other infectious disease moving into this area. The point of the blues is that troubles have always been and will always be but music itself helps people survive. This, as much as any other idea, is the point that Komunyakaa is making in "Ode to a Drum."
Thieves of Paradise, the collection in which "Ode to a Drum" is included, was Komunyakaa's tenth book and the first since his Pulitzer Prize–winning Neon Vernacular: New and Selected Poems. As a highly anticipated volume, the book was widely reviewed in mainstream and poetry publications, though very few reviewers made direct mention of "Ode to a Drum."
Writing in Poetry, John Taylor describes Komunyakaa's poetry as bristling with "vitality, vibrancy, and an admirable concern for human suffering." The poems in Thieves of Paradise, Taylor writes, are at times "[s]o compelling . . . that only second readings reveal his tours de force."
In a brief New Yorker review, the anonymous reviewer writes of the book's "surrealist riffs, with their almost hallucinatory lushness [and] their power to convince us that the individual imagination is more than equal to the most excruciating historical burden." Similarly, Publishers Weekly describes Komunyakaa's language as "lush" and concludes that the "resulting vision of [Komunyakaa's] paradise . . . is a compelling one."
Poet Kate Daniels, writing in the Southern Review, offered one of the rare criticisms of Komunyakaa's collection, citing what she calls a "weakness in [his] aesthetic in the way he represents women." Daniels's critique focuses on the shallow dimensions the poet's female figures take on. On the one extreme, they are viewed as objects of desire, and on the other they are "too often like the casually homicidal lioness in [Komunyakaa's poem] 'Ecologue at Twilight' " who is described in the act of casually devouring her mate. However, Daniels concludes her review by recommending Komunyakaa's work. "Like the blues music he loves, Komunyakaa takes us down, then pulls us up again on the tidal rhythms of grimly powerful images," she writes.
Although "Ode to a Drum" was not mentioned directly in major reviews, several reviewers touched upon themes directly pertinent to the poem. Donna Seaman, writing in the Booklist, says, "The full weight of history is felt in these poems, sonorous works that echo the myths and revelations of many cultures but which revolve around the paradoxes of African American life." Poet Rafael Campo, in a review for the Washington Post, comments on the poet's technique and the way he uses "unusual syntactic constructions and meaning-packed line breaks," as opposed to traditional forms, to create his art. And, Campo writes, "Komunyakaa creates what every great poet must: a language that is at once utterly specific and universally recognizable, one that ultimately engenders in his reader that most elusive of all human emotions, empathy itself."
Mark White is a writer and editor running an independent press in Seattle, Washington. In the following essay, White discusses Komunyakaa's use of blues and jazz in "Ode to the Drum" and offers an allegorical interpretation of the poem.
In "Ode to a Drum," Yusef Komunyakaa enters the mind of an African drum maker as he tacks the hide of a gazelle to a drum of wood and begins to make music. On a literal level, "Ode to a Drum" takes the form of a heartfelt monologue of an artisan voicing his concerns and problems to the spirit of a dead gazelle as he performs his craft. But a closer reading of the poem reveals that Komunyakaa has fused elements of traditional blues with the form of the ode to address nothing less than the profound political, historical, and spiritual significance of the drum to African and African American cultures. And in doing so, he has used the modest voice of a lone drum maker to create an allegory and an anthem of political and cultural renewal and rebellion.
To understand the allegorical meanings of Komunyakaa's richly textured poem, a basic understanding of the role of drumming in African and African American cultures and an overview of the relationship of blues to traditional African music are necessary.
In his study of delta blues, Deep Blues, Robert Palmer describes how as the African slave trade evolved, several traditions and styles of African music made their ways to the American South with the slaves. In the early years of slavery, traders focused their efforts on the section of West Africa they called "Senegambia"—a region that extended from the dry northern areas of Senegal down to the northern coastline of Guinea. Because most of the area bordered the Sahara desert, there were few trees, and as a result, drums were far less prevalent than were the more Arabic-influenced stringed instruments. It was not until the slave trade moved farther south to the more heavily forested region that came to be known as the "slave coast"—the coastal regions now known as Sierra Leone and Liberia—and then even farther south to the mouth of the Congo River to what is now Angola that traders encountered Africans whose music was steeped in the rich percussive sounds and drumming that has come to define African music for most of the West.
Although Komunyakaa does not refer directly to a "tribe" or region in his poem, one can deduce from this basic overview that the drum maker in "Ode to a Drum" is from one of the more southerly regions of the West African coast. In fact, one could further deduce, though not definitively, that the drum maker is from the Congo River region and that the "[t]rouble on the river" he refers to in the poem could very well be slave traders. The Congo River and its many tributaries allowed easier access to the inner villages of the mainland than did the difficult and dangerous African terrain, and they became the main routes to and from the ships for many traders. (Because a time frame is not mentioned in the poem, it is conceivable, though unlikely, that the poem takes place in the present day, and the "troubles" could be contemporary issues such as AIDS or another infectious disease. However, the poem's setting does not affect its allegorical interpretation.)
In traditional African villages, drumming and music making played a role in virtually every aspect of daily life. Palmer points out that, although there were the individual shepherds who serenaded their flocks and lone musicians who played to entertain themselves, music was by and large a communal affair that was included in every activity of the village. And within each body of music that defined those activities, there was little distinction between the musician and the audience. Whether it was what we know now as a "call and response" or a method of harmonizing called "hocketing," the forms of music Africans played relied heavily on full, communal participation. It was those communal aspects of the music, as much as the music itself, that was important for Africans. Music kept villages close to one another, and it kept the people in those villages together. And often the drummer was the only "musician," per se, with the "audience" turning their bodies and voices into accompanying instruments.
As slaves populated the American South, their music slowly evolved and not only came to incorporate the divergent sounds of the many traditions represented by the slaves themselves, but it also came to merge with classical and contemporary European music so that by the late nineteenth century the musical forms that we now know as the blues and jazz had begun to take shape.
Komunyakaa, an African American, had little access to the public culture that his white contemporaries had growing up in the segregated Deep South. For instance, although he was an avid reader as a young child, the whites-only library was off-limits to him. However, one bit of culture that Komunyakaa had access to growing up in the 1950s and 1960s was jazz and the blues. Through his mother's radio, the young Komunyakaa was exposed to the sounds of such jazz and blues greats as Louis Armstrong and Ma Rainey, and it is those influences that can be very clearly seen in this poem.
Blues, as the name implies, is a form of music whose lyrics and sounds are largely defined by difficult times. Originating among slaves in plantations and spreading throughout the antebellum South during years when the practice of slavery was illegal but the many practices of severe racial discrimination, including lynching, were not, the blues came to be defined by its sad, soulful sounds and lyrics. Blues lyrics often address the poverty of the musician, the law he was running from, the liquor he drank too much of the night before, and the sex that was both a source of comfort and a source of pain for him. Yet far from being a springboard into "deeper blues" for the musician, the music he created (most of the early known blues musicians were men) helped both the musicians and their communities to deal with their difficult plights. Continuing the communal traditions of their African forefathers, blues musicians, like the griots, or storytellers of African villages whose stories, according to Palmer, came to "constitute a kind of oral history of their people," grew to become the voices of their communities. And it was through their music and the communal voicing of sorrows that blacks could find strength from one another.
"I heard my daughter praying / for the meat here at my feet," the drum maker tells the spirit of the gazelle, referring to the hunger his family is experiencing. And later in the poem, echoing what is a typical refrain for a blues lyric, he intones a litany of troubles he is experiencing:
Trouble in the hills.
Trouble on the river
too. There's no kola nut,
palm wine, fish, salt,
The drum maker's family is hungry, staples of his life are scarce, and trouble surrounds him. This is the blues.
Another common element of the blues, an element clearly derived from the African tradition, is the merging of the sacred and the profane—the fusion, often, of a prayer to the Lord and a reference to relations between the sexes, as described by Palmer:
Man-woman relationships, probably the most persistent concern of blues lyrics, are also important in traditional African villages, where social harmony is often considered synonymous with or dependent on harmony in the home. And the mixing of the sacred and the profane in black American song lyrics is more easily understood once one realizes that in precolonial Africa these two fields of human activity were not generally thought of as polar opposites.
Komunyakaa consciously weds the sacred with the profane in "Ode to a Drum." The act of making the drum is a ritual that transcends cultures. Many Native American traditions, for instance, considered the drum to be a sacred instrument. In the poem, out of respect for the sacred, the narrator of the poem takes on a respectful, almost reverential tone as he addresses the gazelle. "You know it wasn't anger / that made me stop my heart / till the hammer fell," he tells the gazelle almost apologetically in reference to another animal he has killed to feed his child. And as he ties the gazelle's hide to the wooden drum, he assures it that now "Ghosts cannot slip back / inside the body's drums." The drum maker is not only working to create a drum, but he is also performing the act of making the gazelle "whole" again.
And yet, as he describes the actual act of killing the gazelle, the drum maker evokes a crude image of the sexual act. "Weeks / ago, I broke you as a woman / once shattered me into a song / beneath her weight," he tells the gazelle.
The incorporation of the blues with the ode is not merely an academic exercise for Komunyakaa. Traditionally, odes have been written for special occasions or to address objects or important ideas. In this case, the object being addressed is, of course, the drum, and the idea being addressed is nothing less than the revitalization of African and African American culture. By using the blues, Komunyakaa is acknowledging both the debt the blues has to African tradition and the importance of blues to African American tradition and history.
In "Ode to a Drum," the gazelle, an animal of prey, has been killed by the drum maker for the purpose of bringing it back to "life" as a drum, of making it "whole" again. Once "whole," the gazelle, in the form of the drum (which, significantly, is made of ebony, a deep-colored, almost black, wood) will help the drum maker and his people drive their "troubles" away. In the context of postcolonial African societies, one can equate the gazelle with the Africans themselves, whose societies and traditions were nearly destroyed by European colonialists. The drum maker, in this reading, represents the power of traditional African culture, a power through which Africans can regain their former stature, not as "gazelles," but as one of the most feared predators on the continent—as panthers.
Similarly, in the African American context, the gazelle can be viewed as representing the descendants of slaves whose culture has constantly been under attack by whites. Black culture has often been dismissed as unworthy of white mainstream consideration. In the poem, the drum, representing the music and traditions of African Americans, is used to bring life back to blacks, and it is through that music that African American culture can be revitalized.
Culture can be a powerful force in a people's history. In repressive situations or in difficult times, cultural traditions can unify communities and keep hope alive. By evoking the ages-old power of the drum, along with African music and the blues, Komunyakaa has brought peoples and traditions once considered as hapless as slain gazelles to once again walk the earth as proud and mighty panthers. And like the gazelle, the traditions that once defined Africans and African Americans and made them strong, can one day come back to life.
Source: Mark White, Critical Essay on "Ode to a Drum," in Poetry for Students, Gale, 2004.
Yusef Komunyakaa, William Matthews, and Robert Kelly
In the following interview with Komunyakaa and William Matthew, moderated by Robert Kelly and based on a conversation at the Southern Jazz and Poetry Experience on April 14, 1989, Komunyakaa describes how music in general and jazz in particular opens up a world of imagination and discovery, and thus have a natural kinship with poetry.
[Robert Kelly:] Jazz has been present in literature at least since the twenties and thirties when James Weldon Johnson and Langston Hughes translated the emotion in the music into their poetry. The Beats used jazz to explore more open forms and to create new rhythms. Recently, Al Young and Michael Harper have written openly of their affection for jazz musicians. And James Baldwin reminds us in "Sonny's Blues" that such music has contributed both form and content to literature when he says that jazz helps us to tell "the tale of how we suffer and how we are delighted and how we may triumph." Why is jazz important to the two of you in your work?
[Yusef Komunyakaa:] For me, jazz works primarily as a kind of discovery, as a way for me to discover that emotional mystery behind things. It helps me to get to a place I thought I had forgotten. What I mean by that is a closer spiritual connection to the land and the place I came from. For me, the poem doesn't have to have an overt jazz theme as such in order to have a relationship to jazz. But it should embrace the whole improvisational spirit of jazz.
Historically, the African American has had to survive by his or her sheer nerve and wit, and it often seems as if we have been forced to create everything out of nothing. Music kept us closer to the essence of ourselves. Thus, there is little wonder that the drum was outlawed in certain slave-owning locales. The drum was a threat because it articulated cultural unity and communication. But we of course began to clap our hands and stomp our feet to maintain that connection to who we are. Music is serious business in the African-American community because it is so intricately interwoven with our identity. Most of us don't have to strain to see those graceful, swaying shadows of contemporary America in cahoots with the night in Congo Square—committing an act of sabotage merely by dancing to keep forbidden gods alive.
This is almost Hegelian. We refused to become only an antithesis—lost and incomplete. So music was the main thread that linked us to the future, was a process of reclaiming ourselves. Being in motion—improvisation, becoming—this was the root of our creativity, our accentuation of the positive even when the negative pervaded. Our music became an argument with the odds, a nonverbal articulation of our pathos. In this sense, even the blues dirge is an affirmation—the theft of possibility, words made flesh. Music has always been the bridge to what Houston Baker calls "the journey back," this needful voyage back to the source, the spawning bed of our cultural existence.
[William Matthews:] Yusef's comments seem to me very astute, and I endorse them almost entirely. But I'd like to make one variation on his comment about connection to land and place. There are many Americans, including me, for whom jazz and the best poetry are ways to describe their relationship to rootlessness.
I live in New York City, perhaps our ultimate haven for homeless people. I mean not only those poor souls sleeping on sewer grates and in subway stations, but also the many people who uprooted themselves to come to New York. Some came to work on Wall Street as arbitragers and grow fat, but I'm not thinking of them. I'm thinking of people like my sister, who came to New York because she's a dancer and could most fully pursue that passion in the city, or of a gay friend who left a small town in Oklahoma because he had no emotional or social home there. To find an emotional home, they had to leave a geographical home. This is a very American theme. That's why so much of the blues and jazz—and of American poetry—is full of place names, geography, travel. These songs and poems are set on planes and boats and trains. Perhaps they offer the other side of Whitman's great empathetic ideal that if you can make a home wherever you go, no place is really more a home than any other.
Yusef has stressed the emotional sources of jazz and poetry, and that raises a perplexing question. If the ultimate sources for poetry and jazz are the life of the emotions, the extreme difficulty of describing that life, and the great spiritual cost of not trying to describe it, then poetry and jazz are rooted at the very center of what it's like to be human. They ought to be of wide interest, therefore, and yet both poetry and jazz find themselves existing in tenuous relation to a comparatively small audience. Their vitality is honored in largely sanctuarial settings—colleges, art institutes, community centers, and so on. Outside the sanctuaries, the situation reminds me of Yogi Berra's comment about baseball fans not coming out to the stadium: "If they want to stay away in droves, you can't stop them."
The contrast between the centrality of the enterprise and the size of the audience is not something we should necessarily feel guilty about, as if we had ourselves caused it. But there is a danger that despite deep and powerful emotional bases, poetry and jazz can turn into museum arts, losing the nourishment that more direct access to an audience can provide. We couldn't—and shouldn't—have asked John Coltrane to back off and play a lot of four-four stuff in order to enlarge his audience. The artist's job is not to solve the problem—but the problem exists.
[Komunyakaa:] What I meant by discovery, or rediscovery, is that jazz can link us to surprises in content. I wanted to write a poem that dealt with childhood, so I put on Louis Armstrong. What I'm going to do is just read you "Venus's Flytraps,"and see if it has anything to do with jazz and syncopated rhythms:
I am five,
Wading out into deep
Unmindful of snakes
& yellowjackets, out
To the yellow flowers
Quivering in sluggish heat.
Don't mess with me
'Cause I have my Lone Ranger
Six-shooter. I can hurt
You with questions
Like silver bullets.
The tall flowers in my dreams are
Big as the First State Bank,
& they eat all the people
Except the ones I love.
They have women's names,
With mouths like where
Babies come from. I am five.
I'll dance for you
If you close your eyes. No
Peeping through your fingers.
I don't supposed to be
This close to the tracks.
One afternoon I saw
What a train did to a cow.
Sometimes I stand so close
I can see the eyes
Of men hiding in boxcars.
Sometimes they wave
& holler for me to get back. I laugh
When trains make the dogs
Howl. Their ears hurt.
I also know bees
Can't live without flowers.
I wonder why Daddy
Calls Mama honey.
All the bees in the world
Live in little white houses
Except the ones in these flowers.
All sticky & sweet inside.
I wonder what death tastes like.
Sometimes I toss the butterflies
Back into the air.
I wish I knew why
The music in my head
Makes me scared.
But I know things
I don't supposed to know.
I could start walking
& never stop.
These yellow flowers
Go on forever.
Almost to Detroit.
Almost to the sea.
My mama says I'm a mistake.
That I made her a bad girl.
My playhouse is underneath
Our house, & I hear people
Telling each other secrets.
Essentially, what I was hearing were the secrets coming out of Louis Armstrong's trumpet, and I tried to relate to those and let the music take me back to that time when I was five years old—to those memories. The music becomes a place in which to recapture, to reexperience, certain things.
As a black American poet, however, I don't want to be stereotyped into a convenient slot—merely a jazz poet. I write about whatever captures my imagination. Anything that touches me significantly: philosophy, psychology, nature, cultural concerns, folklore, world history, sex, science, from the gut-level to the arcane, whatever. Yes, for me, jazz moves underneath many of these topics. It is often a necessary balm. We now refer to jazz as America's classical music. Unfortunately, until recently, many middle-class African Americans saw jazz as the devil's music that evolved from the whorehouses of Storyville. It wasn't sacred. Second-class citizens can be awfully puritanical, and this is especially true when they're striving for acceptance by the dominant culture.
Look at the Harlem Renaissance—the cultural straitjacket—the whole movement defined by European standards, except Langston Hughes, Helene Johnson, and Zora Neale Hurston. In fact, only Hughes wholeheartedly embraces jazz and blues as major influences. Most of these poets, including Claude McKay, Anne Spencer, and Countee Cullen, gravitated toward British Romantics such as Keats and Wordsworth. Many found more interest in New England transcendentalism than in the folk tradition of blues and jazz. Or, they connected to the flight motifs of the spirituals that had informed early black poetry. The two voices that are associated with the postrenaissance period of the 1950's are Sterling Brown and Frank Marshall Davis—both wrote jazz-and-blues-influenced poems. Gwendolyn Brooks also has a few. But the real synthesis of jazz and poetry happened in the 1960's and 1970's with Larry Neal and Amiri Baraka—the two jazz/blues philosophers. And we get someone like Jayne Cortez whose whole body of work is tied completely to jazz.
In the early 1970's, when I was listening to Miles, Coltrane, Elvin Jones, and a lot of other progressive players, I didn't know they were influencing my poetry. I just loved the sound. The music helped me free up my mind for more vivid extrusions. Jazz was just a part of my life, a continuous score to the images inside my head. It helped to expand my creative universe. It taught me I could do anything in a poem—more so than what Villon or Ginsberg taught me. The music took me back to the importance of irony, to how the dynamics of insinuation work, particularly in African-American poetry. Jazz is tonal insinuation, and it showed me how to make writing fun.
[Kelly:] William, can you speak to the point about the "recaptured past"? Some of your poems refer to Ben Webster, Bud Powell, and other jazz figures from the thirties and forties. Why is that period important for you?
[Matthews:] Actually the period of jazz I love most is the one that took place in my teens and twenties, when I made my personal discovery of it. I think this may be true for many jazz buffs. Orwell said—I think it was Orwell—"What is patriotism but the love of the food one ate in one's childhood?" Essential jazz for me was Thelonious Monk, the Miles Davis quintet with Coltrane and Red Garland, and the Mingus workshop bands with Danny Richmond on drums. I must have logged a hundred hours listening to those Mingus groups in a little bar called The Showplace, long defunct now, on West 4th Street. I went to school in Massachusetts and Connecticut, and I would come down to New York on weekends to sit in various jazz bars and sip slow beers and spend my small money to rent a place so I could listen to the music.
But I learned that to listen to Mingus more alertly, I needed to know a lot more about Ellington. I started working backwards in order to learn where the musicians I loved had come from, almost in the way that at a certain age people get interested in their parents' youth and their grandparents' lives. The evidence of this is all over the poems—my interest in Webster and Lester Young and the history of the saxophone as a solo instrument. This was all music I was driven to because, I realize now, I was knocked out by a Sonny Rollins solo I heard when I was seventeen. The presence of older musicians in my poems reflects this sort of personal archaeological exploration: those earlier figures are important in the poems, but the crucial years for me were the ones I spent as a weird white be-bop groupie hanging around the Village and trying to figure out what I was listening to and why I loved it so much. The music I heard then helped me to forge an introduction to my emotional life and not to be terrified of it, and my love and gratitude for that help are undying. Also, of course, it's a very great body of music.
[Kelly:] Yusef, growing up in Louisiana you must have heard about and listened to Louis Armstrong early on, and you've written a poem about Charlie Mingus. What other kind of jazz is important to you?
[Komunyakaa:] I suppose the whole spectrum of jazz would be important. When I think of bebop—well, listening to be-bop released me from that whole lineal connection to everything. I could skip around. I could improvise with words and sound—not necessarily to imitate what the musicians were actually doing, but to discover, again, a direction I could take. I think sound is very important—rhythm—a new kind of meter that can approximate our contemporary landscape. And also, you have to realize that there is a kind of internal and psychological landscape that one gets to. This is not necessarily thought out, but is something that is achieved improvisationally.
[Matthews:] I think it would be wrong not to talk about—though it's very difficult to talk about—the fact that rhythm is crucial in poetry and rhythm is crucial in jazz. It's not possible to make exact correlations between the two kinds of rhythm, but the complex and beautiful rhythmic patterns of the best jazz allow variation a larger role than is usual in poetry, and the lure of this can be powerful to a young poet.
When I was a student, for example, I might go to sleep with whole passages from Dryden running through my head. They were very beautiful passages, though not in the rhythm of the talk in my classes or the chatter of the guys in the gym I played ball with or the banter of the folks I worked with for beer money while I was in college. I knew all kinds of people who didn't even know who Dryden was, but who were every bit as interesting. Their rhythms, too, were in my head when I lay down to sleep. If it weren't for something I learned listening to jazz, the gap between the two kinds of English would have seemed vast to me, but it didn't because jazz gave me permission to begin composing a poetic language based on the rhythms of the speaking voice: the voice rationalizing to itself, jiving other people, trying to seduce a comparative stranger, explaining why a paper is not ready on time, doing puns and jokes and imitations—in sum, doing the real emotional business of daily life, full of weird quirks and odd lilts. To pay attention to everything I wanted to hear, I needed as many useful models as I could get my hands on, and jazz helped me at least as much as Dryden.
What Do I Read Next?
- Komunyakaa's Pulitzer Prize–winning collection Neon Vernacular: New and Selected Poems (1994) includes a generous sampling of Komunyakaa's previous collections and is perhaps the best collection available that gives the reader a strong overview of his career.
- The Jazz Poetry Anthology (1991), edited by Sascha Feinstein and Yusef Komunyakaa, is a two-volume collection of poems, written by a wide range of poets inspired by jazz and the blues.
- Two other anthologies worth looking at are Every Shut Eye Ain't Asleep: An Anthology of Poetry by African Americans Since 1945, edited by Michael S. Harper and Anthony Walton, and Invited Guest: An Anthology of Twentieth-Century Southern Poetry, edited by David Rigsbee and Steven Ford Brown. Both collections provide strong examples of poems in their respective categories and both include pieces by Komunyakaa that help contextualize his work.
- Though Komunyakaa appears widely on web-sites throughout the Internet, the most useful site can be found at http://www.ibiblio.org/ipa/komunyakaa, a conservancy of available information on art, music, and cultural studies. The site is a collaboration between the Center for the Public Domain and the University of North Carolina–Chapel Hill. The site devotes a page of live recordings, including one of "Ode to a Drum," as well as critical essays on Komunyakaa's work.
As a kid I spoke a rather special dialect, the patois of the well-educated, bookish kid in the culture. It's the American equivalent, perhaps, of the dialect BBC announcers speak in England. There are a limited number of occasions in life where it's really the dialect that's spoken; in that sense it's just slightly more of a lingua franca than Esperanto. I came to want to be able to speak more like my countrymen and countrywomen; there's no reason to order a cheese danish at the corner deli in the words of Samuel Johnson. So, for me, linguistic improvisation meant not staying trapped in the dialect of my upbringing and education, meant moving out and experiencing as a ventriloquist the lives of my fellow citizens. That's what it means to be American, I thought.
I could listen to the weirdest music before I could read Whitman. When I first heard Yusef Lateef or Eric Dolphy, let's say, I had no idea what they were up to, but I knew I was interested by it. That experience taught me to trust my intuition and ignorance, something I couldn't do as easily in front of a text. In a way, I learned to read Whitman by listening to Don Cherry play his pocket trumpet.
[Komunyakaa:] Jazz also worked for me as a way of reestablishing a kind of trust. A trust in what I had known earlier. For some reason, I think it directed me back to my need to say something.
What do I mean by that? Whatever it is, maybe I'm trying to say it in these words, in a poem called "Blue Light Lounge Sutra for the Performance Poets at Harold Park Hotel":
the need gotta be
so deep words can't
answer simple questions
all night long notes
stumble off the tongue
& color the air indigo
so deep fragments of gut
& flesh cling to the song
you gotta get into it
so deep salt crystallizes on eyelashes
the need gotta be
so deep you can vomit up ghosts
& not feel broken
till you are no more
than a half ounce of gold
in painful brightness
you gotta get into it
blow that saxophone
so deep all the sex & dope in this world
can't erase your need
to howl against the sky
the need gotta be
so deep you can't
just wiggle your hips
& rise up out of it
chaos in the cosmos
modern man in the pepperpot
you gotta get hooked
into every hungry groove
so deep the bomb locked
in rust opens like a fist
into it into it so deep
rhythm is pre-memory
the need gotta be basic
animal need to see
& know the terror
we are made of honey
cause if you wanna dance
this boogie be ready
to let the devil use your head
for a drum
Risk: essentially, that's what I'm talking about. You have to have that need to take risks, and they come to us in varied patterns and intensities. McKay's protest sonnet "If We Must Die" took a risk in content. Why else was it read into the Congressional Record by Senator Henry Cabot Lodge? But McKay took few risks structurally. Poetry has always been associated with the elite, the leisure class, with "high" culture of Europe, and the African-American poet of the 1920's was still in almost the same dilemma as Phillis Wheatley when her work was defined by Thomas Jefferson as beneath a critical response. That is, well into this century the black poet was still aspiring to acceptance by whites, still biding for the wand of approval and recognition as a mere human being.
Consequently, few black poets were willing to admit the influence of jazz because it was defined as "low" culture; it had been created by the descendants of Africa. Only during the 1960's did we begin to rediscover that which was ours, redefining ourselves with Africa as an emotional backdrop. Young black poets began to accept Langston Hughes and Frank Horne and those white poets associated with modernism—an American tongue and ear. Indeed, jazz shaped the Beat aesthetic, but that movement seemed a privilege only whites could afford. Blacks, fighting for inclusion, didn't have to ostracize themselves voluntarily. Of course, this was a cultural paradox. To many the Beat Movement was nothing more than the latest minstrel show in town with the new Jim Crows and Zip Coons, another social club that admitted hardly any women or blacks. Yet they said that Charlie Parker was their Buddha.
The whole thing seemed like a love-hate complex magnified. Only the spirit of improvisation held it together like a jam session. This was the element of excitement—the same kind of energy that we poets often try to capture in our jazz-related poems—what we see in the work of Michael Harper, Jay Wright, and many others.
[Kelly:] I think I see how, to both of you, jazz is crucial for freeing you from having to listen to voices in just one way and for allowing you to appreciate different rhythms of speech and language. Jonathan Holden has written about how contemporary poets borrow from more familiar kinds of discourse (e.g., letters, confessions, patterned conversations) to inform poetry. Do the formal elements in jazz composition (the improvisational component of a piece, predictable chord changes, refrain, contrapuntal harmony) work themselves into the structure of your poems?
[Matthews:] I think what Holden is talking about has to do with occasions for speech. If you abandon the sonnet and other inherited stanza forms, why not work with rhetorical forms—the letter, the anecdote, etc.? As Mingus once said, "Can't improvise on nothing, man; you gotta improvise on something." Holden, in a way, is talking about getting started.
What I'd like to talk about is not only the discovery of the occasion for how a poem might begin, but the discovery of the whole process of a poem, a way of thinking and feeling at the same time, as if it were all one activity—and it is. Writing is a way of being in the world as if the famous mind/body problem didn't exist. And it doesn't. It's only a poor invention of philosophy, one of those road signs rational intelligence puts up to mark the farthest its powers can carry it. To confuse that road sign with the limits of human intelligence is to shrink the word "intelligence" to a mere synonym for "rationality."
Jazz and poetry are about what it feels like to be whole.
[Komunyakaa:] Often we hear about the emotional thread holding poems together. But, as in jazz, we also have to think about a tonal thread holding the poem together, whereby we are able to make leaps not necessarily through logic, but through feeling.
[Kelly:] Yusef, which poem of yours is it that has the refrain, "hard love, it's hard love"?
[Komunyakaa:] That's "Copacetic Mingus." It has an epigraph from the man himself—"Mingus One, Two and Three. / Which is the image you want the world to see?"—and then I carry it on this way:
Heartstring. Blessed wood
& every moment the thing's made of:
ball of fatback
licked by fingers of fire.
Hard love, it's hard love.
Running big hands down
the upright's wide hips,
rocking his moon-eyed mistress
with gold in her teeth.
Art & life bleed
into each other
as he works the bow.
But tonight we're both a long ways
from the Mile High City,
1973. Here in New Orleans
years below sea level,
I listen to Pithecanthropus
erectus: Up & down, under
& over, every which way—
thump, thump, dada—ah, yes.
Wood heavy with tenderness,
Mingus fingers the loom
gone on Segovia,
dogging the raw strings
unwaxed with rosin.
Hyperbolic bass line. Oh, no!
Hard love, it's hard love.
[Kelly:] The poem itself seems to be an instrument, one expressing your feeling about Mingus.
[Komunyakaa:] I think so. It's the whole thing of putting words together to create tension within the context of the poem. What I'm talking about, I think, has to do with language itself, though subject matter creates a poem's tone, also. In writing the Vietnam poems for my collection Dien Cai Dau, I questioned if I could stay close to the jazz motif, and it was very difficult. I don't think those poems were influenced by jazz as much as the ones in I Apologize for the Eyes in My Head or Copacetic. However, I know that there is at least one poem informed by jazz in the Vietnam book, "You and I Are Disappearing," which has a rhythm that came out of listening to Thelonious Monk. Monk would give you enough space to fit your heart into: repetition with slight variations, playing with pauses and silences, an unspoken call-and-response. Monk knew how to be his own Amen Corner. He had listened closely to those gospel singers he'd accompanied as a teenager; his sound is one that always takes me back home to the foundation of my creative impulse. I love his jagged tonality, how he was able to leave a piece unresolved—a door left ajar that invited you in as a participant. I try to write poems like that.
[Kelly:] What you just said about "heart" returns me to "Copacetic Mingus" and in particular its lines "Art & life bleed / into each other." They say much about the melding of poetry and jazz.
[Matthews:] The art/life problem is rather like the mind/body problem. At our best we like them bleeding into one another, and we like to oppose the ease with which we can set up borders between them. Of course, music draws from the history of music, and in that way music is "about" music. In a similar way all art is partially about art. Any music resembles any other music more than it resembles an insurance policy, let's say. Thus, while one of jazz's functions is to be in benign and loving opposition to less improvisational forms of music, it has more in common with them than it does with silence, and perhaps even more than it does with speech. But finally, jazz is not separable from life. Jazz is what life would sound like if the only expressive form it could find were jazz.
[Komunyakaa:] John Cage composed pieces that used silence as music, and many of the Black Mountain poets were aware of silence on the page, how the white space contributes to the poem's rhythm. Olson and Creeley come to mind. Perhaps this is what first drew Baraka to them. I can definitely see that influence in The Dead Lecturer, but I'm sure that his attraction to jazz was always there. His whole demeanor seems to be informed by jazz, and he also knows the sophisticated nuance of silence in poetry. The jazz-influenced poet is quite aware of silence. Not just how it's broken up or accented on the page, but many times silence as an implied element.
[Matthews:] The spaces between words are a form of structured silence. The silence that's terrifying is the one that just goes. . . . That's the one that is the enemy of love and joy. It's a whole other matter.
[Kelly:] When you talk about improvisation, I think of the be-bop period and how a lot of improvisational pieces were convoluted re-creations of standard melodies, redefinitions of jazz by a new generation of musicians. To the casual listener, these pieces sounded completely original, but they were built on familiar tunes. When you improvise in a poem, what gives it shape other than your improvisation?
[Komunyakaa:] I mentioned the whole thing about tonal thread. Many times, if you notice, in the jazz-related poem there's a refrain. Sometimes I will use a refrain during composition—something that I return to—but I'll go back later and remove it. Essentially, the refrain keeps me going—moving on with the same tone pretty much throughout the poem.
[Matthews:] I've already referred to learnable structures that help you save yourself from getting lost in improvising—Mingus saying, "Can't improvise on nothing, man; you gotta improvise on something." About half the be-bop classics are based on the chord changes of "I Got Rhythm." There are "fake books," so called, that give musicians the changes to numerous songs. There's even a fake book called The Real Book. As to improvisation ex nihilo, it just doesn't happen.
An interesting question is, "What in the writing of a poem provides something similar?" There are certain devices—repetition, diminuendo and crescendo—that can be described in musical terms. But, naturally, something happens in the course of a poem that doesn't happen in a piece of music. Words have conventional meaning, and so something's being proposed—to the reader at least, and in many poems to an implied listener, some second character of the poem beside the one we usually call "the speaker." Is it believable or not? Interesting or not? There are issues of persuasion and consent raised by any given poem that I believe are important sources of improvisation in the writing of poetry.
Here's a piece of mine with some jazz subject matter. As Yusef said so wisely at the beginning, it's a sense of procedure rather than subject matter that is the deep link between jazz and poetry. I happen to write frequently about jazz because I write about what I love, but it's the procedural link that interests me most.
This is a poem called "The Accompanist." It's spoken by an old guy who made a career as an accompanist to a famous singer, and who has been asked what it was like to be around her. He also knows a few things to say to people who may be interested in what the skills of a good accompanist are. I had no particular singer or accompanist in mind. The poem's written to discourage identification.
The poem may well be about erotic life, and how hard it is to maintain in erotic life that equilibrium between the parties we rather grandly call "equality." But I choose to quote the poem here partly because it lives, if it does, by raising some of the issues of persuasion and consent and credibility I was just talking about.
Of course, there's an important difference between the kind of improvisation in poetry I was mentioning and improvising on the bandstand. At home, if I get lost, there's always the friendly wastebasket, and then I can make another try at it. Get lost on the bandstand, and you have a bunch of half-drunk people pointing and laughing from the audience—or at least that's how it could feel.
Don't play too much, don't play
too loud, don't play the melody.
You have to anticipate her
and to subdue yourself.
She used to give me her smoky
eye when I got boisterous,
so I learned to play on
tip-toe and to play the better half
of what I might. I don't like
to complain, though I notice
that I get around to it somehow.
We made a living and good music,
both, night after night; the blue
curlicues of smoke rubbing their
staling and wispy backs
against the ceilings, the flat
drinks and scarce taxis, the jazz life
we bitch about the way Army pals
complain about the food and then
re-up. Some people like to say
with smut in their voices how playing
the way we did at our best is partly
sexual. OK, I could tell them
a tale or two, and I've heard
the records Lester cut with Lady Day
and all that rap, and it's partly
sexual but it's mostly practice
and music. As for partly sexual,
I'll take wholly sexual any day,
but that's a duet and we're talking
accompaniment. Remember "Reckless
Blues"? Bessie Smith sings out "Daddy"
and Louis Armstrong plays back "Daddy"
as clear through his horn as if he'd
spoken it. But it's her daddy and her
story. When you play it you becomes
your part in it, one of her beautiful
troubles, and then, however much music
can do this, part of her consolation,
the way pain and joy eat off each other's
plates, but mostly you play to drunks,
to the night, to the way you judge
and pardon yourself, to all that goes
not unsung, but unrecorded.
[Kelly:] "When you play it, you become a part in it." Improvisation is participating in something that is already ongoing?
[Matthews:] Contributing or giving something that is already ongoing, to be sure. Also, for me, the almost theatrical or dramatic meaning of your "part" in it, your role in it. This refers to what I said earlier about experiencing the lives of your countrymen and countrywomen.
There are two responses that people can make to pieces of writing they like. One is "I can really relate to that because my grandmother died, too." But that's not really what reading and writing are about. All our grandmothers are going to die. What that person means is "I looked into your book and lo, it was a mirror, and in it I saw myself." The connection that I love, both as reader and writer, is the other one: "I would never have thought or felt such a thing without this text." It takes you outside your narrowest self. You're other, larger, different and more strange than you knew. So in that way "your part in it" is to be somebody a little different from yourself, to play that role and know what it's like.
[Kelly:] Which means creating the voices.
[Komunyakaa:] Those are the extended possibilities. I mentioned the Vietnam poems, and the one informed by Thelonious Monk. If you listen to Monk, you hear all of his repetition constantly, and I tried to capture that repetition, that "other role" Bill noted, in the very short space of "You and I Are Disappearing":
The cry I bring down from the hills
belongs to a girl still burning
inside my head. At daybreak
she burns like a piece of paper.
She burns like foxfire
in a thigh-shaped valley.
A skirt of flames
dances around her
We stand with our hands
hanging at our sides,
while she burns
like a sack of dry ice.
She burns like oil on water.
She burns like a cattail torch
dipped in gasoline.
She glows like the fat tip
of a banker's cigar,
silent as quicksilver.
A tiger under a rainbow
She burns like a shot glass of vodka.
She burns like a field of poppies
at the edge of a rain forest.
She rises like dragonsmoke
to my nostrils.
She burns like a burning bush
driven by a godawful wind.
The poem pretty much ended itself when Thelonious ended the record. What I'm saying is that there is a kind of accidental closure, a kind of completion that happens that you cannot plot. Jazz helps you to discover this, too.
[Matthews:] You may have taken on certain formal housekeeping duties—a twelve or thirty-two bar structure, let's say—and knowing that can help you discover accidental closure, but only a little. You've still got to find your way from the middle to the end, even if you have a notion when the end's coming up. So far as you can manage it, a good place to stop is when you've said what you can find to say—as I will stop right now.
[Komunyakaa:] I'd like to believe that jazz could parallel the act of demanding a spiritual and cultural freedom, that it can connect us to who we are as well as to others. And I hope it keeps me connected to what I have to do as a poet. I love surprises. As I listen to Dolphy or Dexter, I think their music works like a refrain underneath my life keeping it all together and in focus. If I'm having a writer's block, a couple of days of Coltrane or Miles does the trick. It seems that all my muses are tangled up in music, that they are hip enough to connect me to Soyinka or Robbe-Grillet. I don't have to torture my imagination to put Miles side by side with Sartre in a poolroom. Anything is possible; this is what jazz had taught me about life. My creative universe is always in a flux. Active. Anything and everything inform my work. It is my nature to embrace whatever is out there, and jazz has been the one thing that gives some symmetry to my poetry, gives it shape and tonal equilibrium. This is something that I only realized recently, and I don't want to be overly conscious of it. I like the implied freedom jazz brings to my work; a soloist can go to hell or heaven and back, bending a tune into an extended possibility, and bringing it all around together as if his life depended on it.
For some, jazz-influenced poetry might appear as a threat to the canon. This isn't new. Jazz has always been somewhat of a threat, and not only in America or England. Look at the stir it created in 1938 at that "Entartete Musik" exhibition in Dusseldorf, Germany, with Ernst Krenek's Jonny spielt auf. But it has also survived the cultural critics and the accountant's calculator at the record companies. I feel blessed that something pulled jazz and poetry together inside me.
Source: Yusef Komunyakaa, William Matthews, and Robert Kelly, "Jazz and Poetry: A Conversation," in Georgia Review, Vol. XLVI, No. 4, Winter 1992, pp. 645–61.
Campo, Rafael, "A Finger on the Pulse of Poetry," in the Washington Post, June 14, 1998, p. X01.
Daniels, Kate, "Old Masters," in Southern Review, Vol. 35, No. 3, Summer 1999, pp. 621–34.
"Books Briefly Noted," in the New Yorker, Vol. 74, November 9, 1998, p. 103.
Komunyakaa, Yusef, Thieves of Paradise, Wesleyan Press University, 1998.
Palmer, Robert, Deep Blues, Viking Press, 1981.
"Forecasts," in Publishers Weekly, Vol. 245, No. 8, February 23, 1998, p. 70.
Seaman, Donna, "New Works by African American Poets," in Booklist, Vol. 94, No. 12, February 15, 1998, p. 970.
Taylor, John, "Short Reviews," in Poetry, Vol. 173, No. 2, December 1998, p. 180.
Clytus, Radiclani, ed., Blue Notes: Essays, Interviews, and Commentaries, University of Michigan Press, 2000.
As part of the acclaimed University of Michigan Press's "Poets on Poets" series, this collection includes Komunyakaa's views on music as well as commentaries on his poetics.
Feinstein, Sascha, Jazz Poetry: From the 1920s to the Present, Greenwood Press, 1997.
Covering the entire history of jazz poetry, this book discusses the major poets and jazz musicians who fused poetry with music, along with the movements that they inspired. Komunyakaa has cited many of the figures included in this book as inspirations for his poetry.
Harris, William, The LeRoi Jones/Amiri Baraka Reader, Thunder's Mouth Press, 2000.
Amiri Baraka, aka Leroi Jones, was a strong influence on Komunyakaa and is cited as one of the premier poets to fuse jazz with the written word. This collection was compiled in collaboration with Baraka and is the best place to begin a study on the influential poet's craft.
Palmer, Robert, Deep Blues, Viking Press, 1995.
Written by late music critic Robert Palmer, Deep Blues traces the history of blues in America. An early chapter explores the influences African music had on the blues, as well its role in the liberation struggles of blacks.
Rampersad, Arnold, The Life of Langston Hughes, Vols. 1–2, Oxford University Press, 1986–1988.
One of Komunyakaa's greatest influences was the African American poet Langston Hughes. Rampersad's two-volume biography is the most extensive study of Hughes available.