Jazz Poetry: A Genre Emerges

Langston Hughes

    Music and poetry have always been popular forms of artistic
expression.  These art forms have many similarities, which became evident
in the 1920s.  Since the turn of the century, many poets had been making
significant contributions to the evolution of poetic thought.  Poets like
Ezra Pound, T.S. Elliot, Carl Sandburg, and E.E. Cummings had written
their works with an increasing lack of formality and conventional style.
The innovations taking place in poetics were juxtaposed with the evolution
of jazz music in the early twentieth century.  The simultaneous evolution
of poetry and jazz music was not lost upon musicians and poets of the
time.  Amid the chaos of the 1920s, these two art forms merged and formed
the genre of jazz poetry.  

	The earliest poets coined as "jazz poets" simply referred to jazz
music in their works.  Although the early "jazz poets" were influenced and
intrigued by jazz, they were not all true "jazz poets."  Many critics
still argue about the definition of jazz poetry, yet most scholars
acknowledge that jazz poetry must imitate jazz music in its rhythm and
style.  This is what separates "jazz-related poetry" from "jazz poetry."
In Jazz Poetry/jazz-poetry/"jazz poetry"???, Wallerman states that
"A poem that alludes to jazz figures is not the real thing unless it also
demonstrates jazz-like rhythm or the feel of improvisation" (AAR, p.665).
The first poets to allude to jazz music, figures, or culture were Vachel
Lindsay, Carl Sandburg, Mina Loy, and Hart Crane.  The poems composed by
poets are "jazz-related" works, due to the fact that their poems do not
embody the music of the Jazz Age. 

	Vachel Lindsay cannot be considered a jazz poet.  The "primitive"
sound that exuded from jazz music horrified Lindsay.  The culture
surrounding the music was equally repellent to him.  Lindsay's contempt
for jazz music is illustrated in his "A Curse for the Saxophone," in which
he wrote,
"When Cain Killed Abel to end a perfect day He founded a city, the City of Cain And he ordered the Saxophones to play... What did Judas do with his silver thirty pieces, Bought himself a saxophone and played the 'Beale Street Blues'" (Going to the Stars, pp. 49-50)
The negative connotation of the this poem is readily apparent; like the biblical figures of Cain and Judas, the saxophone is an evil and destructive force in society. Unlike Lindsay, Carl Sandburg had a deep appreciation for jazz music. His interest in the popular music most likely stemmed from an admiration of folk music and folk culture. Most of Sandburg's poems, while they depicted jazz in a positive light, did not take on any of the characteristics of the music. Therefore, Sandburg cannot be considered a true jazz poet. The interest that Sandburg displayed toward jazz was also more academic than it was a passionate love for the sound of the music or the culture that surrounded jazz music. The first woman known to write about jazz in her poetry was Mina Loy. In "Widow's Jazz," Loy alluded to the Chicago jazz scene, "The white flesh quakes to the negro soul, Chicago! Chicago!" (Lunar Baedeker, p.200). Loy referred to the jazz clubs and sounds in her poetry, but rarely focused her poems on the music or the culture; the music was simply in reference to surroundings in the majority of her works. The positive references to jazz music in her works makes her a valued early proponent of jazz music, and her jazz-related poems reinforced jazz music as an intellectual and socially acceptable form of entertainment. Hart Crane contributed to the evolution of Jazz poetry. While still considered a "jazz-related" poet, he was an integral part of the evolution of jazz poetry. He was one of the first white male poets of the 1920s to attempt to imitate some of the structure and sounds of jazz music in his poems. The majority of Crane's works lack the improvisational feel that propelled jazz music in the 1920s. Due to the fact that Crane was a poet in transition, his poems failed to fit into the intellectual poetry of the time. He was also unable to capture the rhythm and improvisation of the early jazz poets. Although he is not considered a significant figure today, Hart Crane was instrumental in the shift from jazz-related poetry to jazz poetry. In Poetry and Jazz: A Twentieth-Century Wedding, Wallenstein states that "Poetry has always craved the company of music." He goes on to explain, "Tone, rhythm and cadence, and lyricism too, are the property of both" (BALF, p. 595). It then seems natural for individuals who are both poets and musicians to combine these two art forms. Langston Hughes was the first true jazz poet. One of the great ironies of Hughes life was that he was discovered by Vachel Lindsay, a, man who flew into tantrums when called a "jazz poet." Lindsay professed great disdain for the same music that Hughes incorporated into his poetry. In "Weary Blues," Hughes was able to capture the rhythm of the blues in his poem. The lazy sway of the poetic phrasing mimics the feel of early blues music. In Jazz Poetry from the 1920s to the Present, Feinstein stated that Hughes early jazz poem, "Jazzonia," "emulated the rhythmic imagery of a twenties cabaret in which jazz and dance, sound and sight, become one aesthetic response" (p. 44). Feinstein goes on to explain that Hughes elevates the African American jazz culture by comparing dancing girls to Cleopatra and Eve (p.45). His classical references lent jazz poetry and jazz music respectability, and managed to make the new, rowdy music appear to be classical and sacred. Hughes first book, The Weary Blues, contained the first major collection of authentic jazz poetry. Along with "Weary Blues" and "Jazzonia," "Cabaret" was included in this collection. Hughes incorporated the rhythm and repetition of jazz music into this poem: "Me an ma baby's Got two mo' ways, Two mo' ways to do de Charleston!" Da, da, Da, da, da! Two mo' ways to do de Charleston! (Weary Blues, p.26) Hughes wrote many essays defending jazz music as a legitimate form of music. He rebutted those who claimed that jazz was not to be treated as seriously as classical music. Hughes published several essays on this matter before publishing his second book, Fine Clothes to the Jew. Hughes was instantly successful, and became one of the leading figures of the Harlem Renaissance. Hughes must be considered the founder of the jazz poetry genre, for none of the jazz-related poets who preceded him merged the two art forms, as he did. The respect and success that Hughes was given reflected on jazz music and its legitimacy as an important style of music. Hughes influenced many major jazz poets, including Sterling Brown, who published significant works in the 1930s. As a new genre, jazz poetry reflected the influence of jazz music upon culture in the 1920s. The jazz-related poets of the 1920s also reflect the all encompassing influence of jazz music in American society during the 1920s. Their references to the jazz culture prove that it was an integral part of American society.