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Open Access Publications from the University of California

Up in the Sound: Form and Voice in Jazz and Post-War American Poetry

  • Author(s): Lempert, Benjamin Richard
  • Advisor(s): Silverman, Kaja
  • et al.

In this study, I build a case for redrawing the conceptual lines of American post-war poetry and music. My overall argument is that the post-war American and African American poets who engaged with jazz most profoundly were those who heard the music not simply as a set of sounds, but as an ongoing argument about the nature of aesthetic form. These poets responded to the conceptual innovations of jazz by thinking in new ways about the body, and about how a body of sound could relate to the body of the poet. In setting lyric's material limits against its trans-medial aspirations, I show, jazz empowered poets to rethink the very nature of poetic activity, and in turn to construct a powerful new model of race-inflected aesthetics.

The dissertation is divided into two sections, each of which pairs music and poetry to outline a larger historical or theoretical argument. In this it leverages the many years I have spent as a practicing jazz musician. In the first section, I use musicological analysis to develop a new account of jazz-inspired lyric based in Charlie Parker's approach to musical narrative. What Parker's music offers, I argue in Chapter One, is not only a set of imitable sounds, but an improvisational organization of those sounds that resists their being heard as "telling a story," and instead turns musical form into a multi-layered, dialectical phenomenon. In Chapter Two, I use Langston Hughes' 1951 sequence Montage of a Dream Deferred and the poetry and poetics of Charles Olson to establish the poetic resonances of this account, articulating a theory of poetic musicality in which poetry's music becomes a matter less of how a poem sounds than how effectively it translates the structure of hermeneutic opacity that Parker's solos put in place. In the second section, the music of Miles Davis' mid-60's band anchors my excavation of a powerful but overlooked model of (African) American avant-garde performance. Davis' key aesthetic move, I argue, is to play sensuous presence against intellectual reception, so oversaturating notes and rhythms with potential meaning that pinning any of them down to a single implication becomes constitutively impossible. Chapter Four pairs Langston Hughes' 1961 poem Ask Your Mama with the work of Robert Creeley to push this aesthetic into the realm of language, detailing a theory of poetic representation in which language's inherent falsehoods forge identity as a permanently dispersed condition. The dissertation's final chapter extends this model in the work of two contemporary poets, Harryette Mullen and Ed Roberson, who unsettle traditional aesthetics of "blackness" by teasing apart the multiple sensory registers upon which the concept usually rests.

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