Music and poetry fit together like a hand in a well fitting glove. The words of music most often are poetry. Lyrics may not be deeply sublime but they have rhythm and they use the sounds of the language. That word sound is often composed of the sound similarities found in poetry. Music and poetry provide a unifying force in a world gone wild with differences. So I’ve decided to inaugurate my own Festival of Poetic Music. Let’s write rhythm, let it sing about emotion. We can stomp, clang, swirl in melody or slam dissonance down the throats of listeners. Let’s beat our images with the rhythms of line breaks, assonance, alliteration, stanzas, lines long and short. Let our pens and keyboards soar with the poem that is our song-our personal cantatas of everything that makes us who we are.
I’m going to employ my personal time machine and take you through lessons that discuss the music of poetry. These cover several years of my time as a poet-teacher with California Poets in the schools. I don’t feel the organizational urge. I did that when I helped write a book on educating the imagination. I feel like leaping from lesson to lesson. All the lessons have in common their use of music—both its words and sounds—to encourage students to write.
This first lesson comes from a ten session series. It was presented for session seven so students had been writing awhile. Here is my review list to take them quickly through what we’ve already learned: metaphor, word pictures, stanzas, new way of looking, mood, unconscious mind, rhythm & line breaks, extending the image, descriptive words, use as few words as possible—no beautiful etc. They’ve heard repeatedly, “Don’t tell me something is beautiful, scary or strange. Show me with description.” If you want lessons on metaphors and line breaks, type “articles” into the search and you’ll pull up a series of articles under the title “Ants on the Blacktop Weeds on the Hill.” These lessons discuss introducing metaphor, line breaks, description as well as other techniques for beginning poets.
This lesson provides a perfect place to introduce sound similarities. The list fills with examples of what it is: assonance, alliteration, soft sounds and hard. All of these let you explore the world of the simple sounds our letters make in words. Here harsh consonants contrast with the softer, gentler ones. Don’t forget the vowels whose repetition can impart a richer sound to the music of your words. Get the whole class involved in finding letters for the different types of sound. Try onomatopoeia. Use the sounds of language to create the sound of the sea and wind, for example.
Now for the poetic vehicle that propels us into our journey through the music of the alphabet. Jazz Performance Poetry lets the poet share the light with a jazz group. They play off each other intertwining words and music. Words can slip into the silence of the rests or dance along with the instruments.
Jazz and Blues, the vehicles performance poets use, share the rhythms of black spirituals, of gospel and of swing. The poetry is usually about day-to-day concerns, some have coherent form, some have the improvisational feel of a jazz riff. A riff is music created on the spot. It’s not planned but does catch the feel of the more ‘formalized’ music that comes before and after.
Below is a poem by Langston Hughes who was an early proponent of the then new literary form called Jazz Poetry. (Hughes lived from 1902-1967.) The link below leads you to the poem and to tabs about his life and work.
Now comes the challenge of writing a poem that has its foundation in the sounds of jazz. You need to let yourself go inside the sound of the music. Release the need for some deep meaning, simply write in rhythm on a simple topic that at this moment grabs your attention. Here’s a chance to write about the simple things of life or to explore something you heard about in the news.
For student poets, I give them lead in phrases and encourage them to doodle in color as they listen to the jazz I am playing. When some words pop into their heads, they can start writing. To gather images students can use the colors in their doodles. The colors can be paired with an action. What do their bodies want to do as they listen to the music?
Here are some prompts to get words flowing. The title can be as simple as “Listening to Jazz.”
I fly like
I move like
My feet dance like
My hands fly like
Or they can get ideas and actions from their doodling. You need to remind them to paint word pictures as they write:
My red hands fly around the sky like butterflies in spring.
My pink feet dance across the room painting it the rosy colors of dawn.
The subject is wide open. I can imagine a ball game at recess turned into a fantastic jazz poem of flying balls, children and words. For me, it’s more important to give the students freedom of expression. It’s the rhythm of jazz you want to see and feel.
I ordered myself to try this. I listened to Miles Davis “So What.” I just let the poem slide around into being. It ended up being a description of my fender bender as a first time rear ender. It was fun, actually. As you’ll see I let the name of the artist and the song lead me into my poem. Part of my order to myself included having to do a poem like I was in class—so no fair taking forever.
miles long this road
so what signs fly past too
to comply rectify with traveling
slam brakes slide into stop
so what I hit car
in front so what
my license lies plate plate plate
in the road smudged black street wars
winning spinning lonesome song so what
company now one police motor
cycle one car stopping, yip, stopping
traffic so my car can collect it
self go sideways on high high way
at moment going yip going no where
look weeds will they wind slide glide into grape
vines, I say wind into grape vines sliding
gliding into fall colors on leaves but no black
like my plate-hey no ticket and look
I have a license plate—riding in, sliding in, back seat
special plate chaffered into Napa
no way back seat plate you’re not, I say you’re not
eating any French
loosely written to “So What” performed by Miles Davis
words loosely written by Janice DeRuiter November 2013
Try it. It’s fun especially on an autumn Friday heading into a weekend.