Thursday, September 1, 2011

Poetry -- and All That Jazz

Jazz in the 1920's
Jazz Poetry Defined

The term "jazz poetry" can refer to writing about jazz, to mimicking the rhythms in verse, to a version of performance art, or in Kenneth Rexroth's words, “the reciting of suitable poetry with the music of a jazz band.”   At its best, jazz poetry integrates the words of a poem with jazz, as if the voice were another musical instrument.  It’s the opposite of jazz as background music.  

The blues and negro folksong make up a part of jazz, but modern jazz goes beyond those forms in terms of language and scope of experience.   According to Rexroth, “poetry gives jazz a richer verbal content  material of the greatest flexibility.”

A Brief History

In the 20’s, the blues and jazz introduced a whole new era of poetry.  It all started when poets such as Langston Hughes, Kenneth Rexroth, and Maxwell Bodenheim recited poetry to jazz.  From there, jazz poetry grew and developed, through the Harlem Renaissance, the Beat movement, and the Black Arts Movement.  These days, poets in the "jazz tradition" include the likes of Amiri Braka, Hayden Carruth, Yusef Komunyaaka, Mina Loy, Kenneth Roxroth, and others.

Poetry as Entertainment
Jazz Poetry’s Impact   
Along with other types of performance poetry, jazz poetry has re-infused poetry with entertainment value, similar to poetry’s roots as an oral tradition.  As such, it exposes many more people to poetry—some whose only experience with poetry has been in school, and not necessarily an inspiring experience, at that.    

Poetry Reading

Writing Exercise:  Try Your Hand at Jazz Poetry

Jazz poetry doesn’t mean taking a poem you’ve written and hoping jazz artists will meld the music to your work.  Many do it this way, and may have serendipitous results.  But a little planning can give you a head start.  See the steps in How to create your own jazz song poem, and see where your own music, rhythm, and imagination take you!  The last step, of course, should be to perform it on stage—the “home” of all performance poetry.

As for performance poetry in general, some feel the revitalization of poetry as entertainment is more likely to engage larger audiences, so it must be better.  But, as discussed in "What kind of poet are you -- stage or page?," both uniquely enrich the art of poetry.


  1. Elizabeth Harrington's articles are unique and eclectic, presenting ideas that are both practical and intellectually stimulating, appealing to poets, writers of all sorts, and beyond. They remind us that perhaps the greatest poetry is the human imagination. Write on, Dr. Harrington!

  2. Thanks, Julie! Better keep on my toes, with a comment like that! It's a topic that's a pleasure to learn and write about, which makes it a lot easier.

  3. Fascinating post. I'd never heard of Jazz Poetry before. Would it be sacrilege to suggest Jazz Poetry is the grandfather of Rap? I might want to soften that by saying the younger generation is a bit rebellious.

  4. Hi, JP: Thanks for your comment! In answer to your question: not at all. I'd say Jazz poetry as well as hip hop, soul music (a form of jazz), and African music are among the influences on Jazz poetry.



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