Friday, August 26, 2011

Jazz, Cultural Capital, and Black Poetry

This week, I was talking to the young brothers and sisters in the program that I work with at the university about "cultural capital," this idea that "forms of knowledge, skills, education, and advantages that a person has" give them "higher status in society." Those different forms are often passed along to children from parents or home environments.

We were talking about cultural capital in relation to various classroom and university contexts, and somehow we ended up talking about the ways that groups of well-to-do and white students had certain advantages, at least in the mainstream collegiate "field."

Later, I started thinking to myself about African American poetry and how certain forms of knowledge and education benefit poets. How has an understanding of black music, especially jazz and blues, helped some poets become even more prominent or gain higher status over the years?

Of course, Langston Hughes came to mind. Mention blues poet, and Hughes almost always comes up. As he should. Many of his most well-known poems draw on the sensibilities of the blues. Perhaps that attention to the blues and music in general, such as in his poem "The Weary Blues," explains part of why those poems have become so popular.

Music was central to Margaret Walker's work. Her ballads "Molly Means" and "Kissie Lee" are two of her most popular pieces. Her most known poem "For My People" contains that refrain -- quite musical -- "for my people."

Beginning in the 1960s and onward, Amiri Baraka became a widely respected and cited poet. At the same time that he was establishing himself as a literary artist, he was also becoming known as a jazz critic and an ethnomusicologist -- long before that term was so frequently used. His book Blues People was and remains a major achievement. Watching and listening to Baraka perform his poetry clarifies that he is certainly a jazz enthusiast.

Among contemporary poets, consider the role that music has played in the career of Kevin Young. Almost all of his volumes incorporate the sensibilities of jazz, blues, and other black musical forms. He is the editor of the anthologies Blues Poems (2003) and Jazz Poems (2006), and his first anthology Giant Steps, takes its title from an album by John Coltrane. Young's upcoming book of essays is entitled The Grey Album, which was the title of a mashup of Jay-Z's The Black Album and The Beatles' The White Album.

There are, no doubt, countless other poets who have drawn on black music to enhance their poetry and other artistic creations. In many respects, it seems that their knowledge about music and their abilities to translate that knowledge into poetic forms, devices, and ideas give poets distinct advantages over time.

The next time I'm talking about cultural capital with the folks in our program, I'll certainly want to mention how poets with a deep awareness of jazz and blues have managed to take some giant steps.

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