Tuesday, November 3, 2015
10 years reading Leadbelly, Pt. 1: Amiri Baraka and Tyehimba Jess
Over at the intersection between poetry and music, you'll find the works of Amiri Baraka and Tyehimba Jess. Baraka didn't start off as a skilled performer. Jess wasn't always known for his dexterity on the page. But shifts happen.
Somewhere along the way, Baraka transformed himself into one of our most outstanding poet-performers. Jess maintained his skills presenting poetry live, but in time, he began producing a distinguishing body of works that you'd have to see, not just hear, to fully appreciate.
For Baraka, Malcolm, Trane, and Monk were crucial artistic inspirations. It's still too early to account for all of Jess's muses. But we know that Leadbelly was a major force in Jess's work so far.
Despite many different routes and approaches, Baraka and Jess both absorbed the music. And the related histories. Baraka was fond of saying that the history was in the music. Either way,Jess and Baraka found ways to transmit the music and histories into verse.
I now realize that part of what drew me to Leadbelly was how Jess's book corresponded to and departed from Baraka's works. That's some of what I've been reflecting on as I considered what it's meant to read Tyehimba Jess's Leadbelly (2005) over the last 10 years.
• 10 years reading Leadbelly, Pt. 2: The poetry volume as gateway
• A crown of blog entries for Leadbelly: project overview
• 10 years reading Leadbelly, Pt. 7: discoveries with students
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I have been thinking about Baraka and his relationship to music on the page for a while. I can see his embrace of sound and the improvisational (that comes out of practice and mastery). I have been lately thinking that he was in pursuit of the frequency (actual or metonymic) of Great Black Music so that he might wage a sonar attack on oppression (as he describes in one of his early short stories). Perhaps one of his aesthetic wranglings was to approach the writing as if the organization of sounds, words, and what exists behind/between the sounds and words could not only deconstruct oppression, but set our ears/eyes for a new world. What we experience propels us forward.
Brother Jess seems more set on notation. It seems for him the notes are atomic and contain the weight of history both personal and cultural. He seems to be in pursuit of re-presenting those notes through his very inventive approaches to form, and he seems to be seeking a way to make the form resonate with the personal and cultural in a way that makes us rethink what is going on in those notes. Perhaps his aim is for us to feel about his poems like the viewers of "Men in Black" feel when they see the galaxy on Orion the Cat's belt. What we see makes us pause.
I'm still thinking through this comparison, but Baraka is like Ras the Exhorter and Jess is like Rinehart ?????
Or, maybe "A Love Supreme" and "All Blues"??
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