Tuesday, January 17, 2023

John Keene as Jazz Poet

I was reading John Keene's award-winning Punks: New & Selected Poems (2021), published by The Song Cave, and started thinking of him as a jazz poet -- a description we hear less of these days in poetry but seems fitting in some cases.  

I should say off the top though that jazz poet would be just one descriptor for Keene. His writing in Punks fits into multiple categories--stylistically and thematically. "In assembling the book," Keene told Zachary Issenberg in an interview, "I went back to an older way of looking at poetry collections, which is just to bring things together."

Some years back, I stumbled across Keene's poem, "Apostate" about Miles Davis. I tucked it away, because at the time I was more interested in thinking through Keene's short story collection, Counternarratives.

I was pleased to return to Keene's "Apostate," along with other poems that attended to the music in his collection Punks. Thinking about Keene, in part, as a jazz poet gives me one way of thinking about his wide range of coverage -- the twists and turns, the leaps, experimentation, collaging/sampling, and so forth. Of course, we could also use mixtape artist as another term. But the designation jazz poet works in this case as a way of situating Keene within the history of black poetry. 

From 1965 (the year Keene was born) up through the mid to late 1970s, poetry was experiencing what we might call a heyday of jazz poetry. Folks usually and understandably focus on the militancy of Black Arts poetry, but during that period there were an outpouring of poems celebrating jazz artists, most notably John Coltrane

It was only later that people began to really speak of those poems as "jazz poetry" in part because of works like Sascha Feinstein's Jazz Poetry: From the 1920s to the Present (1993) and the collections 
The Jazz Poetry Anthology (1991) and The Second Set, Vol. 2: The Jazz Poetry Anthology (1996), both co-edited by Feinstein and Yusef Komunyakaa.

Amiri Baraka persisted in producing jazz poems throughout his life well beyond the 1970s. And so did several others such as Michael S. Harper, Jayne Cortez, Sonia Sanchez, A. B. Spellman, Larry Neal, and others.  

In recent decades, we've had several poets who might classify as jazz poets. In 2006, Kevin Young edited the anthology Jazz Poems, which includes works by various poets. Still, you didn't hear the term so much in the scholarly discourse. (To be fair, there's relatively little scholarship on contemporary black poetry in general, so there are perhaps many topics we don't hear much about. But I digress). 

All of this gets me back to "Apostate."

It's important, I think, that Keene, who was born and raised in St. Louis, is writing about Miles Davis, who was born in Alton, Illinois, and raised in East St. Louis, Illinois. That is, Keene is a jazz poet, but for us living in St. Louis, he's a poet from the Metro East writing about a jazz musician from the region. 

Here's a note on "Apostate" that Keene includes in Punks:
On returning to East St. Louis to battle his addiction crisis, Miles Davis's father supposedly stated, 'Don't fail'; once, when a reporter asked Miles Davis how he wanted to be remembered, he reportedly replied, without looking up, 'Sound.'"
Keene is referring to 1953, when Davis returned home to fight his drug addiction while staying in a guest room at his father's place. Thinking about that moment in Davis's life and the poem caught my attention because I'm currently reading Aidan Levy's Saxophone Colossus: The Life and Music of Sonny Rollins (2022), and he offers in-depth treatment concerning the rise of heroin addiction among several musicians. Reading Levy and Keene has me thinking of them as both jazz historians of sorts. 

Alright, but then Keene is time-traveling too. He's in 1953, and he's jumping ahead, referencing moments in Davis's life that occur later. He writes of Davis "driving that sweet group with Herbie [Hancock] and Wayne [Shorter] in the early 1960s." 

There are three intervals in the poem where Keene moves through Davis's history and thoughts and then mentions death. First, a section closes with, "Death, keep on stepping." Then, "Death, not yet."
And finally, "Death, get ready."

The poem is written in the second person with "you," being Davis. So this is a jazz poem about Davis, but it's also a letter or a correspondence from Keene (or the unnamed poet? Someone else?) to Davis that we're overhearing. To speak this correspondence, to write this letter and poem, Keene has to know Davis's story.      

Alternately, we could think of "Apostate" as a persona poem. From that vantage point, the "you" might be Davis talking, thinking to himself.   

We can identify a lot of jazz poems. It's something else, though, to witness the works of poets who've immersed themselves in the history, music, and life story of a musician like we're seeing with Keene in this Davis poem.

Oh, and let's say something about that title, "Apostate." The term usually refers to someone who's rejected religion, and Keene's poem is focusing on Davis's attempt to quit using drugs or perhaps even a rejection of a certain lifestyle. Keep in mind that heroin was so ingrained in jazz culture and New York City when Davis lived there that quitting was no easy matter.  
But reading through Keene's poem, we're witnessing him reflecting on some of his past troubling behavior. At one point, he goes, 
you recall 
how astonishing and cruel you once were 
towards your elders and peers, still are, tearing 
out thirds from Bird and Diz’s circle, 
cutting lesser trumpeters, scolding Trane,  
Does Davis's recognition of this behavior here indicate that he considers rejecting it? 

Finally, listen: if we're talking John Keene, jazz poets, and religion, then we definitely have to go way back and mention Ted Joans's poem "Jazz is My Religion." Joans is celebrating jazz and citing all these various musicians. His poem anticipates Baraka's poem "Digging," which name checks more than 50 jazz artists. From Joans to Baraka to Keene, we get this sense from some poets that jazz is a holy endeavor.  


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