A Collapse That Is Construction

The complicated poetics of John Coltrane and the John Coltrane poem

“We make our forms because there is no absolute continuity, because those first assurances are broken. The mind in the act of recovery, creates …” — Robert Hass

Back in the day — the day being Greek antiquity — there wasn’t even a word for texts without music. “The art which uses language unaccompanied,” said Aristotle in his Poetics, “either in prose or in verse … remains without a name to the present day” (4). Poetry meant verse set to music, whether by pipe or lyre, a fact Rob Hardin alludes to in his essay “Musical Form and Formalist Poetry” from An Exaltation of Forms: “Distinctions between music and poetry were not always de rigueur; the synthesis of the two arts was once a vital tradition” (247). To stick for a moment, though, with the Greek idea of the arts as embodied in human form, poetry and music were lovers. But at some point, things went south. They wanted different things, started hanging out with different groups of people, and now they’re content to be friends. More or less.

Because of course, there have been the occasional half-drunk, late-night phone calls. “Come on,” says Langston Hughes, “it’ll be fun. Just for old time’s sake.” And Jim Morrison brags casually to his friends, “Yeah, we’ve got a thing going. Poetry’s wild, man. Wild!” And naturally, some of those calls have resulted in hook-ups, some inspired, but as many ill advised.

Having come of age in the 1990s at a liberal arts institution in New England, I have a hard time scrubbing pseudo-deep, late night poetry readings set to middling walking bass lines and the inoffensive scuffling of brushes on drums from my memory. As a musician, I came up through blues and then jazz; where poets have often seen in jazz and blues forms a freedom from the strictures of the European-American tradition of poetry, I saw only rigorous practice. I played Charlie Parker’s “Donna Lee” until my fingers bled, improvised on Ellington’s “Take the A Train” week after week in my jazz orchestra class, struggling to shift my approach with each chord change and failing more often than succeeding. This was hard damn work, and no waifish undergrad in all black and a beret was going to convince me that they could access jazz just by scribbling a couple lines and scatting in mid-stanza.

But college was also where I first encountered Yusef Komunyakaa’s poetry when he came to campus to read from the Pulitzer Prize-winning Neon Vernacular. I’d heard he was influenced by jazz, and although he has his share of poems that address the art form directly (the amazing “Elegy for Thelonious” comes to mind), his connection with jazz seemed to go deeper down. Hearing him read, I could follow the syncopation of a soloist in his voice, the way his enjambments and caesurae served the melody of the poem. His approach to reading his work didn’t call attention to itself and although it enhanced the poems, they still very much lived on the page.

But Komunyakaa’s successes only made what I perceived as the failures of jazz poetry more vexing. Now, working as a writer, I’ve become interested in better understanding the interface between jazz and poetry: why it often rubs me the wrong way and what it’s doing when it rubs me the right way; ideas about the relationship between poetry on the page and poetry as performed and a jazz performance as notated or charted versus a recording of a jazz performance; ideas about what it means to speak without words in music and use words to expand or break down the limits of discourse; ideas about what poetry and jazz can each accomplish that remains inaccessible for the other form and how those limitations come from inside the forms or are imposed on them from the outside.

Approaches to jazz in poetry, however, cover a wide range, from evocations of specific performances as elegies (Sam Hamod’s “Joe Williams at the Blue Note/Chicago, 1955; March 30, 1999”) to portraits in memory of a specific performer (Cornelius Eady’s “Hank Mobley”) to surveys of the entire genre (Jayne Cortez’s wide-ranging “Jazz Fan Looks Back”) to poems that evoke the music more obliquely (Komunyakaa’s “Euphony”). Such a broad field of subjects and approaches is head-spinning, and so it makes sense to focus in on poetry as it relates to one of jazz’s true giants, John Coltrane. As Kimberly W. Benston points out in Performing Blackness, “The ‘John Coltrane’ poem has, in fact, become an unmistakable genre of contemporary black poetry … and it is in this genre that the notion of music as the quintessential idiom is carried to its technical and philosophic apex” (120).

But let me better define myself in relation to both poetry and John Coltrane. I am not a poet, at least not primarily. I come to music as a musician, and I come to poetry first as a reader and only secondarily as a maker of poems. As a musician, Coltrane has always been a touchstone, and I mean that in the original, true sense of that word: as something to judge one’s efforts and the efforts of others against. The story of Coltrane’s all-too-brief career is one of the tireless quest for what Benston calls “the purest tissue of musical being” and what Coltrane called simply “something that hasn’t been played before” or the “first vibration — that sound, that spirit which set everything else into being” (118, 123). For me, this desire for — and not only desire for but belief in — transcendence through music is expressed by Coltrane in a fractal way. I can hear it in every note he plays, and this sets him apart. Benston gets at it as best as anyone when he writes that “Coltrane’s notes seem at once a revelation of the subatomic richness of a given phrase or scale and a declaration of their inassimilability to even the limited totalities upon which musical narrative conventionally depends” (124). Each note is both a question and an answer. As much as any poet Robert Hass might have been thinking of, Coltrane had a mind that, in the act of recovery, created.

Where Thelonious Monk’s explorations and innovations in musical form were more or less a fait accompli when he arrived on the scene in the 1940s (even if it took the mainstream decades to catch up) and Miles Davis’ genius was omnivorous, with Davis innovating whole genres and then discarding them just as quickly for others to pick up and exhaust, Coltrane’s music moved in an ever-ascending arc (or perhaps ever-widening gyre, if we want to get poetic about it). From Parker’s bop innovations, he moved up and up through modal jazz and into ever-more abstract forms before arriving in a place referred to variously as “energy music” (saxophonist Albert Ayler’s term), “spiritual jazz,” or just free jazz before his death at age 40 in 1967. And so, as a listener, one finds the sweet spots — places where form and energy are in balance. But each listener will find this in different places; I find myself, for example, drawn to his work on the Impulse label between 1961 and 1963, a period that includes his first Village Vanguard recordings, his album with singer Johnny Hartman, and Live at Birdland. That Coltrane’s music refuses to mean just one thing is one of the difficulties faced by readers when it comes to receiving a Coltrane poem.

The key, it seems, to Coltrane’s place of prominence among both musicians and poets — and the thing that is most often misunderstood by casual listeners coming to his post-1964 work — is that Coltrane was not abandoning musical forms but was instead going ever deeper into them in an attempt to build something new. He structured his explorations around “an insistence on breaking the very patterns he discovered in the evident interest of finding their unfathomed resonance or unprobed relation to more intricate arrangements of meaning” (Benston 123). It’s possible to see Coltrane as Alfred, from Gwendolyn Brooks’ poem “In the Mecca,” hearing something

Substanceless; yet like mountains,
like rivers and oceans too; and like trees
with wind whistling through them. And steadily
an essential sanity, black and electric,
builds to a reportage and redemption.
A hot estrangement.
A material collapse
that is Construction. (433)

Or as I like to think of it, Coltrane’s assertion through his music is that understanding is not something beyond our knowledge but inside of our knowledge, something to be excavated from within.

And what is poetry if not working inside of a shared space (the common ground of language) to reveal something hidden from the everyday? Audre Lorde may have said that the master’s tools will never disassemble the master’s house, but Coltrane wasn’t only questioning the forms and meanings he received but also the very idea of form and what it means to mean. Benston characterizes Coltrane’s improvisations as “speaking for a clandestine, scenic, fragmentary uncertainty about meaning, for the displacement of an answer by the inchoate, even groping openness of question.” And Coltrane himself said in the liner notes to his 1965 album Meditations, “[T]here is the need to keep purifying these feelings and sounds so that we can see what we’ve discovered … but to do that at each stage, we have to keep cleaning the mirror” (126). For Coltrane, advancement came from constant self-reflection and evaluation and he resisted (largely — we’ll see a counterexample later in A Love Supreme) the temptation to settle or give a concrete name to what he was after.

Maybe that’s why I find Sonia Sanchez’s “a/coltrane/poem” so complex, to borrow saxophonist Anthony Braxton’s term for things that muddy the waters. It goes from “my favorite things / is us/blowen / yo/favorite/things” to


It’s not that you can’t hear this kind of anger in some of Coltrane’s work; it’s certainly there if you look for it (especially after 1965) and, presumably, in the specific performance of “My Favorite Things” that inspired Sanchez’s poem. And when Benston writes, “Coltrane’s playing must use and abuse, quote and misprize, establish and destabilize the formulae, genres, instruments and other performance conditions at his disposal,” I find myself agreeing and seeing how Sanchez is engaged in precisely the same kind of work. Her poem runs rampant over the page, inserting stage directions (“softly/till it/builds/up”) alongside passages of repeated “da-dum-da da da da,” and stretching a screech out into “SCREEEEEEEEEEEEEECHHHHHHHHHHHH.” She is clearly engaging in destabilizing the ground for the poem, but I find myself stumbling because by charging the music with specific words with a specific political agenda, she has determined and given concreteness to something wordless. Instrumental music can remain always open. That determination, that message, strips some of the indeterminate power from the music.

I also find myself wondering what the poem on the page is intended to accomplish when it’s so clear that it’s meant to be performed. Without falling down the rabbit hole of the discussion about poetry as read aloud versus poetry on the page, I question to what extent we should expect a poem like Sanchez’s to resonate in print, even as I find myself left cold by its formal gymnastics and unreadability. After all, a note-for-note transcription of a live Coltrane performance gives the untrained reader no sense of the in-person experience. This is where the idea of notation becomes tricky. Tellingly, Sanchez remarked that “her first public reading of the poem … was filled with surprise even for her, transforming her performance style beyond expectation” (Benston 158). So perhaps more than a notation of a performance, the poem is more like a chart in the sense of jazz’s Real Book; it outlines the changes, the melody, but each performance is going to create meaning in a semelfactive way, tied to that place and time specifically. This notion of the poem as chart or suggestion of performance goes against the notion of the poem as artifact, the kind of thing to be inscribed on the bottom of statues. Still, that doesn’t mean we can’t find one poem of this type more successful than another, and to me, David Henderson’s “Elvin Jones Gretsch Freak (Coltrane at the Half-Note)” is more successful in getting at Coltrane the musician than Sanchez’s.

David Henderson

Less evocation or translation of a Coltrane performance than impressionistic record of a gig, “Elvin Jones Gretsch Freak (Coltrane at the Half-Note)” brings in a key piece of Coltrane’s music: his band. After all, John Coltrane wasn’t out there on his own and, at least for musicians, drummer Elvin Jones, pianist McCoy Tyner and bassist Jimmy Garrison (the members of his classic quartet) are just as much a part of what made Coltrane a genius as the man himself. At the heart of Henderson’s poem is the interaction between Coltrane and Jones:

Coltrane/ Jones
riffing face to face
instrument charge
stools to kneecap
many faceted rhythm structure to tomahawk
gretsch rocks ‘n rolls gretsch rattles. (Benston 318)

And although there are political undercurrents, as when Henderson references the Kennedy assassination and “the slashing sound of knives / black elvin knows so well,” the poem turns on the sexual energy of making music in a group, even quoting (or possibly misquoting/inventing) Coltrane: “Fill in the / solids, get it while it’s hot and comely; Elvin fucks almost / as good as his Mama.” Although I don’t tend to hear such sexual dimensions in Coltrane’s music (I have, for instance, never thought of Elvin Jones “behind the uterus of his sticks”), I hear Henderson translating the pure energy of music into another kind of primal human energy. Perhaps Sanchez is working the same kind of exchange, calling out to the political anger of the black community during the struggle for civil rights as a way to give a name to the energy she hears in Coltrane’s playing. And maybe it’s my own distance from that struggle that keeps me at arm’s length from “a/coltrane/poem.”

Benston’s contention is that the necessary imprecision of rendering Sanchez’s poem onto the page — saying that “the act of shaping sound in and for the moment is the fundamental command of the poem” — engages the reader explicitly as part-author of the text. For Benston, this is Sanchez’s key achievement, even if he feels that in its closing the poem resorts to “evenly paced, authorially directed stylization” and thus fails to allow the reader to truly be the “producer” of meaning in the poem (158–9). But both Sanchez’s and Henderson’s poems leave me asking questions about the parallels between the reader/poet/poem and listener/musician/song relationships, and settling, finally on a handful of poems that take a different approach to John Coltrane.

In looking at the three-cornered relationships above, it will be helpful to exclude from consideration two situations: seeing a musician perform live and hearing a live poetry reading. In both of these cases, there’s a momentum generated by the performance, by the forward motion of time that keeps the audience from genuinely owning (or perhaps co-owning) the experience as something more than receivers. Leaving aside performances that explicitly involve call-and-response, performers perform and the audience listens. But when the poet and the reader or the musician and the listener are interacting via the poem on the page or music as recorded, re-reading and close/repeated listening become possibilities. For anyone born in the last several decades, the only way to access Coltrane’s music is via recordings. Fortunately, his body of recorded work is substantial and rewards close/repeated listening and there are John Coltrane poems that reward the same kind of work.

Elizabeth Alexander

Looked at as complements to, or commentaries or reflections on, John Coltrane and his music, one of the most successful Coltrane poems is Elizabeth Alexander’s “John Col.” Without pushing hard at the boundaries of language, Alexander still manages to fracture words and refract meanings in her brief meditation on Coltrane’s “Central Park West,” which appeared on his 1960 Atlantic album Coltrane’s Sound. One of the dangers in interpreting Coltrane poems is falling into the trap that Coltrane stands for exactly one thing: searing intensity, blazingly fast playing, and a refusal to bow to structures. “Central Park West” is, in fact, a very tender, careful, melodic ballad, featuring some of Coltrane’s finest and most sympathetic playing on the soprano saxophone. Knowing that makes Alexander’s poem work even better, because unlike Sanchez’s attempts to bottle the paint-stripping intensity of later Coltrane performances, “John Col” pokes and prods at the wounds that a ballad can modestly paper over with beauty and comes away with something that stands as well on its own as it does next to its inspiration.

For example, one of the greatest difficulties in attempting to evoke or address music through language on the page is the way in which simple melodic motifs can change meaning through slight shifts in the accompaniment. Although they travel across the white space of the page, the words of a poem remain more or less a single line unless the poet resorts to artificial structures or avant-garde layouts, which in and of themselves can seem like alienating, difficult gymnastics meant to accomplish what any band pulls off with ease simply by playing together. For example, when Sanchez renders Coltrane’s playing as a drawn out screech, we can’t hear what the rest of the band is doing, and so the language of the poem flattens out the musical experience the poet is working from. But Alexander skillfully evokes the melodic structure of “Central Park West” (three evenly played notes placed against slowly cycling chords) when she writes:

a terrible beau-
ty a terrible
beauty a terrible
beauty a horn (35)

I’m not suggesting that she’s literally attempting to make a poem to be sung along to Coltrane’s song (although we’ll look at Coltrane working the inverse exchange later), but in her breaking of words and phrases, she manages, through a parallel linguistic effect, to evoke the way that a song’s melody slides across bar lines and ties the chords underneath it together.

Throughout, she plays with breaking words in the linguistic equivalent of playing changes — a technique originating in bebop where instead of treating the song as being in a single key, the soloist would treat each chord of the song as a new key, finding ways to tie together different approaches into one cohesive statement. When Alexander writes “the bloody foot- / lights cup the dark” and “this brass heart- / beat this red” she is, in effect, making each line do its own work in its own space as well as falling into the larger melodic line of the poem (36). Or perhaps each stanza, of which there are five four-line ones and one five-line one, could be thought of as a chord in the progression, with each line being a short riff drawn from the sense of the entire stanza. And so, as with Henderson’s translation of musical energy into sexual energy, Alexander is working with elements that go much deeper than the surface-level chaos of jazz improvisation. She is digging into the units and approaches that are the foundation of jazz and re-envisioning them in the context of units and approaches that are the foundation of poetry.

One of Alexander’s epigraphs for the poem (“trane’s horn had words in it”) comes from the poet A.B. Spellman and his poem “Did John’s Music Kill Him?” If the poems we’ve looked at up until now have focused on Coltrane’s music, then this is the first to address the other major component of Coltrane’s significance as an artist: his premature death. Spellman’s poem isn’t inspired by a particular song or performance that the poet names; there’s no Half-Note, no “My Favorite Things,” no “Central Park West” here to ask us to go somewhere else to see what the poet is talking about. Without a concrete reference, Spellman makes the poem intensely personal, putting himself directly into conversation with Coltrane. “trane’s horn had words in it,” as if it were speaking directly to him. “i know when i sleep sober & dream,” he continues, “those dreams i duck in the world / of sun & shadow” (Benston 328). Spellman doesn’t attempt to name the unnamable in Coltrane’s music, but still manages to touch on that quality of searching in his playing.

A.B. Spellman

As an elegy, “Did John’s Music Kill Him?” is also one of the greatest testaments to the tremendous power that Coltrane still exerts on the world, both through his music and through what his quest for pure sound has meant for generations of artists. Ultimately, Spellman, despite his personal attachment to Coltrane and his music, does not own John Coltrane anymore than death does, the poem closing lovingly with the lines

o john death will
not contain you death
will not contain you (Benston, 328)

Written years after Coltrane’s passing, Spellman’s words are not prediction or prophecy, but affirmation, and the way the poem ends without a period leaves it open-ended. Coltrane’s music continues to inspire, demanding of artists that they push themselves as hard as he did.

One of the ways he pushed himself was in developing an approach to soloing that critic Ira Gitler termed “sheets of sound” in the liner notes for Coltrane’s 1958 album Soultrane. The approach involves rapidly playing up and down the chords of the song, sketching in the notes so fast that Coltrane would in essence be playing a chord on a single-note instrument, rather than following a melodic line. Cornelius Eady closes his book The Gathering of My Name with a long poem called “The Sheets of Sound,” and while his own poetic approach doesn’t try to approximate the speed or fury of Coltrane’s technique, there are ways in which it mirrors, as Alexander’s does, what’s behind what Coltrane did musically.

Cornelius Eady

The first section of Eady’s poem finds the words cascading in step off the left margin and drifting towards the right, and this layout gives the poem motion, making the line of the poem move against some undercurrent, sketch against something unseen. Without disassembling the language on the page in the manner of Sanchez, Eady is trying to accomplish some of what Coltrane did, as he makes clear when he writes, “Mr. Coltrane, floating / a l i n e / Like this, pushing / its muscle, / hell, / Discovering its sweet / worth” (73). Eady is pushing his words to show what Coltrane was doing, without necessarily trying to effect a direct translation of the sound of his music.

But the first section of the poem is only a prelude, and like Coltrane, Eady begins somewhere known but goes further afield, keeping the form of lines moving in waves down the page, but no longer meditating on Coltrane. Eady begins to ask questions about people: an “African-American mother,” a “black civil servant,” “the Harlequin,” “the King of the margins,” the “dark scholar” (75–6). He asks “what it might sound like / If they could open their lives // If they could blow it out” (76). Coltrane goes unnamed, but the answer to what it might sound like seems clear: it might sound like John Coltrane.

This notion of Coltrane, of a musician blowing the pain of an entire culture’s oppression, is one that comes up again and again in John Coltrane poems, from Jayne Cortez to Haki Madhubuti to Sanchez and beyond, and it relates not just to Coltrane, but Coltrane as the embodiment of “a ‘black ethos’ of transformative assertion through a ceaseless dialectic of transformation and reformation” (Benston 116). Benston continues by making the powerful assertion that for black poets, “black language leads toward music, that it passes into music when it attains the maximal pitch of its being” (119). And what could be more maximal musically than Coltrane’s quest for that pure sound? It seems as if Eady and others feel that if they push their own language hard enough, if they dig deep enough, their words can approach the power of music and so by invoking Coltrane, they hope to gird and inspire themselves with the musician who pushed music harder than any other.

To that end, Eady sweeps up and down his poetic register throughout the poem, coming back to Coltrane and then wandering into greater abstraction. Along the way, he captures several striking moments and images. In the fourth section he tries “to imagine that first attempt / on the bandstand … how that first breath / grew wild,” and by putting himself in the position of someone trying to picture how genius happens, how Coltrane managed to see music like no one else before him, Eady gives the reader power (78). He puts himself next to the reader in the audience, nudging her with an elbow to say, “Look at that.” And there are few descriptions of Coltrane’s sound as apt as Eady’s image of a man “shredding decorum, blowing it / across the club / in streamers” (78). Eady’s approach is to match the volume and speed of Coltrane’s notes with an array of angles; rather than attempt to capture Coltrane with a moment, he looks again and again from different perspectives, speaks through different voices, using the tools of the poet to sketch Coltrane’s outline.

In the sixth section, Eady reiterates the fundamentally earth-shattering nature of Coltrane’s quest for that pure sound.

After years
Of exploring
The café standards
At the gigs, in
The studios,
Each and every
possible nuance.
Is his only way out:
To decode
What nags
At his breath,
To have his tongue
Own the name
Of what it chases. (80)

What’s striking in this section is that Eady is not simultaneously trying to do the work of examining what Coltrane means and somehow invoking the sonic effect of Coltrane’s playing. The lines fall in compact couplets, and there’s nothing overtly Coltrane-esque about how Eady uses the language on the page. By tackling Coltrane in a multi-section poem, he’s given himself the space to move in and out of different ways of looking at Coltrane.

The discussion about Coltrane and poetry isn’t a one-way street, though; Coltrane himself explored combining poetry with music. Perhaps that’s another reason poets find themselves drawn so inexorably to him as an artist. In 1964, the John Coltrane Quartet released A Love Supreme, an album-length composition composed of four parts: “Acknowledgement,” “Resolution,” “Pursuance,” and “Psalm.” Michael S. Harper, in his poem “Dear John, Dear Coltrane,” borrows the line chanted by Coltrane in the piece’s first part to anchor his poem, beginning with the words “a love supreme” repeated four times. The moment in “Acknowledgement” when Coltrane’s gravelly, distinctly unmusical voice comes in softly to chant those same words against the tune’s simple, four-note motif is still arresting, even today. Here is, after all, one of the greatest instrumentalists of all time telling us that this chant is important enough to have words attached to it, and Harper channels that weight when he invokes it.

Harper also harnesses the power of direct address by envisioning the poem as an open letter to Coltrane, and even the way he separates Coltrane’s name (A.B. Spellman has a poem entitled simply “Dear John Coltrane”) is a gesture toward how difficult it is to contain the legacy of Coltrane. In the poem, he is both John, the suffering human, addicted to heroin and overcoming it too late to stop the damage caused to his liver, and Coltrane, the world-conquering artist, picking “up the horn / with some will and blow[ing] / into the freezing night: / a love supreme, a love supreme” (Benston 329). Maybe it’s possible to appreciate Harper’s poem — or, for that matter, the other Coltrane poems that make reference to specific tunes or performances — without hearing the songs they’re drawn from. It seems like a worthy goal for such poetry to be able to stand on its own. But it’s impossible for me.

For me, John Coltrane’s playing is something no one should go without. His music is ingrained so deeply in me as a musician and a human being that I find it impossible to read these poems without hearing “Afro-Blue” from Live at Birdland or “India” from the 1961 Village Vanguard shows or “Summertime” from My Favorite Things. For me, Spellman, Harper, and Henderson are working with that same energy that Coltrane worked in, but through a different medium. By not trying to bend poetry to make music, they succeed at making poetry.

Leave it to John Coltrane, though, to go and make one of the most beautiful combinations of poetry and music in the final section of A Love Supreme, “Psalm.” For the song, Coltrane wrote his own psalm, beginning with “I will do all I can to be worthy of Thee O Lord. It all has to do with it. Thank you God. Peace.” But instead of reading the poem to the track, or having someone sing it, Coltrane plays a melody that closely follows the words he wrote, and the effect is nothing short of stunning. As you follow the words in the liner notes, he soars above Jones’ mallet rolls across the toms, Garrison’s rumbling pedal tone, and Tyner’s cascading shards of piano. By the time he reaches the closing, “ELATION — ELEGANCE — EXALTATION — All from God. Thank you God. Amen,” it’s almost enough to make a believer out of the most cynical among us. It’s the kind of magical exchange I hope for in poetry inspired by his music: something that stands on its own but gains layers of meaning and intensity when you understand its context.

Returning to Robert Hass, we can see how the poetic and musical urges can come from the same place: the world promises us something in the language and music we love, and so we pursue it. And when the forms we learn in that pursuit fail us, we’re driven to make new ones, better ones. John Coltrane dug deep into the marrow of music, and generations of poets have dug and will continue to dig into what he accomplished. There’ll be more drunken hook-ups and mornings after, with hung-over poets hoping for the mind, in the act of recovery, to create.

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