Written by Luis De La Cruz
“Love and life / interested me so / that I dared to knock / at the Door of the Cosmos…” –“Door of the Cosmos,” Sun Ra and his Intergalactic Myth Science Solar Arkestra
The relationship between jazz and poetry is incontrovertible. Major figures in the American poetic tradition have engaged with jazz forms and philosophies in their works—think Hughes, Ginsberg, Scott-Heron, Ferlinghetti, Baraka, Cortez. One figure in particular sits squarely (and rather conspicuously) in that wonderful juncture between jazz and poetry: the eccentric, cosmic, and always mind-expanding jazz man/poet/philosopher Sun Ra. While primarily known for his fiercely experimental, avant-garde, Afro-futuristic jazz compositions (though none of these terms adequately illuminate just how brilliantly strange and novel-sounding his discography is, even today), Sun Ra’s engagement with poetry was significant on its own —it would be a severe understatement to claim that Sun Ra simply dabbled in poetry.
In his biography of Sun Ra, A Pure Solar World: Sun Ra and the Birth of Afro-futurism, Paul Youngquist notes, “‘My music is words,’ [Sun Ra] writes, ‘and my words are music,’” (73). Poetry and language were essential to Sun Ra’s creative output—they were intimately twined, serving complementary functions. For example, Sun Ra’s Singles album—a collection of his early recordings—begins with two oral poems set to sparse musical accompaniment. Here is a passage from one of the tracks, “I Am an Instrument”:
“I am an instrument / the timbre of my voice flies with the winds of heaven / I belong to one who is more than a musician, / he is an artist, / I live to be his pleasure, / I do not flee from him when he comes to me, / for instruments are not sufficient in themselves / they are cold / and lifeless without the touch of hands and mind…”
Sun Ra’s delivery is lilting and intense, creating a sense of the work being influenced by some other-worldly poetic tradition, one that is presents itself as simultaneously improvisational and premeditated. Sun Ra, like the voice of the speaker/instrument, is at the beck and call of some cosmic, higher genius—he is animated through it, insufficient without it.
Sun Ra’s spoken poetry is out there, ready to be heard—in fact the New-York based Norton Records has recently put out a four-volume series of Sun Ra’s oral works, entitled Space Poetry. Unfortunately, getting hold of written Sun Ra poetry is another story: only one anthology of his work exists (I believe), so the primary way of consuming his literature is tracking down and sifting through various self-published collections (which are extreme rarities), record jackets, liner notes, and other miscellany. Worse still, academics have mostly ignored Sun Ra’s literary output, meaning that the release of any sort of definitive critical edition of Sun Ra’s poetic works is a far-off fantasy. So for now, we must make do with relishing and attempting to decipher his enigmatic, mystical musical output—which, truth be told, is not such a bad situation after all.
The Antique Blacks; Lanquidity; Singles; Sleeping Beauty (especially “Springtime Again”); My Way is the Spaceways
The Immeasurable Equation: The Collected Poetry and Prose; All of his record jackets and liner notes, ever.