By Addie Lamb
Our heads are round so thought can change the direction.Allan Ginsberg
“Holy the groaning saxophone! Holy the bop apocalypse! Holy the jazz bands marijuana hipsters peace & junk & drums!” -Ginsberg, Footnote to “Howl”, 21
The language of sound knows no rules. Insipid rigidity within poetics was thrown into dissolution during the 1950s Beat movement, spearheaded by the evocative and limitless prose of Jack Kerouac and Allen Ginsberg. Along with Ginsberg and Kerouac, Lucien Carr and William Burrough would go on to form the germinal group of Beat poets. Ginsberg credits Kerouac as the galvanizing force who would push him towards expressing language spontaneously, without the barrier of rule. Kerouac, author of On the Road, operated within the backdrop of jazz and poetry, delving into themes of freedom and wandering, forces that jazz heavily encompasses. Theorizing on “spontaneous bop prosody,” a new vision of poetic expression was developed, basing itself around the metaphor of jazz and conscious instinctive thought. The Beatniks had a “Disdain for the mechanical bourgeois elements of scientism… a hyperrationalistic…with it’s very obsessive rationalism” says Ginsberg in his speech given on Buddhism and the Beats. In demonstrating the unconstrained prowess and martyrdom of Ginsberg and Coleman, connecting sentiments and technical expressions– or lack thereof– in Ginsberg’s “Howl” and Ornette Coleman’s The Shape of Jazz to Come, perceptions of barrier destruction ground conceptual and individual liberation. In other words, appreciating the flames that ignited the counterculture movement and opposed repression– free jazz and the Beat movement, respectively– allows us to recognize early developments of freely expressed art taken for granted in the ultra-connected 21st century. Shown in the same speech acknowledged above, Ginsberg understood that the Beat poets were on the verge of turning the word on its head.
The ambitious vision of poetry’s future birthed the beginning of a new movement at the Six Gallery in San Francisco on October 7, 1955 when Ginsberg read his poem, “Howl”, Michael McClure wrote: “Ginsberg read on to the end of the poem, which left us standing in wonder, or cheering and wondering, but knowing at the deepest level that a barrier had been broken, that a human voice and body had been hurled against the harsh wall of America….” The Beat poets birthed “Decades which transform [Ginsberg] as much as he transforms them, as he grew from jazz hipster to counter-culture god, to alter. A world movement… changed society by exposing and flipping it, was started with a bop note, played in the dark.” Drawing largely from the “bop note played in the dark” Ginsberg sought to embody lawless expressions of jazz artistry in the style of abrasive sounds of suffering, unheard at the time. Although the Beat movement would mark the beginning of a new era, precedents are not always established without push-back. Ginsberg’s “Howl” would endure an obscenity trial in 1970, though City Lights Bookstore would take much of the flack due to charges on lewdly printing and selling a work of obscenity, responsively, the verdict stated that “Howl” and Other Poems” was not obscene. The poem would be regarded as blasphemous, lewd, and everything that poetry as an art form had not yet championed. Similarly, the free jazz movement would be regarded as a talentless form of jazz, as the familiar techniques of the musical form were abandoned in the free jazz setting. Thus, critics suspected a lack of technique, though the movement was anything but techniqueless, forcing its musical participants to become experts in improvisation.
Though Beat literature and Bebop jazz are collaboratively related, the Free Jazz movement of the late 1950s through the 1960s embodies the convention of destroyed borders best. The hallmark figure of Free Jazz, saxophonist Ornette Coleman, advanced the notion of harmolodics, in which improvisation would occur without rigid progression. Advancing into the 1960s, most forms of music remained reliant on the synched aspect of expression, in Coleman’s words, “in most music they only use one dimension,” limiting the scope of how far a musician could push the boundaries of genre. Coleman sought to democratize music, as Coleman believed traditional music to be synonymous with hierarchy. Coleman said “Harmony melody speed rhythm time and phrases all have equal position in the result that comes from the placing and spacing of ideas.” By adhering to tradition and musical rule, the musician was missing out on the experience of what music could be when active impulse was allowed free reign. Coleman’s defiance delivered the world of jazz numerous musical precedents, pushing the limits of sound. Coleman began playing with trumpeter Don Cherry and would go on to form the Ornette Coleman Quartet with Cherry, Charlie Haden and Billy Higgins. The group members would rotate, though Coleman was a constant. The quartet did not use the piano, allowing them to further lean into pure melodic improvisation. Coleman would release The Shape of Jazz to Come in 1959, one of the most innovative avant-garde jazz albums ever recorded. The Shape of Jazz to Come would continue to live up to the forward-looking aspect of its name, as it allowed for new expressions of art to thrive in a space without rules.
The inspired Beatniks aimed to transcribe lawless musicality into poetry. Kerouac began advocating for the abandonment of punctuation and division, opting for “vigorous space dash separating rhetorical breathing (as jazz musicians drawing breath between outdrawn phrases). “Howl”is marked by long sentences, ideally the length of one breath, punctuated largely by dashes and exclamation marks, namely in the third part of the poem. Ginsberg stated that “the line length… you’ll notice that they’re all built on bop—you might think of them as a bop refrain—chorus after chorus after chorus.” Ginsberg employed Keroauc’s technique of spontaneous bop prosody, though his work emerged rather as “jazz prosody” in which instrumental versification is utilized to reproduce an air of musicality combined with poetics. From the Sons and Daughters Literary Journal, Ryan De Leon emphasized that “Instead of writing about jazz, like many jazz poets did, [Ginsberg] writes as jazz. While the poem has no mention of the jazz form, it is written with the technique of language equivalent to jazz musicianship.” Following this sentiment, the feeling rather than the technicality is shown in Ginsberg’s work. Jazz, though accompanied by vocals and lyricism in certain eras, was not done as often during the Bebop movement Ginsberg is credited with pulling from. Sound itself cannot be subscribed with a direct meaning, nor with the same experience for each listener. Ginsberg sets himself apart in“writing as jazz” due in part to the heavy focus on sound in his work, which follows the notion of individualized readings Ginsberg’s work offers. When reading his work, the images produced require either deep focus into approaching meaning, or a focus on the sound of the images, the groans and pitfalls of the world we live in. Coleman’s music requires a similar experience, facing the cries of jazz and the lamentations of the human experience, or losing oneself in the sound of life, though the experiences are not mutually exclusive.
The two forces converged in their ingenious creativity, in the state of New York, and in their abandonment of action based on precedential art. They respectively birthed the standard by which creatives may push boundaries. Ginsberg’s and Coleman’s works– “Howl” and The Shape of Jazz to Come– echo one another in their action and freedom. Though both expansive in form, there is a sense of synchronization in beat, marked in Coleman’s album by the running bass line, and in “Howl” by sustained phrases respective to each section. “Lonely Woman” the introduction to The Shape of Jazz to Come begins with light cymbals and snare rapping that leads into a sudden departure from the gentle air of the first few moments of the piece. The cornet and alto saxophone take over in phrasing, guiding the piece into the first crucial moment of the song, Coleman’s dissonance. The proclamatory crack of the saxophone remains present throughout the album.
Paralleling Coleman’s “proclamatory crack” and sudden departure from conventions of the medium, “Howl” prodigiously introduced elements of sexuality. The first page of the poem, working with the image of the best minds of Ginsberg’s generation, proclaims that night after night, these minds were awake “with dreams, with drugs, with waking nightmares, alcohol and cock and endless balls” (Ginsberg, 9). The dissonance felt in “Lonely Woman” marks an expectation subverted– beauty experienced within a method championing imperfection– just as Ginsberg speaks with the mind of honest experience and compelling artistry.
Coleman’s “Congeniality” works in both a call and response nature, though much of the emphasis of the song is placed on the incredible run that Coleman demonstrates. The solo expands from ardent turns of phrase into choppy resistance to time. Don Cherry’s cornet solo similarly exemplifies notions of resistance and artistic freedom. As Ginsberg’s phrasing demonstrates the breath of jazz musicians, those able to play for extended periods without needing to breathe, impassioned by their work.
Though “Congenialities” phrasing is demonstrative of the long phrasing of “Howl” the song, “Eventually” from The Shape of Jazz to Come is reverberated in Ginsberg’s line “who hiccupped endlessly trying to giggle but wound up with a sob behind a partition in a Turkish Bath when the blonde & naked angel came to pierce them with a sword, who lost their loveboys to the three old shrews of fate the one eyed shrew of the heterosexual dollar the one eyed shrew that winks out of the womb and the one eyed shrew that does nothing but sit on her ass and snip the intellectual golden threads of the craftsman’s loom,” (Ginsberg, 12). The exasperated experience of emotion breaking the shield of physicality and resistance is felt in the introduction of “Eventually”. The call and response seems to be in relation to the self, and Coleman acts as both players.
Much of “Howl” functions as a call and response to the different parts of the self, the self of pain, of shame, and of unfiltered expressions of reality’s indifference. The second part of “Howl” begins to focus on Moloch, a deity associated with child sacrifice. In the context of “Howl,” Moloch functions as a metaphor in which American industrialization becomes the destruction of youthfulness, love, and expression. Ginsberg cries out, “Moloch! Solitude! Filth! Ugliness! Ashcans and unobtainable dollars! Children screaming under the stairway!” Continued by “Moloch the incomprehensible prison! Moloch whose mind is pure machinery! Moloch in whom I sit lonely! Moloch in whom I dream Angels! Crazy in Moloch! Cocksucker in Moloch! Lacklove and manless in Moloch!” (Ginsberg, 17). The “incomprehensible prison” in which the creative essence is trapped breaks free in the beginning of Coleman’s “Focus on Sanity” as opposed to Ginsberg’s descent into insanity. The punctuation of the second part of “Howl” emulates the musical embodiment of destruction, shown in this portion of the piece:
The third portion of “Howl” focuses on Carl Solomon, the man the poem was dedicated to, as well as Ginsberg’s associates and his mother. The traditional and connective focus of this part– in which traditional is reliant upon those of influence to Ginsberg, not necessarily traditional poetics– brings light to the new generation in which Ginsberg was emerging, claimed in the footnote to the piece, “Holy Peter holy Allen holy Solomon holy Lucien holy Kerouac holy Huneke holy Burroughs holy Cassady holy the unknown buggered and suffering beggars holy the hideous human” (Ginsberg, 21). These creatives were on the verge of the conception of what art could be. Coleman was similarly aware of this inception, as his album is titled The Shape of Jazz to Come. These artists would become the foundation for which rules would cease to exist.
-Coleman at 85, taken July 11, 2007
Looking towards the sounds of the present, experimentalism is encouraged and espoused. Rap artist Thebe Kgositsile, or Earl Sweatshirt, incorporates radical poetic lyricism with equally experimental beats, resonating the leap taken by artists of the past. Inspired by, and later working with, the late Daniel Dumile– offering many rap personas but best known as MF Doom– Earl Sweatshirt’s sound would incorporate a similar spoken-word element and unique sample tenancy. MF Doom, in an interview in 1999 for LSD Magazine, was told, “it seems like when you’re describing things in the lyrics, it’s not really straightforward, linear thought. I can understand what you’re talking about, but it’s not laid out so obviously.” In response, Doom states, “A-ha! I’m glad you caught that. it’s kinda like, dabbles on the edge-type shit.” Doom would sample in his song “Cellz (Born Like This)” a recording of Charles Bukowski’s “Born Like This” speaking on being born into a world of chaos.
MF Doom and Earl Sweatshirt’s rap as transcending its popularized form became possible through the trials and anarchic vision of Ginsberg and Coleman. As Coleman stated, “It was when I found out I could make mistakes that I knew I was on to something.” Intrepid artistry forms the foundation in which candid passion may thrive in any generation.