Jazz Poetry: An Introduction
Making jazz swing in
Seventeen syllables AIN'T
No square poet's job.
-- Etheridge Knight
When I think about the poet Etheridge Knight, I often reflect on the times I heard him read his work, or evenings when we listened to jazz at various clubs in downtown Indianapolis. I also remember, bittersweetly, a symposium on poetry and jazz that featured him as well as other writers from the region, including myself. 1 The symposium preceded a performance of jazz-related poetry, and when Etheridge arrived, he elevated our enthusiasm just by smiling. We joked a bit, got him settled in. I think he was genuinely pleased to be there, although his awkward walk and stilted gestures reflected the physical pain he was trying so hard to hide. Everyone knew at least two things about this poet: He was the most celebrated writer on the panel, and he was dying of inoperable cancer.
I invoke this afternoon with Etheridge Knight partly because the union of grief and joy was also central to his poetry. "I died in Korea from a shrapnel wound," he once wrote, "and narcotics resurrected me. I died in 1960 from a prison sentence and poetry brought me back to life." For Knight, and for many other poets including Langston Hughes, a major relationship between poetry and jazz concerned the integration of exuberance and despair. Jazz for him was not merely an intellectual pursuit but rather a function of his life and work.
So it may be surprising to hear that, despite his presence, the symposium