All entries for Saturday 24 September 2005

September 24, 2005

Larkin, Ginsberg, Jazz and Modernism

‘Holy the groaning saxophone! Holy the bop apocalypse! Holy the jazz bands marijuana hipsters peace and junk and drums!’ (Ginsberg, Footnote to Howl). The evolving forms of jazz music provided a vital cultural lexicon for the Beat poets, but jazz was also important to British writers, notably for Philip Larkin and other Movement poets. Explore and contrast the different ways in which Ginsberg and Larkin approach jazz.

Form in Jazz

The question of form is central to a definition of jazz music. When jazz was in its early stages, it was defined by particular elements of musical form: the swing beat, the twelve-bar chord progression, etc. These were not mere elements of style but were intrinsic to the jazz music that was practiced at the time. But jazz music became diverse over time, and began to stray from the elements that had previously been assumed to characterise the form. In this way, jazz came to trouble and subvert its own definition. However, if it is still possible to define jazz as a musical form, then it is by the technique of improvisation.

But improvisation is a technique that challenges fixed form, and diminishes the importance of form. The ethos of improvisation is spontenaity, the goal of it to produce something unconditioned by a previously defined form. Equally, the improvising soloist must rely on form, such as a chord progression, to be able to improvise and integrate with the band. These observations should demonstrate that the idea of form is at the centre of jazz music, essential to its definition – but having a fundamentally ambiguous role.

Traditional and modern jazz

It would be appropriate now to comment on the evolution of jazz music from traditional to modern. Larkin, in the introduction to “All That Jazz”, makes a clear distinction between the “trad” and “mod” kinds of jazz, borrowing these categories from the vocabulary of jazz critics (5). Trad jazz is jazz as it was first played, emerging as a particular form of popular music derived from the blues and played for the sake of entertainment and dancing. Mod jazz, emerging in the 1940s with bebop and developing further in the 1960s, began to experiment with the traditional boundaries of jazz and thus expand its definition and scope. The dichotomy of traditional and modern is probably the simplest categorisation of the evolving historical tradition of jazz, and is perhaps overly simplistic. But, as we will see, it is appropriate when considering Larkin and Ginsberg. For Larkin, the trad-mod distinction was central to his appreciation of jazz, and was used as a means of defending the traditional styles that he preferred. Ginsberg, on the other hand, performatively demonstrates the experimentalism of modern jazz. Ginsberg's approach to poetry, culture and politics is analogous to the approach taken by modern jazz pioneers like Miles Davis. This approaches constitutes an opposition to established form in order to promote the expansion and redefinition of form.

Ginsberg's experimentalism

Ginsberg pushed the boundaries of poetry as Miles Davis pushed the boundaries of jazz – it is this attitude of experimentalism that ties Ginsberg most closely to modern jazz. He described his “Howl” as “a series of experiments with the formal organisation of the long line”. Ginsberg's poetry challenged fundamental notions about the aesthetic value of poetry, its need to strive towards beauty and a harmonious overall form. He challenged what Alvarez termed “the gentility principle” in poetry. His “Howl” is immediately opposed to these aesthetic principles, its style and form being seemingly unconstructed and disturbing to the reader. The poem's characteristic long, rambling lines, laden with awkward adjectives, do not aim for evocative brevity,

I saw the best minds of my generation destroyed by madness, starving hysterical naked,

The content of a poem such as “Howl” – with its candid descriptions of uninhibited sexuality, drug use, etc – is enough of an affront to principles of gentility. But the formal and poetic elements were also an affront to the principles that had previously been thought to characterise poetry. Indeed, poetic form in “Howl” takes on a new meaning. When we read the rambling stream-of-conciousness lines, it would seem that form is not present here. The lines contain no formal rhythm or rhyme, nor is there any logical division of stanzas. But form asserts itself as a more general ordering principle in the work. The repetition of “who” serves as a loose structure for the poem, although this structure is not strictly upheld. Though the rhythm seems irregular, it is deliberately measured, as with the line,

Holy the groaning saxophone! Holy the bop apocalypse! Holy the jazz bands marijuana hipsters peace and junk and drums!

The rhythm of the first two clauses is identical. This establishes a cadence which is reminiscent of a musical beat, particularly a jazz or swing beat. The anapeastic feet (one stressed syllable followed by two unstressed syllables) that end each clause evoke the triplet beats that characterise jazz rhythm. The rest of the line, from “jazz bands” on, drives onward with spondees (stressed, stressed) and trochees (stressed, unstressed), the shorter feet having the effect of speeding the rhythm. The whole line – itself a comment on jazz and musical rhythm – mimics a jazz drummer beginning a solo.

Organic form in "Howl"

Form is also present in “Howl” in the use of long lines. Ginsberg wrote each of these long lines to be spoken aloud in a single breath: “Ideally each line of 'Howl' is a single breath unit… my breath is long – that's the Measure, one physical and mental inspiration of thought contained in the elastic of a breath.” In this way, form is explicitly based on organic and biological factors – poetic form meshes with human form. Ginsberg's notes on “Howl” reveal that the issue of form was vital to his writing of the poem, in spite of its apparent rambling formlessness.

“Howl” was written to be performed, spoken aloud, and Ginsberg's reading at Six Gallery in San Francisco can be thought of as the quintessential expression of that poem – Ginsberg introduced the poem to an unprepared audience, his incantory tone building through the reading. For a reader today, hearing a performance of the poem enhances an appreciation of it, and could even be thought of as essential for a reading of the poem. In this respect – and in its use of sprawling, improvised form – “Howl” is very similar to a piece of modern jazz.

The fact that Ginsberg relies on the breath as the basic measure of his poetic form is significant if we are to link his approach to the writing of poetry with jazz music as he appreciated it. For singers, and players of woodwind and brass instruments, the creative musical act is also basically dependant on the breath. Each portion of a melody relies on the musician's inhalation; and the quality of the notes played on a saxophone greatly depends on the musician's use of his mouth and breath. Ginsberg's long, rambling lines are much like the improvised saxophone solos of, say, John Coltraine, whose rapid and scattered arpeggios reflect the babbling urgency of Ginsberg's recitation of “Howl”.

Beat spontenaity

In jazz, improvised spontenaity is expressed most purely in the solo, where an individual musician will create a melody around some predetermined structure. Miles Davis' album “Kind Of Blue”is oftten held to be the prime example of improvisation in jazz. Davis laid out basic modal structures for his band, and recorded each track on its first, unrehearsed take. Bill Evans, in the essay that appears in the liner notes of the album, posits the origins of jazz improvisation in “the conviction that direct deed is the most meaningful reflection”. Ginsberg certainly shares this conviction. His creative process was inspired by the attitude of immediate spontenaity that he recognised in jazz music. His notes on “Howl” relate how he wrote the second section “nearly intact” in a flurry of inspiration after seeing the “robot face of Moloch” in the exterior of an apartment building.

Larkin's traditionalism

We can see that Larkin's poetry is also formally similar to jazz music, though Larkin's use of form reflects his preference for traditional styles of jazz, and his rejection modern jazz and modernist art. The trad jazz that Larkin so admired was always written and practiced as a form of popular music. Jazz came into the mainstream via the dance halls and the swing bands, easy to listen and dance to. Larkin admits that he appreciates jazz when it provides such immediately pleasurable experience: “my critical principle has been Eddie Condon's 'As it enters the ear, does it come in like broken glass or does it come in like honey?'” This appreciation of popular and accessible jazz music reflects Larkin's tendancy towards accessibility in his writing, moving away from what he saw as the elitist excesses of high modernist poetry. Larkin's vocabulary is vernacular and his concerns are grounded in the domestic and mundane rather than the philosophical.

Here we encounter Larkin's major objection to the new forms of jazz that grew out of traditional jazz. He explicitly equates modern jazz with the current of modernism in art, rejecting modern jazz on the grounds that he rejects modernism as a whole. In “All What Jazz”, he writes,

How glibly I had talked of modern jazz, without realising the force of the adjective: this was modern jazz, and Parker was a modern jazz player just as Picasso was a modern painter and Pound a modern poet. (11)

In Larkin's mind, modernist art fails because it does not seek to entertain the reader. “The artist has become over-concerned with his material (hence an age of technical experiment), and, in isolation, has busied himself with the two principal themes of modernism, mystification and outrage.” (11). He rejects the experimentalism that characterises the jazz modernists and the literary modernists like Ginsberg.

In “For Sidney Bechet” (“Collected Poems” 83), Larkin displays this tendancy to value jazz for its ability to entertain, and also to evoke emotion in the listener,

“On me your voice falls as they say love should,
Like an enormous yes. My Crescent City
Is where your speech alone is understood,

And greeted as the natural noise of good,
Scattering long-haired grief and scored pity.”

In this poem, Larkin attacks what he sees as a superficial culture of jazz appreciation, presenting in contrast a subjective and emotive response to Bechet's music. There is a note of arrogance in the suggestion that “My Crescent City/ Is where your speech alone is understood”, though it is, as ever, unclear whether this is Larkin's genuine sentiment or a that of a created persona. In any case, the notion remains that there is a special, intuitive appreciation of jazz music that most critics lack.

Jazz's cultural context

We can see that Larkin's rejection of modern jazz is based on his rejection of modernism, and on his own subjective preference. It is also motivated by the cultural context of jazz music. Modern jazz, as Larkin mentions, aims to experiment rather than to entertain. This new direction is conditioned by the cultures that jazz emerges from, particularly black American culture. The emergence of modern jazz is contemporaneous to the advancement of civil rights for black Americans. Larkin, writing in 1963, recognised this change and welcomed it: “what is happening in the Southern States of America to-day is not without significance for the present and future state of jazz. The American Negro is trying to take a step forward that can be compared only with the ending of slavery in the 19th Century.” (“All That Jazz” 86)

Despite this, Larkin firmly rejects the expression of this cultural change in the jazz scene. “From using music to entertain the white man, the Negro had moved to hating him with it.” (13). Larkin attempts to justify his dislike of modern jazz by determining its cultural roots. But his analysis is simplistic. His rejection of experimentalism in favour of entertainment is short-sighted. If we view the jazz tradition as a river of “evolving forms”, then it is clear that experimentalism is necessary to the development of jazz. Without a spirit of experimentation, it is doubtful that jazz would have emerged in the first place.

Amiri Baraka criticises this shortsighted view of the jazz tradition in “Jazz and the White Critic”. Though he does not write about Larkin specifically, Bakara's criticism applies well to Larkin's approach to jazz,

most jazz criticism tends to enforce white middle-brow standards of excellence as criteria for performance of a music that… is completely antithetical to such standards… A man can speak of the 'heresy of bebop' for instance, only if he is completely unaware of the psychological catalysts that made that music the exact registration of the social and cultural thinking of a whole generation of black Americans.

Bakara is rather quick to claim the current modern jazz for his own political ideology, but his critique stands: Larkin's approach to jazz, in it's subjectivity, ignores the cultural roots of modern jazz, and thus seriously misrepresents it.


We have seen in this essay that both Allen Ginsberg and Philip Larkin were significantly influenced by jazz music, and both poets' approaches to writing were conditioned by their appreciation of jazz. Ginsberg's approach to poetry adopts the experimentalism of modern jazz pioneers like Miles Davis, along with the emphasis on spontenaity and the innovative manipulation of form. Larkin, in his traditionalist stance, favours traditional forms of jazz over modern forms. His reaction against modern jazz is tied to his rejection of modernism, and his preference for traditional jazz mirrors his tendancy towards accessibility in his writing. In the end, Ginsberg's poetry stands out as closest to the ethos of jazz, in its bubbling and fearless spontenaity – Larkin, in his narrowly conservative outlook, sees jazz as a static artifact and is unable to accept the breadth of its cultural significance.

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