Poem-a-Day - Summer Camp: Jazz Poetry

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July 27, 2022

Jazz poetry is a literary genre defined as poetry necessarily informed by jazz music—that is, poetry in which the poet responds to and writes about jazz. Jazz poetry, like the music itself, encompasses a variety of forms, rhythms, and sounds. Beginning with the birth of blues and jazz at the start of the twentieth century, jazz poetry can be seen as a thread that runs through the Harlem Renaissancethe Beat movement, and the Black Arts Movement—and it is still vibrant today. From early blues to free jazz to experimental music, jazz poets use their appreciation for the music as poetic inspiration.

The following activities have been adapted from “Teach This Poem: ‘This Is Not a Small Voice’ by Sonia Sanchez.” They can be done alone or with a guardian, sibling, friend, or partner.
  1. Warm-up: Free-write or draw about the following questions: What is voice? What is the power of a voice? 

  2. Before Reading the Poem: Look at these images from the 1963 March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom. What do you notice in these images? What similarities do you see? What do they make you think? 

  3. Reading the Poem: Now, silently read the poem “This Is Not a Small Voice” by Sonia Sanchez. What do you notice about the poem? Note any words or phrases that stand out to you and note any questions you might have.

  4. Listening to the Poem (If you have a partner, take turns reading the poem aloud): Listen as the poem is read aloud twice, and write down any additional words and phrases that stand out to you. Or, you can opt to listen to or watch a video of a student reciting the poem. 

  5. Small-group Discussion: Share what you noticed in the poem with a partner. Based on the details you just shared and the images from earlier, what is the power of a voice? How does this compare to the images from the 1963 march and your own images/pieces of writing? 

  6. Whole-class Discussion: How does the poet use repetition in the poem? What does the poem say about justice? What do you think of the lines, “This is a love initiated by Black Genius. / This is not a small voice / you hear/?”

  7. Extension for Grades 7-8: Create your own poem inspired by Sanchez’s work. What is it that you want to say? (You might enjoy using this interactive site from Kent State University.

  8. Extension for Grades 9-12: Read more about Sonia Sanchez. Then, watch this Ted Talk by Sanchez. Write a response to the question in the video, “What does it mean to be human?” Your response may be a poem, a prose piece, or something more creative like a collage or other piece of artwork. (You might enjoy this writing prompt, composed by the poet Yona Harvey.)
Read and listen to “from ‘The Last Bohemian of Avenue A’” by Yusef Komunyakaa and “One Flower” by Jack Kerouac. Follow poets.org on TikTok for more videos.

Song of the Andoumboulou: 50” by Nathaniel Mackey
Jazz Fan Looks Back” by Jayne Cortez 
Time Study” by Marvin Bell
Long Gone” by Sterling A. Brown 
Blue Dementia” by Yusef Komunyakaa 
Songs to Joannes, V” by Mina Loy 
Ballad” by Sonia Sanchez 

The following poets have work in the jazz tradition. Click on their names to read their biographies:
Amiri Baraka
Marvin Bell
Sterling A. Brown
Hayden Carruth
Michael S. Harper
Jack Kerouac
Yusef Komunyakaa
Nathaniel Mackey
Mina Loy
Kenneth Rexroth
Sonia Sanchez
Jayne Cortez
Anaphora: a technique in which successive phrases or lines begin with the same words, often resembling a litany. 
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