I’ve heard it said that jazz musicians know the “proper way” to play their instrument (in a classical, traditional sense), and they use that knowledge to bend the rules so that their music better represents the emotion or voice they are trying to express. In this way, jazz is not simply playing any note whenever the mood strikes, but a deliberate and coherent rebellion against what is considered ‘the norm’.  In much the same way, Beat poets knew what was expected of a writer in the “square” world of literature, but changed the game to better suite their unique voices. Kerouac wrote spontaneously and freely, but he wrote coherently and with purpose. What keeps Beat writing from reading much like Joyce’s Finnegan’s Wake is the same concept that keeps jazz bands from sounding like a tuning orchestra; the knowledge, experience, and know-how to use spontaneity as a tool.

Kerouac lays this out very clearly in Essentials of Spontaneous Prose. He does not simply begin to write with no clear goal or topic in mind. He beings his essentials with the notion of meditating on an image, either real or imaginary. He goes on to say: “begin not from preconceived idea of what to say about image but from jewel center of interest in subject of image at moment of writing…” (485). Here, Kerouac reveals one of the best ways in which he keeps his writing coherent yet spontaneous: his words are not premeditated, but they are not random. He begins with an image and then finds the words to describe it in the same way that a jazz musician might start with an emotion and then find the notes to express it. Kerouac is “following free deviation (association) of mind into limitless blow-on-subject seas of thought” (484) and thus keeping the stream-of-consciousness feel to his poetry, but he is writing on topics that are associated and meaningful and thereby keeping his coherency. Like a Jazz musician conjuring up old chords with a new bop groove to create a sound that defined the moment, Kerouac used his bop-prosody to create new poetry to define his moment.


“We’d stay up 24 hours drinking cup after cup of black coffee, playing record after record of Wardell Gray, Lester Young, Dexter Gordon, Willie Jackson, Lennie Tristano and all the rest, talking madly about that holy new feeling out there in the the streets…” (559)

This entry was posted in Uncategorized. Bookmark the permalink.

5 Responses to Bop-prosody.

  1. eireene says:

    Thanks Molly. I’m referring a couple of other people to your blog because I think that you’ve understood this well.

    See also the common anarchist saying of our times: “We don’t know what’s going to happen or what we’re going to do, but we’re prepared.”

  2. Ronnie Rose says:

    I think this is a great, clear analysis of “spontaneous” writing.

    Since we’re on the topic of writing techniques, it reminded me of this method that Mark Z. Danielewski called “The Jane Goodall.” Though Danielewski is a far cry from writing spontaneously (perhaps one of the most planned writers out there), but I think his method applies nonetheless:

    “MZD: Writing takes consistent patience. You have to go at it day after day, and for an extended period of time. I write six days a week, pretty much ten hours a day, more or less. Write every day. But the Jane Goodall Method is this – you have to climb that tree and sit there.You might not get anything for a day or even a week, but eventually, on the periphery, you’ll see the bushes and the trees begin to shake. Then they’ll show themselves, these stories, characters, and plotlines, they’ll accept your presence, they’ll come up to you, and before long you’ll be picking lice out of each other’s hair.

    KC: They’ll accept you into the fold.

    MZD: Exactly, but you have to show up every day. You can’t show up for a few days, get discouraged and pack up, or else when you want to pick up where you left off, you’ll have to start all over again. Conversely, once you’ve gained the trust of those stories, and they’re accepting you, letting you in, you can’t just up and disappear. If you do that, and then just come back like nothing ever happened, they’ll start flinging feces at you.”

    I think Kerouac sensed this and that’s why he would write vehemently when he had the ideas.

  3. jlgleaso says:

    This is a really clear and interesting way to explore the notions of spontaneity and bop, and it seems more than logical to combine jazz music with the beat poets, and their genres and cultures were so intertwined.
    You bring up a very important point when talking about the need for a purpose or some sort of initial meditation prior to writing. Kerouac recognized that spontaneity needed to be organized in some way, otherwise it would be impossible to express any clear idea. However, through his perfection of the art, he is able to convey a multiplicity of thoughts, ideas, and emotions, and the reader can still follow along. This “jewel center of interest” could be seen as analogous to a drop in a pond, with an initial movement producing new, wider, and deeper thoughts surrounding it. This entry showcases some essential elements to Kerouac’s poetry, and helps the reader see how the Beat movement ties into a larger picture of culture and separates itself in style from other genres of literature.

  4. bborba says:

    I enjoyed you included a video and took time writing your post. It’s thorough and a great example of Jazzy influence paralleled to the works of the Beats. Very inspiring!

  5. mochnicki says:

    In response to your interpretation of jazz musicians being “rebellious” in their decisions to play outside the rules of musical theory, I’d say that it is rebellious, but in many cases it’s for the purpose of conveying feeling through the music as purely as possible, and music is all about conveying feeling–they still obey the spirit of music itself. I think your post is pretty spot-on though, really. Well done!

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )


Connecting to %s