“The Paradox of Practice and Purity” published in the Fall 2016/Spring 2017 issue of emerge, the journal of arts administration and policy from the School of the Art Institute Chicago. Thank you to associate editor Courtney Citron for inviting this conversation on the theme of practice. Click here.
Blow! – now!—your way is your only way – ‘good’ – or bad – always; honest.
These are the words of Jack Kerouac from his essay, “The Essentials of Spontaneous Prose” where he builds the metaphor of the writer creating spontaneously as a jazz musician performs an improvisation. But to Kerouac it was more than metaphor, it was his writing practice, what he named “bop prosody.” As a poet and musician, and even as an editor, the point of my work is to maintain honesty and sincerity. But further, as a bop prosodist, what I aspire to, as manifested through the fundamental tenet of spontaneous writing, is purity…purity paradoxically achieved through conscious and continuous practice.
Artistic purity means more than being honest, for honesty can be set within a framework. Purity means untouched emotion not unlike the spontaneous tears of a father witnessing the birth of his first child, or the spontaneous gasp made when someone is startled; either of these emotions become severely diminished when the emotion is explained or retold. Purity is the jazz improvisation when the musician closes his eyes, transcends the physical reality of the stage, and moves into the realm of pure sound.
The process of learning jazz music improvisation begins with the absorption of technique. The pianist Bill Evans played on and wrote the liner notes for Miles Davis’s landmark album Kind of Blue and described the spontaneous creative process in terms of Zen sumi painting. As Evans described it, the sumi artist is forced to be spontaneous because he/she must paint on a thin parchment with a specialized brush and black water paint in such a way that an unnatural or interrupted stroke will destroy the line or tear the parchment. This is, obviously, a difficult, highly developed skill.
“These artists must practice a particular discipline,” Evans writes, “that of allowing the idea to express itself in communication with their hands in such a direct way that deliberation cannot interfere. The resulting pictures lack the complex composition and textures of ordinary painting, but it is said that those who see will find something captured that escapes explanation. This conviction that direct deed is the most meaningful of reflections, I believe, has prompted the evolution of the extremely severe and unique disciplines of the jazz or improvising musician.”
The relationship between both spontaneous jazz improvisation and spontaneous writing to Zen meditation practice is related in the sense of an art form or practice that becomes so internalized that its performance requires no conscious thought, “no mind” in Zen terminology. It is the moment of transcendence, the moment of purity, that artists relate in any number of ways. Poets often speak of “poems that write themselves” or that came out of a dream state. Jazz musicians describe this same state when it happens during performance as being “gone.” Neither the Zen monk, the musician or the writer can achieve transcendence without first climbing to the mountain top and that requires doing the work, sweating, learning the way of the mountain.
In his introduction to the book Big Sky Mind, Stephen Prothero states that “the Beats, like Ralph Waldo Emerson, aimed to make contact with the sacred in moments of indescribable intuition and then to transmit at least some of what they had experienced into words.” This cannot happen if the mind/body has not prepared through constant practice. Transcendence occurs when the body, soul, and mind become one expression.
To create a first draft that is nearly a finished piece of writing is rare and considered by most writers to be a gift. But a gift from where or whom? One of my mentors was acclaimed poet Rane Arroyo who explained that his religion was writing. In every aspect of the concept of religion, this was a very true statement for Rane. To be a practicing poet, practicing jazz musician, practicing Buddhist/Jew/Muslim/Christian means that your practice shapes your being and defines who you are. Your practice is where the gift of pure art comes from.
In terms of my personal, life-long practice of bop prosody, it is not the subject of the poem that matters but how it was written. In the same way that a jazz musician can use improvisational skills to turn a Broadway musical piece into jazz, the bop prosodist can use his/her skills at spontaneous writing to create a poem on any aspect of human experience. What matters is how much of the spontaneous composition of the first draft and its organic form was respected and maintained through the revision process, how much raw emotional immediacy is left on the page. Something done spontaneously, improvised, implies some level of imperfection. This does not imply imperfection in the sense of technical or mechanical mistakes, but in the sense of the imperfection or ambiguity of human emotion and human nature as effecting imagery, syntax, line, etc. These imperfections in this sense are a representation of honesty.
Just as the jazz musician is guided by the reactions of his/her audience, so too the poet can only trust in the honesty of his/her reader. Listening for the “ooo” when the poem turns a surprising corner of metaphor; waiting for the sighing exhale at the end of the poem that reveals that the reader hasn’t been able to breathe, that the poem has literally taken the reader’s breath away; hearing the “yeah” when the poem finishes with a twisting punch; looking for the tear, hearing the lump in the throat: these are emotions expressed physically, reflexively. These are sincere reactions to sincere emotions, both are mindless, selfless, spontaneous. Both are true.
For me, being a poet means writing constantly whether good or bad, whether it’s poetry or marketing copy. Being an editor means reading constantly, everything and anything so that when the jewel of a truly pure and honest piece of writing crosses my desk, I recognize it without thought because I can intuit honest emotion touching my own emotions honestly. And though I no longer work as a musician as I once had, the practice was done over such a long period of time that music is in my marrow, it speaks out now in my poetry.
Just close your eyes and blow. One note after another, one word after another, one brushstroke of paint after another. Always. Everyday. Just close your eyes and blow. I write because I have to, I play saxophone because I have to, I love because I have to, I cry because I have to…and so, the poems come whispering in my ear, sliding through the keys of my horn, tripping me in the dark, splashing like waves against my skinny-dipping ass. This is practice, this is direct deed, this is purity.