Sunday, October 13, 2013

Dark Wings of Night: James A. Emanuel, Creator of the Jazz Haiku

I just read William Yardley's New York Times article, and found out that American expatriate poet, critic and inventor of the jazz haiku, James A. Emanuel, died on Sept. 28 in Paris.

James A. Emanuel, a poet, educator and critic who published more than a dozen volumes of his poetry, much of it after his frustration with racism in the United States helped motivate him to move to France, died on Sept. 27 in Paris. He was 92. ...

In the 1960s he taught at City College in New York, where he started the first class on black poetry, wrote academic studies of Langston Hughes and other black writers, and mentored young scholars, including the critic Addison Gayle Jr. ...

Even as his reputation grew, he became increasingly frustrated with racism in America. When European universities began offering him teaching positions in the late ’60s, he accepted. By the early ’80s, after the death of his only child in Los Angeles, he had vowed never to return to the United States. He never did.

He wrote often of racism, including in an early work, “The Negro”:

Never saw him.
Never can.
Haunting man.
Eyes a-saucer,
Yessir bossir,
Dice a-clicking,
Razor flicking.
The-ness froze him
In a dance.
A-ness never
Had a chance.

Naomi Long Madgett, a poet and the founder of Lotus Press, which published many of his works, said Mr. Emanuel was masterfully precise, careful to leave room for readers to participate.

“Some poets don’t know when a poem should stop,” Ms. Madgett said. “It’s much harder to write a short poem than it is to write one that just rambles on and on. James Emanuel knew what to say and what to leave out.” ...

In his later years, Mr. Emanuel claimed to have invented a new form of literature: the jazz haiku, stanzas of 17 syllables he read to the accompaniment of jazz music. Like the music, they felt improvisational even as they respected structure:

Four-letter word JAZZ: 
naughty, sexy, cerebral, 
but solarplexy.

-- excerpted from “James A. Emanuel, Poet Who Wrote of Racism, Dies at 92,” by William Yardley, New York Times, October 11, 2013

James A. Emanuel is credited with creating the jazz haiku, which he had read to musical accompaniment throughout Europe and Africa. He successfully “[expanded] the imagery of the traditional haiku beyond its single impression by including narrative and rhyme” (Hakutani, p.195). For this creation he was awarded the Sidney Bechet Creative Award in 1996. Throughout his writing career, he published two collections of haiku: Reaching for Mumia: 16 Haiku in 1995, and Jazz from the Haiku King in 1999. For him, Jazz and haiku both “convey spontaneously created expressions that are free from any economic, social, or political impulses” (Hakutani, p.202),  and one of the most important motifs in his haiku is jazz: everything is jazz and can be expressed in a three-line poem:

snails, jails, rails, tails, males, females,
snow-white cotton bales. 

The following is a group of haiku, entitled “‘I’m a Jazz Singer,’ She Replied,” that consists of an introductory haiku followed by four haiku, each beginning with “Jazz”:

He dug what she said:
bright jellies, smooth marmalade
spread on warm brown bread.

“Jazz” from drowsy lips
orchids lift to honeybees
floating on long sips.

“Jazz”: quick fingerpops
pancake on a griddle-top
of memories. Stop.

“Jazz”: mysterious
as nutmeg, missing fingers,
gold. Less serious.

“Jazz”: cool bannister.
Don’t need no stair. Ways to climb
when the sax is there.

To conclude this post, I would like to share with you one of my political haiku about jazz music written for James A. Emanuel

twilit Route Irish...
loud Jazz music
from the tanks       

Note: Rout Irish is the military main supply route, leading from Baghdad International Airport to the Green Zone, and it is one of the most dangerous stretches of highway in Iraq, if not the world.


Yoshinobu Hakutani, Cross-Cultural Visions in African American Modernism: From the Spatial Narrative to Jazz Haiku, The Ohio State University Press, 2006.

Updated, Oct. 13:

I just found out Dan Schneider's thorough interview with James A. Emanuel. Below is a relevant excerpt about his view of haiku:

DS: You place great emphasis on craft in your work, and this is something that is lacking in contemporary published poetry. Are you a perfectionist? In later years you’ve turned to the haiku form. Have you simply run out of things to say in free verse or sonnets?
JAE: I am a perfectionist only in those situations which perfection is both possible and desirable in my opinion. Much published poetry is mediocre because the poets concerned cannot improve upon it or will not try to do so. Commercial publishers accelerate this downgrade. Some editors assist the decline because they either do not like poetry (like some teachers) or share the cash-and-carry mentality of those in front of the office assembly line.
Just as discipline is most needed when freedom is first won, my turn to free verse at the end of the 1960s entailed a conscious struggle to fuse widening subjects with what might be called “veteran” form. Like the boxer who knows when to shift from dancing jabs to a strong right hook, the veteran in free verse knows when an anapest or two cannot do the job of a well-chosen monosyllable.
What I want to say in poetry (what I want to present or picture, rather) has little to do with form, for I could use a sonnet to present the Harlem street jive, dig? Some time ago, the following line in iambic pentameter could have opened a sonnet: “Had only ink to drink for many brights.” As for the haiku form, its subjects are unlimited. I turned to it because of its unusual challenge to say much in little, to waste no word, to find and express the possibilities of beauty in all of creation.


  1. "Jazz": too cool for words
    a universal language
    silken syllables

    1. Hi! Michael:

      Thanks for sharing your response haiku.

      Read in the sociopolitical context of African American culture, jazz has expressed what Ralph Ellison called “the painful details and episodes of a brutal experience alive in one’s aching consciousness, to finger its jagged
      grain, and to transcend it, not by the consolation of philosophy but by
      squeezing from it a near-tragic, near comic lyricism” (“Wright’s Blues” 202)

      Just a thought for your consideration.

      I'll post another 'Dark Wings of Night' post to further explore Emanuel's jazz haiku.


    2. One more comment:

      This concept of Jazz is also explored in Toni Morrison's Jazz.

  2. FYI- Emanuel died on the 28th. I had to contact the NY Times to get them to correct their error.

    Dan Schneider

  3. Emmett Till *

    I hear a whistling
    Through the water.
    Little Emmett
    Won't be still.
    He keeps floating
    Round the darkness,
    Edging through
    The silent chill.
    Tell me, please,
    That bedtime story
    Of the fairy
    River Boy
    Who swims forever,
    Deep in treasures,
    Necklaced in
    A coral toy.
    James A. Emanuel

    1. Dear Nana:

      Thanks for posting 'Emmett Till.'

      Share with you an excerpt from the concluding paragraph and the closing haiku (in the form of a one-liner) of my haibun, titled Human Race(s) for Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie, author of Americanah, which will be published in Haiku Canada Review, 8:1, Feb. 2014:

      .... The real tragedy of Emmett Till was not the murder of a black teenager for wolf-whistling at a white woman, but the question lingering in the minds of some black people: why did Emmett Till whistle?"

      the force of silence upon me early snowfall