Imagination Toppling Through Sunlight Like A Stone

When I went off to Howard, I spent a lot of time trying to cultivate an appreciation for jazz. I came across quite a few records I liked, but I never quite got it down. I always felt awkward about that, because virtually all of my literary heroes were jazz fans who claimed the music had heavily influenced their work. I had this sense that there was something happening when I read a guy like Bob Kaufman that I was just missing.

That said, when it was at it's most literal, I could get it. The poet Kamau Brathwaite has this series of pieces on different jazz artists, called "Blues" that I always thought was phenomenal. As much time as I spent trying to appreciate jazz, I spent more time trying to imitate Brathwaite's series, trying to adapt it for soul or hip-hop. Didn't work. Like at all.

Anyway, this is my favorite piece by Brathwaite out of the series.


3. Miles

He grows dizzy
with altitude
the sun blares
he hears
only the brass
of his own mood.
if he could fly
he would be
an eagle
he would see
how the land lies
softly in contours
how the fields lie
striped, how the houses
fit into the valleys
he would see cloud lying
on water, moving
like the hulls of great ships
over the land.
but he is only
a cock.
he sees
nothing.
cares
nothing.
he reaches to the sky
with his eyes closed
his neck
bulging.
imagination
topples through the sunlight like a stone.

When I first started writing poetry I thought it was all about the big simile, the lush imagery and the lovingly wrought metaphors. But I had smart people around me, and they quickly brought me to heel. Thus I came to believe that most really good poetry, and most really good writing, is hard, muscular, and built on strong detail. The detail may not be literal--Tony Hoagland noting that his father "hails disaster like a cab." But the "cab" is important, both in how it sounds and in the sheer, small power of the word.

Anyway, Brathwaite grounds this Miles Davis tribute in that same kind of muscular language, but there's a beautiful contrast. The poem, about a third of the way through, employs a lot of soft, pleasant detail.  Phrases like "houses fit into valleys" or "the hulls of great ships" feel good on the ear, and are almost relaxing. But at the end Brathwaite brings us back with an array of much harder detail. Miles isn't an eagle he is "a cock." When he plays his neck bulges, and "imagination topples through the sunlight like a stone."

When I first read this, I actually felt like what I was getting was a bird taking off and landing. Powerful piece. I never got the imitation right. Thank God. Still I learned a lot trying.

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Ta-Nehisi Coates is a national correspondent at The Atlantic, where he writes about culture, politics, and social issues. He is the author of the memoir The Beautiful Struggle.

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