'Giant Steps': John Taggart's sheets of sound and messianic jazz

With special reference to Theodor Adorno

“How to stay alive” or, repetition

“To become aware of tones // beginner’s problem in the mind of a beginner.” The opening to John Taggart’s 2008 homage to Louis Zukofsky, “Grey Scale/Zukofsky,” reaffirms the abiding concern of Taggart’s poetics from first to last: how to think with and in sound. This concern manifests itself throughout his work, but is perhaps most notable in such major jazz- and R&B-inspired poems like “Drum Thing” (1969), “Giant Steps” and “Peace on Earth” (1981), “Marvin Gaye Suite” (1991), and 2004’s “Rhythm and Blues Singer,” his elegy for R&B singer James Carr, where he writes:

Language before writing

 before reading

 before the alphabet



 a river of sound[1]


The acoustic river runs throughout Taggart’s work and one of its most important tributaries is jazz.

When Taggart recalls that he “came to jazz just as I was,” he is describing a beginner’s state of mind: that fragile, requisite naïveté which makes poetic listening possible. In jazz, he notes, “what is to be asked for is how to stay alive.”[2] The problem of jazz, then, is the problem of life. As Jennifer Ryan puts it: “jazz poetry accounts for the complexities and contradictions of both artistic innovation and social inequities.”[3] Taggart’s moral imperative to stay alive, that is, to live free of social coercion, takes its cue from the music of John Coltrane, whose restless drive to push past  boundaries alienated some listeners even as it signaled to others the beginning of a musical revolution whose implications were felt socially as well. What he was after in jazz, Taggart writes, was “the rhythmic character of the music … not a jazz poem … [it] would have to start from and go away from jazz.”[4] The beginning of faith always entails a little heresy. Though jazz was his “informing source,” his place of worshipful attention (“Composition,” he declares, echoing Malebranche, “is attention”), Taggart realizes he must move past mere emulation into what he calls “the animal power of voice.” Paradoxically, this reveals the powerlessness of his own voice through a realization of the necessity to submit to the voice of the poem, “the voice which eats the face away,” as he puts it in an unexpectedly violent trope. What jazz comes to mean for Taggart, finally, is “learning and leaning in more intently in listening to be able to write.”[5]

The question driving my inquiry has to do with how Taggart’s poem “Giant Steps” fuses the modalities of Coltrane’s late modernist jazz with an Objectivist emphasis on sound to create a poetry of radical repetition that is also deeply messianic, a poetry committed to the problem of “how to stay alive” which is the problem of how to intervene in the dehumanizing forces of history, how to rescue the person caught within the riptide of history. By radical repetition I mean a form of writing whose excessive use of refrain and reiteration creates a musical ex-scription, a poetry that writes outside the traditional methods of meaning production through its disruptive use of sound. Radical repetition undoes the usual aim of language as a conveyor of semantic stability by pushing against the grain of transparent meaning toward a semiotic music. Repetition is not simply repeating; rather, it’s what makes the poem stay alive.

Taggart’s poetry is at once utterly transparent and deeply thing-like. It is highly accessible in the sense that it does not exhibit aggressive syntactical torque; neither is it marked by patterns of complex allusion commonly associated with difficulty. Taggart’s difficulty is different. Irresistibly rhythmic, it’s almost childlike in its compulsive insistence on repetition, yet at the same time virtually opaque. Here is the first stanza of “Giant Steps”:

To want to be a saint to want to be a saint to want to

 to want to be a saint to be the snake-tailed one to want to

 be snake-tailed with wings to be a snake-tailed saint with wings to

 want to be a saint to want to awaken men from nightmare.[6]


The first section of Taggart’s poem is divided into two stanzas, the first consisting of four lines, the second of five (this pattern holds for the other three sections as well). Taggart’s diction is severely limited here. The first stanza contains a total of fifty-eight words, with “saint” occurring five times; “want” seven times; and, in the spirit of the Objectivists, “to” sixteen times. These three words account for twenty-eight of the fifty-eight words in the first four lines, or roughly half of all the words in the stanza. Likewise, in the second stanza, “dance” and “go” are each used eight times; “down” six times;  “steps” five times; and  “to” eighteen times, for a total of forty-five occurrences of five words out of seventy-three, or over two-thirds of the overall word count. Taggart leverages a maximal degree of poetic energy from an amazingly minimal means. What significance is there, though, to working in such a vein, other than the yield of dramatic power it grants the poem? And can we be sure that such repetition does in fact yield the power I argue for it here? Or does it merely succumb to a numbing monotony?

Taggart’s innovative use of repetition derives from a heuristic set of principles. “Not to reproduce a sound but to use it as a general principle to make another sound,”[7] he writes, noting Augustine’s stress on repetition as a pedagogical device: “a mode of assuring the seeker that he is on his way, and is not merely wandering blindly through the chaos from which all forms arises.”[8] Gilles Deleuze provides a resonant echo to these observations when he writes that:

To repeat is to behave in a certain manner, but in relation to something unique or singular which has no equal or equivalent. And perhaps this repetition at the level of external conduct echoes, for its own part, a more secret vibration which animates it, a more profound internal repetition within the singular.[9]

What is crucial for Taggart’s sense of repetition is that it produces difference, not identity. To repeat a phrase, a word, a line is not to collapse or narrow distinctions between the terms of repetition and the rest of the poem. On the contrary, it is to open up a space of difference, which is, simply, figured as space itself, as a caesura, an intervention into the poem’s temporal scheme, the way it measures time and generates duration. The messianic splice of repetition, in other words, distends the poem. Elastic with tension, it drives an arc of sound along the narrow wire of song. What significance is there, though, to such dynamic constriction? The goal of repetition in Taggart is immersion into lived time. Felt time. Time as actual, tangible, passing. In his interview with Ornette Coleman, Jacques Derrida makes the case that the act of music, like the act of writing, is a unique, unreproducable event which is:

Nevertheless repeated in its very structure. Thus there is a repetition, in the work, that is intrinsic to the initial creation — that which compromises or complicates the concept of improvisation. Repetition is already in improvisation: thus when people want to trap you between improvisation and the pre-written, they are wrong.[10]

To which Coleman eloquently responds: “Repetition is as natural as the fact that the earth rotates.” The impulse to repeat also drives the work of John Coltrane.

Along a line of melody: Coltrane’s sound

In a fit of pique once after a recording session, Miles Davis demanded of Coltrane: “why did you go on so long?” “It took me that long to get it all in,” replied Coltrane.[11] This well-known anecdote gets to the heart of Coltrane’s core aesthetic. As he himself expressed it to Nat Hentoff, “You just keep going … you keep trying to get right down to the crux.”[12] This is Taggart’s method, too: a desire to keep the thing aloft, continuous, in a restless quest for breakthrough. The goal may be transcendent, but the means are material. Archie Schepp, who played in Coltrane’s late avant-garde groups, observes that Trane’s method was predicated on a kind of music possessing a hitherto unthinkable range of expansion; solos would run for thirty, forty minutes; it would be uninterrupted music, continually evolving, continually seeking out the terms of its logic.

In his chapter on the thriving subgenre of jazz poetry devoted to Coltrane’s music, Sascha Feinstein mentions Taggart only by noting the issue of his journal, Maps (1969), which was devoted to poems for Coltrane. In a footnote, however, he does see fit to cite Taggart’s unease about the potential for such a tribute issue becoming “a collection of aesthetic and sterile games.” Taggart concludes that “it’s a risk worth taking: you could even say it’s demanded from this liberty to hear, to make what we can from it, as evidence that John Coltrane’s music is still very much with us.”[13] Maps no. 3 appeared only two years after Coltrane’s death, at the age of forty, from liver failure. By 2002, jazz scholar David Ake can write with perfect confidence that Coltrane “has become a remarkably powerful figure,” one whose name has assumed an auratic status, signifying “a variety of musical, ethical, and spiritual attributes,” many of which are only loosely connected to Coltrane the person.[14] As Ake, Ben Ratliff, and others have pointed out, “Giant Steps,” which signaled Trane’s major breakthrough, has become ensconced in jazz pedagogy to the degree that mastering its rapid chord changes signifies every apprentice sax player’s rite of passage.

It’s important to understand Coltrane’s accomplishment in relation to the modal jazz pioneered by Davis, which emphasized improvisation within a framework of austerity. As Ted Gioia puts it, “it was a minimalist response to the maximalist tendencies of postwar jazz.”[15] But while Coltrane’s “Giant Steps” (released in 1959, the same year as Davis’s Kind of Blue) develops within a tight chord progression and Taggart’s poem adheres to the same sense of constraint, using and reusing the same set of keywords, there is nothing minimalist, in the usual sense, about either composition. Rather, minimalist constraints become the springboard for explorations of excess. Both works are overflowing, rich with a “too-muchness,” an abundance that pushes the listener/reader past the limits of the well-made object into an unmapped region of aesthetic experience, the place where snake-tailed saint, a messianic Quetzcoatl, dances.

As Gary Giddins and Scott DeVeaux explain, “Giant Steps” “is a sixteen-bar composition in which almost every note of the melody is signaled by a new chord — playing the chord changes is practically the same thing as playing the melody. The harmony extends the chord progression between equally distant tonal centers (the giant steps of the title). The aim of its aggressively fast-paced movement is “to trigger a sheets-of-sound jolt.”[16] Around the time Coltrane recorded “Giant Steps,” Wayne Shorter came to know him. Shorter speaks of Coltrane’s desire “to speak the English language backwards, and not really in a playful way. It was, like, to speak backwards, to get at something else. To break patterns.”[17]

Unlike Coltrane’s later elegy “Alabama,” for the 1963 bombing of a Birmingham church that killed five black girls, nothing about “Giant Steps” per se suggests it was ever intended as an anthem of civil rights. Yet its bold innovation, which marks it as a milestone in the history of jazz, has invited other writers besides Taggart to see it as more than a musical watershed. Kevin Young, who named his 2000 anthology of African-American writers “Giant Steps,” declares that his title “pays homage to John Coltrane’s Giant Steps — which … changed the way we hear and see.”[18] Michael S. Harper, Amiri Baraka, and Nathaniel Mackey are perhaps the most prominent among a large number of chiefly African American poets who have paid similar homage to Coltrane’s influence. “Giant Steps” (both the composition and the album) announces an inaugural moment for a new form of music, the articulation of a new set of possibilities for expression. Chord progression signals social activism. As Eric Nisenson puts it: “Giant Steps is, in a sense, a manifesto. Modern jazz had hit a dead end … but with the title tune, the bop technique of playing melodically over complex harmonic structures … was taken to its final extreme.”[19] In her brilliant and far-ranging discussion of the Coltrane poem genre, Meta DuEwa Jones affirms the tenor’s significance for poets: “Music frees the soul, is soul. Poetic forms that are influenced by music, like the Coltrane poem, seek to transcend the boundaries of speech and music to inhabit the intangible realms of the spiritual, the emotional, and the soulful.”[20] John Taggart’s “Giant Steps” attempts a similar transcendence of ordinary speech. Like Coltrane, he wants to break patterns, triggering his own sheets of sound effect, through the rhythmic jolts of the poem’s oceanic repetitions.

This repetition can come across not merely as mesmerizing, but exhausting; it makes extreme demands of its reader. The severity of this demand takes its cue not only from Coltrane’s desire to “break patterns” by pushing the music to the limit of what it can bear, but from Zukofsky’s intricate and disciplined attention to the play of sound in the poem. Zukofsky’s famous injunction for rendering the poem as an object required the rejection of any predatory intent, any coercion of language by sentiment. Sincerity, a slippery, often misleading, term in this context, meant that the poem must be a record, in part, of the encounter with phenomenon, achieved, Zukofsky writes, by “thinking with the things as they exist … directing them along a line of melody.”[21] In his essay on Zukofsky’s “Songs of Degrees,” Taggart elaborates:

A melody is a continuous movement that is always on its way. It is not the sum of its component sound details but is the progress of the moving line passing through the successive sounds. In Zukofsky’s usage, however, melody is both the continuously moving line as it grows and defines itself in the concatenation of word sound detail, and it is the completed structure or form that is the culmination and the memory of that motion. It is both noun and verb … above all it has to be understood that meaning, like its melody, exists in the words, and that the two are inextricable.[22]

Zukofsky puts it more succinctly in A Test of Poetry: “cadence plus definite language equal the full meaning.”[23] In “Song of Degrees” the cadence is powerful: “Hear, her / Clear mirror, / Care / His error. / In her / Care / Is clear.”[24] What Taggart concludes in this important statement on poetics is highly characteristic of him: the animating principle of Zukofsky’s poetry is “care,” a word that denotes the technical nuances of attention as much as the ethical imperatives of compassion. “Care, then use, are the lessons to be learned. Otherwise, reading serves only to distract us from perception.”[25]. The Objectivist emphasis on immediacy here means cultivating a sensitivity to perception, not so much in the hope of erasing the medium of transmission, which in any case would be impossible, but out of a disciplined approach to its impact on the senses, the intellect, and language, conceived of melodically, that is, in its semiotic rather than semantic register.[26]

Toward a poetics of the standing wave or, messianic jazz

Taggart insists that “the history of poetry in our century is only superficially the history of the struggle to make it new. More enduring is the struggle to regain the definition of poetry as spiritual ascesis.”[27] To accomplish this, poets can either immerse themselves in spiritual literature, he suggests, or immerse themselves in language. The latter method has been Taggart’s primary one. As Marjorie Perloff, writing on Rosmarie Waldrop, notes: “the language pool” has become “the new Spiritus Mundi.”[28] In her introduction to Taggart’s essays, Perloff describes Taggart’s poetry as one of rapture, achieved not through visionary trance, but with “an intricate incantation produced by permutating sounds and silences.”[29] This effect is on full display in Taggart’s “Giant Steps.”

“Giant Steps” is a poem that dreams of — and urges — a breakthrough. This breakthrough is induced by rhetorical means — through internal anaphora.

To want to be a saint to want to be a saint to want to

 be a snake-tailed saint with wings to leap upon the horse-headed the

 blue-eyed woman with the little moon the woman with nine shadows

 who chokes the throat to want to be a saint to wake men from nightmare.[30]


To speak of breakthrough, that elusive and rhetorically abused state of rupture and metanoia, means, in Taggart’s case, to speak of a formal methodology that draws from the materiality of repeated words and phrases. The effect induces a kind of lucid vertigo.  The poem becomes an elaborate echo chamber where speech regains its vibrant immediacy, its saying of the now, through call and response, song and countersong.

This emphasis on the instant of song makes it interruptive rather than reflective. Taggart’s poem forces us to rethink what we thought we knew about the relationship between the materiality — or acoustic properties — of the word, and the effects it generates, which we tend to call spiritual but in fact have more to with an experience of embodiment. This acoustic power takes on a messianic charge, in the sense defined by Walter Benjamin. It blasts apart conventional modes of listening. Conceived of as a kind of punctum or caesura, messianic poetics aims to produce an experience of what Benjamin calls “now-time” through a sharp intervention that destroys the illusion of continuity fostered by historicism’s efforts to fold the past seamlessly into the present.

A historical materialist approaches a historical subject only where he encounters it as a monad. In this structure he recognizes the sign of a Messianic cessation of happening, or, put differently, a revolutionary chance in the fight for the oppressed past. He takes a cognizance of it in order to blast a specific era out of the homogenous course of history.[31]

Cessation and blasting are classic expressions of the modernist call to revolution and belong to what Peter Osborne calls “a form of avant-garde experience.” As he explains it, delineating Benjamin’s notion of “now-time,” “the avant-garde is that which, in the flash of the dialectical image, disrupts the linear time-consciousness of progress in such a way as to enable us, like the child, to discover the new anew and along with it, the possibility of a better future.”[32] For Benjamin, the messianic is not so much a practical political strategy for devising ideal forms of national statehood, as it is a drastic incursion into the amnesia of historical reification. To free history from the myths the present constructs around it is the key task of messianic poetics, as Benjamin envisions it. This is what it means “to raise men with a horn / a tenor horn to go to go down to raise men from nightmare.”[33]

A messianic poetics stakes its claim for intervening in historical consciousness on the power of song to rescue experience. The experience, as Taggart might say, is the song.

To go down to raise to go down to raise to go to go down the

 ladder to go down as taught as dance steps taught by the master as

 taught to dance to step-dance to dance with giant steps to go to dance to

 step-dance to dance with giant steps as taught by the master to

 dance to go down the ladder to go down to raise men from nightmare[34]


In his study of the fold, Deleuze says that “the problem is not how to finish a fold, but how to continue it, to have it go through the ceiling, how to bring it to infinity.”[35] The task of the fold is self-perpetuation ad infinitum, but within a finite space. This kind of folding, this iterative poetics of repetition and intervention, is what both Coltrane and Taggart are striving for. The song, the poem, both fold over on themselves, turning inside out, rushing with a headlong momentum into a process of endless self-resembling replication. Ira Gitler’s now talismanic phrase “sheets of sound,” first used in his liner notes to 1958’s Soultrane to describe Coltrane’s “Russian Lullaby,” the album’s final track, answers to this idea of the fold. Later, Gitler expanded on this phrase, describing Coltrane’s sheets of sound as “a density of texture [in which the] multi-note improvisations were so thick and complex [that they produced] a continuous flow of ideas without stopping.”[36] Folding, sheeting — these actions are key to Taggart’s poetics which might, after the title of one of his more taxing works, be called a poetics of the standing wave.

A standing wave occurs when a wave remains in a constant, or stationary, position, usually as a result of an oppositional flow to the medium it is traveling through. Picture an oscillating wave of water in a small pool where the energy of the wave does not dissipate, but remains constant. Or the two ends of a jump rope being spun or twirled in such a way that the rope appears stationary. This kind of vibration can only occur at specific harmonic frequencies. It is a powerful metaphor for Taggart — the idea of a deeper stillness or stasis generated within an energetic motion.

For Peter O’Leary, one of Taggart’s most perceptive readers (and the editor of his selected poems, Is Music) this deeper stillness of the standing wave is mystical. In his provocative reading of “Peace on Earth,” another Coltrane-based composition dating from the same period as “Giant Steps,” he calls Taggart’s poetics a form of “language mysticism, something akin to the via negativa or apophasis of Christian mystics.” Taggart, writes O’Leary, “uses the sound of words to erode or undermine their meaning, allowing the words to transcend into a hypostatic realm of Word, capitalized.”[37]

O’Leary identifies the goal of Taggart’s poetics as one in which “the discovery of voice … is also the generation of a new spiritual knowledge, a new theology of the Word of God, centered on the sound rather than the lexical meaning of the word.”[38] Zukofsky himself gestures toward this in his tantalizingly elliptical remarks in “An Objective”:  “A poem. A poem as object … Perfect rest — Or nature as creator, existing perfect, experience perfecting activity of existence, making it — theologically perhaps — like the Ineffable.”[39] The trouble with an overdetermined term like hypostasis, however, is that it substantiates its claim to authority on an extra-linguistic “something” — the Word of God — a word that is not a word at all, since it is entirely unmarked by the sound of language as such.[40] To emphasize sound over lexicality does not, ipso facto, move the poem into the realm of hypostasis. For what can be under song? The most obvious answer is: the body; the human voice. To hypostasize the poem is to reify logos, the very charge Theodor Adorno levels at Martin Heidegger, accusing him of trafficking in a “jargon of authenticity” in which “that which is empty becomes an arcanum: the mystery of being permanently in ecstasy over some numinous thing which is preserved in silence.”[41] Moreover, it’s not clear how Taggart’s poetry is negational. Unlike, say, a contemporary such as Michael Palmer, who has made tropes of silence and erasure central to his poetics, Taggart’s poetry is boldly and unequivocally affirmative: cataphatic rather than apophatic. That said, Taggart clearly writes against the grain of semantic transmission in order to break through conventional signifying.

To say that “it is language which speaks, not the author,” as Barthes does (echoing Heidegger), may be merely to shift logos from a theological to an a-theological register, but it’s nevertheless an important move since it frees the spiritual poem from the idol of transcendence and returns it to the material world and the body, to the site of actual, rather than imagined, experience, cognition and struggle.[42] My reading of Taggart is perhaps not significantly different from O’Leary’s and may be no more than a quibble, just another instance in the poetry world of the narcissism of small differences. But if Taggart is a spiritual poet (and he is) his spirituality, as I read it, is messianic — on the way to God, waiting in the hope of a God who may be and who may come, as Richard Kearney puts it. For Kearney, the eschatological God replaces the onto-theological God. The former, he writes, “possibilizes our world from out of the future, from the hoped-for eschaton.”[43] This messianic god is defined by desire rather than presence. “To want to be a saint” is more important than actually being a saint (whatever that may be). Taggart’s posture here calls to mind Tarrou’s eloquent ambition in Camus’s The Plague: “Can one be a saint without God? — that’s the problem, in fact the only problem I’m up against today.”[44] To quest for a God who comes after God, a post-metaphysical God, a weak God whose potential for redemption manifests itself more as possibility than an actuality, is more powerful than a God who merely is, static and inert, absolute and sovereign.[45]

O’Leary’s reading may over-rely on its appeal to hypostasis, but it also goes far beyond that, seeing in Taggart’s work a compelling instance of breath movement drawn from Pseudo-Dionysius’s tract on negative theology, The Divines Names, and Coltrane’s practice of circular breathing, “a technique of playing the saxophone … in which the player maintains a steady impulse of air moving through the horn,” even on the in-breath, so that the horn is continually issuing sound.[46] This kind of circular breathing finds a parallel in the yogic breath cycling practiced by the Eastern Orthodox sect of hesychasts, the most well-known example of which is the Jesus Prayer. The Jesus Prayer, familiar to readers of Salinger’s Franny and Zooey (and indeed, to readers of O’Leary’s own incandescent poetry, which draws from The Philokalia), and elaborated on in the anonymously authored Russian text, The Way of a Pilgrim, derives from Paul’s command to the Thessalonians: “pray without ceasing.” The prayer itself is quite simple: “Lord Jesus Christ, have mercy on me.”[47] As the spiritual advisor of the unnamed narrator explains: “The continuous interior Prayer of Jesus is a constant uninterrupted calling upon the divine Name of Jesus with the lips, in the spirit, in the heart.”[48]

“With the lips.” The practice of prayer may eventually take internal root, but first it must start with the lips, in the body, not the spirit, as an uninterrupted form of speech. It’s spoken, sung, chanted — played

To go down to raise to go down to raise to go to down the
ladder to go down as taught as dance steps taught by the master[49]

run lines from “Giant Steps,” while in “Peace on Earth” one quatrain follows a similar pattern:

To lift up to go singing

 to hold hands with men and women

 to sing and hold hands with the children

 to go forward as a chorus without burden[50]


What links the Jesus Prayer to Coltrane’s sheets of sound to Taggart’s artful cycle of repetitions is not mystical as such. It is sound waves. “All sounding bodies,” the German physicist Hermann von Helmholtz states, “are in a state of vibration … any series of impulses which produces a vibration of air will, if repeated with sufficient rapidity, generate sound. This sound becomes a musical tone when such rapid impulses recur with perfect regularity and in precisely equal times.”[51] It’s worth noting, in this context, that Helmholtz’s theory of the conservation of energy was the first serious attempt to contest the widely held view that the animating source of muscle tissue was some immaterial spirit. Like the Jesus Prayer, “Giant Steps” cannot occur in the soundless realm of the hypostatic; it is an event of the body and its singular power derives from this.

A poetics of the standing wave is intensely vibratory. It is marked by a devotion to the sound of the poem as it gradually unravels the semantic, sense-making mechanics of language into the semiotic musicality of language’s body, as these lines from Standing Wave attest to:

it is a poem about singing about reasons for singing
reasons one of the reasons for singing
the reason was to light the most quiet light
the reason was to light the light that was radiantia
radiantia that was a singing light in darkness[52]

“Giant Steps,” then, offers something like a poetic model combining the uninterrupted prayer of the hesychasts and Coltrane’s shimmering sheets of sound. Taggart’s use of repetition, his control of cadence, generates Gitler’s “density of texture,” its thickness and complexity, its sense of continuous flow. Such comparisons, of course, only carry so far. As Mark Scroggins reminds us, a poem cannot make words do the work of notes; it cannot produce pitch or the harmony that results from multiple notes simultaneously laid over one another. But like music, it takes place as a singular event in the speaking of it, carrying the power to waken men from nightmare. Taggart’s deep affiliation with Zukofsky anchors his spiritual yearning to a materialist, or immanentist, poetics of sound. Yet while Taggart is not, strictly speaking, a sound poet, ala Kurt Schwitters, he does, as Burt Kimmelman observes, use a staggered syntax of “overlapping waves of clauses … to direct our attention toward the sheer materiality of the words themselves.”[53] Taggart’s emphasis on sound, derived from Zukofsky and Coltrane, is just as motivated by a desire for social justice as it is the sacred. “Giant Steps,” at any rate, is a poem that wants to interrupt the tyranny of homogeneity that is historical consciousness by signaling another mode of relation language.

It may seem perverse to cite Theodor Adorno in this context, for whom jazz was only part of the phantasmagoria of modernity, the lulling background music of the culture industry’s manufacture of a “perennial sameness” in which “fashion enthrones itself as something lasting.”[54] But as J. Bradley Robinson has illuminatingly argued, the reactions to Adorno’s attacks on jazz are based on two misconceptions: “first, that it referred to what we regard today as jazz, and second, that the music it referred to was American.”[55] Adorno’s poor reception of jazz was based on Weimar republic dance hall bands of the 1920s and never really moved beyond that, even after he was exiled in America. This alone is not quite sufficient to counter his hostility toward such an aesthetically vibrant form.[56]

Nevertheless, it’s worth considering some other remarks he made on music since they offer another way to understand Taggart’s jazz poetics. In his beguiling fragment on music and language, Adorno notes that:

Music resembles a language … [but] is not identical with language … anyone who takes it literally will be seriously misled … music resembles language in the sense that it is a temporal sequence of articulated sounds which are more than just sounds. They say something, often something human.[57]

And yet, he advises:

The language of music is quite different from the language of intentionality. It contains a theological dimension. What it has to say is simultaneously revealed and concealed. Its Idea is the divine Name which has been given shape. It is demythologized prayer, rid of efficacious magic. It is the human attempt, doomed as ever, to name the Name, not to communicate meanings.[58]

This naming of the Name as such, a concept Adorno borrows from Benjamin’s early essay “On the Language of Men and Language as Such,” is only an idea of the divine, a yearning gesture made toward an absent, impossible, and necessary grace. As Benjamin notes, “naming is that by which nothing beyond it is communicated, and in which language itself communicates itself absolutely. In naming the mental entity that communicates itself is language.”[59] This naming by which naming names its own condition is semiotic and material. Yet it also leads to or opens up an experience of language that is outside of language; neither nonsense nor mysticism, it is something else altogether.

Taggart’s messianic poetics works the seam between two antithetical positions, forcing us to think the aporia of their relationship, the necessity of reconciling them and the impossibility of doing so. “To want to be a saint … to go down to raise”: this shuttling motion between dream and nightmare, song and history, drives the poem’s urgent momentum toward a resolution that is hoped for rather than achieved. “To raise men from nightmare” with a horn, or a song, is the project still to come, always to come — the continual task of the poem, which takes place in an arena mapped, on the one side, by Adorno’s grim assessment that, “No universal history leads from savagery to humanitarianism, but there is one leading from the slingshot to the megaton bomb,”[60] and the other by Martin Luther King, Jr.’s utopian insistence that “the arc of the moral universe is long, but that it bends toward justice.”[61] For Taggart, writing two decades after Coltrane and well after the crest of the civil rights movement, the challenge of taking giant steps toward peace on earth begins with the small assertions the poem can make. Or as he puts it in “In True Night”:

Of the constant song I keep some of the words

 Some of the basic words of the song in the air

                                                                    To dance

 To dance lily-flower dance and forget the steps

 To sing the song beyond all songs on the radio.[62]



1. John Taggart, Is Music, ed. Peter O’Leary (Port Townsend, WA: Copper Canyon, 2010), 253.

2. Taggart,  Songs of Degrees: Essays on Contemporary Poetry and Poetics (Tuscaloosa: University of Alabama Press, 1994), 188.

3. Jennifer D. Ryan, Post-Jazz Poetics: A Social History (New York: Palgrave Macmillan, 2010), 7.

4. Taggart, Songs of Degrees, 180.

5. Ibid., 190.

6. Taggart, Is Music, 44.

7. Ibid., 101.

8. Ibid., 104.

9. Gilles Deleuze, Difference and Repetition, trans. Paul Patton (New York: Columbia University Press, 1994), 1.

10. Jacques Derrida and Ornette Coleman, “The Other’s Language: Jacques Derrida Interviews Ornette Coleman, June 23, 1997,” trans. Timothy Murphy, Genre 37, no. 2 (Summer 2004): 323.

11. Nat Hentoff, “John Coltrane,” in Reading Jazz: A Gathering of Autobiography, Reportage, and Criticism from 1919 to Now, ed. Robert Gottlieb (New York: Pantheon Books, 1996), 622.

12. Ibid., 627.

13. Sascha Feinstein, Jazz Poetry: From the 1920s to the Present (Westport, CT: Greenwood Press, 1997), 140.

14. David Ake, Jazz Cultures (Berkeley: University of California Press, 2002), 128.

15. Ted Gioia, The History of Jazz (New York: Oxford University Press, 2011), 299.

16. Gary Giddins and Scott Deveaux, Jazz (New York: Norton, 2009),427.

17. Lewis Porter, John Coltrane: His Life and Music (Ann Arbor: University of Michigan Press, 1997), 138.

18. Qtd. in Meta DuEwa Jones, The Muse Is Music: Jazz Poetry from the Harlem Renaissance to the Spoken Word (Urbana: University of Illinois Press, 2011), 170.

19. Eric Nisenson, Ascension: John Coltrane and His Quest (New York: St. Martin’s Press, 1993), 73.

20. Jones, The Muse Is Music, 88.

21. Louis Zukofsky, A Test of Poetry (Middletown, CT: Wesleyan University Press, 2000), 12.

22. Taggart, Songs of Degrees, 86–89.

23. Zukofsky, A Test of Poetry, 90.

24. Taggart, Songs of Degrees, 145.

25. Ibid., 113.

26. If melody must be attended to in a way that asks the poet to think with things, through a devotional process of perception, just how far can we ask it to carry us along? Tracing it on from Pound’s principle of melopoeia, Mark Scroggins points to a fundamental confusion among poets who apply the seductive analogical rhetoric of melody to the spoken word of the poem. Poets have long been fond of mapping musical forms onto the lyric. Bunting claims it began with Spenser. But as Scroggins, a musician himself notes, “melopoeia is not identical to music” (Louis Zukofsky and the Poetry of Knowledge [Tuscaloosa: Alabama University Press, 1998], 172). Because words must entrain themselves, occurring in a poem in discrete time units, “the harmonization of simultaneous notes” available to musical composers, is simply not possible in a poem. Yet this metaphorical connection persists and retains its power because of the potentiality contained within the idea of simultaneity and multiplicity. This yearning of the poem to be transformed into pure music is messianic inasmuch as it interrupts language’s common function of communication.

27. Taggart, Songs of Degrees, 23.

28. Marjorie Perloff, Wittgenstein’s Ladder: Poetic Language and the Strangeness of the Ordinary (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1999), 210.

29. Perloff, introduction to Songs of Degrees, xi.

30. Taggart, Is Music, 47.

31. Walter Benjamin, Illuminations, ed. Hannah Arendt, trans. Harry Zohn (New York: Schocken Books, 1969), 263.

32. Peter Osborne, The Politics of Time: Modernity and Avant-Garde (London: Verso, 1995), 150.

33. Taggart, Is Music, 47.

34. Ibid., 44.

35. Gilles Deleuze, The Fold, trans. Tom Conley (Minneapolis: Minnesota University Press, 1992), 34.

36. Nat Hentoff, “John Coltrane,” in Reading Jazz, ed. Robert Gottlieb (New York: Vintage, 1996), 622.

37. Peter O’Leary, “Peace on Earth?: John Taggart’s Poem in Circular Motion,” XCP no. 10 (2002), 88.

38. Ibid.

39. Zukofsky, Prepositions +: The Collected Critical Essays (Hanover, New Hampshire: Wesleyan University Press/University Press of New England, 2001), 15.

40. In book 5 of The Enneads, Plotinus explains that the One is comprised of three hypostases, consisting of the self-causing and absolute One itself, the Intellectual Principle, and the Soul. The latter two emanate or radiate from the One. This structure lent itself to the Christian doctrine of the Trinity: that God was Three Persons-in-One. This awkward scheme tries to answer to the gap between the world of embodied experience, where motion and decay exist, and a fetishized Absolute of eternal non-motion. See Plotinus, The Enneads, trans. Stephen MacKenna (New York: Penguin Books, 1991), 359.

41. Theodor Adorno, The Jargon of Authenticity, trans. Knut Tarnowski and F. Will (Evanston, IL: Northwestern University Press, 1973), 162.

42. Roland Barthes, The Rustle of Language, trans. Richard Howard (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1989), 50.

43. Richard Kearny, The God Who May Be: A Hermeneutics of Religion (Bloomington: University of Indiana Press, 2001), 1. Kearney does not go so far as to reject the hypostatic nature of Christ’s divinity. Rather he looks to Merleau-Ponty’s model of the body-subject as “chiasmic crossing-over of visible carnality and invisible transcendence: as double but indivisible … the two natures are in one person (hypostasis)” (135). This seems to me a very willful misreading of Merleau-Ponty.

44. Albert Camus, The Plague, trans. Stuart Gilbert (New York: Vintage, 1948), 255.

45. John Caputo explores this idea in The Weakness of God: A Theology of the Event (Indiana University Press, 2006). For Caputo, event theology replaces the theology of the word, which is what I take hypostasis to subscribe to. Building on Derrida’s notion of God as a promise of the still-to-come and on Benjamin’s weak messianic force as an intervention into the past, rather than the future, Caputo articulates a post-metaphysical conception of God that answers to the suffering of history and the other rather than the empty triumphalism of the vindicated spirit.

46. O’Leary, “Peace on Earth?,” 93.

47. The Way of a Pilgrim and The Pilgrim Continues His Way, trans. R. M. French (New York: Harper, 1952), 10.

48. Ibid., 8.

49. Taggart, Is Music, 44.

50. Ibid., 61.

51. Hermann von Helmholtz, Selected Writings, ed. Russell Kahl (Wesleyan University Press, 1971), 76.

52. Taggart, Standing Wave (Providence: Lost Roads Publications, 1993), 9.

53. Burt Kimmelman, “Quantum Syntax: John Taggart’s Discrete Serialism,” Flashpoint no. 5 (2002).

54. Adorno, Prisms, trans. Samuel and Shierry Weber (Cambridge, MA: MIT Press, 1981), 123.

55. J. Bradley Robinson, “The Jazz Essays of Theodor Adorno: Some Thoughts on Jazz Reception in Weimar Germany,” Popular Music 13, no. 1 (1994): 1.

56. Robinson provides a thorough examination of how Adorno came to understand jazz as the popular music of fascism. For one thing, Adorno insisted that jazz did not originate with American blacks “in the very lowest rungs of society,” but somehow precipitated downwards from the German upper classes (19). More tellingly, Joseph Lewandowski observes that, contrary to Adorno’s call for art forms that would answer to the failure of modernity and its hopes for utopia through a strict negativity (think Beckett and Celan), “jazz is a promise of happiness that refuses to be broken … jazz is not demythologized prayer but secularized social composition” (“Adorno on Jazz and Society,” Philosophy and Social Criticism 22, no. 5 [1996]: 117). Likewise, Nick Nesbitt, in his essay “Deleuze, Adorno, and the Composition of Musical Multiplicity,” in Deleuze and Music, ed. Ian Buchanan and Marcel Swiboda (Edinburgh: Edinburgh University Press, 2004), describes Coltrane’s modal jazz as “music [that] instantiates productive, radically constituent musical subjectivity as a critique of the alienation and violence of what Toni Negri, following Spinoza, calls potestas or ‘constituted Power.’ For Coltrane, this transcendental Power lay not only in the reigning violence of Jim Crow America, but in the sedimented forms of musical expression itself” (71).

57. Adorno, Quasi una fantasia: Essays on Modern Music (London: Verso, 2012), 1.

58. Ibid., 2.

59. Walter Benjamin, Reflections, ed. Peter Demetz, trans. Edmund Jephcott (New York: Schocken Books, 1978), 318.

60. Adorno, Negative Dialectics, trans. E. B. Ashton (New York: Continuum, 1973), 320.

61. Ibid., 252.

62. Taggart, Is Music, 129.