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On "Crootey Songo"

Stephen E. Henderson

Kaufman’s poem suggests the scatting of the jazz vocalist, and if its form, including the length of the lines, were determined by music, one would probably be justified in calling it a song, or simply a musical composition with a minimal tone range (see Kostelanetz, The End of Intelligent Writing 373). But there are several elements that make us classify it as a poem. The first is the resemblance of these sounds to actual language, and the treatment of the forms as though they were language. The entire poem, for example, consists of three stanzas, the first containing four lines and the last two, three lines each, for a total of ten lines. Thus we have an appeal to the visual practice of arranging poetry in stanzas, with an echo of the quatrain in the first stanza, and the triplet in the last two. There are other connections also, of grammar and punctuation, that emphasize the verbal. In the passage quoted, note the commas separating the series of "words." Note, too, the implied "grammatical" distinction between "PLOG, MANGI" and "PLOG MANGI." Note the implied grammatical parallel between "ASLOOPERED" and "AKINGO LABY." It is all very clever and very funny, and it never loses the humor and satire of jazz and its folk roots. It is also the work of a highly sophisticated poet whose fabulous verbal gifts have not been fully appreciated. And as we read lines like these we sense the mingling of the conventional and the creative. We are brought in contact with puns that are part nonsense and part slang, part satire, part play. The first stanza ends with word-play: "HEDACAZ, AX -, O.O.," with the puns on the word "sax" and "sex." There is a similar playfulness at the beginning of the second stanza: "DEEREDITION, BOOMEDITION, SQUOM, SQUOM, SQUOM."

From The Line in Postmodern Poetry. Ed. Robert Frank and Henry Sayre. Copyright © 1988 by the Board of Trustees of the university of Illinois.

Maria Damon

The rhythmic and melodic fragmentation of bebop finds its verbal counterpart in Kaufman's surrealist imagery, alternately jarring and synthetic; in the breakup of language itself, as in "Oregon" and the "Abomunist Rational Anthem" / "Crootey Songo"; and in his thematic preoccupation with bebop's inherently subversive nature.

[. . . .]

To the extent that Kaufman's poetry reflects his experience with the physical pain of police brutality and drug addiction in tandem with the psychic pain of social outsiderhood, its language is made up of fragments, deconstructing back into presymbolic scraps of sound ex-pressed through outbursts of protest and play ("Crootey Songo").

[. . . .]

The "Abomunist Manifesto, by Bomkauf" satirically deconstructs what Barbara Christian has referred to as "isms": contrived attempts to regiment thought into systems, "last words" which claim authority as the only words, and which thus become implicated in such final solutions as the atomic bomb. The Manifesto issues behavioral imperatives in descriptive form:


[. . . ]


[. . .]


"Further Notes (taken from ‘Abomunismus und Religion')" are attributed to "Tom Man," whose name, a hybrid of Thomas Mann and Tom Paine (the aesthetic and the political), picks up the crucial syllable the poet left out of "Bomkauf." "Excerpts from the Lexicon Abomunon," we are told, have been compiled by "Bimgo" (Bill Margolis, another founding editor of Beatitude). A section of surrealist couplets is captioned "Boms." In the "Abomunist Rational Anthem" [also titled "Crootey Songo"] language completely disintegrates; Tom Man becomes Shakespeare's Mad Tom, a sane man in disguise to save his life:

Derrat slegelations, flo goof babereo
Sorash sho dubies, wago, wailo, wailo.

Though it is possible to decode this poem to some degree ("derrat" is "tarred" backwards; "slegelations" elides "sludge" and "legislations," indicating Kaufman's assessment of United States justice; "flow," "goof," "dubies," and "wailo" evoke jazz/Beat/drug culture, etc.), the point is not to do so, but to experience the disorientation of babble. This type of linguistic play recalls Langston Hughes's "Syllabic Poem," a songlike arrangement of nonsense syllables with which he intended to deflate the pretentiousness typical of poetry readings; he wrote to Countee Cullen, who was to perform it in his absence, that "the poetry of sound . . .marks the beginning of a new era ... of revolt against the trite and outworn language of the understandable." He suggests that it would lead the literati to "discuss the old question as to whether ... poets are ever sane. I doubt if we are." Though Hughes calls the whole notion "amusing," another African-diaspora poet foregrounds the militant purposiveness of such nonsense poetry: Césaire explicitly articulates the project of "breaking the oppressor's language" by using it to, and beyond, capacity. This deconstructive syllabification is also reminiscent of scat singing, the improvised nonsense syllables invented and used for sonic pleasure by jazz vocalists with names like King Pleasure, who influenced Kaufman. Ishmael Reed chose the "Rational Anthem" under another title, "Crootey Songo," as the epigraph for the first volume of the Yardbird Reader.

These outbursts of fragmented language joining sorrow, defiance, and (king) pleasure suggest the immediacy of the body and its expulsive processes. In the out-of-print broadside Does the Secret Mind Whisper? "clouds of coughed sorrow" echo the opening line of Kaufman's first book: "I have folded my sorrows into the mantle of summer night"; ("I Have Folded My Sorrows," SCL 3); likewise the weakest personality of the five in the poem "Cincophrenicpoet" "cough[s] poetry in revenge." (SCI, 49) The poet is a "cough-man" whose poetry, as a bodily function, bursts from his innards as if involuntarily, evoking the sharp and rhythmic out-breaths punctuating the work songs of Southern chain gangs. The identification of sorrow and poetry as literal "gut reactions" to oppression resonates with W E. B. DuBois’s discussion of the spiritual "sorrow songs" as the almost instinctive and visceral expression of a tyrannized culture (see especially his transcription of the song, of unknown language, his "grandmother’s grandmother" passed down to him, and note its kinship to Hughes's poem); and with Frederick Douglass's impassioned assertion that "[slaves singing ... words which to many would seem unmeaning jargon, but which, nevertheless, were full of meaning to themselves ... breathed the prayer and complaint of souls boiling over with the bitterest anguish. Every tone was a ... prayer to God for deliverance from chains." Kaufman's unmeaning jargon differs sharply from meaninglessness. His unmeaning – as in unnaming – aims to destroy actively the comfort of meaning, to burst its chains in service of the furious, spasmodic play of jazz energy. His jargon is both the special code of initiated hipsters (the underground cultural counterpart to an elite of educated expertise) and the original "jargon": etymologically, the babble of (yard)birds, gurgling--the bubbling up and over of untamable sound. Julia Kristeva has used Artaud’s term "expectoration" (kauf-ing) to describe this boiling over, a pulsating gush of poetic language as so much bodily excess that "'creates' [and] ... reinvents the real" through the physical contortions of expulsion and release. However, the ascetic and fragmented ecstacies of kaufman’s unmeaning jargon partake of a tradition inflected as much by social and physical suffering as by presymbolic jouissance. Perhaps James Brown's signature ex tempore ejaculations best epitomize this ambiguous pleasure-pain, especially during the militant "Say It Loud, I'm Black and I’m Proud," which he pierces with "ooee--baby--you're killing me," a cry usually of sexual delight turned in context to social outrage.

From The Dark End of the Street: Margins in American Vanguard Poetry. Copyright © 1993 by the Regents of the University of Minnesota.

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