Stephen Jonas – Exercises For Ear (1968)


“First published by Ferry Press in 1968, long out of print, Stephen Jonas’ Exercises for Ear was rescued in 1994 when Talisman House republished the complete book in Stephen Jonas, Selected Poems. Over the years I’ve wanted to extend the discussion of Exercises for Ear that I began in my introduction to that Selected, to look more closely at particulars, not-so particulars, local, not-so local, and to jump into the mix anywhere I choose—amidst characters and dramas of a tawdry, highbrow late 50s through mid-60s milieu—to listen to songs of Boston gone. To begin, these are not poems in a traditional sense. Gerrit Lansing has called them etudes. They are bits and pieces—some complete units, others trail off—snippets of conversations, tongue-in-cheek shouts, persona poems, rants, quick snapshots of Boston above and below ground. If anything, they are a marvelous whole, yet individually they’re more like riffs a sax player is rehearsing on the Esplanade with his case open for coins. No two alike. Melodies of hustlers, junkies, lovers, hipsters and not so hip—sneaky peeks, steamy manhole covers. Self taught, Jonas’ encyclopedic interests informed his writing. In terms of poetry, William Carlos Williams is central, especially in the Exercises for Ear. From Williams he learned that the local is universal. He learned the value of using American speech idioms. He learned that anything and anyone could be subject of a poem. Olson’s sense of Projective Verse inspired Jonas too. From Olson he gleaned the significance of the poet’s breath as means of composing and mapping out the poem. That sense of breath must have impressed Jonas, particularly in relation to his passion for jazz—the breath his idols Coleman Hawkins and Lester Young had to transfer through their horns. It’s like he’s giving a workshop, all sound and sense. Referring to the Exercises in a letter to his friend Raffael De Gruttola, he wrote: ‘…they’re swinging & let’s hope once & for all the ‘jazz poetry hassle’ be resolved. The methodology that hugs the scene like Zukofsky’s vowels to necks of consonants’. Jazz is central to Jonas’ aesthetic. Spontaneity and improvisation mean each Exercise can and should go anywhere. It’s not that he wrote and settled for first draft. Jonas worked and revised them in order to affect that sense of spontaneity. It’s less about hitting the perfect note than getting at essential sounds and emotions. Jonas began working with older poems and new material some time around the mid-sixties. Mostly short, to the quick, lively riffs, his intention was nothing short of synthesizing urban idioms, poetry and jazz. …”
“A Formal Rack/-et”: On Stephen Jonas’ Exercises for Ear
Arcana: A Stephen Jonas Reader
Poetry Foundation
Fassett Studio Recording (Audio)

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