Buddy Bolden and Poetry

It was a music that had so little wisdom you wanted to clean nearly every note...
— Michael Ondaatje, Coming Through Slaughter

It is not an uncommon occurrence that I should find myself sitting or walking somewhere, and I hear or see something and immediately feel an urge to write about it (hence, the creative writing degree I’ve chosen to pursue). It can be the urge to write about a subject as monumental as going off to college, or something as mundane as the sight of a pigeon sitting contentedly upon a train. From the significant to the everyday, the world around me seems to beg to be written about. And when it begs, I try to comply.

Since arriving in New Orleans, the world has been especially loud—especially needy. And I’ve tried to be receptive, but we’ve been bouncing from one place to the next, from one emotion to another, from one author to a different one, and I’ve discovered that it has been hard to keep up. I scratch out a few lines, about those random subjects that the world seems to make so noticeable to me, but before I have really had time to finish the lines or make them better, another subject is pervading my senses and altering the course of my pen. As a result, nothing very promising has resulted from the poetry I’ve tried to write on this Bookpacking trip thus far. 

I’ve been a little disappointed about this, but I have come to a new revelation through our studies of the jazz pioneer Buddy Bolden, who we read about in Coming Through Slaughter and watched a biography of in the movie Bolden. Buddy Bolden played as he went. His music was “formless,” composed of “accidental notes,” because he was “tormented by order.” He had no sheet music to follow, nor any one tune that he rehearsed and played over and over. There is not a single, complete song that is attributed to be his. Instead, he improvised every time, playing crazy notes and little blurbs that didn’t seem to go together, but at the same time blended into one another so harmoniously that an entire new genre of music was inspired by it. People grew to love what Bolden played—those wild little blurbs of song that somehow strung together into something beautiful. I thought about Bolden’s music, jumping from one melody to the next, and, as he describes, filling different pockets of space in the air and assuming different shades of colors. It somehow reminded me of my attempts to write during this trip. I thought that, if art such as Bolden’s, which was so unconventional and so all-over-the-place, can still be praised as genius and heralded as the foundation of much more beauty to come, then maybe my poetry can be seen in a similar favorable light.

Here are some very-unfinished lines of poetry that I’ve scratched down throughout this trip. I’m trying to be more proud of them.

sleeping bag on the seashore

my ears strain to hear sirens

of both definitions

since both might remind me of home

I lie and listen beneath

a dark sky illuminated only

by the oil derricks in the distance

and not by the stars


I am miserable at sunrise

the upcoming sun

is too impressive of a sight

for me to possibly compete

I lie hidden in the dark

i watched a bird

fly through the french quarter

sent frantically a-winging

by the cry of a tenor sax

can this bird make it through the city

even in so heavy of air?

where the sounds of life float higher

than he’d ever dare to soar?

can this bird escape the iron

working balcony to sky

enclosing all life with the sound of the horns

preventing you ever from leaving?

blurry photo of Nighttime New Orleans, taken from the Ferry returning from Algiers.

blurry photo of Nighttime New Orleans, taken from the Ferry returning from Algiers.

you have an october brain

cobwebby like a corner

foggy as dawn and dusk

cheerful yes but also beware

that monsters there will snarl and scorn

should you wander into their lair

the shadows jumping from the gas lamps

compete against each other to catch

the corners of my worried eyes

Conclusion: You don’t need to follow a formula in order to produce something great. These are my blurbs. My attempts at making music. First drafts of sheet music that I don’t ever intend on using, because the best performances come when you’re not reading from a script. They are unfinished; they aren’t what they’re “supposed” to be. They are unimpressive scraps of poetry that never make a completed song…but having become inspired by Buddy Bolden and his aberrant and offbeat creation of genius, I think that might be okay.