‘My Music Is Words’
He arrived from Saturn and emerged in “The Magic City” of Birmingham, Alabama, on May 22, 1914, in the form of a child named Herman Poole Blount. He was raised by black hands in the heart of the old Confederacy under the regime of Jim Crow. The world would later know him as Sun Ra, the cosmic bandleader, the jazz innovator, the trickster/sorcerer from another dimension, but this place where he arrived on the planet was essential to who he became, however it was that he arrived there (not by “birth,” he claimed).
Sun Ra left the planet in 1993, but during his stay he distinguished himself as one of the most innovative jazz composers. His music was rooted in the core elements of jazz and blues and organized around the big band sounds of Fletcher Henderson, Count Basie, and Duke Ellington. Later he became a leading light of free jazz and the avant-garde (designations he both rejected and toyed with). He wrote and recorded incessantly and amassed an eclectic discography so vast and ambitious that it will keep archivists busy, and frustrated, for years to come. His radical ideas on music, society, and the cosmos have garnered attention from many critics. He was the subject of Robert Mugge’s documentary Sun Ra: A Joyful Noise (1980) and has been written about in numerous essays and academic works. But Sun Ra also deserves recognition for his poetry and prose writings.
“My music is words and my words are music,” Sun Ra wrote in an essay for the Black Arts Movement journal The Cricket. Reading through his written work, one sees the connections between the poems, the song lyrics, and the cosmic overtones of his space music. According to Paul Youngquist, author of A Pure Solar World: Sun Ra and the Birth of Afrofuturism (University of Texas Press, 2016), “It makes sense, then, to approach Sun Ra’s poetry as a prelude to his music. The relation between the two bodies of work is as intimate as that between two common registers of the word ‘composition’: a work of words or of sounds. Sun Ra worked in both.”
Like so many black migrants, Sun Ra left the South in 1946 and headed to Chicago. Years later he wrote “The Visitation,” a poem that was included in the landmark 1968 Black Arts Movement anthology Black Fire, edited by Amiri Baraka and Larry Neal. In it, Sun Ra reflects on his early days:
In the early days of my visitation,Black hands tended me and cared for me;I can’t forget these things.For black hearts, minds and souls love me—And even today the overtones from the fireof that love are still burning.
Behind that poem is a colorful, troubled childhood in segregated Alabama. John Szwed artfully chronicles these early days in Space Is the Place: The Lives and Times of Sun Ra (1997). Little Herman displayed an otherworldly talent for music. By age 11, he had taught himself to read musical notation. The adults didn’t believe him. “That boy’s just playing by ear,” they said. Then they put new sheet music in front of him, and he played that too. He possessed an extraordinary sensitivity to sound and language. His musical career began with jazz bands in high school and, later, in college at historically black Alabama A&M, where he briefly studied to become a teacher. He was also a voracious reader and devoted writer. As Szwed writes, “It was his constant and serious reading by which he was known in school, and by which he is remembered by surviving classmates. They speak of it in almost legendary proportions: he read while waiting in line, on the streetcars, before rehearsals, during meals.” Sun Ra’s poetry collection The Immeasurable Equation includes an astonishing bibliography of all the books he collected over his lifetime—titles on music, mythology, spiritualism, language, Egyptology, history, to name just a few of the many topics represented.
His time in Birmingham was also painful. Physically he suffered from cryptorchidism, a severe hernia that caused chronic pain throughout his life. The condition, along with his bookish tendencies, contributed to his social isolation, but it also produced in him a sense of difference and otherness that he began to appreciate and relish. He felt called to transcend the physical body and seek a higher purpose through art and music. He was a pacifist, and when he was drafted in 1941, he declared himself a conscientious objector and refused any service in World War II, a decision that landed him in jail for 39 days in Alabama and another two months in a Civilian Public Service camp in Pennsylvania. He was eventually discharged because of his physical disability. He returned to Alabama, but by 1946, he was gone again, this time for Chicago, where he played in jazz clubs and began experimenting with musical ideas beyond the forms of conventional blues and jazz. His friends always called him Sonny, but in Chicago, he officially changed his name to Le Sony’r Ra, aka Sun Ra. He became the leader of his own band, which he called the Arkestra—“because that’s the way black people say ‘orchestra,’” he quipped.
Although Szwed’s 1997 biography is still undefeated as the best narrative of Sun Ra’s life and times, two recently published books further illuminate the importance of his work and specifically point to the significance of his poetic compositions. Youngquist’s A Pure Solar World includes some analysis of Sun Ra’s poetry, and the author advocates for more intensive scholarship. Brent Hayes Edwards’s Epistrophies: Jazz and the Literary Imagination (Harvard University Press, 2017), includes an essential chapter on Sun Ra’s poetry, “The Race for Space.” Youngquist also links Sun Ra to a wide range of Afrofuturistic artists working today; it’s a group that includes Major Jackson, whose debut collection, Leaving Saturn, includes poems based on Sun Ra’s ideas, and R&B singer Solange Knowles, who recently cited Sun Ra as an influence on her work and booked the Arkestra, now led by the indefatigable 93-year-old saxophonist Marshall Allen, to open for her in a series of 2017 concerts.
In the 1960s, the book publisher Doubleday, seeking to capitalize on the audience for black literature, expressed some interest in publishing Sun Ra’s poetry, as Szwed notes, but that book never materialized. Instead, in 1972, Sun Ra gathered his poetry and self-published it in a volume titled Sun Ra: The Immeasurable Equation, under the company Infinity Inc./Saturn Research of Chicago. This was typical of the DIY style of much of the Arkestra’s recording and distribution. In 2005, James Wolf and Hartmut Geerken compiled an updated version of The Immeasurable Equation (Waitawhile Press) in a volume that featured critical essays and commentary about Sun Ra, including Edwards’s “The Race for Space.”
One standout: an occasional poem Sun Ra wrote for Esquire magazine in anticipation of the Apollo 11 moon landing on July 20, 1969. Along with pieces from the likes of Vladimir Nabokov, Anne Sexton, Isaac Asimov, and Marshall McLuhan, Esquire included a poem by the “space age jazz poet”:
Reality has touched against mythHumanity can move to achieve the impossibleBecause when you’ve achieved one impossible the othersCome together to be with their brother, the first impossibleBorrowed from the rim of the mythHappy Space Age to You…
Edwards notes the repetition of myth and impossible in the poem, two words that often recur in the Sun Ra lexicon. For Sun Ra, the impossibility that seems inconceivable, yet must be achieved, is the very survival of humanity. The impossible that he was referring to relates to the scientific sustainability of human life as well as solutions for humanity’s violent social divisions and injustices.
Black Fire included eight poems by Sun Ra, evidence of his relevance to the pivotal Black Arts Movement, which brought forth important theorizations of black art and was specifically preoccupied with the historical significance of black music. Those in the Black Arts Movement were among the first to take Sun Ra seriously as a writer and musician. He became part of a cluster of black artists on New York City’s Lower East Side in 1962 when his commune of monkishly devoted musicians moved into a house on East 3rd Street. The writers who orbited around him during that time in New York included Amiri Baraka, Ishmael Reed, David Henderson, and Henry Dumas. Reed’s poem “I Am a Cowboy in the Boat of Ra” incorporates some of the same Afrocentric mythology that Sun Ra was drawing from. Dumas was a Sun Ra protégé whose own Afro-surrealistic writing was inspired by spending time around the Arkestra. Dumas and Sun Ra recorded a conversation together at Slug’s Saloon; it survives in a 1966 track called “The Ark and the Ankh.”
Many of Sun Ra’s poems are phonetic. He uses wordplay, association, and the unraveling of homophones to explore the sounds of words and the multiple meanings they can produce. He used to introduce himself to the crowds at Arkestra concerts: “Some call me Mr. Ra. Others call me Mr. Re. You can call me Mr. Mystery.” In 1971, he taught a course at the University of California, Berkeley, that he called “The Black Man in the Cosmos.” A recording of one lecture survives. Listeners can hear him deconstructing the language in real time, the sound of the chalk tapping against the board as he lectures. At one point, he ruminates on the concept “black is beautiful.”
It is true that black is beautiful. It’s not ugly, the way you’ve been taught. Black is beautiful. It has many attributes. Although people associate it with death. So what? What’s greater than death? It proves its majesty every day. Everything bows down to death. … If black folks could prove that they’re good buddies with death, nobody would touch you on the planet. Nobody. When they see you coming they’d get out your way.
He often reminded people that he worked in “equations” and not “philosophy.” He believed that humanity suffered from a Babylonian confusion of language and that the best cure for this condition was in music, the universal language. In “Be-earthed,” he writes
Those who are be earthedAre be earthedBurthed or berthedThey are placedIn their place
This was one of his recurring arguments about birth and death—that to be born is to be birthed or be-earthed, and that is something that Sun Ra could not identify with as a celestial, eternal being whose home was not on planet Earth.
Admittedly, the poems can be quirky and uneven. They are mostly written in free verse with idiosyncratic organization and line breaks. Some are not really poems as much as short, playful linguistic experiments, using the poem as a vehicle for approaching sacred wisdom. In what is likely one of his earliest poems, “The Neglected Plane of Wisdom,” Sun Ra articulates this core precept that music is a universal language:
Music is a plane of wisdom, because music is a universal language, it is alanguage of honor, it is a noble precept, a gift of AiryKingdom, music is air, a universal existence…common to all theliving.Music is existence, the key to the universal language.Because it is the universal language.Freedom of Speech is Freedom of Music.
Sun Ra utilized certain recurring words and concepts: myth, impossible, equations, as Edwards has noted, and space, out, and strange—this last word is the most important in his creation of the mythological character of Sun Ra. One of the most remarkable albums in his vast discography is Strange Strings, a 1966 collective improvisation in which the Arkestra plays unusual string instruments for which the musicians had no formal training. The result is a noisy, rhythmic, and fascinating musical experiment every bit as compelling and radical as Ornette Coleman’s controversial album Free Jazz (1961). In the poetic context, the spoken word album Strange Worlds in My Mind, comprising tracks dating from 1957 to 1982, expounds on the notion of strangeness and contains an intensely whispered recitation of a poem called “I Am Strange,” which includes the following lines:
I am strangeI no longer have respect for hatefor I am stronger than hateI am contemptuous of both those whohate and those who destroyI am not a part of the world which hatesand the world which destroysI want a better world and not only do Iwant a better world,I seek to live a better lifethat I might have the right to be a part ofa better worldif I hate and destroy, I have no right tospeak of lovelove is greater than hate and I havechosen love above all else in the world
In many ways, Sun Ra was a mythological construct, an elaborate act of performance art that allowed the man to view humanity from an estranged perspective as an alien being. He hailed from another dimension and objectively observed the peculiarities of the world expressing a childlike bewilderment at the religious and philosophical ideas that people accept as conventional wisdom. To be one who does not hate or destroy is to be an outcast in a society predicated on domination, conflict, and destruction. His work can be understood as a commentary on the racial injustices of 20th-century American life, on the global devastation wrought by World War II and the atomic bomb, and on the precarious future of human beings in the atomic age, in which men and women will have to adjust to another way of thinking and being to survive. The song “Nuclear War,” with its profanely poetic chant, is one of the greatest, most underrated protest songs in American music and a warning we should all heed in these strange days.
In a 1972 poem called “The Endless Universe,” Sun Ra ponders the meaning of the universe and the place of words in it. “For what are words but words to use? Let’s take words and return.” These new books about Sun Ra, and the continued interest in his work, should further cement him as an important figure in the development of American poetry and music and strengthen the relationship between the two. He left the planet in 1993. He roams the cosmos somewhere beyond Planet Earth now, but the vibrations of his presence continue to be felt in the endless, immeasurable music and words that he left behind.
Lavelle Porter is a writer and scholar of African-American literature. He is an assistant professor of English at the New York City College of Technology (CUNY), and he is currently working on a book about academic fiction and black higher education.