Drumming to Hughes, McKay (8/8)

Both McKay and Hughes mimic rhythmic elements in their respective pieces and in doing so mirror the turbulent syncopation and rhythmically linear patterns of 1920s jazz. With this framework, I’ll address two representative poems that parallel with aspects of early jazz/blues drumming and label them accordingly:  

Choked Cymbals in “Subway Wind”:  

The popular drum tonality of a ‘choked cymbal’ is created by catching (with one’s hand) a cymbal directly after striking it, effectively ‘choking’ its vibration and thus preventing the note from ringing out. In McKay’s “Subway Wind,” the first three lines play with alliteration and consonance in similar ways–the sharp sounds of “great gaunt gut” ensure the reader quickly chops the sounds at the phonetic dental position, bringing it to an abrupt stop, the ‘tuh’ sound mirroring the catch of something akin to a small 8” splash cymbal. The plosive movements of the repeating ‘G’ sound function similarly. Now, one can envision a drummer ending the smooth flow of McKay’s first half of the line with three heavy down beats, a cymbal catch on each. After the silky flow of ”From down, down through the city’s” the reader is smacked with the striking, “Great! Gaunt! Gut!” (McKay 1). McKay, then, brings a razor-edged end to these lines with the last two words both linguistically and rhetorically mirroring a jazz trap set with the words, “breath cut” (McKay 3). As the reader’s breath is quite literally cut through the phonetic construction and shortness of “cut,” McKay’s poem employs a blunt stop such as a drummer would, giving a cesura for the reader to embody a clear ending before riding back into the longer vowels and more drawn-out syllables of his next verse.  

Brushstrokes in “Boogie: 1. A.M.” 

Most often performed in a circular fashion, a drummer will push a tool called ‘the brush,’ which sometimes are metal strands–and often are nylon–a complete 360 degrees around the snare drum, giving a faster, closer push on the last half of the circle, reproducing the traditional jazz ride/swing beat. In this, the slower unstressed begins the beat, and the faster stress ends it. This technique presents a sort of ‘drag’ feel that plays just behind the pocket of a steady, 4/4 rhythm, providing a slower, less frenetic feel than traditional swing tunes but still pushing the song forward on its down beats nonetheless. For “Boogie: 1 .A.M,” Hughes splices every two lines in one full circle sweep. Each line begins on the ‘upbeat’ and is carried down by the latter half of the line. Indicatively, Hughes employs only two feet of iambic in each line. If the reader wished to align the poem to a metronome, they would have to wait on certain lines to finish his cadence due to their length. Hughes further makes use of the dash between ‘cat’ and ‘gut’ to separate the line “Of cat-gut lace” (Hughes 8) into two halves; the first half reflects a slow pull on the first iamb: “of cat” (the first 180 degrees of the snare) and the second pushes the latter two words to a quicker stop–” gut lace” (8), or the conclusion of the brush’s journey. This way, each two lines becomes a complete circle, giving the reader an opportunity to embody the “boogie-woogie rumble” (3) themselves.