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This essay will focus on the tenorman passage from “On the Road” and the poem “For Sidney Bechet” from “The Whitsun Weddings” to explore how Jack Kerouac and Philip Larkin both use language to allow the reader to experience the music they write about. Their language is mimetic of music. However, whilst Kerouac is concerned only with an individual performance and the atmosphere of the night, Larkin comments on the more universal aspect of music and its ability to transcend sorrow and evoke happiness or, at least, relief.
Kerouac’s language is mimetic of the music heard in the bar. He lends instruments their own voice, with non-denotative dialogue like “EE-YAH!” and “EE-de-lee-yah!”. This provides the reader with a more pro-active experience of the trumpet’s music, and the modulation between capitalized and uncapitalized words mimics the dynamics of music, allowing readers to imagine the capitalized “YAH” as forte and the uncapitalized “yah” as piano. Furthermore, the dashes which break up the musical phrases (“ee-de-lee-yah”) convey the sense of a rhythmical beat to the trumpet’s music. Kerouac also uses onomatopoeic language (crack, rattle-ti-boom, crack”) to evoke the sound of the drums. The mimesis extends to the sung words later on in this passage, and Kerouac extends words to mimic the way in which the singer would hold on to a certain note (“Ma-a-a-ake it dream-y for dan-cing”). Again, dashes break up the words, providing the rhythm of the music.
Similarly, Larkin’s language mimics the jazz he describes. The first 12 lines of the poem are split into 4 stanzas, each of 3 lines in length. However, an examination of the rhyme scheme suggests that the lines would more naturally fit into 3 quatrains with an ABAB rhyme (“shakes, water, wakes, Quarter…quadrilles, shares, Storyvilles, chairs”). The dissonance between the visual structure of the poem and the aural structure of the poem mimics the dissonance frequently experienced in jazz music, such as in syncopated swing-rhythms in which a rhythm which is irregular is transposed on to a regular beat beneath. This idea of syncopation is continued in the poem’s meter. The poem is written in pentameter, with 5 clearly stressed syllables per line. However, the rhythm of each foot in the poem is irregular, with iambs (“That note”), anapaests (“narrowing”) and amphibrachs (“the water”). The irregular feet are transposed on to a regular pentameter, mimetic of the syncopation frequently found in the jazz music the poem is about. Larkin also mimics the musical idea of dynamics, but in a different way to Kerouac. Instead of using capitalization, he uses increasing length of phrases. “Oh…thing!” is half a line long; “mute…license” is a line in length; and “grouping…fads” is two and a half lines long. As the phrases build in length, they mimic the rising volume of a musical idea, with the cross-stanza enjambment of “price” emphasizing the musical flow of the language.
Kerouac also establishes the atmosphere of a performance in his extract. Initially, the atmosphere is frantic and excited, whilst the jazz band plays its erratic music. Kerouac evokes this through his use of present participles like “racing” and “yelling”, “bawling” and “clapping”. The use of asyndeton adds to the sense of chaos “crazy floppy women…bottles clanked”, and the omission of words like “the” (“in back of the joint”) adds to the sense of pace. Furthermore, colloquial language like “didn’t give a damn” deconstructs any sense of order or formality in the bar. However, as the style of the music shifts, so too does the tone of the language, evoking the change of atmosphere. The short statement “things quietened down a minute” marks this tone-shift, and the following sentences disrupt the flow of the narrative by digressing with a visual presentation of the “tenorman”. Kerouac interpolates the reported reaction of the audience with the song lyrics to present a real-time response to the music, as well as significantly slowing down the pace of the passage in doing so. The words “Close your eyes” would no doubt be sung in immediate succession, but Kerouac outs in the phrase “and blew it…and on out” to slow down the delivery and postpone the final “Ey-y-y-y-y-es!”, for a dramatic finish. The final two declarative statements confirm the more serious and calm atmosphere of the bar in the passage’s second half.
Larkin instead focuses on the universal effect of music, rather than its effect in a single finite venue. He attaches great importance to every single note, with similes comparing it to a reflection of an entire city (“New Orleans”) saying that music is an experience shared by “everyone”. The poem’s focus shifts after the 4th stanza to reflect this, no longer focusing on Bechet’s music but on its effect on the poet. He says that Bechet’s “voice”, his music, falls on him “as they say love should”. In this line, Larkin comments not only the romanticism of existence, but also suggests that music allows one to obtain that felicitous state to which love is fabled to grant us access. The iconoclastic simile “like an enormous yes” is interesting, as the word “yes” connotes the idea of freedom; music for Larkin provides him with a sense of liberty. The final stanza explicitly details the message that music is “good” and “scatters…grief and pity”, and it is a line shorter than all the others, mimetic of the idea that music allows us to break free, by breaking free from the poem’s structure.
Both writers therefore exploit the mimetic aspects of language to evoke a literary experience of music for the reader. But their presentations of music itself differ. For Kerouac, music is a facilitator which dictates the atmosphere of a company; for Larkin, it is a means by which we can transcend the constrains of sadness, and attain the emotional heights which even love fails to reach.
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