Published in 1920 as a part of ‘Smoke and Steel’, ‘Jazz Fantasia‘ allows Carl Sandburg to describe the rise of black African-American culture in downtown Chicago, during the industrialization of the US. Sandburg uses music and onomatopoeia to reflect on the volatile atmosphere of the community.
Explore Jazz Fantasia
‘Jazz Fantasia‘ explores the rising popularity of jazz music within African-American communities in the US.
Carl Sandburg wrote ‘Jazz Fantasia‘ in order to describe the strong emotions he felt while listening to the genre. In 1920s Chicago, jazz was far from being considered music; yet Sandburg writes about his experience and the fact that it is an integral part of the Black culture of industrializing America.
You can read the full poem here.
Structure, Form, and Rhyme Scheme
The poem is split into 4 stanzas, with 17 lines in total. The separation of stanzas communicates the different aspects of the Black communities – namely the rise and ownership of jazz music as their creation, the industrialization of the US, life in urban environments (namely Chicago), and the racial injustice that was rampant during the Segregation Era (1900-1939).
Having been inspired by Walt Whitman‘s prosaic writing style, Carl Sandburg wrote ‘Jazz Fantasia’ in free verse – it has neither a meter nor defined rhyme scheme. Despite not having the aforementioned qualities of a poem, it is still very lyrical. Sandburg intended to have the poem be read aloud and the combined use of assonance, consonance, and onomatopoeia make it a favorite among slam poets.
‘Jazz Fantasia’ explores the themes of strong emotions, portrayed via metaphors using musical instruments, the rise of jazz as a genre of music, the rise and ownership of black culture in the US, the development of industrial America and urban life, and racial injustice, resulting in crime and poverty.
The theme of crime and poverty is well explored in the 3rd stanza, in which the sound imagery describes two people having a fight on top of the staircase.
Onomatopoeia: a technique in which a chosen word phonetically represents the sound it describes (e.g. ‘Bang!’, ‘Boom’ etc). It is used continuously throughout the poem to portray the cacophony and chaos of the city.
- Metaphor: a technique using which a comparison is made without the use of prepositions (e.g. ‘like’, ‘as’, etc). Sandburg uses metaphors when describing emotions.
- Simile: a technique using which a comparison is made using prepositions ( e.g. ‘like’, ‘as’, etc). Sandburg uses similes as a way to connect with the common man – he refers to familiar experiences of the working class.
- Free verse: a form of poetry that lacks both meter and rhyme scheme. Walt Whitman‘s influence on Sandburg is clear in the long, prose-like lines of the stanzas.
- Assonance: a poetic technique in which adjacent words have similar sounds, achieved by repeatedly using the same vowels. Sandburg commonly uses ‘U’, ‘A’, and ‘I’.
- Consonance: a poetic technique in which adjacent words sound similar, achieved by repeatedly using the same consonants. Sandburg commonly uses ‘D’, ‘B’, and ‘S’.
Speaker & Punctuation
‘Jazz Fantasia‘ is quite simplistically written. This is done deliberately to reflect the brutal starkness of the time period and the beginning of community development. Moreover, the writing and punctuation style reflect the poverty of the Black society at the time. Furthermore, Sandburg uses simple vernacular and imagery to relate to this audience.
Sandburg uses full stops to signify finality and commas while listing instruments, and emotions, as well as to create a chronological pattern of events. He deliberately refrains from using a polysyndeton, instead of using a multitude of commas to increase the rhythm of the lines, signifying the rising tension.
Sandburg uses the second-person point throughout the poem, making it more personal, which lets the reader know that he had a personal connection with the Black community. That is, indeed, true: while Sandburg dealt with extreme poverty, and was commonly referred to as a ‘hobo’, he has worked alongside Black men in low-paying jobs, such as shoe-shining. Hence, during that time, he has learned to not only learn but appreciate the community that was developing during the period of extreme social segregation.
Sandburg’s use of second-person shows the encouragement he gave the musicians and the community as a whole. While he supported and uplifted Black African-Americans in his writing and personal life, his continuous use of ‘you’ shows the separation that inevitably existed between him and the ethnic group – he can only watch from a distance.
Drum on your drums, batter on your banjoes,
sob on the long cool winding saxophones.
Go to it, O jazzmen.
The first stanza of ‘Jazz Fantasia‘ has 3 lines and has multiple literary techniques. Sanburg uses imperative verbs to encourage the musicians to create music. Consonance is used throughout the stanza to connect the instrument to its action, as well as subtle onomatopoeia – repeated ‘D’ makes the noise of a percussion instrument. Drums are one of the most important instruments in jazz as a genre, and starting the stanza with ‘drums’ sets the rhythm. The use of ‘sob’ sets a somewhat melancholy mood – despite the music, there is an atmosphere of sadness. Saxophones have an inherently slower, deeper sound, therefore changing the rhythm of the line – this is known as ritardando.
At the end of the stanza, he encourages the musicians to continue to make music, which is signified by the full stop at the end.
Sling your knuckles on the bottoms of the happy
husha-hush with the slippery sand-paper.
The second stanza of ‘Jazz Fantasia‘, despite being lively, carries the hidden theme of poverty. These jazzmen are most likely performing on the street and cannot afford instruments, hence using everyday objects. Nevertheless, they are happy to be creating music, to be using simple materials to make something beautiful and enjoyable.
They use the natural texture and material of their ‘instruments’ – Sandburg uses onomatopoeia when describing the sound that sandpaper makes. It is safe to assume that most of the musicians had jobs in the low-paid construction and service industries. Therefore, they would have only been able to perform with whatever they had available at home or with unused materials from their work – the tin pan taken from the kitchen, and a scrap of sandpaper taken from a construction site.
Sandburg personifies the sounds and instruments in order to create an atmosphere of movement and excitement. The trombone, as if a living being, is ‘oozing’: a slow outflow of sound. The tin pans are ‘happy’ to be used.
Moan like an autumn wind high in the lonesome treetops,
moan soft like you wanted somebody terrible, cry like a
tin cans — make two people fight on the top of a stairway
and scratch each other’s eyes in a clinch tumbling down
The third stanza of ‘Jazz Fantasia‘ has an increasingly anxious mood. Rather than describing the sounds directly, Sandburg uses similes to explore the feeling that the sounds evoke, as well as reflect on common experiences. Just as everyone experiences autumnal gusts of wind, so too will most have to deal with unrequited love.
Racial Injustice and Crime
This stanza delves deeper into the themes of racial injustice and segregation, which led to crime and increased policing in Black communities. The use of ‘cry’ foreshadows the inevitable death of whoever is trying to get away. Despite being in a car, they cannot escape the tightening noose of law enforcement, which results in being shot. Sandburg’s use of onomatopoeia at the end of the line is effective: instead of describing the shooting directly, he uses the sound that a gun makes – it would be eerily familiar to members of the community.
Furthermore, Sandburg creates an anxious, loud atmosphere using repeated commas that separate the instruments. This creates not only an auditory but a visual cacophony. The use of an em dash is an example of an anacoluthon that is used to create urgency. The last part of the stanza describes a physical fight and the jazzmen are creating a fast-paced ‘soundtrack’ to the altercation. The situation escalates and both participants fall down the stairs. This reflects the fall of the illusion of the ‘American dream.’ These people work trying to build a life for themselves in a country to which their ancestors were brought without consent, and yet they are treated like dirt.
Can the rough stuff . . . now a Mississippi steamboat pushes
on the humps of the low river hills . . . go to it, O jazzmen.
The last stanza has an unexpected change in both atmosphere and pace. Sandburg is instructing the people to ‘can the rough stuff’ – meaning to hide their emotions. It was commonly known that Black people were less emotional, yet somehow more violent, than their white counterparts. The use of ellipses throughout the stanza is effective in slowing down the pace of the poem.
Although the time of day was not specified in the first 3 stanzas, this stanza clearly takes place at night. The music and connotation have died down- it is eerily quiet. Sandburg plays on the idea of the sinister silence to emphasize only a singular sound – the onomatopoeia of a steamboat is effective in order to create a sinister atmosphere.
Sandburg uses color imagery for the first time in the poem, which creates a stunning contrast. He uses colors that are opposite on the color wheel, therefore reflecting the stark distinction between the communities. Despite the late hour, Sandburg still urges the musicians to create and inspire.
‘Jazz Fantasia‘ is about Carl Sandburg’s passionate feelings about jazz music in the context of Black African-American communities in Chicago.
‘Jazz Fantasia‘ is one of the poems in Sandburg’s 1920 anthology ‘Smoke and Steel’.
The themes of ‘Jazz Fantasia‘ are race and strong contradicting emotions: joy, sadness, excitement, and depression, all represented in the context of jazz music.
Those who enjoyed this piece might consider looking into the following poems:
- ‘Man Listening to Disc‘ by Billy Collins, which describes the feelings of the poet as they listen to jazz music.
- ‘Believe, Believe‘ by Bob Kaufman, which encourages the reader to trust in poetry, youth, and jazz music.
- ‘Dream Boogie‘ by Langston Hughes, which puts creativity, especially jazz music, in the context of the oppression of black African-Americans during the Harlem Renaissance.