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“Dear John, Dear Coltrane” is that the title’s similarity to a letter heading suggests that the poem is addressed to Coltrane, a 20th-century jazz saxophonist. Without realizing this, it may be almost impossible to determine what Harper’s authorial intentions are. The other way to recognize that the poem is literally addressing Coltrane is to have a presupposed knowledge of Coltrane’s life, and to then realize that the only “you” whom has experienced the poem’s events is Coltrane. However, it is acceptable if the reader does not catch Harper’s intended message, because the message is not directed toward the reader; it is for Coltrane himself. The poem is commending Coltrane for finding “a love supreme” and using it to fuel his music, which in turn has inspired others. “Dear John, Dear Coltrane” is a chronological retelling of Coltrane’s life story. In the beginning of the poem, Harper discusses Coltrane’s childhood, growing up in his father’s church in Hamlet, North Carolina. According to Harper, this beginning section also sets the tone of Coltrane’s white-dominant environment, in which he was told “not to assert [his] manhood.” This is expressed through sexual imagery in which Coltrane’s “seed [is] burned out,” and he tucks “the roots in the earth.” It may also be described by his walking through a swamp, which has a connotation of depression or being restrained by some force. In other words, he was told to keep his sexuality concealed. It is plausible to also think that his church sent him the same message. These pent-up sexual feelings should be remembered, as they affected his later years.
Moving on, the poem switches to the period in Coltrane’s life in which he moved into “the electric city,” or, as history shows, New York City. At this time, Coltrane stopped caring for religion and developed a drug addiction. He and his wife, Naima, also began experiencing marital troubles. This is vaguely referred to in line 17, which states that black women expect black men to be failures; this is still in the stanza in which the white man is holding down the black man. Again, Coltrane was being told to restrain himself from affirming his manhood. However, his career soon gained momentum, and he found an escape through playing the saxophone. The many references to sexuality, such as impotence and genitals, set a tone in which innuendos may be found – in this particular section of the poem, the playing of the saxophone has a connotation of sexual release. However, this is not the primary kind of release which Coltrane found in his playing. It should be noted that the first two lines of the poem are a four-fold repetition of the phrase “a love supreme.” This is a blatant reference to the title of arguably Coltrane’s greatest work. It should also be noted that the love supreme is at the very beginning of the poem; the same section of the poem in which Coltrane is a child, being raised in the church. This is important because the phrase is not mentioned again until several lines down. The second time it is mentioned, Coltrane is walking through the swamp, singing the tune. At this time, the meaning is unclear. When Coltrane finally picks up the saxophone a few lines later, the love supreme is the sound which he plays. In the liner notes of “A Love Supreme,” Coltrane “gave a poetic dedication of his life and his music to God” (Gale). The piece was composed soon after Coltrane rediscovered God in his adult years, at the time of overcoming his drug addiction. The
music which Coltrane played in the song, then, was filled with the spiritual love he now had for God. It was the fuel which inspired the emotion within his music, but it also served another purpose: It made him “clean.” This could be a possible reference to baptism, or at least repentance, which is a religious means of finding or returning to God. In following the chronological order of the poem, the next stanza must be in reference to after Coltrane had embraced religion. The entire stanza is in italics, like the phrase “a love supreme.” This connotes the stanza, then, to the messages of Coltrane’s music. Containing a call-response pattern found often in many songs of southern gospel churches, Coltrane repeatedly answers that he is so funky, sweet, and black “cause I am.” This statement of confidence is a reaffirmation of his identity as a black man, and he is proud of it. Coltrane no longer was a victim to the previously mentioned oppression by white society, nor did he experience the worldly suffering involved with drugs or marriage. It can therefore be deduced that once Coltrane had found God, he also discovered his own self-worth. This joy is the message of his music, and because it is in his music, it is clear that he is trying to send the message to others. Finally, the last stanza recalls Coltrane’s untimely death, caused by liver disease. Harper’s poem was written in 1970, only five years after this event. The liver disease had made Coltrane too sick to play songs anymore, even “Naima,” which is about his first wife. It is possible that Harper intended for this reference to be a metaphor for Coltrane slowly losing his spirit, suggesting that he reached a point of being unable to express his love for others. Coltrane’s listeners wanted to hear him play again and “ached for song.” However, they wanted music “concealed with [his] own blood,” which he truly felt and into which he could exert real emotion; this is what he was famous for by this time.
The liver then gave out “its purity,” meaning that he finally died. Even as he did, however, he “pump[ed] out . . . a love supreme.” This means that, even in his dying moment, Coltrane still felt the love supreme for God. He felt a passion for God, even if he might not have had any for others, like Naima. The other meaning which could be pulled from the last few lines is that, even after Coltrane’s death, his music still plays – if nothing else, then at least literally through recordings – and still inspires his listeners. Today, Coltrane is regarded as one of the greatest saxophonists of the 20th century for exploring new ways to express great emotion through jazz and the blues. Harper suggests that this is because Coltrane actually felt the emotion which could be found in his music. Rediscovering God gave Coltrane a way to escape white oppression, depression, and addiction. Surely such redemption would provide him with unmeasured joy, and this genuine emotion was what fueled Coltrane’s work.
Bibliography “John Coltrane.” Notable Black American Men. 1998. Thompson Gale. The Ohio State University Lib., Columbus, OH. 2 Feb. 2006. http://galenet.galegroup.com.
Harper, Michael. "On "Dear John, Dear Coltrane"." Modern American Poetry. 02 Feb. 2006 http://www.english.uiuc.edu/maps/poets/g_l/harper/dearjohn.htm.