“Sermon, The”

by Ted Joans
(1961)
   Written in Greenwich Village, “The Sermon” might be considered a kind of early Afro-Beat credo. Though the composition date in Teducation: Selected Poems 1949-1999 says 1955, references in the poem make that date impossible. The poem can be found in All of Ted Joans and No More (1961). ted joans affects the voice of the flirtatious, beckoning Beat-scene hipster, the counselor of middle-class young white American womanhood as to the pathway to becoming a “swinger,” an “in-chick.” Chauvinist as some of the argot can now look, not to mention dated (dig, square, split, and the like), “The Sermon” looks to the freeing up of body and senses from 1950s Main Street conformism and nice-girl sexual gridlock. It is a call for self-liberation very much of its Village time and place, and it carries Joans’s typical verve, the speaking-voice rhythm, the companionable tease, and the seams of bop and jazz reference. It is also underwritten by his insider sense of himself as cospirit with allen ginsberg, jack kerouac, Norman Mailer, and gregory corso—all of whom are named—in the making of Beat as counterculture, another kind of America.
   “So you want to be hip little girls? / You want to learn to swing?” run the opening lines. There follows a Joans instruction manual in verse form of “how to” become suitably “cool” and thereby gain existential entry into Beat-hipster ranks. Ginsberg is immediately invoked (“And you want to be able to dig and take in everything / Yes dig everything as the poet Ginsberg said?”) and linked to the call for abandonment of “antique anglo-saxon / puritanical philosophy.” The time is due, avers the poem, to head for “swinging surroundings” and “creative activity,” for “Action!!” and “Jazzaction!” and to do so by learning to “Dig this sermon.” Sex should be plentiful but not without condom or diaphragm. Drink should be had but only to the point of a “high.” “If you want to be popular with real hipsters” there should be a curb on too much talk or argument. But the essential core lies in the references to jazz and the works of the Beat writers, which are intimately connected. Each ingredient to come into play, whether jazz, bop, Jelly Roll Morton, rhythm and blues, Ginsberg’s Howl, Kerouac’s on tHe road, or Mailer’s “The White Negro” serves to create the identifying Beat insignia. The remainder of the poem adds supporting weight and detail: no fake bras, lipstick to be worn for kissing, Hollywood to be subverted by applause in the wrong places, vegetarianism a must, reading to include Corso’s “marriage,” the Bible, Koran, and Torah, and life to be lived as affirmative energy (“you must learn to say YES YES YES more often”). In a closing lines the speaker asks his women reader– listeners (“You sweet angelic chicklets, chicks, and you too / lovely past forty old hens”) to “dig my sermon. . . . pick up on what / I’ve just / wailed. . . .” Joans’s “The Sermon” will likely not satisfy postfeminist readers, but it arises out of a willingness to examine gender roles and sexual life as part of the larger Beat renegotiation of America’s cultural mores.
   A. Robert Lee

Encyclopedia of Beat Literature. . 2014.

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