The Poem

(Critical Guide to Poetry for Students)

“Dear John, Dear Coltrane” is about love and concerns how pain and suffering can be transcended through “a love supreme.” Divided into two different but unified voices, the poem reflects solemnly and antiphonally on an acceptance of physical decay, spiritual malaise, and fragmentation. Throughout the poem, decay and disease are regarded as a part of a natural cycle that can lead to an expression of love. Pain is regarded as necessary—“there is no substitute for pain”—and vital to the creative act, as suggested by images of planting and harvest (seed, fallow, roots) or escape and revitalization: “move by riversinging.” Singing or creating music (or poetry) becomes the manner in which love of life is expressed.

The italicized lines are directly related to the voice and music of John Coltrane, a tenor and soprano saxophone player, who was born in Hamlet, North Carolina, in 1926 and died in Huntington, New York, near “the electric city,” New York City, in 1967. Coltrane introduced a vibrant singing sound to the upper registers of the tenor sax and had a revolutionary effect on the use of the saxophone in jazz. His masterpiece, “A Love Supreme,” is a four-part inspirational work produced in 1964 on which he literally sings, “a love supreme, a love supreme.” In that composition, the last movement is improvised entirely from the syllabic content of a poem Coltrane had written; thus, Coltrane’s musical composition was inspired by poetry as this poem is...

(The entire section is 611 words.)