For a couple of years, my dear friend Fleda Brown, former Delaware poet laureate, has collaborated with me in producing a series of essays, which will appear collectively as an e-book from Autumn House in April. The volume is called GROWING OLD IN POETRY: TWO POETS, TWO LIVES, and it presents our alternating meditations on a variety of subjects, ones that appear –among many others, no doubt– somehow to have led us to poetry... and kept us there. I am praying for all I'm worth that Fleda, who will soon undergo chemotherapy for Stage 3C cancer, may go on shedding her wonderful light on the world for years to come.
The following is an excerpt from the collection in question, my own reverie on how music has affected my life and my writing. Fleda considers rock n roll in her portion; I look at jazz in mine. Some of our other topics include sports, sex, food, houses, books, wild animals, and children. I hope this entry may pique your interest in the book itself, if only so that you may savor her fabulous blend of wit, wisdom, humor and lyricism.
I Recognize Thy Glory...
Those who know me know also that I’ve long been deeply in love with what the late Roland Kirk called “Black Classical Music,” especially of that era whose great practitioners include Monk, Rollins, Davis, Jackson, Roach, among others. So I’m frequently and unsurprisingly asked about the influence of jazz on my poetry. Whenever the question is posed, I try to avoid any glib answer; but I’m never entirely able. The interplay between the music I cherish and the poems I write is likely beyond words. Indeed, it may be one of the principal things that I have, however furtively, long been trying to find words for as a poet.
That said, one of the surer things I can surmise is that as more or less a formalist, I like feeling the chafe of language against the limits of received (or invented) structure. There is no moral nor even aesthetic stance here: I dislike the formalist/free verse debate, because it too often sounds like a pair of Alpha males elevating what they do, which is often all they can do, into virtue, which involves debasing what they don’t and can’t do into vices. As a rule, the accompanying arguments are downright ill-considered: the free versers, for instance, associate formalism with elitism and political reaction... which makes one wonder where the great practitioners of Delta blues and its musical derivatives would stand. Equally vapid arguments– free verse suggests sloppy poetics and fuzzy thinking, say– are too often trotted out on the other side, as if, say, Adrienne Rich were some scatterbrain.
As for me, I like good poetry, be it formalist or vers libre. (Full disclosure: I’m a lot more at ease with free verse than I am with so-called free jazz, but that need not concern us here.) I do what I do not because I regard it as self-evidently superior but because it’s what I do, if you’ll allow me some circular reasoning. Who knows? My predispositions may be genetic or characterological. I’m no judge of these possibilities.
Robert Frost cannily reminds us that we speak of musical strains, and for me to riff and fill within a form, however self-generated, however unobvious ... well, that is a pleasure to me, imaginably the grandest pleasure I take from writing. It is a far more significant pleasure, certainly, than any effort at “meaning.” I send what I compose into the world without ultimately knowing as much as a reader may discover about “what I am trying to say” (one of my students’ favorite locutions).
I think, though, that I do know the how of the saying, and this is where musical influence most likely flows in.
I suspect, in fact, that I’m a poet because I'm a failed improvisatory musician. I haven't played for decades, but back when I did, I was just adept enough to know how masterful the real masters are: how they must have lightning reflexes together with long-honed skills; how they must have a vast awareness of prior literature, along with a yen both to honor and to challenge it; how they must cultivate an affection for form even as they marshal the wit and agility to bend form to novel purpose.
Schooled in an obsolescent, humanist way, moreover, and therefore familiar, precisely, with prior literature, I like also to “sample'” my predecessors, a gesture which Hip-Hop may dream it invented, but which has been part of jazz for as long as that mode has existed. Though I’m certain many of my readers miss the effort, I do like to play off favorite writers: Frost himself, Dickinson, Thomas Hardy, at least two of the Romantics, to mention some prominent ones. This sampling –pace Harold Bloom– represents an affection that too many of my students can't know, because they do not and are not expected to know poetry from any farther back than the Moderns. They may be able to “deconstruct” a Madonna video, say; they may be hip to the musings of Slavol Zizek; but what we used to call the poetic canon is pretty much out of bounds for them. Yet I say this not so much censoriously as compassionately, for they do in fact deprive themselves of a joy.
There’s a record (I still sometimes listen to records) featuring Cannonball Adderley and Milt Jackson called Things Are Getting Better. If you get the chance, listen to those masters play– and play around with– that old chestnut, “The Sidewalks of New York,” of which there are two quite disparate takes on the album. That tune’s melody and rinky-dink waltz format are no more sophisticated than those of the jump rope song it oddly resembles, at least to my ear, no more elevated than those we encounter in the most perdurable of American forms, the blues itself.
Which makes me free-associate and meditate a bit on one of the literary idols to whom I just referred. In his fragmentary The Recluse, William Wordsworth wrote as follows:
........Paradise, and groves
Elysian, Fortunate Fields -- like those of old
Sought in the Atlantic Main -- why should they be
A history only of departed things,
Or a mere fiction of what never was?
The poet revolutionarily suggested that the old values of epic need not be sought in an epical domain, no longer available in any case; rather, he continued,
....the discerning intellect of Man,
When wedded to this goodly universe
In love and holy passion, shall find these
A simple produce of the common day.
As I have said, it would be hard to imagine a more commonplace composition than “The Sidewalks of New York.” And yet notice how Adderley and Jackson, by dint of brain and heart (intellect and holy passion), move within its frankly banal chord structure without ever losing touch with that structure and its guiding melody. Their improvisations are a wonder and a delight in and of themselves, but the epical dimension, to borrow Wordsworth’s term somewhat inexactly, consists in what we could more exactly label flights of the imagination.
Not so long ago in western history, to return to the issue of music and its influence, cultured intellects assumed that dimension accessible only by way of more formally composed music. For the most part, such an assumption preceded the arrival of the Black Classical approach. There are even now, needless to say, those who find such an entrée the only legitimate one. (I suspect, for example, that my brilliant high school music teacher, the late Al Conkey, may be doing snap rolls in his grave to hear me talk as I do in this reverie.) I don’t want to fight with these partisans, that scarcely being the purpose of my attentions here. I began anyhow by expressing my distaste for banal dialectic, and I don’t in any event come to these thoughts as champion of jazz over other kinds of composition– except in my own praxis.
The feel of improvisation (rare though scarcely unheard of in highbrow music) is what juices up my forms. Or so I hope. That approach may not work for other poets. But whoever they are, the imaginative flight is what we are all after; these are simply the materials and attitudes that help me get airborne to the small extent I sometimes do.
Yes, as Wallace Stevens, another idol, iterated and repeatedly demonstrated, Imagination is what the poem is all about. The way the great Black Classical composers and musicians manage such a matter is something that has always seemed to me worth trying, and even failing, to emulate in print.