Robert Pinsky collaborates with jazz musicians: What do music and poetry share?

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May 19 2011 10:14 AM

The Sounds Poems Make

How the sax led Robert Pinsky to poetry—and now to jazz collaboration.

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It is like what we imagine knowledge to be:
dark, salt, clear, moving, utterly free,
drawn from the cold hard mouth
of the world, derived from the rocky breasts
forever, flowing and drawn, and since
our knowledge is historical, flowing and flown.

Another example, William Carlos Williams, in "Fine Work With Pitch and Copper," moving from (figuratively speaking) the key of "eh" to "oo":

Now they are resting
in the fleckless light
separately in unison
like the sacks
of sifted stone stacked
regularly by twos
about the flat roof
ready after lunch
to be opened and strewn.

One more example to demonstrate that the principle is far from limited to modern or free-verse poetry. Here is Ben Jonson, speaking fluently and plainly in the great extended final sentence of "His Excuse for Loving":

If you then will read the Storie,
First, prepare you to be sorry
That you never knew till now,
Either whom to love, or how:
But be glad, as soon with me,
When you know, that this is she,
Of whose Beautie it was sung,
She shall make the old man young,
Keepe the middle age at stay,
And let nothing high decay,
Till she be the reason why,
All the world for love may die.

Fluent and plain, with a speaking directness, the sentence is also composed in the meter of "Twinkle, Twinkle, Little Star." It is like Charlie Parker or Dizzie Gillespie transforming and sailing above some traditional piece of harmony or rhythm.

Robert Pinsky Reads With Bobby Bradford and his Mo'tet 

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What I hear in Bishop, Jonson, Stevens, Williams in my mind and to my ear has everything to do with what I hear in the music I love. When I read my poems while listening intently to the playing of Bobby Bradford or Rakalam Bob Moses, aware that they are listening to the lines I am reading, two currents at the heart of my life come together. Gillespie, in his Paris Review interview, speaks of hearing two or more rhythms at a time. I still have a copy of the magazine: Fall, 1965. In the same interview he says about improvising at a certain musical level: "It's not instinct. It's hard." Listening to the musicians, hearing them responding to what I do as a kind of nonsinging vocalist, I try to hear several rhythms, several currents of harmony and emotion, all at once. I think of the performances as demonstrating something that is in the poems: not replacing it, but showing its nature. At these times, essential, separate themes of my life come together as one.

To watch more of Robert Pinsky's performances with jazz musicians, click the links below.

You may also read the poems featured in these performances ("Antique," "Samurai Song," "Street Music," and "Ginza Samba," all of which are included in Robert Pinsky's new Selected Poems.

Former Poet Laureate Robert Pinsky is Slate's poetry editor. His Selected Poems is now available.

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