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.

Music and poetry are sister arts—a truism embedded in the word "lyric." But what, exactly, do the sisters share? Opinions vary. For instance, "What is the difference between lyric poetry and song lyrics?"—a question I once heard answered by a very successful songwriter-singer. A little poetry, he said, can really help a song. But, he added, too much poetry will sink a song.

For a few years, I have been speaking my poems onstage with jazz musicians—some great ones, including Ben Allison, Bobby Bradford, Andrew Cyrille, Vijay Iyer, Rakalam Bob Moses, Marc Seales, Stan Strickland. Also, sometimes, with music students. The musicians have read the poems beforehand, and we discuss appropriate music a bit, but what we do is at the heart of it improvised. Music-making, the joy of playing music with other people, which held me together in my teens, had seemed far behind me. Then unexpectedly, thanks to friendship with Charles Simic and his brother Milan, who is a jazz booker, something that seemed lost forever came back to life at a higher level. These performances revive and bring together personal threads reaching back to childhood.

I distinctly remember pondering, at the age of 7 or 8, what my voice did pronouncing the phrase "boogie woogie." I noticed how the "b" and the "g" in the first word made the "oo" longer, because they growled in my throat. Saying that elongated yet quick sound did something that fit what the words meant, the rumbling left-hand bass pattern of a piano: unlike the tinny sound of "picky-wicky"—much less fitting, yet made by doing pretty much the same things with my lips and tongue. But in "picky wicky" the consonants were all in the mouth, without that growl in the throat. The "p" and the "ck" were made by the tongue and lips without the voice box. I could feel the difference by putting my hand over the right place, at the base of my neck.

Robert Pinsky reads With Ben Allison (Bass), Andrew Cyrille  (Drums) and Vijay Iyer (Piano). Video directed by Anthony Tedesco and produced by Portable Heroes.

There are terms for that: voiced and unvoiced consonants. But with the helpless pedantry of children, I thought I discovered it. The same unwilled turn of mind made me think about what my voice did when asking a question: How did I say (and hear other people say) the question mark after "questionable?" And what about when I answered "yes, questionable!" What did my voice do to keep the emphasis, either way, on the word's first syllable (though I'm not sure I knew the word "syllable"). In different tunes as question and answer, the word was different, yet its tune as itself was the same. Same accent (to use another word I may not have known) in the same place, in the opposite musics of asking and telling, "question?" and "question!" 

For many years these recurring thoughts about sentence-tunes or vowels and consonants, a tic of finger-tapping the rhythms of some random sentence—all felt useless, a habitual quirk. Through difficult teen years (the Dumb Class in eighth grade, school suspensions, etc.), I immersed myself in music, which kept me afloat. (I'm tempted to say, a bit melodramatically, "kept me alive.") As I've said, the music gave me joy. On another level, it also gave me a social identity: sax man, in my high school graduating class voted "Most Musical Boy." Though not gifted the way I wanted to be, I was good enough for bars, weddings, bar mitzvahs.

In my late teens, drifting away from the saxophone, I learned that there was an art based on the sounds of speech: the French poet's account of a drunken song heard across night air from blocks away, the shapes of meaning clear, the words unknown, as with the song the English poet's reaper sings to herself. I read Paul Valéry's brief, essential essay "The Speaking of Poetry," in which he advises reading a poem over several times aloud, without thinking about the meaning, concentrating on the shapes of the syntax, on consonants and vowels, pitch and duration. Only after hearing the poem many times, said Valéry, should you let your understanding of the meaning affect your reading: The final refinement of interpretation, which, applied earlier, could have distorted the poem.


Also brief, and strikingly in accord with Valéry's essay, Robert Frost's "The Figure a Poem Makes" puts "sentence sounds" at the center of poetry. Frost describes hearing the vocal tune of a sentence through a closed door: the shape of a meaning. With Valéry, Frost makes those vocal shapes primary.

That element of poetry, the pitches and cadences of meaning, returned me to the old childhood obsession—just as I was gradually giving up on myself as a musician. The old, involuntary obsession was focused now on the art of poetry, on specific, powerful instances of the speech-music Frost and Valéry noted—for example, "The Snow Man" by Wallace Stevens—in particular the jazzlike (to my ear) passage in the middle of the poem's one, prolonged sentence. The part-rhyming monosyllables of "sound" twice and "wind" twice and "land" somehow get resolved by three contrasting monosyllables in another key, "same bare place":

............................... ... not to think
Of any misery in the sound of the wind,
In the sound of a few leaves,
Which is the sound of the land
Full of the same wind
That is blowing in the same bare place ...

Hard to describe, as actual music is hard to describe. Grammar, or rather grammar's vocal energy, is melody—always, but maybe most clearly in long sentences like that one. Elizabeth Bishop ends her great "At the Fishhouses" with a piece of wordplay at the level of Shakespeare, but the wordplay—two different verbs seeming like one—works so well because of the extended bravura, profound sentence it crowns:


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