Around ten years ago, at a small dinner party thrown by my friend and mentor, Edie Eustace, I had the pleasure of meeting Sweet Sue Terry, a composer and Jazz saxophonist, who does a rather remarkable thing with poems: she sets them word for word, actually, often syllable for syllable to note values. The word “value” is important here. Sue has both a composer’s sense of structure, and a jazz improviser’s sense of immediate invention, so we are getting a professional composer with major league chops doing a close reading of a poem. In this case, it was “Hurt Hawks” by Robinson Jeffers (A poem you ought to know, and if you don’t shame on you). Sue Terry also reads poetry, writes it occasionally, and came at the poem in a fresh way, unsullied by pretensions as to its purity. She had made copies of Hurt Hawks and handed them out (this was after dinner as we all sat in Edie’s very comfortable living room) Since I had memorized the poem many years ago, I only had to glance here or there at what was now “the score.”
I am a decent pianist–not great. I taught myself to play by ear, and spent most of my youth composing songs, fake Bach pieces, mock Chopin. I have some talent for composition, and for making out of tune pianos sound good. At one point, I made a very precarious living playing piano in a couple bars, one of which was run by a coke fiend who had a driver pick me up for the gig three times a week. The driver turned out to be a rapist.
So I know a good musician when I hear one–not just a chops specialist, not just a technician, but someone who can bring out whatever serves the music, whose improvisations add to it, whose sense of creativity is not just a form of showing off runs. Sweet Sue Terry was on this order. She was not just playing a musical tribute to a poem she loved; she was reading, literally reading the score of that poem as her audience read along with her–word for word, syllable for syllable, and unlike many collaborations between music and poetry that was written with no music in mind, this worked. It did more than worked. For a good month after the dinner party, I would take out Robinson Jeffers’ great poem, and sit, recalling whatever I could of Terry’s lines. Her musical setting, or rather her musical Reading” of the poem had a profound and lasting effect on what I knew could be done with music and poetry.
Let me be blunt: most collaborations between music and poetry hurt both the poem and the music. There are several reasons for this:
1. Poets, unlike band members are rather timid about being thought “entertaining.” They don’t perform. Ah… but Sweet Sue was not performing that day, either–she was living in intimate relationship to the poem. She was reading it. So let’s go a little deeper: most poets do not truly read their poems–not closely. They stand up there rehashing them, failing to enter their own text. “reading” out loud is a hybrid art between the public barbaric yawp and the secret utterance. This means a poet must find a ceremony somewhere between being alone in his or her consciousness, and projecting that consciousness outward–like a prayer. It does not have anything to do with being introverted or extroverted, friendly, or taciturn. It is all about destroying those distinctions so that the compound of intimate consciousness and public performance becomes “presence.” Now, many people who fancy themselves experts on reading or playing and cannot apprehend true presence, but, most people, who are not arrogant about their expertise, know when they encounter it. I watched a group of bored teenagers at the last Dodge festival be transformed in an old Baptist church by the “presence” of Marie Ponsot. It was not long after her stroke. Her voice was clear, but weak. She had to pluck her words slowly from the tree of consciousness. She was everything you might think would be a nightmare to young students committed to being bored, but she created a presence. It did not patronize. It did not play to the cheap seats. It blew, and the spirit of its breath gave something greater than entertainment: it gave welcome, on its own terms, without stooping. This is the reason most poets stink at performing with musicians. It does not matter if they are as extroverted as Al Jolson (think Bly on a bad day) or introverted: they are not present. This is more egregious than failing to perform. Billy Holiday did not perform. Lester Young did not perform. When they did perform, it was to serve the presence–not to replace it. Without presence, you can walk the bar all you want, and the vulgar will mistake this for true worth, but you will hurt both the music and the poem.
2. Poets who read to music, often don’t know music well enough to interact with it. We all think we know music, and it’s true–but knowing it, and interacting with it are very different. I once asked a musician friend of mine why he was so in love with Count Basie’s piano playing. He conceded that Art Tatum had far greater skills, but his fantasy was to be alone in a bar and have the ghost of Basie come and play. He said: “Art Tatum could play more notes, faster, and better than anyone with the possible exception of Jesus of Nazareth, but the Count sat out. He knew how to sit out. He knew what not and when not to play, and if you could hear his sitting outs, you’d realize they were the equal of Tatum’s sitting ins.”
Poets, if they are going to perform with bands, need to work more on sitting out than anything else. How do I allow the music to enter, and when do I blow? What’s the ratio? If I’m reading to a blue’s piece, how can I give propers to the 12 bar blues with my free verse structures? How do I go in and out of the beat, vary my speeds, enter in such a way that people are not just hearing my poem over the music, but are hearing my poem within the music? How do I sit out? A poet bad at this is like a lounge singer. Sometimes, the musicians just play the changes and pretend he or she is not there. It’s important, if you are going to read poems to music, to learn when to shut up. You need to know where the words and the music could come in together without either being diminished. This takes practice, as much practice as it takes to learn the writing of poetry or the playing of an instrument..
3. Poets are often both snobs in the wrong way (My poems are too perfect to be done with music) and egalitarian in the wrong way (I want to be a frggin’ rock star). An audience does not like a snob (unless it is full of snobs). An audience also dislikes slavishness. I thought spoken word was much better when the slam artists didn’t memorize their texts. I liked the tension between reading it yet performing it. Now I see a bunch of actors up there, doing what actors do–especially bad actors. I can’t go to a slam without getting angry, and I have a terrible Irish temper. I sit there thinking : “If you touch your thorax, then put your arms out one more time to show me how sincere you are, I’m going to slit your throat with the sharp edge of a judge’s card.” I am not a page poet, but I believe in the page. A body that is trained to not be itself is not a body. Good performers use their flaws–not just some template of a body work shop.
I believe poets can benefit from reading to music, even if they won’t do so in public, just to find a presence in their voices–something beyond either the idiocy of academics who want to down play all performance, and the idiocy of slammers who don’t understand the difference between presence and performance. What’s the difference? Listen to Count Basie or Billy Holiday or Lester Young. The difference is the whole of the sky.