Friday, June 24, 2005

My Favorite Things

Ever since—well, ever since May 13 when Diane posted it here—I’ve been thinking about this quote from Dean Young: “Poetry’s primary and perhaps only obligation is, through the manipulation of its materials, to express and discover forms of liberty, thereby maintaining the spirit through constantly renewed meanings.”

Now I’m a pretty big fan of Dean Young, but I’m not sure I know what this means, and if I know what it means, I’m not sure I agree with it. When I think of liberty, I think of music. I think of John Coltrane playing “My Favorite Things,” opening doors that you not only didn’t know existed, but that seem to open whole new dimensions you didn’t know existed—and you certainly didn’t suspect they existed when you heard Julie Andrews sing it in The Sound of Music!

As I talked about somewhere before, I think the best poetry combines jazz and blues: the freedom and openness of jazz with the passion and, well, the confinement of blues. It’s that sense almost of bondage that seems missing if you find only liberty in art. Obviously I’m speaking metaphorically about poetry, not just music, but blues without jazz feels claustrophobic to me, and jazz without blues feels like petals in wind instead of blossoms rooted in dirt. If “A Love Supreme” by Coltrane is an archetypal jazz song, then Big Mama Thornton’s “(Love Is Like a) Ball and Chain” must be the archetypal blues song.

Digression: I had to look through about a hundred websites to find one that acknowledged Willie Mae Thornton as the writer of “Ball and Chain,” the song made famous by Janis Joplin—and that website was in French! Joplin herself acknowledged her debt to Thornton over and over.

My point is: in so much contemporary poetry I find a lot of liberty, but I miss the “ball and chain.” There’s energy and imagination but I miss a sense of depth, gravity, blues. I think this is what Lorca probably meant by poetry inspired by an angel but lacking duende. I can imagine Big Mama Thornton singing like Lorca’s “Girl With the Combs,” who “had to mangle her voice because she knew there were discriminating folk about who asked not for form, but for the marrow of form,” and whose voice “opened up like ten fingers of a hand around the nailed feet of Christ ….”


Diane K. Martin said...

As I said to Robert offline, " I could, I might argue that the archetypal jazz and blues you pick are not the only archetypes; there are many others, different but equal. And I personally accept and invite the gamut, the spectrum, from the lowest low down to the most out there celestial music in poetry--but how could you not hear the blues in the jazz?"

I guess I resist typecasting, whether archetype or stereotype. I mean some people resent the blues because they see it as coming from the days of slavery and hardship and think it is about the negative side of things, but I prefer to see it as about life in all its complexity. I see (hear) jazz that way too. Don't know enough to talk about it coherently, but I know that it has its reasons and its rules and its freedoms and passions as much as blues does.

But getting back to poetry: what I think Dean Young was saying in the quote was that poetry works to make us experience the world anew-though my rephrasing of it sure seems hackneyed.

I think it's hard to talk in these generalizations, though. Give me X and I'll tell you why it works (for me) better than Y does.

Which is to say that I just said nothing. Heh.

Robert said...

Well, as an admittedly extreme example of "jazz without blues," I might take something like Clark Coolidge's "The Maintains":

from The Maintains

such like such as
of a whist
a bound
the mid eft
the mode
own of own off
partly of such tin of such
the moo
which which
lably laugh
meter it's too
too maybe
lately too
same the marge
by down which say
such way
ken ablative

--Clark Coolidge

Patty said...

Excellent post!

Have you read T R Hummer's Infinity Sessions? Hummer weaves jazz and poetry with amazing dexterity.

There's excellent audio of him reading some of his poems backed by music at Blackbird (it's archived)

Robert said...

Thanks, Patty. A couple poems from T.R. Hummer's Infinity Sessions were featured on Poetry Daily a few days ago, and I loved them. I just checked out the Blackbird archives and loved his poems there too. Like you say, I think the combination of music and poetry is done really well. He reads some poems from "For Dancers Only," and introduces each poem with an excerpt of the music that inspired it. I haven't heard it done quite that way before, and I thought it worked great. Thanks for the reference!

Lisa said...

Hmm. Maybe this is resurrecting a distinction between work and talent (or mind and soul, or whatever x and y you may want to insert here) with which many will argue, but I feel it to be true in my own work, and in much of the poetry I love:

Your ideas of jazz and blues in poetry is, for me, related to a (still-fuzzy) distinction I find myself making between the craft/technique aspect of the work and the more mysterious force of wisdom/inspiration duende. Jazz in this case is the thing that, the more I work on it, the better I get. Blues is the thing that, the longer I live, and the more I sit down and invite it to visit me, the more opportunities I give it to get the better of me. That latter is, of course, a good thing; it's the breaking-open, the messiness, the scary part that my perfectionist self doesn't know how to control - she's still learning to get out of the way when it arrives.

Both are, of course, necessary, and in a good poem they reinforce and blend into each other.

Lisa said...

um, that should be


with the second slash added.

Robert said...

Aha! The manic perfectionist can't resist correcting a typo! :~) Yeah, I totally agree about mess and control. Too much control is boring, and too much chaos is boring too.

Diane K. Martin said...

This is a great discussion, but while I totally agree with making the distinction in poetry between mere craft and real art, between an intellectualization and a work of the heart, I can't, I won't agree with the jazz/blues analogy. You can't tell me that jazz is a passionless medium! It cries, it screams, it hits you upside the head!

I wish I knew more to "prove" my point--but you just wait 'til I get hold of my jazz experts....

Robert said...

Hey, who said jazz is passionless? I swear I'm as big a jazz fan as you are, Diane! Like any other kind of music, I don't like all of it, though, and when I try to figure out the difference between what I like and what I don't, it's not that I like music that's more traditional and not that I like music that's more experimental either. It does have something to do with music that feels overly cerebral to me. There's abstract expressionist painting like Jackson Pollock and then there's, well, abstract non-expressionist painting.

Diane K. Martin said...

Okay, but take someone totally far out, someone like Ornette Coleman. Now John says he doesn't just play the notes, he plays between the notes. He's really out there. Now you don't have to like that, but it's still not passionless.

The only jazz I can truly think of that is passionless is the washed out smooth jazz, removed of anything that could offend...but I don't know of any poetry analagous to that.

However, your last comment (re Pollock) is a great segue into what I wanted to post next--about Picasso's and Matisse's opinions on Pollock. But I don't have my source, so it will have to wait.