Navigate to Arts & Letters section

Jazzed Up

Robert Pinsky’s poetry gets a rhythm section

Alexander Gelfand
February 05, 2009

There was a moment during an event last month at New York club Jazz Standard—featuring former poets laureate Robert Pinsky and Charles Simic reading their work accompanied by live jazz—that had the recursive quality of an Escher lithograph, like a man looking into a mirror seeing himself looking into a mirror.

Pinsky was about to read “Ginza Samba,” a poem named for a little-known jazz number. “The tune is played by a Jewish-American saxophonist on the recording I have,” said Pinsky, referring to composer Stan Getz. He added that its title “reveals the beautiful hybrid nature of America, and of the saxophone: a European instrument that was made a black American instrument by geniuses who used it to play their music.”

Then, with the band playing a samba behind him, Nextbook author Pinsky—himself a Jewish-American saxophonist who once aspired to be a professional jazzman, and who found himself performing that night alongside a trio of African- and Indo-American jazz musicians—recited the piece, which neatly places both Getz (“this great-grandchild of the Jewish Manager of a Pushkin estate”) and Charlie Parker (“a great Hawk or Bird, with many followers”) in the same imaginary family tree, distant cousins related through European immigration, the African slave trade, and a 19th-century Russian poet. Seeing Pinsky do this live, I felt as if I were watching a man recite a poem and act it out at the same time. The whole tableau was as striking an illustration of the “hybrid nature of America” as the tune that inspired it.

Jazz poetry itself offers a pretty good example of that hybridity. The phenomenon originated in the 1920s, when Langston Hughes began giving private recitations with musician friends in Harlem. Kenneth Rexroth, who claimed to have done something similar at around the same time, helped bring it into the public sphere in the 1950s. He and a handful of other poets, including Lawrence Ferlinghetti and Allen Ginsberg, performed with musicians like Charles Mingus and David Amram in nightclubs and coffeehouses. (Both Rexroth and Ferlinghetti can be heard on the re-issued recording Poetry Readings in the Cellar.) The practice of pairing poetry with popular music never went away—Gil Scott Heron and The Last Poets picked up the torch in the 1960s and ’70s, updating the sound with R&B and soul; and hip hop is really vernacular poetry dressed up with beats and samples—but the particular combination of poetry and jazz did.

That’s a pity. Jazz poetry often evokes images of self-consciously hip bohemians reciting bad rhymes in front of equally bad bands; more often than not, bongos are involved, and not in a good way. But as Rexroth pointed out in a series of articles 60 years ago (a prolific essayist, he also wrote about kabbalah and Hasidism), jazz and poetry can in fact complement each other nicely. They also share certain similarities.

Simic’s colloquial language, which the poet delivered casually, hand in pocket, was earthy and sly; the poems he chose to read—“Crepuscule with Nellie” (another poem named for a jazz tune, this one by Thelonious Monk), and “Mummy’s Curse” (an homage to the horror films Simic watched as a child)—often had punchlines, and might have passed for exquisitely crafted jokes if they weren’t so loaded with meaning and memory. In a way, they work on an audience in much the same way that jazz does: to those who know the music, its traditions and history, it is jam-packed with allusions, inside jokes, and wry, self-referential moments that can elicit smiles of recognition and even outright laughter.

Then there’s the issue of rhythm. Rexroth claimed that a good poet could swing as hard as any jazz vocalist. That’s certainly true in Pinsky’s case, though he did more than just swing. Bobbing in place as he read his lines, he displayed all the rhythmic finesse of a fine jazz instrumentalist, varying his accents, feinting to the left and right of the beat, sometimes delaying and sometimes anticipating an expected cadence. (I wouldn’t be at all surprised if Pinsky is a far better jazz saxophonist than he lets on. He clearly has a performer’s instincts, bounding onstage and declaiming his verse with an actor’s enunciation in an urgent, rhythmic voice.)

Pinsky read the same lines that he did at a similar event last year, but I’m willing to bet that a careful comparison would reveal all kinds of shifts in rhythm and phrasing. That, too, is something that jazz musicians do, altering the delivery of their favorite licks to keep them fresh. They also delight in quoting from standard tunes and from their peers, something Pinsky did while trading fours with pianist Vijay Iyer, bassist Lonnie Plaxico and drummer Andrew Cyrille, reciting both his own couplets and some of his favorites by other poets (John Donne, J.V. Cunningham) and then listening to the musicians’ improvised responses. Both variation and quotation are part of the beautiful hybrid nature of jazz, an art form whose practitioners walk a fine line between improvisation and composition, invention, and imitation. Apparently, poets tread the same path. They ought to work together more often.

Alexander Gelfand is a recovering ethnomusicologist, a sometime jazz pianist, and a former West African drummer. His work has appeared in the New York Times, the Chicago Tribune, the Forward, and elsewhere.