The art world is trying new things lately: dance at art installations, a Sixties rat-pack-style set for Rigoletto (arias sung before a chorus line), a crowd-sourcing Handel’s Halleluiah Chorus at Macy’s. The poetry world hasn’t been left out. Examples of innovation are those set by Robert Pinsky, who, in addition to getting ordinary people to read their favorite poems before a camera, has been presenting his poetry with jazz musicians.
When Pinsky is asked whether jazz is uniquely suited to the reading of poetry, he replies, “I’m not sure I’d make that generality… but personally, for me, it’s a kind of music I have played, saxophone and even more ineptly keyboard, and it’s the music most in the background when I’m composing a poem.” Pinsky, former Poet Laureate and strong supporter of Mass Poetry, will be reciting his poetry with a jazz trio at the AWP Conference in Boston. The Saturday, March 9, performance will be 3 o’clock in the Hynes Auditorium and is free and open to the public. Accompanying the reading will be Ben Allison on bass; Laurence Hobgood at the piano; and Stan Strickland on saxophone and flute.
The musicians and the poet called themselves PoemJazz.
Pinsky mentions another reason why jazz works well for him in a reading. “In performance, the spirit of improvisation is there: I’m listening to the musicians as hard as I can, and they are listening to me. Your phrasing, on both sides, is responsive to the phrasing you hear, your ideas develop from musical ideas you hear.” If you listen to Pinsky read his poems in a video inserted in an article written for Slate, you realize he uses another aural poetic device: repetition.
Pinsky, who is the poetry editor of Slate, believes that poetry and music are sister arts, “a truism embedded in the word ‘lyric,’” he adds. “In jazz, as in poetry, there is always that play between what’s regular and what’s wild.” In the Slate article he asserts that sound is crucial in both arts. His book The Sounds of Poetry also insists on the importance of sound, “In contemporary poetry as in older poetry, absolutely every sound of every vowel and consonant is part of what’s going on, for me. Like sounds and unlike sounds come in degrees: certain degrees, of a certain kind, have been called ‘rhyme.’”
What is important for Pinsky is not performance. It’s what he calls vocality. “The poem should be heard — not necessarily as read by the poet or an actor or a performer: more essentially, by each reader.” Vocality seems to have made his Favorite Poems project, which was his major venture when he was poet laureate, really soar. Check out the Favorite Poems site and see videos of ordinary people reading the poems they love with intensity and feeling. All their readings have an absolute attention to sound.
Pinsky has also read between pieces played by classical musicians. His CD PoemJazz, performed with Lawrence Hobgood, contains some classical moments. (You can purchase the CD at the Circumstantial website.) And once a couple of years ago, Bruce Springsteen played behind him as he read his powerful poem “Shirt.” Springsteen himself has recited Pinsky’s “Samurai Song” while playing figures on the guitar.
While you can, take advantage of the opportunity to see and hear PoemJazz at the Hynes Auditorium on March 9.