Saw former poet laureate Robert Pinsky read with drummer Rakalam Bob Moses and saxophonist Robert Douglas Gay in Burlington last night. Finding a seat with my wife, I wasn’t sure what to expect. To my ear, many times poetry and jazz—two of my favorite arts independently—seem to be irreconcilable when performed together. So I was pleasantly surprised to hear, during the first number, how much these men actually listened to each other and truly responded to each other’s musical/verbal riffs. That number, “Samurai Song,” was the most successful of the night:
When I had no roof I made
Audacity my roof. When I had
No supper, my eyes dined…
When I had no friend, I made
Quiet my friend. When I had no
Enemy I opposed my body…
I think one of the reasons for its success was that the seesaw motion of the syntax allowed the band to insert responses, much like jazz musicians “trading eights.”
Pinsky read with his hands behind his back as though waiting for a train, but pulsed his hips and knees to the rhythm, repeating lines so that the words fell back on themselves like waves. The man, let’s face it, has a great reading voice. No poet reading today has a better long “o,” which rides through and beneath the lines like a bass string of its own. I count fourteen long “o”s in “Samurai Song.” Granted, most of them are found in the repeated word “no,” but Pinsky knows his strengths and peppers the poem with a couple others just for good measure.
The other numbers worked in parts, but no other reached the balance of the first. At worst, listening to poems read to jazz is like listening to two conversations, one in each ear. I have no problem with listening to the voice as though it’s an instrument, and to be honest, it’s interesting to hear poems you know in a different framework, letting the sense of the words be overtaken by the tide of music. But the best part of the night was that it cultivated listening from the performers as well as the audience. Artists don’t have to be black holes of ego, collapsing in on themselves. They’re at their best when they can look (or listen) outward as much as inward, and find a small place for themselves among a larger framework, among the music which subsumes us all.