I did not always enjoy poetry. I think a lot of people can find poetry boring, or snobby, or confusing. But, I have to say I had my own sort of 'epiphany' during a jazz concert of all places. I saw "PoemJazz" featuring pianist Vijay Iyer and Poetry Laureate Robert Pinsky last March.
And I can say it wasn't as exciting as when I saw Pharaoh Sanders, or as exuberant as when I saw Kenny Garrett, or as fun as when I saw Paquito D'Rivera - but it went somewhere I never would have expected. I started to hear the music in poetry and I started to hear a sense of language in jazz. And through learning, I would say poetry can put to words how I feel about jazz, and jazz can put to music how I feel about poetry.
There are no rules
How poetry has taught me to hear jazz, and vice versa
Because of this concert, I decided to write poems and eventually share them. I have a jazz poetry blog called "Without a Poem", in which I improvise a poem a day. I got this idea from reading Jack Kerouac, and thinking about stream of consciousness literature, like James Joyce. So to 'improvise' a poem, for me, means that I write what comes to mind, without editing my thoughts.
Based on my experience with "PoemJazz" and writing my own poetry, I started studying poetry. I take an online course on "edX" called "The Art of Poetry". I cannot say enough good things about this class! Robert Pinsky teaches the course, and brings such a light to poetry through his enthusiasm. There is something so refreshing in seeing someone that loves what they do.
Lessons I have learned about jazz while studying poetry:
"There are no rules." In fact, this exact sentence is how Pinsky starts his poetry anthology, "Singing School". And what a declaration!
Poetry is about imagination. Here is a segment from the course, "The Art of Poetry":
Poetry is about "going somewhere", just as any jazz solo. Pinsky states,
The freedom to improvise, the exhilaration of making it up as you go along, gets value from arrival. That arrival becomes a manifestation of purpose—purpose likely not formulated or even conscious until the destination reveals it: the goal, the emotion, the healing, the revelation discovered at the end of an apparent wandering or craziness or play.
The joy in poetry comes from hearing it. Poetry is meant to be spoken out loud - that is the legacy of the art form. There is a vocal rhythm to poetry that you only get through vocalizing the lines. Pinsky relates this to an interview with Dizzy Gillespie in which Dizzy says,
I think the basic part of jazz is rhythm and you should delve into that...I'm not talking about that (rhythms)! Rhythmic content means how you accent, where your accents are, and how they fit in with different types of rhythm. You can't notate it for them; they have to be able to hear it. You can come close, but you can't really write jazz.
The vocal rhythm in poetry is quite subtle, and depends on the speaker. This individual experience of a reader with a poem is the same as with a jazz listener. Listen to a variety of poetry videos as part of Pinsky's "My Favorite Poem Project". Watch this personal recollection of "Minstrel Man" by Langston Hughes.
Music can be formed by poetry. I never realized the words to the jazz standard, "Moonlight in Vermont" actually form a "haiku".
Pennies in a streamFalling leaves, a sycamoreMoonlight in Vermont
It's not always about the words - it's about the feeling. A lot of jazz music is instrumental, yet if you listen a certain way you can almost hear these conversations. Read Lewis Carroll's poem, "Jabberwocky". Although Carroll uses nonsense words, the reader can find meaning through the context and the emotions Carroll elicits through harsh sounds.
Form is supposed to inspire creativity, not hinder it. Pinsky states,
Form should not be a straitjacket, or a prison, or a set of hurdles you jump over. Form should be something -- as when you're throwing a ball, or ice skating, or bowing your cello -- that helps you do it as well as you can.Form is a sort of manners. A "twelve bar blues" to a jazz musician gives certain social expectations, just as the form of a "sonnet" does to a poet.
Style enables feeling. It isn't exactly that it is feeling. It's like some figure in Mozart or in Charlie Parker where you keep stretching it further and further.
I think the final example of what poetry has taught me is the process of selection: It isn't only about what the style appeals to, but as Pinsky relates, it's also about what your examples of the art are. What is poetry to you? What is jazz to you?
So to cap off this post, I will share one example of poetry and one example of jazz that I love.
"Caged Bird" by Maya Angelou
"Blue in Green" by Miles Davis
Share a poem and jazz song that you love!