As I’m preparing two blurbs this weekend, I’m looking at a lot of blurbs and thinking about the genre. Maybe there are some observations to be made about the varieties of blurb so you’ll recognize them in the wild.
Maybe you’ll comment, sharing some of your favorite blurbs…
The genre of the recommendation letter, a friend once observed, is hyperbole. Everything has to be stated in the superlative, so one reads for degrees of overstatement, hyper- and hypo-hyperbole, becoming a progressively more sensitive seismograph, searching out quavers and tremors of microscopic proportion.
The blurb is a clear cousin or sibling, at least in the most common form in which sparrows of adjectives crossbreed with surprising frequency, occasionally to be found perching with monikers and epithets (the good kind).
The paperback edition of Tayari Jones’s Silver Sparrow lavishes its (richly deserved) lavishings in one-liners:
Nakedly honest … Superbly charged. —The Atlanta Journal-Constitution
Impossible to put down. —Los Angeles Times
An amazing, amazing read. —Jennifer Weiner, NBC’s Today
It’s really powerful. —Diane Rehm (NPR)
An exciting read all the way through. —Chicago Tribune
This last is almost a meta-blurb, suggesting in its strange capitalization (or is this the work of the book designer or the marketing department?) the always-already capitalized nature of the blurb, the raised-voice praise that may always only say however many words are within “this is good.”
Even in a more substantial blurb, like this one (with which I heartily agree), written by Melissa Pritchard for Caitlin Horrocks’s This Is Not Your City (Sarabande 2011), the lavishing raises its volume:
Caitlin Horrocks is that literary phenomenon: a master storyteller. In each of these eleven short fictions, she lends confident style, mature perspective, and myriad voices to people in situations and circumstances we might otherwise turn from or never know of. This Is Not Your City is smart, entertaining, and emotionally mesmerizing—a superb, daredevil immersion steeped in grace.
These things are true. Horrocks is a great storyteller (and now the fiction editor for the Kenyon Review), a phenomenal storyteller (and a great reader of her own work). These adjectives or adjectival nouns—phenomenon, master—highlight their cousins, harmonizing in a complex chord of praise: confident, mature, smart, entertaining, mesmerizing, superb, daredevil.
Even when the book wrapped by the cover has a profoundly different concern, like David Sedaris’s hilarious When You Are Engulfed in Flames, the blurbs remain in the hieratic:
Glorious…. What makes Sedaris’s work transcendent is its humanity…. He’s the best there is. —Judith Newman, People
Profoundly funny, well-crafted stories that somehow, magically, bring home a major point about fidelity or guilt or love…. The draw, as always, is Sedaris’s utter lack of sanctimony and his use of humor as a portal to deeper feelings. —Heller McAlpin, Christian Science Monitor
Where is the humor that might respond to or be inspired by Sedaris’s? Barely here:
A delightful compilation of essays circling the theme of death and dying, with nods to the French countryside, art collecting, and feces. —Vanessa Grigoriadis, New York Times Book Review.
Maps & Legends (Keys)
Perhaps the earliest poetry blurb was the line from a letter Emerson had written, which Whitman took and impressed into the spine of the 1856 Leaves of Grass: “I greet you at the beginning of a great career.” This looks like lavish, pure praise without substance, as if Emerson had said greatness, this. But in Whitman, this greatness is theme as well, this beginning is theme as well. So, this proto-blurb begins to define another variety of blurb, the comment that serves as a preface or legend, putting the reader in the frame of mind to approach the book properly.
So, Carl Phillips’s Double Shadow is adorned with knowledgeable praise lavished on the previous book, Swing Low. Katie Peterson, from the Boston Review:
[Phillips] never fails to return us to the body of experience, the moments of perception that inspire his meditations. In Speak Low, he tries assiduously to do so, more than hinting that he is as much an epistemological poet—a maker of knowledge-structures, a theorist of perception—as he is a love poet. Or that the two kinds of poem—in the hands of writers such as Stevens, Elizabeth Bishop, and Phillips—are actually one in the same.
And Lisa Russ Spaar:
No one writes like Carl Phillips, whose extraordinary tenth book of poetry, Speak Low, deepens and extends his inimitable vision and sway with words in poems whose syntactical, erotic, and aesthetic discernments rival in their daring economies of risk and quiet ambition Emily Dickinson’s Master Letters and Virginia Woolf’s best poetic prose… If any language—the sentences by which we trope our own lives—can possibly provide a way to ride our amazements and our terrors with fugal and resistive intelligence—it resides in these crucial poems.
Double Shadow is indeed a book that moves the musculature of the erotic toward a place of higher if often darker knowledge, so these blurbs, which tell the reader that he or she is about to read the poem of love or the poem of thought and that these poems will be one in the same, these blurbs prepare the reader for the poems within.
This is another form of praise, but it leads us into the book not only trusting in the experience of the blurbist, but in her knowledge as well.
Drunk on the Wine Within
Mathias Svalina’s Destruction Myth (Cleveland State, 2010), in which the world is created 44 times, in different ways, inspired two ecstatic blurbs. The first, by Kevin Prufer, imitates the book’s form, interpolating many of the poems’ first lines:
In the beginning, everyone looked like Larry Bird. In the beginning, there was a rotting pig corpse. Everyone wanted to fight to the death. There was a hole in the basement floor. And a bunny with a broken leg. There were ghosts. Evildoers. A gun. Bacon. Cologne. A pencil. In these inventive, often deeply unnerving poems Mathias Svalina offers us a string of forty-four creation myths and one longer, unsettling destruction myth. The result is a sonically complex, breathtakingly witty book, a collection of poems that surprises first with its wildly orchestrated clamor of narratives then, on reflection, surprises all over again with its intelligence and insight into the many ways we tell stories, the many means by which we imagine ourselves participating in them. This is an ambitious, brilliant first book.
The second of these blurbs is even more ecstatic. Anne Boyer:
If I feel physically as if the top of my head is taken off and replaced with a soft serve ice cream machine, I am pretty sure it is poetry. Svalina’s book does no less, and also so much more. Read but also believe this book of fantastic lies. It’s like how you see a cat sitting there and you think ‘that is just a cat’ and then you realize that cat is God. Mathias Svalina has reinvented Yaweh as an Animorph. When this book is taught in college classrooms, students will curl up on the air conditioning vents and ask for salt.
To my mind, these blurbs are even higher praise, recording the transport of which the book is capable, deranging the prose of the reviewer.
Tag Team (Inheritance)
Sometimes a book has a single blurb—one blurb—on the back. I’ve got two examples on hand that suggest a kind of handoff, with the blurb evidencing a kinship, with an elder poet authorizing the younger, or placing the poet within a particular community or lineage. These blurbs are kin to the Maps and Legends blurbs, telling us something about how we’ll read the book or more precisely how we’ll value or understand the value of what we’ve just read.
Christian Hawkey’s The Book of Funnels (Verse 2004) has John Ashbery’s imprimatur:
Christian Hawkey’s poetry is landscape poetry in the true sense of landscape—not a segment of the earth’s surface posing for its picture, but an open, undetermined space in which all kinds of crazy mental and physical things are going about their business simultaneously. What emerges is a portrait of a medium like the one we live in, with all its unexpectedness. The Book of Funnels is one of the strangest and most beautiful first books of poetry I have read in a long time.
This is a remarkable endorsement, especially for a first book. Ashbery’s is a perceptive reading that helps one enter The Book of Funnels (see legends), but it’s also an anointment. If you liked John Ashbery, you’ll love this.
Terrance Hayes’s Lighthead has a single note, from Yusef Komunyakaa:
Terrance Hayes is a master of insinuation. In this new collection of edgy poems the work has the feel of a neo-bluesman whispering existential riffs against modern chaos. His language negotiates the flux and accepts the ragged edges of things, and is always determined to be anything but lighthearted or lightweight. The earned humor in these pages is bittersweet; love and pathos live under the skin of innuendo. Lighthead is genius at work.
The blue note is important here, so we’ll tune into the tone and the turns of Hayes’s work and read the poems not as comic but as refractive: this is a vein in which Komunyakaa excels.
A poet may reach a late stage of career where the blurbage is clipped, telegraphic, communicating the sensitivities only the closely related may be able to decipher clearly. But the brevity should indicate to all observers that even a brief perusal of the wonders within will amaze and leave the reader capable of only single-sentence responses.
James Tate’s last decade’s selected poems The Eternal Ones of the Dream offers among its few briefs:
[James Tate] ever ceases to astonish, dismay, delight, confuse, tickle, and generally improve the quality of our lives. —John Ashbery
Mr. Tate’s gift is such that many of [his] poems move me at least to plain envy of what he can do. —W. S. Merwin
But the poet of spectacular plumage may be indicated too by the relative plainness of those around it, blurbed not by other poets but by publications, by choirs. So, David Baker’s Never-Ending Birds:
[Baker] is a reliably illuminating presence in American poetry—a profound poet who inhabits the natural world and the realm of the arcane with equal ease. —Huffington Post
Well observed, careful, and shot through with sadness, [Never-Ending Birds] is [Baker’s] best. —Publishers Weekly
A poet whose song is widely reputed may be so reputed by no blurb at all.
Copper Canyon Press folded the blurbs for Dean Young’s Fall Higher onto the flap of the dust jacket, leaving a single poem on the back cover that reads, in the paperback context of poetry books, as if the book is its own blurb, as if a paraphrase of imminent brilliance is impossible: the light has already arrived.
The Academy of American Poets has published my poem “Letter Already Broadcast Into Space” as its poem of the day today. Read it here.
Maybe, as Charles Wright says, a poem is always a self-portrait, though what exactly that means for the poem’s shape, or the way it treats its reader, is less than a simple matter, as I considered in my last two postings. I’m not yet through thinking about the relationship between ekphrasis and self-portrait poems, but, reading Weston Cutter’s interview with Erika Meitner here on the KR Blog and listening to OutKast, I’m diverted or diffracted to think about (though now it occurs to me that what follows can be read (please read it this way) as an extension of some of the comments I made last week about the figures in Cecily Parks’s self-portrait poems) the relationship between the figure or image in a self-portrait poem and the writer ostensibly being self-portrayed and, for that matter, what one’s similes say, or do not say, about one’s self.
Though it’s not called a “self-portrait,” the gesture that begins “North Slope Borough,” the opening poem in Erika Meitner’s Ideal Cities, seems self-portraity in its reflexiveness, though the gesture exceeds the ken of simple autobiographical statement:
My heart is an Alaskan fishing village during whaling season,
which is to say that everyone is down by the thawing sea.
The huts on stilts are empty, and my heart is a harpoon,
a homemade velveteen parka, hood lined with wolverine.
In her interview with Cutter, Meitner says “I’m super tied to my geography,” which, as Cutter’s question specifies, is Washington DC, central Virginia, east coast locales. Alaska doesn’t come up. Her Wikipedia entry tells us that she was born in New York and attended college at Dartmouth–so East Coast mostly, though Wikipedia also says she taught at University of Wisconsin-Madison and UC-Santa Cruz, so there’s some upper-Midwest and West Coast in the geographical resume, but still no Alaska–all of which to say the poem’s statement that the speaker’s heart is “an Alaskan fishing village” is a boldly metaphorical statement and not just a change of scale, as if I, a fifth-generation Alabamian, were to say “my heart is Birmingham” or even “I am Alabama,” neither of which would be technically true, however metonymically plausible. The biography and geography-biography suggest that the locale picked up by the title, “North Slope Borough” is the metonym, but I’m not really thinking about metonyms. It’s the metaphor–the claim that the heart is an Alaskan fishing village, which expresses and images the speaker’s adoption of a hunting posture, which tells us that she is on the move–and moving so surely and determinedly the village and the metaphor disappear soon.
My mouth has no zipper, which helps me remember
how to say O. O I miss home. When I close my eyes,
I see the F train’s twin headlights blooming into the station.
When I close my eyes, its warm wind sweeps hair from my face“
Back in New York.
I admire, I want to say, the way this poem expresses what Meitner calls her tie to geography by moving, in what we might (hopefully-not-too-bad-flashback-academically) call the poem’s vehicular space–in that place that’s reserved for the images of metaphors or similes that transport us to those other places, though the poem’s finally really and always and never stopped being about the speaker’s “heart,” that, by the end of the poem is “old-school graffiti” and so forth from what a Wikipedia-biographical approach to the poem would suggest is home, is the original geography for the poet who may be pressing forward in the speaker. I admire, I want to say, the way this poem moves through a chain of metaphors or similes, the way it uses a figure until it gets what it needs (can you see the people on the seashore?) and then moves on.
I am thinking, I want to say, too, as I re-read this poem, of the VH1 2008 special VH1’s 100 Greatest Hip-Hop Songs, and specifically their 23rd greatest hip-hop song, OutKast’s “B.O.B.” The song is from OutKast’s 2000 album Stankonia, and it was the first single off the album, which also included the now-more-famous “Ms. Jackson.” According to the VH1 segment, this song, which radically altered OutKast’s position in the hip-hop universe by projecting the musical explosiveness of the Atlanta crew beyond the scope of the Dirty South, was a serious club hit that started getting radio play before ultimately being pulled from radio rotation the following year when, after the 9/11 attacks, the phrase signified by the acronym–“bombs over Baghdad”–became perceived as a pro-war statement or as an offensively-upbeat celebration of war. This, however, is clearly a misreading, as the song instead thinks–amplified especially in the chorus, which contains this simile–about the first Gulf War conflict and the way America’s relationship with Iraq, never really good after that conflict, help figure the need for decisive and definitive action. As the chorus goes:
Don’t pull the thang out unless you plan to bang
Bombs over Baghdad
Don’t even bang unless you plan to hit something
Bombs over Baghdad
It’s a core practice of hip-hop to use a simile then leave it. One might say “all similes are local.” So, on VH1’s third greatest hip-hop song of all time, Dr. Dre’s “Nothin’ But a G Thang,” Snoop Dogg raps that he’s “getting funky on the mic like an old bunch of collard greens”–yet, no one’s looking for him in the produce section or behind the grocery store.
Meitner is–and for that matter OutKast and Snoop Dogg are–always playing on our desire, once we’ve become invested in or awakened by a figure, to continue to live with it and in it. Maybe the misreadings of OutKast’s “B.O.B.” are inevitable–especially as the culture changes around it. Maybe these ways in which the vehicular figure slips out of the pocket say something about the time and place–the temporal and spatial geography–in which an utterance can occur and in which it can be read. The figure is good as far as you can throw it, but sometimes it skips on the water on continues even further than we could have made it go.
Meitner, in her poem, knows how to make the skip work, letting the stone travel after we’ve stopped watching.
“Home,” Meitner’s poem will not say, does not need to say, because you will say it for the poem, is where the heart is, so after the heart is the fishing village and the poet comes “home” and declares
Home is the place with plastic slipcovers on the couch.
Home is the place with heavy brown shoes misaligned at the door.
we have left Alaska, but we have not left it entirely behind, because it can still say something, or help the poem say something, about the poet’s home geography:
When I close my eyes, I look for an entryway into the earth.
I dream of a porcupine, though I can’t recall if I’ve ever seen one.
The porcupine seems more at home in the frontier geography of Alaska, but it provides the poem’s speaker a way of moving from a part of the poem in which the subways of New York read like convenient similes to a place in which the subway trains, the tunnels, the graffiti, and sidewalk chess matches of the poet’s home geography become not figures but self-portraits. The stone skipping, seemingly accidentally, with serious, stealth purpose“
More on the Self-Portrait: Self-Portrait as Ekphrasis, Ekphrasis as Refraction, Refraction as Reflection
Last week, writing about the self-portrait, when I speculated parenthetically that the self-portrait poem may be a kind of ekphrastic poem, I had two things in mind.
The first was that, to the extent that one can (as a painter must) treat oneself as the object, what the poet could say about him- or her-self–and the way he or she could say it–would be interestingly different from what and how a poet might express something about him- or herself in a subjective lyric.
In the subjective lyric–if there’s anything like a popular or dominant mode in American poetry, for good or bad, this is it–the poet writes from inside his or her knowledge and also through that knowledge, communicating it to the reader with a little indirection; one gets the feeling, to remember John Stuart Mill’s famous formulation, that what is said gets overheard by the reader, as the poet is talking to him- or herself, or to no one.
When I was thinking about self-objectification in the self-portrait, I was thinking about how different the mode or the mood of the poem that is describing rather than disclosing. There’s something more neutral about the language–or there can be.
The second thing I was thinking about is how, through this more neutral descriptive language, however aloof this can seem, the poet may be able to express more about him- or herself than would be possible or welcome or seemly in a subjective lyric.
You might say that it would be the same if Zagajewski had said
“ my father’s face
invades my slightly melancholy face: my short white beard,
his enemies insist, must signify capitulation
“ his father’s face
invades his own, slightly melancholy face; the short white beard,
his enemies insist, must signify capitulation.
But the objectified, third-person version has a unique capacity. If you were writing a poem in which you described yourself as being invaded, if you characterized your ageing as a capitulation, you might be displaying some serious vocabulary, but I think for many readers such verbiage might come across as a little histrionic. We might ask Do you think you’re a country or something?
This is exactly the point here. As Zagajewski is talking about his awareness of his ageing and the signs that are specific to his family line, he’s also comparing himself, and his family, to his home country of Poland. These words–“invades,” “enemies,” and “capitulation”–can work in the third-person because the speaker of the poem doesn’t have to own them entirely. The third-person speaker can assign them to the object of description–can assign those words through description–even suggest that these are that person’s words, and thereby use them without being subject to any accusations of hyperbole. The speaker remains believable. A clever indirection that enables the poem to make a startling comparison.
If you want to see the descriptive mode in the extreme, leaf Andrew Zawacki’s “Self-Portrait,” from his book By Reason Of Breakings. This is a poem so focused on the details of what is seen, it’s easy to lose sight of the poet’s objectified self. Here’s the first stanza:
Only the colorless eye is undistracted: a lake
rubbed blue by twilight is not blue to the eye cast blue
and a violet sunset cannot be refracted
violet through the violet eye. A crimson retina
won’t conceive the paint of a rigging blooded by dusk
or the stain a star makes, cutting its patina
crimson across a backwind disturbing the houseboat.
Zawacki’s getting a great deal of detail–his self-portrait places him at a lake, at sunset, or just afterward, looking at a docked houseboat, seeing the late light on the boat’s lines–into the poem in the negative, bringing the world into the poem by talking about what would not be possible otherwise, if he were not there.
The abundance of detail given to the scene, always seems to swallow the poet’s self, to push that subject-object into the sensory richness of the world. And this, I think, is Zawacki’s goal, in a poem that proposes “the eye is naught / diffracting weather and water, and exists itself for the sake / of what it reveals.”
There is, nevertheless, in the poet’s language something that is not invisible and that points back to Zawacki. There’s nothing invisible about “a knot of isinglass that reflects / lightning tracing paraphs around the harbor.” This is like Percival Lowell mapping Venus and discovering not the canals he claimed but the pattern of his own retinas. In some ways, the voiding of the self leads to an even greater expression of the self.
This is the very idea at play in self-portrait poems like those in Cecily Parks’s book Field Folly Snow. The titles suggest the approach: “Self-Portrait as Rain Gauge,” “Self-Portrait as Seismograph,” “Self-Portrait as Angler’s Damselfly,” and “Self-Portrait Which Makes Use of the Beaufort Scale.”
In execution these poems, whose titles identify their metaphorical vehicles, invert the typical subject/figure relationship in order to inhabit the objects (or systems) and to speak as if, for example, a seismograph were writing its own self-portrait. But in the moments when the language seems to exceed the capacity of the sentient rain gauge or damselfly, that’s where we hear something self-expressive.
Here are the first eight lines of “Self-Portrait as Angler’s Damselfly”:
It takes a certain type to be devoured
daily, to slide into each fish’s jaw
with no song in my throat. Please consider,
in big-river country, the allure
of the miniature, of tinsel, feather and thread,
of still, glittering hackles and glued wings–
and know when the mouth strikes, I’m barb and hook
and bound by filament to bony ground.
It may not be surprising that a fishing fly would describe itself as “barb and hook,” but this is not the point of this sort of poem. The point is to ask what does it mean that the poet describes herself as such, thinking about her capacity to be devoured, her desire to be devoured–thinking about her tendency toward self-destruction, but also her sudden capacity to defend herself and fight dissolution?
We get there, by watching the poet construct a self and creating a voice for that self–literally creating a voice to “speak out of” (this is what the word ekphrasis means, as you already know) that constructed self. We don’t learn enough to impersonate the poet or to write a biography of the poet, but we learn something of the poet’s inner states, her emotions, her weather–and her capacity to create and change that weather.
It’s hard for me to come to a poem like Adam Zagajewski’s “Self-Portrait” (included in the latest issue of The Kenyon Review) without thinking of those lines from Charles Wright’s poem “Roma II” (from The Other Side of the River, 1984): “The poem is a self-portrait / always, no matter what mask / You take off and put back on.” Though, for Zagajewski’s poem, perhaps a more appropriate gloss would be the second stanza of one the “Self-Portrait” poems from Wright’s The Southern Cross (1981):
Evening becomes us.
I see myself in a tight dissolve, and answer to no one.
Self-traitor, I smuggle in
The spider love, undoer and rearranger of all things.
Angel of Mercy, strip me down.
Wright’s idea–of the world as the counterpart to or mask of the self and the self as the counterpart to or mask of the world, his idea of the self’s location and dislocation as being almost the same thing–finds some echo in Zagajewski’s opening lines:
Evenings he moves to the window in a rumpled shirt and yawns.
Looks a little different in each picture–his father’s face
invades his own, slightly melancholy face; the short white beard,
his enemies insist, must signify capitulation.
The eyes gaze at the lens with hope. Growing older.
The “short white beard” brings Zagajewski into focus. The poet is looking at and objectifying himself, placing himself in the center of all his attention. He is the world. But, as with Wright, becoming the world draws the rest of the world into the self, stretching and even decentering the self, asking for its capitulation, its dissolution.
Zagajewski’s poem includes a note, giving the date and circumstances of the poem’s composition: “May, 2008, after seeing Eric Fischl’s Self-Portrait.” I don’t know exactly which of Fischl’s paintings Zagajewski’s referring to. I know two paintings whose titles identify them as self-portraits, of one kind or another. There’s the almost comic “Portrait of the Artist” (1988):
And there’s the early (and maybe speculative) “Portrait of the Artist as an Old Man” (1984):
Zagajewski’s note suggests that, however obliquely (the “after” is the deflection), this “Self-Portrait” may be an ekphrastic poem, which speaks out of or through the painting. Maybe there’s another Fischl painting called “Self-Portrait” that I don’t know, so I’m left to think about Zagajewski’s poem in relation to these paintings.
Zagajewski isn’t describing the figures, in Fischl’s paintings, and Fischl isn’t painting Zagajewski. Maybe there’s some resonance in the way “Portrait of the Artist as an Old Man,” one of Fischl’s early works, suggests that the act of objectifying oneself ages or diminishes one, is a kind of “capitulation,” to use Zagajewski’s word. Or in the way the comic, almost fun-house image of the self in the latter painting suggests that the act of objectifying oneself creates certain distortions.
Or there’s something in the technique, in the Fischlness of a Fischl. In these paintings, the boldness, the strength of the stroke suggests the kind of tension Wright and Zagajewski express: though you can see the figure, the subject, in each of Fischl’s portraits, the paint that composes the figures and the brushstrokes that arrange the paint are all clearly visible. The portrait is a representation of a person, but it is also a painting.
The “poem is a self-portrait / always.” And the self-portrait is always a poem, is always an artifact in which the self may be lost or mislaid. (And maybe this means, too, that the self-portrait is always also an ekphrastic poem (a topic I will explore in a future post)?)
Zagajewski’s closing paragraph moves, through a repeated assertion of the self, to just such dissolution:
in a winter day’s quiet, it is I, bored, resigned,
unhappy, haughty, it is I, daydreaming
like a teenager, dead tired like the aged,
I in the museum, at the seashore, on Krak??w’s main square,
yearning for a moment that won’t show, that hides
like mountain peaks on cloudy afternoons, brightness
finally arrives, and I suddenly know all, know it is not I.
Time’s a game of catch and pitch, Irwin writes in “Elegy” in the Winter 2011 issue Kenyon Review.
The line haunts as I read Irwin’s “Poem Beginning With a Line by Milosz” in the May 2011 issue of Poetry, which begins “The most beautiful bodies are like transparent glass”– from Milosz’s early poem “Hymn.” In the 14 lines that follow, Irwin transforms the idea. “What appears transparent is really flame / burning so brightly it appears like glass.” “The bodies that seem / transparent are made of an ice so pure it appears / to be glass sweating“” The end is Irwin’s own, but the way he arrives there–returning at the beginning of each of his sentences to Milosz’s then abstracting or riffing from it–also seems to belong to Milosz.
This poem, like so many works I admire, has implicated me in its call and response, its pitch and catch, and held me, a quantum particle oscillating between several places at once.
Cleveland Museum of Contemporary Art. 2011 Tri-C Jazz Fest. Robert Glasper Trio arranged in a corner of the foyer to play to about 200 people.
In the first motion–hard to remember how long this takes, maybe 5 minutes, maybe 10, until someone leans against an emergency exit door and the alarm starts screaming–they’re working through a phrase I don’t recognize but that slowly turns toward a phrase from Herbie Hancock’s “Maiden Voyage.”
Until the alarm goes off, this is an auspicious beginning.Glasper recorded “Maiden Voyage” on his debut album Mood, and then returned to it in the sessions for his Blue Note masterpiece In My Element, where he combined Hancock’s tune with Radiohead’s “Everything In Its Right Place.” Glasper’s insight is that the primary melodic figure of one tune seems to echo the other–their rhythms slightly differ–so he can play them both at the same time and still have space to riff off the phrases into something momentary and individual.
The alarm brings this to an end, but when the Trio commences again they work on another Hancock tune–“Little One” maybe, though I don’t recall for sure. As it resolves, Glasper says “That was a little something I wrote“” It’s the first in a running series of musical jokes, and most of the audience is in on it since we know this is Hancock. What follows is a series of riffs about Glasper’s relationship to Hancock, including phrases like “Yeah, we’re friends–on Facebook,” that continues throughout the night.
At least twice Glasper jokes that he wrote a Hancock tune–and he starts playing a Monk tune after saying that he was going to “play something new.” These moments stick with me in part because they’re funny, and they show not only Glasper’s humor, but the humor of a music so many people think is stale or esoteric.
But I think about these moments also because they say something important–they show something important–about the experience and position and the art of the musician or the poet who comes after. I’m not talking about Romantic belatedness or anything so melancholy, but what I imagine as a basic problem of all art: How does one artist, having learned from the work of his or her elders or precursors, both signal the debt the new work owes to the old and keep historical subsequence from being artistic subordination?
I conn’d old times,
I sat studying at the feet of the great masters,
Now if eligible O that the great masters might return and study me.
Which is to say, the later artist has to re-wire the timeline, to create loops or circles in it. When Irwin writes “Time is a game of catch and pitch,” the last verb “pitch” suggests that the ball doesn’t rest with him but will fly again, and anyone would know that a game of catch involves passing the ball between two people.
But for this to be possible, the later has to step into the moment with the earlier, the elder, and to claim some kind of ownership of what has become common property.
This is what I think is at stake in Glasper’s jokes, which are just glosses on the re-ordering work of his performances.
And this is what’s happening in Irwin’s “Poem,” where there’s a kind of jazz in the movements. Maybe we can read Irwin’s rearrangements and reconfigurations of the notes of Milosz’s line and the repeated return to Milosz’s line as a starting point for a new improvisation and refiguring–maybe we can read these movements as entries in a kind of conversation at the end of which Irwin’s poem inhabits Milosz’s even as Milosz’s inhabits Irwin’s.
Not everybody’s comfortable with this.
I remember a workshop I taught maybe five or six years ago when, in the context of a conversation about “getting past writer’s block” I suggested we begin an exercise by pulling a line from a poem and working off it–using the pre-existing line to determine a rhythm, to begin the flow of ideas.
One student would have none of it. He thought this was little more than common theft. In his offense he wrote nothing. I left workshop that day thinking about his blank paper, how heavy it must feel to believe you can only touch whatever you own alone, how lonely never to have borrowed anything“
Was it Eliot, we ask, who said good poets borrow, great poets steal?
One of the surest tests [of the superiority or inferiority of a poet] is the way in which a poet borrows. Immature poets imitate; mature poets steal; bad poets deface what they take, and good poets make it into something better, or at least something different. The good poet welds his theft into a whole of feeling which is unique, utterly different than that from which it is torn; the bad poet throws it into something which has no cohesion.
Which presupposes that poets borrow. Like jazz musicians borrow. Which is to say to quote and transform. Which is to say to improvise from one language into another. Which is to say to move into another pitch what has been caught. Which is to say, is it not, not only to cover but to re-cover, to do the work of elegy when the recognition of the phrase reminds us of what is past, to fold the past around so it is the future of the present, so the present is the past of the past, to loop it all, so we can, after all talk back, call-and-response, pitch-and-catch, not, after all, transparent, but bright as glass?
The fine folks at From the Fishouse have posted a rather generous feature of reading and interview. Check it out.
Brian Brodeur has posted my responses to his questionnaire on the How A Poem Happens website, where I discuss the poem “Shall Be Taught to Speak” and how I composed it.