By Sydney Lea

Featured Image: Study for “Music” by Francis Augustus Lathrop 1894

Those who know me know that I’ve long been deeply in love with what Roland Kirk called “Black Classical Music,” especially of that era whose great practitioners include Monk, Rollins, Davis, Jackson, Roach, among others; and I’m frequently and unsurprisingly asked about the influence of jazz on my poetry. Although I want to avoid any glib answer here, whenever the question is posed, I’m never entirely able. The interplay between the music and the poems I write is likely beyond words. Indeed, it may be the thing that I as a poet have, however furtively, long been trying to find words for.

That said, one of the surer things I can surmise is that as more or less a formalist poet, I like feeling the chafe of language against the limits of received (or invented) structure. There is no moral nor even aesthetic stance here: I dislike the formalist/free verse debate, because it too often sounds like a pair of parties elevating what they do and can do into virtue and debasing the things they can’t and don’t do into vices. As a rule, the accompanying arguments are downright ill thought out: the free versers, for instance, associate formalism with elitism and political reaction . . . which makes one wonder where the great practitioners of Delta blues and its musical derivatives would stand. Equally vapid arguments—free verse suggests sloppy poetics and fuzzy thinking—are too often trotted out on the other side.

As for me, I like good poetry, be it formalist or vers libre. (Full disclosure: I’m a lot more at ease with free verse than I am with so-called free jazz, but that need not concern us here.) I do what I do not because I consider it self-evidently superior but because it’s what I do, if you’ll allow me some circular reasoning. Who knows? My predispositions may be genetic or characterological. I’m no judge of these possibilities.

One of my idols, Robert Frost, cannily reminds us that we speak of musical strains, and for me to riff and fill within a form, however self-generated, however inobvious . . . well, that is a pleasure to me, imaginably the grandest pleasure I take from writing. It is a far more significant pleasure, certainly, than any effort at “meaning.” I send what I compose into the world without ultimately knowing as much as a reader may discover about “what I am trying to say” (my students’ favorite locution).

I think, though, that I do know the how of the saying, and this is where musical influence most likely flows in.

I suspect, in fact, that I’m a poet because I’m a failed improvisatory musician. I haven’t played for decades, but back when I did, I was just adept enough to know how masterful the real masters are: how they must have lightning reflexes together with long-honed skills; how they must have a vast awareness of prior literature, along with a yen both to honor and to challenge it; how they must cultivate an affection for form even as they marshal the wit and agility to bend form to novel purpose.

Schooled in an obsolescent, humanist way, moreover, and so familiar myself with prior literature, I like also to “sample” my predecessors, a gesture which Hip Hop may dream it invented, but which has been part of Black Classical Music for as long as that mode has existed. Though I’m certain many of my readers may miss the effort, I do like to play off favorite writers: Frost himself, Dickinson, Thomas Hardy, Wordsworth, and Keats. This sampling—pace Harold Bloom—represents an affection that too many of my students and yours can’t know, because they do not and are not expected to know poetry from any farther back than the Moderns. I say this not censoriously but compassionately, for they do in fact deprive themselves of a joy.

There’s a record (I still listen to records) featuring Cannonball Adderley and Milt Jackson called Things Are Getting Better.1 If you get the chance, listen to those masters play—and play around with—that old chestnut, “The Sidewalks of New York,” of which there are two quite disparate takes on the album. That tune’s melody and rinky-dink waltz format are no more sophisticated than those of the jump rope song it oddly resembles, at least to my ear, and no more so than those we encounter in the most perdurable of American forms, the blues itself.

Which makes me free-associate and meditate a bit on one of the literary idols to whom I just referred. In his fragmentary The Recluse, William Wordsworth wrote:

. . . Paradise, and groves Elysian, Fortunate Fields—like those of old
Sought in the Atlantic Main—why should they be A history only of departed things,
Or a mere fiction of what never was?

The poet revolutionarily suggested that the old values of epic need not be sought in an epical domain, no longer available in any case; rather, he continued,

. . . the discerning intellect of Man, When wedded to this goodly universe
In love and holy passion, shall find these A simple produce of the common day.

As I have said, it would be hard to imagine a more quotidian, a more commonplace composition than “The Sidewalks of New York.” And yet notice how Adderley and Jackson, by dint of brain and heart (intellect and holy passion), move within its frankly banal chord structure without ever losing touch with that structure and its guiding melody. Their improvisations are a wonder and a delight in and of themselves, but the epical dimension, inexactly to borrow Wordsworth’s term, consists in what we could more exactly label flights of the imagination.

At one time, to return to the issue of music and its influence, that dimension seemed accessible only by way of more conventional classical music. For the most part, such an assumption preceded the arrival of Black Classical Music. There are even now, needless to say, those who find such an entrée the only legitimate one; but I don’t want to fight with them, that scarcely being my purpose here. I began anyhow by expressing my distaste for banal dialectic, and I don’t in any event come to these thoughts as champion of jazz over other kinds of composition—except in my own praxis.

The feel of improvisation (rare though scarcely unheard of in highbrow music) is what juices up my forms. Or so I hope. That approach may not work for you. But whoever you are, the imaginative flight is what we are both after; these are simply the materials and attitudes that help me get airborne to the small extent I sometimes may.

Yes, as Wallace Stevens, another idol, iterated and repeatedly demonstrated, Imagination is what the poem is all about. The way great Black Classical composers and musicians manage such a matter is something that has always seemed to me worth trying, and even failing, to emulate in print.

  1. Available on CD in the Riverside Original Jazz Classics series, with a nonpareil rhythm section: Wynton Kelly (piano), Percy Heath (bass), and Art Blakey (drums).

Sydney Lea, a former Pulitzer finalist, recently published his thirteenth collection of poems, Here. Shortly ago, Able Muse published The Exquisite Triumph of Wormboy, a graphic mock epic in collaboration with former Vermont Cartoonist Laureate James Kochalka. Her website can be found at

Originally published in NOR 7

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