Influence

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 prac-

titioners include Monk, Rollins, Davis, Jackson, Roach, among others; and

I’m frequently and unsurprisingly asked about the influence of jazz on my po-

etry. 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 dis-

like 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 characterologi-

cal. I’m no judge of these possibilities.

One of my idols, Robert Frost, cannily reminds us that we speak of musi-

cal 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 musi-

cian. 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 my-

self 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 com-

passionately, 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 sophisti-

cated 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 liter-  

ary 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 com-

monplace composition than “The Sidewalks of New York.” And yet notice

how Adderley and Jackson, by dint of brain and heart (intellect and holy pas-

sion), 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 bor-

row 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 di-

mension 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 dem-

onstrated, 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 http://www.sydneylea.net.

Originally published in NOR Spring 2010.

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