A Chance Meeting of Words and Music
POET ROBERT PINSKY AND PIANIST LAURENCE HOBGOOD
January 13, 2013
We all know what happens when poets can sing or play an instrument. The enterprising ones—Chuck Berry, Joan Baez, Bob Dylan, Madonna, Kanye West—become superstar troubadours, modally rhyming about youth or sex or status. Music, as we know, is a potent drug—one that releases dopamine in the ventral striatum, producing euphoria. But what happens when a poet doesn’t have musical aspirations per se, but believes in the musicality of language, and loves, say, the jazz of Charlie Parker and Miles Davis?
One answer could be seen recently at Le Poisson Rouge, where the celebrated three-time U.S. Poet Laureate Robert Pinsky duetted with jazz pianist extraordinaire Laurence Hobgood in a set of what Pinsky calls PoemJazz. As that portmanteau suggests, Pinksy and Hobgood performed a libretto of music-related poems, including “Samurai Song” and “Street Music.” Because the poems were Pinsky’s, they naturally incorporated reflections on city life, the history of civilization, family, and work, punctuated by musical metaphors.
Despite his musical affinities, Pinsky’s free verse isn’t typically “musical.” Indeed, the evening’s most memorable poems left the music behind. Familial and reminiscent—like “Creole,” about chance and injustice in life, and “The Green Piano,” about material ephemerality and symbolic loss—these poems had as their salience their shared humanity.
Which raises the conundrum of Hobgood’s undeniable virtuosity as distractive. When it comes to simultaneously taking in complex poetry and improvisational music, multitasking is overrated. Standalone poetry, despite the claims above, can be powerful, and at its best demands complete attention. And so it bears repeating that the human voice can’t compete with the resolute hammers of the pianoforte. Accompanying a human voice, however amplified, a grand piano must be short-standed, closed, or played pianissimo or in alternating jazz ensemble solo. Pity audience members unfamiliar with the poems being read; with projected text, perhaps?
The speculated premise that overlaid word and music is intended to create impressionistic effects also lacks credibility. Wordman Pinsky’s career is based on the interactions of vowels and consonants, morphemes and semes, and, ultimately, the role of the individual poet as synecdoche—a stand-in for us all. Obscuring the import of narrative poetry is thus absurd. (Unlike Augusto de Campos’s or Kurt Schwitters’s, Pinsky’s is neither concrete nor asemic.)
Hobgood’s dexedrine dexterity presented further complications in its uniform complexity. If poetry exposes character and soul, then instrumentation is analogous. Ironically monochromatic, the effervescent, confident Hobgood’s hive-of-hypermanic-buzzing-bees suggested that he hasn’t internalized Pinsky’s pathos and dynamic range (“Ornithology,” yes; Kind of Blue, no); that he isn’t yet, as Robert Frost notes infra, “acquainted with the night.” May he be so lucky as to never be so.
As with Anacreon’s fabled lyre and Allen Ginsberg’s breath-machine harmonium, Pinsky and Hobgood also demonstrated that the chancy juxtaposition of poetry and music might be less effective than crafted integration. Composer Samuel Barber made a compelling opposing case, combining poems by Gerard Manley Hopkins, William Butler Yeats, Frederic Prokosch, and James Agee (note the stellar “Sure on This Shining Night”) in Four Songs to staggering effect—as recently performed by coloratura soprano Erin Morley and pianist Vlad Iftinca. It would be good to hear more poetry qua poetry sung, as Ursula K. Le Guin and Chris Robley have done.
The evening’s outliers—poems not by Pinsky—were Ben Jonson’s “His Excuse for Loving” and Robert Frost’s “Acquainted with the Night.” The former, a maudlin, lilty set of rhyming couplets (a Paul Simon progenitor?), lauds the pair of Language and Truth as “she […] the reason why / All the world for love may die.” Pinsky’s academic introduction that “the grammar is the melody” of this poem (à la Parker) explained its selection, while his logical progression, that “the melody of the poem is the melody of the piano,” was undelivered. Frost’s proto-Plathian, minor-key “Night” was barely saved by its musical allusions—“the sound of feet” and “an interrupted cry”—but not by Hobgood’s impervious solipsism.
The poignancy of Jonson and Frost was magnified by the particulars of the poet. The most touching aspect of PoemJazz was that its poems were read by Pinsky, a man who has run more than seventy laps around the sun, receiving and relaying the music of the spheres. That with all of his achieved success he still has “the Ardor, and the Passion” to sing, accompanied by a latter-day lyre, into the night was inspiring. Witnessing a human loving life was the gift the audience received—of Robert, no excuses needed, not going gently, night be damned, going for us all.