Levine’s Bud Powell and Matthews’ Bud Powell

For this month’s Music post, a look at two poems about jazz musician Bud Powell, William Matthews’ “Bud Powell, Paris, 1959” and Philip Levine’s “On 52nd Street“.

There are poems about the sound of the music, and there are poems about the musicians, and there are poems about the experience of music. It’s probably true that all music genres have a special hero worship to their culture, but it seems like jazz in particular has HEROES. (Rock music I guess more has rock GODS.) Both Matthews’ and Levine’s poems are about their jazz hero Bud Powell in less-than-stellar form. (Matthews notes in Rising and Falling, by the way, that “I’ve given Powell a heroin habit […] for reasons the poems developed. They are not necessarily good biography.” And my note on the CAPA (Contemporary American Poetry Archive) copy—two small typos, should be “in this dump” and “rose to my ceiling”.)

Some jazz poems go overtly for “jazz form,” with words stretched out all over the pages or attempted transcribed scat, but both these limit themselves to a subtler rhythm of line break and consonance that get across the feel of jazz so much more thoroughly and successfully especially read aloud. They both are mostly quiet poems but both have moments full of “jazz” energy, suspended tension.

Take for instance, from “On 52nd Street”, “Outside starlight / from heaven fell unseen” with that lurchy break after “starlight” and then quickening of the ns in “heaven” and “unseen.” Or the similar rhythm of Matthews’ 

missing runs nobody else would think 
to try, nor think to be outsmarted 
by. Nobody played as well 
as Powell, and neither did he,

And both poems circle Bud Powell but are, ultimately, about the experiences of the young men there at the bar. “Did the TV / come on,” Levine’s poem can’t remember,

did the jukebox bring us
Dinah Washington, did the stars
keep their appointments, did the moon
show, quartered or full, sprinkling
its soft light down?

I was young and pain / rose to my ceiling,” Matthews poems says, “like warmth, / like a story that makes us come true / in the present.” 

Neither poem is disappointed in the less than heroic figure their jazz hero is cutting, and they’re not exactly about resignation either, you get more that feeling you get listening to music about pain or music about absence. “You’re still there too” Levine’s poem says, “holding your breath.” “Pain loves pain” Matthews’ poem says, “and calls it company, and it is.”

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