Category Archives: Music Poems

Bessie Smith & Bessie Smith

Here’s a two-fer Music Poems post (since I missed November by a mile) — two with Bessie Smith, the ‘Empress of the Blues’ who had an unsurpassed voice and was in her time (the 1920s) the highest paid black performer around.

First up, Jericho Brown’s “Langston Blues“. I saw Jericho Brown last weekend at a Copper Canyon Press shindig in Seattle and holy moly is he a great performer! He was mesmerizing and his work was beautiful (not pretty beautiful, hard beautiful). I strongly urge you, if you have the chance to hear him live, to take it.

[…]

Let my words

Lie sound in the mouths of men
Repeating invocations pure
And perfect as a moan

That mounts in the mouth of Bessie Smith.
Blues for the angels kicked out
Of heaven. Blues for the angels

Who miss them still. Blues
For my people and what water
They know. O weary drinkers

Drinking from the bloody river,
Why go to heaven with Harlem
So close? […]

Continue reading

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Traumerei

October’s music poem: Linda Bierds’ Traumerei.

You will have to forgive me — I just moved apartments, cities and jobs (hello, Seattle!) — for leaving you with just this for this month’s Music Poems post. Read Linda Bierds’ “Traumerei“.

(If you want to know more, read it while listening to Traumerei. Or read this about Schumann’s Traumerei and this about Schumann’s life, and then read Linda Bierds’ Traumerei again while listening to this Traumerei.)

And then come back and we can get into an argument about whether or not ‘knowing what it’s about’ matters to the beauty of the poem…

 

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Que Sera Sera

A. Van Jordan’s “Que Sera Sera — this month’s Music Poems post. Oh, this is a great poem. The music descriptions are great, the stream-of-consciousness build of momentum is great, the dual layer descriptions of the experience of being pulled over for “driving while black” are great, the circular pull back at the ending is great. For instance look at how many different ways you can read the words “light” and “color” and “within your flesh” and “you’re on your feet” in this passage, after the speaker, who has been listening “to what / sounds like Doris Day shooting / heroin inside Sly Stone’s throat” (this song) while driving through Black Mountain, North Carolina, is pulled over by a police officer, and the questioning makes his hands “want to ball into fists.”

But, instead, I tell myself to write a letter
to the Chief of Police, to give him something
to laugh at over his morning paper,
as I try to recall the light in Doris Day’s version
of “Que Sera Sera”—without the wail
troubling the notes in the duet
of Sly and Cynthia’s voices.
Hemingway meant to define
courage by the nonchalance you exude
while taking cover within your flesh,
even at the risk of losing
what some would call a melody;
I call it the sound of home.
Like when a song gets so far out
on a solo you almost don’t recognize it,
but then you get back to the hook, you suddenly

recognize the tun and before you know it,
you’re putting your hands together; you’re on your feet—
because you recognize a sound, like a light,
leading you back home to a color:

rust. […]

And then the poem goes into its long and excellent dive into memory around the color rust. Great stuff.

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Matthea Harvey’s “The Oboe Player”

This month’s Music Poem post, Matthea Harvey’s “The Oboe Player” from her 2000 collection Pity the Bathtub its Forced Embrace of the Human Form.

“His lips are full, but to play he must fold them in, / make a tight line of those wet curves” begins Matthea Harvey‘s sensual “The Oboe Player”. “It is shocking to see / them sprout out again when he finishes playing a long note” it continues, opening a poem full of luxurious descriptions.

The poem moves between the audience’s reactions to the power of the oboe player (“Those who pick / at their programs wish his solo were over, others look down / thinking he would only have to look at a bundle of green twine / and it would burst into flower”), the other musicians’ and the conductor’s reactions (“The conductor who approached the podium resolving / to rein him in abandons his brisk baton strokes, succumbs / to swaying”).

And the oboe player’s relationship with his own playing: Continue reading

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Memphis Minnie on the Icebox

By a poet, though not technically a poem, “Memphis Minnie on the Icebox” is this month’s Music post — a hell of a great piece of writing by Langston Hughes penned originally for the Chicago Defender newspaper in 1943.

All of it is fabulous. For instance, the description in this paragraph:

Then, through the smoke and racket of the noisy Chicago bar float Louisiana bayous, muddy old swamps, Mississippi dust and sun, cotton fields, lonesome roads, train whistles in the night, mosquitoes at dawn, and the Rural Free Delivery, that never brings the right letter. All these things cry through the strings on Memphis Minnie’s electric guitar, amplified to machine proportions — a musical version of electric welders plus a rolling mill.

You can hear it, even if you’ve never heard Memphis Minnie (or possibly even if you don’t know what the blues sounds like — hard for me to say on that one, but I’ll venture it’s so).

And then the turn the piece takes from the music to the world from which the music comes, with the gesture of the question, the mindset, “It was last year, 1941, that the war broke out, wasn’t it?” and then that end bit, about the men who take the money. Chillingly, thrillingly good little bit of writing, this piece — it seems to me it does everything a good short essay should. Sets the scene and puts you in it, has something to say, says it, and leaves you feeling your life has another before and after to mark, before and after you first read this.

 

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Minor Seventh

For this month’s music poem, a look at Jeffrey Bean’s “Minor Seventh“, which segues neatly into a review of Jeffrey Bean’s 2009 book Diminished Fifth.

Minor Seventh” is a prose poem, it’s a list, and it is built (built of various materials, built so it holds up, and built in the way you talk about someone in very good shape being built). And like all the best list poems the items in it cohere, surprise, make sense logically and make sense in the other ways amalgams make sense (the “poetry” kind of making sense).

And so too do the sounds. They cohere, surprise, make sense and make sense. Listen to how, at the beginning of “Minor Seventh,” the ks and rs and ns in ricochet, kitchen, mixolydian run together then modulate into the ns, ms and fs of Mississippi, blues, smokestacks, hymns, grief, hiss, then swing back to timber and trucks and crawling:

Foghorns, grackles, wheat fields sighing in wind. The night hawk’s ricochet. You better come on in my kitchen. Mixolydian trumpet runs boiling up the Mississippi turning into urban blues and smokestacks over Gary, Indiana. Hymns. Grief. The hiss of sprinklers in timber yards, brawl of log trucks crawling up Mt. Hood. […]

It’s hard to talk about a poem like this without devolving into analogies of music in your description, but it really does work that way, Continue reading

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And so it is.

For this month’s Music post, I point you to A.E. Stallings again (and why not?), this time to  “Listening to Peter and the Wolf with Jason, Aged Three.”

I don’t know how she does it, is part of why I re-read Stallings, how she uses such formal (here rhyming triplets for goshsakes) forms but sounds so natural and contemporary so, yes I’ll say it (and why not?) accessible. Shouldn’t this poem be sort of boring? But it’s not.

It’s a small domestic moment, the action of “Listening to Peter and the Wolf with Jason, Aged Three,” taking place at present, and the detailed look it’s given, quite perfectly described — but not at length. I mean the moment, the listening to the music, the speaker’s reaction to the child’s grave and logical pronouncement, is not expanded to make some much larger point or dwelled upon philosophically, expounded or held up from all angles. Continue reading

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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. Continue reading

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“We still believe what we hear.”

For this month’s Music poem, I point you to Seamus Heaney’s “The Singer’s House

Like all great Heaney poems, and especially appropriate for a poem engaging with music, it is delicious to read/hear aloud. The give and take of the alliterative/echoing sounds, “a hint of the clip of the pick / in your winnowing climb and attack” to “Raise it again, man. We still believe what we hear” —oh, delicious. And the salt imagery builds more the more you read it. (There are a million more things to say about how this poem is built from a form and structure perspective which I might come back to in future, but this’ll just be a short post this month.)

In an interview in the Paris Review the late Heaney says this poem is about “the poet’s and the poem’s right to a tune in spite of the tunelessness of the world around them” and has more to say about the situations from which it arose, and of course there’s information about Carrickfergus and its salt mines and Gweebarra you can find online worth poking about in, but, as with all the best poems, that’s all not strictly necessary for an enjoyable first reading.

 

 

 

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William Matthews’ Janis Joplin

February’s Music post: William Matthews’ “The Penalty for Bigamy is Two Wives

William Matthews’ prose poem “The Penalty for Bigamy is Two Wives” has so many great descriptions of music it almost makes you forget how hard it can be to describe music. Joplin’s voice breaks out “in hives of feeling.” Music, in the words of the speaker’s friend, “throws you back into your body, like organic food or heroin.” Then there’s the image of the pain in his friend’s singing voice “like the silhouette of a dog baying at the moon, almost liver-shaped, a bell hung from a rope of its own pure yearning.” And then, back to Janis again, her voice running up and down the body “like a fire that has learned to live on itself” and then, there comes the amazing description of listening to dead Janis sing as being “Grief’s beautiful blowjob.” Now that is one hell of a line. Continue reading

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