Robert Pinsky jazzes poetry into one of the lively arts.
Transcendence is generally thought a rare commodity, but those who love literature know better. Anyone who saw Patti Smith’s reading at the Miami Book Fair will know what I’m talking about. So will the sold-out audience at Robert Pinsky’s performance last night at the Palm Beach Poetry Festival.
Often transcendence comes during solitary reading, as it did for me last fall with David Mitchell’s novel The Thousand Autumns of Jacob De Zoet, or just the other day when I stumbled across Sylvia Plath’s poem “Mad Girl’s Love Song” while looking for something else on the internet.
But when authors emerge from their writing dens, blinking in the sun, and interact directly with readers, a different kind of connection becomes possible. The added element of performance renders literature into a lively art, and suddenly anything can happen.
I confess I approached Pinsky’s reading with skepticsm, if not to say outright dread. After interviewing the poet by phone and writing stories about him for the Sun-Sentinel and the Palm Beach ArtsPaper, I had a fresh respect for him as a poet and even moreso as a promoter of poetry for his innovative Favorite Poem Project.
Still, Pinsky planned to read his poems with the backing of a jazz combo, in this case the Paul Tardif Trio, which to me sounded like an idea that could be nothing but teeth-grindingly twee and precious. In my interview with Pinsky, he told me that a poet performing with musicians is “very different from songwriting, where the words fit the tune.”
Instead, he said, it’s more like a conversation between words and instruments. “They listen to what I am doing, I listen to what they are doing.” Uh-huh, I thought to myself, riiiight.
In the event, however, it seems the universe exists as a random generator of chances for me to be proven wrong. I saw this immdiately as Pinsky and the musicians launched into a rendition of “Antique,” a poem he described as being about his parents’ stormy relationship, and also about Adam and Eve. A glance at the text shows it also evokes Orpheus and Eurydice, Antony and Cleopatra and doomed love of mythic proportions in general.
Instead of preciousness or pomposity, or ill-fitted artistic elements clashing in an unfortunate salad, the poet’s words and the musicians’ confident improvisation worked together exactly as Pinsky had predicted. You could see the poet listening to the music and the musicians tuning keenly to the poet’s words.
The result, in this poem and the others Pinsky performed, enhanced both words and music. Pinsky did not recite the poems straight through, as he would in a regular reading, but repeated phrases and whole stanzas, taking lengthy pauses that gained tension and substance from musical accompaniment.
The effect was to make the poems more immediately accessible, and accessible in fresh ways, while adding fiber and texture to the jazz, which might otherwise have sounded like pleasant background for cocktail lounge conversation.
Pinksy was also a fluid and graceful presence on stage. At 70, he appears fit and limber — he looks the way men in their 40s did in movies from the Golden Age of Hollywood. His wore his charisma and authority lightly, frequently praising and deferring to Tardiff and the musicians.
Aflame with the unexpected joy of Pinsky’s peformance, I suddenly saw precisely how wrong I had been. What I experienced — poetry plus music — was not some new gimmick but something ancient. After all, David sang his psalms, and Homer accompanied his recitation of the Iliad by strumming a lyre.
Why should modern poets be denied the option of playing with music, too? Sometimes I don’t mind being wrong, not even a little bit.
The Palm Beach Poetry Festival continues this evening with a reading by V.J. Sheshadri and C.D. Wright at 8 p.m. Additional readings are held each evening by poets like Jane Hirschfield, C.D. Wright and Stuart Dischell, culminating in a performance by national slam poetry champions D. Blair and Taylor Mali Saturday at 9 p.m.
All events are held at the Old School Square in downtown Delray Beach. For tickets and scheduling, visit palmbeachpoetryfestival.org.