Poetry and Jazz: Strange Bedmates, Sated at Last

Sherard Vines, a critic whose work has otherwise sunk beneath the waves of literary history, got it right on at least one occasion.  “Music,” he said, “has its own way of being efficient, and poetry quite another way.”

Luciana Souza

This formula provides an explanation, in case you were looking for one, for why attempts to combine poetry–as opposed to Tin Pan Alley June-moon lyricizing–with jazz are so universally doomed to fail.  Think of all those late night Beat Era sessions at which Allen Ginsberg or Jack Kerouac read his verse–sometimes good in the first case, mostly bad in the second–to some tenor sax player’s rhythmless noodling.  If any survive, does anyone listen to them?  The question answers itself, res ipsa loquitur as the lawyers say.

Voltaire:  “I be down wid dat, dawg.”

This curious inability of the two art forms to conjugate is, I believe, a corollary of an artistic truth first discovered by Voltaire:  “That which is too stupid to be said is sung,” he observed.  I know this not because I’ve read a lot of Voltaire–I haven’t–but because I heard it on an Animaniacs episode one night.  So you can’t accuse me of being too highbrow.

The Animaniacs:  My constant companions in the search for deep philosophical truths.

And so poetry, which depends upon compression and form, doesn’t stand–to borrow a great jazz line when sung by Billie Holiday that is merely a cliche when spoken–a ghost of a chance with jazz.

A young Billie Holiday

To every ironclad principle of aesthetic philosophy there is, of course, an exception–in this case provided by Luciana Souza: The Poems of Elizabeth Bishop and other songs, an album now a decade old, but still fresh in every respect.

Souza is a forty-something singer, Brazilian by birth, who studied at the Berklee School of Music in Boston, an incubator for talent brave enough to label themselves as jazz practitioners in a world that has passed jazz by.  Elizabeth Bishop is a cross-breed, an innovative formalist whose work always surprises, dead now three decades.

Bishop was born in Worcester, Mass. (I will wait until the raucous applause dies down for the INDUSTRIAL ABRASIVES CAPITAL OF THE WORLD!), but lived in Nova Scotia after her father died and her mother was hospitalized due to mental illness.  She attended Vassar where she founded a self-consciously adventuresome literary magazine with upperclass woman Mary McCarthy, who famously said of Stalinist apologist Lillian Hellman that “every word she writes is a lie, including ‘and’ and ‘the.’”  The sort of person, as you might imagine, who makes you hesitate before speaking, much less writing, le mot juste and all that jazz.

Mary McCarthy

Able to live on a legacy left by her father, Bishop could afford to travel and in 1951 set off to circumnavigate South America by boat.  She arrived in Santos, Brazil in November of that year expecting to stay two weeks, but remained fifteen years, during which time she had a long-term relationship with Lota de Macedo Soares, a female architect and socialite and a descendant of prominent political family.  The two eventually parted, Bishop taking up with another woman before returning to America.

Stevie Smith

Although Bishop was a lesbian she kept her personal life out of her poetry, preferring to be judged solely on the quality of her verse and not on her sexual orientation.  At a time when confessional contemporaries such as Sylvia Plath and Anne Sexton were the poetic flavor of the month, she swam against the tides of fashion and, contra Stevie Smith, wasn’t drowning, just waving.

Souza’s interpretation of Bishop’s poems is perhaps weighed down by more emotion than Bishop would have allowed, but then she has transformed them into songs, of which it may be said they are sung, but not thereby rendered stupid.


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