Poetry & Music

April is National Poetry Month, but unless you are an avid poetry consumer, the celebration of this art form is likely to be eclipsed by other seasonal holidays. A poet and chapbook publisher in an article for the Boston Phoenix opined, “No wonder America’s National Poetry Month begins on April Fools’ Day!…Poetry is not now and never has been in America an art for the faint-hearted.” I wouldn’t characterize most Americans as faint-hearted, quite the contrary, but poetry does remain elusive to many. How many poems can you recite? (“Roses are red…” doesn’t count.) On the other hand, everyone sings songs.

When poet Dana Gioia became the Chairman of the National Endowment of the Arts in 2003, he noted that the mission of the NEA is not only to “foster excellence in the arts, but to bring art to all Americans.” He knows that this is not an easy task. As he explained it to a Philadelphia newspaper, “…there’s a difference between entertainment and art. Entertainment provides a series of predictable pleasures. It allows an audience to enter and leave more or less the same. Art affords at least the possibility of transformation. So we need to make some room for art in this overwhelmingly successful entertainment world.”

That possibility for transformation is afforded by an artist’s ability to embody his or her own transformative experience in a work of art – be it a poem, song, painting, or other art form.

Jazz pianist Fred Hersch is no stranger to poetry, having at the age of 18 been moved by Walt Whitman’s works — that was in the mid 1970s. Nearly thirty years later, Fred re-read “When I Heard at the Close of the Day” and was inspired to embody it as an instrumental piece. That one composition led Fred to an entire album based on Whitman’s poems — the orchestrations are for an 8 piece ensemble plus singers. The words are important: “…so many touchstone lines…words that represent to me what is the best about America,” Fred explained in an interview on NPR’s Morning Edition two years ago.

Fred talks also about the universality and timelessness of the poems’ meanings. “If you don’t have love, it’s just a bunch of stuff on your resume.” Long-form jazz-based works often receive critical attention, sometimes acclaim, but seldom do they resonate as positively with the audience. Happily, reports are that Hersch’s Leaves Of Grass is a crowd pleaser. In March of last year a New York Times concert review by Ben Ratliff concluded as follows:

“I have often experienced audiences palpably losing interest in long-form jazz pieces well before the finish. This one brought a full house to its feet.”

And in February of this year, Nate Chinen, also writing for The New York Times, reported:

“Buoyed by the success of “Leaves of Grass,” which has become one of the best-selling titles in his catalog, Mr. Hersch has plunged into another large-scale cross-disciplinary work. “It’s a song cycle for the stage with the poet Mary Jo Salter,” he said recently by phone from the MacDowell Colony in New Hampshire, where he was finishing a five-week residency. “The working title is ‘Hold Still!’ It’s a whole evening of about 18 songs loosely connected around the theme of photography.”

What is the secret alchemy that occurs when words are married to music? It might be said that music makes poetry more accessible to the average person, or that it touches the soul in ways that words alone cannot. This is not the first time I have pondered this question and a year or so ago I emailed my friend and noted arts critic Terry Teachout, asking him to comment on this question. [For those of you who may not yet know of Teachout, he is the drama critic of the Wall Street Journal and the music critic of Commentary, as well as contributor to publications such as the Washington Post, the New York Times, National Review, many other magazines and newspapers, and he blogs about the arts almost daily. He wrote back:

“When Igor Stravinsky saw the ballet that George Balanchine made out of his Movements for Piano and Orchestra, he said, ‘The performance was like a tour of a building for which I had drawn the plans but never explored the result.’ That must be what it feels like to have your words set to music by a good composer – it tells you something about your own writing that even you didn’t know.”

I wonder what Walt Whitman would have said upon hearing Hersch’s opus.