As much as the reporter or the detective, it’s the poet’s job to notice things the rest of us don’t. But uniquely among these three, it’s also the poet’s task to lacquer beauty atop the ordinary.
To that end, I haven’t heard quite such a vivid or rhapsodic description of an anonymous suburban street in Anywhere, U.S.A., as Robert Pinsky offered last night at Mizner Park Cultural Center, in a reading of his 1990 poem “House Hour,” with its “pale honey of a kitchen light,” its “milky daylight noon,” its “macaroni mist on the glass” and its “last spokes of light silvering the attic dust.”
That such descriptive jewels were recited alongside the improvisatory ambles of a jazz duo only enhanced the impact of the words. The two players—an upright bassist and acoustic guitarist—fed off Pinsky’s delivery to supply consonance and dissonance, points and counterpoints. This was the essence of PoemJazz, the hybrid of poetry reading and intimate jazz concert that Pinsky has been touring for years in various musical incarnations. It was certainly the most unique program in the Festival of the Arts’ Authors & Ideas series this year.
At the outset, Pinsky described himself as a “nonsinging vocalist” and the PoemJazz venture as “geezer rap.” The goal, he said, was to create “a conversation or dialogue between the melodies of sentences and the melodies of instruments.” Dressed in all black, and keeping time with metronomic pats of his hand against his pant leg, Pinsky read his own work, and a couple of “cover” poems, with performative zeal—in fast staccato bursts, pregnant with carefully selected silences, sometimes with passages repeated for emphasis.
Prior to each piece, he spoke about his inspiration for it, and the themes percolating between the lines: “Antique” is a love poem about his quarreling parents, and perhaps about Adam and Eve as well; “The Refinery” charts a visit from the gods to check in on oil, their complicated creation. These deities, Pinsky extrapolated, traveled by train to inspect a refinery in California, and the halting bass notes accompanying the poem suggested the speedy but rickety movements of old-time rail travel.
Pinsky also performed “Samurai Song,” one of his most brilliant pieces, whose juxtapositional insights were met with the most atonal, experimental music of the evening; and “Rhyme,” plus selections from Ben Jonson and C.P. Cavafy.
In the restroom at the end of the show, I overheard a guest say that he felt transported to “Greenwich Village in a beatnik bar.” I felt the same way. Like last year’s T-Bone Burnett performance/lecture, this was hip. I applaud the Festival of the Arts for once again thinking outside the box.