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Thursday, May 26, 2011

So what?

Gregory Donovan on Larry Levis's "Coda: Kind of Blue":
Of course you recognize Levis is taking his title from the famous jazz album by Miles Davis and the all-star band Davis assembled for two unforgettable recording sessions in 1959 in New York City. And if you wanted to understand the essential underlying compositional and structural approach in the poetry of Larry Levis, you could have no better instruction than a deep listen to that masterpiece of a jazz album, Kind of Blue, which would precisely prepare you to listen to Levis’s own poetry, including his poem by that same name. 
The opening of Miles Davis’s Kind of Blue starts with Bill Evans dithering a bit on the piano, laying down a foundation of eerie chords, and then Paul Chambers comes in with the song’s signature opening refrain, answered antiphonally at first by the piano, and then joined by the horn section—Davis on trumpet, Cannonball Adderly on alto sax, and the great John Coltrane on tenor saxophone, all playing in harmony. 
And right after that, Davis takes off with the first solo, followed in turn by everyone in the group. The name of that opening song is “So What,” and it’s easy, then, to imagine that the repeated answer to the first musical statement is that very phrase—ba de ba da ba de, SO WHAT? ba de ba da ba de, SO WHAT?—a kind of musical self-critique and challenge as much as it is a philosophical one, and Levis’s poem picks up on that phrase and that challenge in particular, and he begins his own poem with it. In this poem, you’ll hear references to John Coltrane and Charlie “Bird” Parker and Ethel Waters and Billie Holiday. And of course, like all of Larry’s poems, this one is in some sense an elegy, a coda not only for the end of a long and marvelous poem sequence, The Perfection of Solitude, but for the end of a poet, whose life was itself marvelous and long, yet not long enough.
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Coda: Kind of Blue

And So what? said a trumpet; & I'll see you that & raise you five, said a kind
Of rippling laughter, gone now, on the keyboard; & Well just this once, the bass
Replied; Maybe again, maybe not, a brush stroke swore on a snare & high hat. Styles

As American as loss: I'm going to say what the snow says, falling on the tracks
Outside Chicago, & then I'll unsay that. I'll dissolve this city, wall by blackened
Wall, & Mr. Grief & Ms. Beauty, I'll build a new one from your names. Ashes,

My name is Mr. John Coltrane,
Sweet Insolence, & rain.
I don't come back again.

And Am I blue? So what? You think I didn't know what time it was? said the trumpet.
Take her hair, some smoke & snow, & give it all one name. Style it as you please.
Take someone who can't stop screaming, the el overhead, the sky, & give it a name.

Take Charlie Parker's grave all overgrown with weeds in Kansas City. Add nothing,
Except an ocher tint of shame. May all your Christmases be white & Bird be still
In L.A., gone, broken, insane. Take Beauty before her habit mutes & cripples her,

Then add some grief. But don't change a thing this time, not even a white gardenia
Pressed against her ear. Not even one syllable of her name. "In my solitude"
Is how the song began. All things you are, & briefly, as, in solitude, it ends.


Larry Levis
from The Widening Spell of the Leaves

Support presses, poets, and poetry. Click here to purchase The Widening Spell of the Leaves from the University of Pittsburgh Press.









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A Selection of other Levis poems @ Against Oblivion:

"Boy in Video Arcade"
"The Poem Returning as an Invisible Wren to the World"
"The Double"
"Elegy with a Bridle in Its Hand"
"Whitman"
"Elegy for Poe with the Music of a Carnival Inside It"
"Rhododendrons"
"Photograph: Migrant Worker, Parlier, California, 1967"

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