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Posts from the ‘Poetry’ Category

Blake’s London

Blake 1In a pair of parallel alleyways under the railway line that runs through Lambeth from Waterloo station, parallel with the river, you will find two dozen panels like the one above, created by Southbank Mosaics, a non-profit community enterprise, to commemorate the work of the great English visionary William Blake. A few yards away is the housing estate that occupies the site on which stood the house where Blake and his wife lived between 1790 and 1800, and in which he composed and printed his Songs of Experience. One of those poems is called “London”, and this is how begins: “I wander thro’ each charter’d street / Near where the charter’d Thames does flow / And mark in every face I meet / Marks of weakness, marks of woe…” In the late 18th century, it needs to be said, the term “charter’d” could be taken to mean “in private ownership”. It’s a shattering poem, born of the conditions to which Blake bore witness every day of his life amid the teeming riverine streets, and it doesn’t seem to have lost any of its force or relevance.

Hercules Road, on which Blake’s house stood until it was demolished in 1912, is not a place to attract tourists in search of his traces. The anonymous postwar council estate — which bears the poet’s name and an appropriate plaque — occupies one side; the railway arches line the other. It takes some imagination to link it to the music composed by John Zorn for In Lambeth, an album inspired by the time Blake spent there.

This is Zorn’s second attempt to capture the poet’s spirit. The first, released in 2012 (also on the composer’s Tzadik label), was called Vision in Blakelight and was written for a sextet of keyboards, harp, vibes, bass, drums and percussion; its 10 sprightly, occasionally almost ecstatic pieces featured particularly fine playing by John Medeski on organ and Trevor Dunn on double bass.

In Lambeth, subtitled “Visions from the Walled Garden of William Blake”, filters that mood through a finer mesh. The group here is Zorn’s Gnostic Trio, in which two members of the Blakelight group, the harpist Carol Emanuel and Kenny Wolleson on vibes and bells, are joined by the guitar of Bill Frisell. The music is no less lively and active, often based on arpeggiated figurations reminiscent of the ostinatos of Terry Riley and Steve Reich, but its glistening instrumental timbres and the intimacy of the interplay between these brilliant musicians give it a character of its own. Here’s a track called “The Night of Enitharmon’s Joy”, referring to a female figure used by Blake to signify beauty and poetry (and possibly inspired by his wife, Catherine).

It’s as distinctive, in its own way, as the Jimmy Giuffre Trio of “The Train and the River”, as close as that to jazz — in fact impossible without it — yet breathing quite different air. Beyond category, and highly seductive.

In related Blake-and-jazz news: on Saturday, February 8, at the church of St Giles-in-the-Fields at the end of Denmark Street (once London’s Tin Pan Alley), Mike Westbrook and his musicians, including the Queldryk Choral Ensemble, will perform Glad Day, his celebrated settings of Blake’s poems, to promote the release of the music on a CD recorded live at the Toynbee Hall in London five years ago. This latest concert is dedicated to the memory of the poet Adrian Mitchell, with whom Westbrook worked on Tyger, the Blake-inspired musical performed at the National Theatre in 1971. Not to be missed, I’d say.

Something for Baraka

BarakaAmiri Baraka’s death at the age of 79 was announced today. Almost 50 years ago, when he was still known as LeRoi Jones, his book Blues People and his “Apple Cores” column in Down Beat magazine helped reshape a lot of thoughts, including mine. He wrote about Albert Ayler, Archie Shepp, Sun Ra, Pharoah Sanders, Cecil Taylor, Sunny Murray, John Tchicai. He saw this music — the “new thing” — as an expression of social and political as well as cultural revolution.

I bought his books of poems (Preface to a Twenty Volume Suicide Note, The Dead Lecturer), his essays (Home, Tales), his plays (Dutchman), his novel (The System of Dante’s Hell), which contained paragraphs like this: “Blonde summer in our south. Always it floats down & hooks in the broad leaves of those unnamed sinister southern trees. Blonde. Yellow, a narrow sluggish water full of lives. Desires. The crimson heavy blood of a race, concealed in those absolute black nights. As if, each tiny tragedy had its own universe / or God to strike it down.”

Later in the ’60s he got less lyrical, more angry, and became an activist. A few years ago, at St Mark’s Church on East 10th Street in New York City, I heard him read a poem about Rudy Giuliani that was truly shocking in its directed fury. After 9/11 he’d ruffled a lot of feathers — and lost his post as the poet laureate of Newark, New Jersey, his hometown — with a poem called “Somebody Blew Up America”, which was easily and sometimes wilfully misunderstood: here he is reading it in 2009 at the Sanctuary for Independent Media in Troy, NY, with Rob Brown playing Monk on the alto saxophone.

“One of the most baffling things about America,” he wrote in 1964 in his sleeve note to Coltrane Live at Birdland, “is that despite its essentially vile profile, so much beauty continues to exist here. Perhaps it’s as so many thinkers have said, that it is because of the vileness, or call it adversity, that such beauty does exist. (As balance?)” Vileness and beauty: both present and correct in the work of an irreplaceable figure, a man of his time.

A poem by Roy Kelly

Roy Kelly’s work appears from time to time in the kind of magazines that still print poetry (there’s one of his in this week’s Spectator). He was born in 1949, and Peterloo Poets published a collection of his work under the title Drugstore Fiction in 1987. Having read my piece on Chet Baker, he sent me this. I wanted to publish it before the summer ends, and he was kind enough to give me permission.

THE COOL SCHOOL

The folded parasols stand guard and stand by,

sentinels of the pool and sunbeds, swathes

of white material fluttering, gathered, ready to spring

up and out, defending this tender skin which bathes

in water, and also in damaging rays that fly

through millions of miles to inflame and sting.

And in the pool a figure is moving through

the ruffled, bubbled surface, the illusory

blue depths, trying to improve a swimming action

while remembering a Chet Baker solo,

the shapely lovely logic of all he blew,

placed note by note, as if physical effort had no

part in his disciplined, pretty perfection,

and the needle life some other loser’s story.

Puffing and chugging the salty outdoor pool

the swimmer tries at least to get the breathing right,

economical, smooth, under the watchful white

umbrellas, and Mr Chet, lyrical, pure and cool.