Tuesday, January 18, 2011

Poetry and All That Jazz

I heard this poem yesterday on the Writer's Almanac read always by the sleepy, wistful voice of Garrison Keillor. It's one of those moments where a total stranger has captured something of your life. That's what poetry is supposed to do, not to obfuscate, but communicate a universal idea however private and personal the genesis.

I have been an accompanist it seems for many years. Actually, it's one thing that I'm actually good at on the guitar only because I do the one thing that seems so rare: I listen. I actually listen to the other person. Now there comes a point where being the accompanist feels like shackles. The soloist may smile and ask the audience to acknowledge your contributions, but everyone knows this is bullshit. No one cares or goes up to the accompanist after the concert. It's true to life.

The Accompanist

Don't play too much, don't play
too loud, don't play the melody.
You have to anticipate her
and to subdue yourself.
She used to give me her smoky
eye when I got boisterous,
so I learned to play on tip-
toe and to play the better half
of what I might. I don't like
to complain, though I notice
that I get around to it somehow.
We made a living and good music,
both, night after night, the blue
curlicues of smoke rubbing their
staling and wispy backs
against the ceilings, the flat
drinks and scarce taxis, the jazz life
we bitch about the way Army pals
complain about the food and then
re-up. Some people like to say
with smut in their voices how playing
the way we did at our best is partly
sexual. OK, I could tell them
a tale or two, and I've heard
the records Lester cut with Lady Day
and all that rap, and it's partly
sexual but it's mostly practice
and music. As for partly sexual,
I'll take wholly sexual any day,
but that's a duet and we're talking
accompaniment. Remember "Reckless
Blues"? Bessie Smith sings out "Daddy"
and Louis Armstrong plays back "Daddy"
as clear through his horn as if he'd
spoken it. But it's her daddy and her
story. When you play it you become
your part in it, one of her beautiful
troubles, and then, however much music
can do this, part of her consolation,
the way pain and joy eat off each other's
plates, but mostly you play to drunks,
to the night, to the way you judge
and pardon yourself, to all that goes
not unsung, but unrecorded.

"The Accompanist" by William Matthews, from Foreseeable Futures. © Houghton Mifflin, 1987. Reprinted with permission. (buy now)

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