Simic Verses Lloyd

I hear someone whispering,
"Without this music,
Life would be a mistake."

In the poem quoted above, the musical referent is the sublime jazz created by saxophonist/flautist Charles Lloyd and his group. The poem is one of "Two for Charles Lloyd" that appear in the liner notes of the newly released CD "Rabo de Nube" by Lloyd’s quartet. The poet is Charles Simic, a 1990 Pulitzer Prize honoree who was named the nation’s poet laureate by the Library of Congress[1] last August. This most recent honor occasioned the publication last month of "Sixty Poems," an anthology of the author’s best-known verse.

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The artistic intersection at which a groundbreaking jazz musician and a poet who marries dark surrealism with playful irony converge presents a wonderful and too-rare opportunity for freedom-loving cultural devotees to celebrate. Not only do these artists share the same year of birth, 1938, but both witnessed firsthand the dramatic changes that roiled their respective worlds afterward — life under Nazi and communist rule in Yugoslavia for Simic and the civil rights and other socio-political struggles in the United States for Lloyd. In their respective fields, Simic and Lloyd chose oppression and freedom as their defining themes.

In a 1984 Missouri Review interview with Sherod Santos, Simic declared: "I’m the product of chance, the baby of ideologies, the orphan of history. Hitler and Stalin conspired to make me homeless." In a New York Times interview last August, Simic described Hitler and Stalin as his "travel agents."

Enduring the upheavals caused by two of the 20th century’s most notorious tyrants becomes, in Simic’s poetic universe, the basis for an underlying distrust in nearly everything — even the most seemingly benign inanimate objects. For example, his early volume, "Dismantling the Silence," includes poems entitled "Spoon," "Knife" and "Fork." Rather than presenting versified still-life snapshots of kitchen utensils, however, Simic imbues each with sinister qualities. The spoon is "polished to an evil/Glitter;" the fork "This strange thing must have crept/Right out of hell;" and, in "Knife," he conjures the potent image of "the sound/Of marching boots./You hear the earth/Answering/With a hollow thud." As Thomas Jefferson reminded us, "The price of freedom is eternal vigilance."

He and his mother left Yugoslavia to join his father in New York City when Simic was 16. The family eventually settled in Chicago, where an excursion to a jazz club with his father to see legendary saxophonist Coleman Hawkins cemented Simic’s American identity. "You could say the kid was hooked," Simic told Santos. "Jazz made me both an American and a poet." It is noteworthy that a writer of Simic’s caliber has risen to the top tier of public and literary recognition when one considers that he learned the English language as a teenager in an era when assimilation was still encouraged.

Lloyd’s musical career is no less impressive than Simic’s. Born in Memphis, he began his career backing such blues musicians as Bobby "Blue" Bland and B.B. King. By the mid-1960s, he had formed one of the first true jazz fusion bands, featuring drummer Jack DeJohnette and pianist Keith Jarrett — both of whom participated on Miles Davis’ more celebrated fusion outings several years later.

On the title song of "Rabo de Nube,[2]" Lloyd revisits a composition that he featured on the 2002 CD, "Lift Every Voice." On that album, he attempted to make sense in a musical fashion that which he could not comprehend rationally — the evil of the Sept. 11 hijackers, which was also the date that Lloyd and his group had been scheduled to play the Blue Note in Manhattan’s Greenwich Village. Lloyd said in an e-mail that the song "says something along the lines of: ‘If I could tell you what I would like to be — it is the tail of a cloud, with a clear rain, that could come down and sweep away your tears and sorrows.’ I feel the world needs much clear rain to come down, and there is much to sweep away. The beautiful melody … gives us one way to express this."

Simic recognizes the same quality in Lloyd’s jazz. In the "Rabo de Nube" liner notes, he conjures the sense of freedom evoked by Lloyd’s flute playing: "The instrument of/Lone shepherds/Sitting cross-legged/Nomads setting out in their caravans/Under a sky full of stars./The mystery of this moment,/That sudden realization/That we have a soul."

Simic’s poems about Lloyd echo James Baldwin’s depiction of the jazz combo in his classic short story, "Sonny’s Blues," which offers a fitting conclusion to any essay on poetry, jazz and freedom:

He and his boys up there were keeping it new, at the risk of ruin, destruction, madness, and death, in order to find new ways to make us listen. For, while the tale of how we suffer, and how we are delighted, and how we may triumph is never new, it always must be heard. There isn't any other tale to tell, it's the only light we've got in all this darkness.


Bruce Edward Walker is communications manager for the Property Rights Network at the Mackinac Center for Public Policy, a research and educational institute headquartered in Midland, Mich. Permission to reprint in whole or in part is hereby granted, provided that the author and the Center are properly cited.

[1] According to the New York Times, the United States has had a poet laureate since 1987. The poet laureate is awarded $35,000 and a $5,000 travel allowance.

[2] The composition "Rabo de Nube" was written by Silvio Dominguez Rodriguez, a writer of hagiographic ballads about the Cuban butcher Che Guevara as well as many songs extolling the supposed virtues of communism. However, there is no evidence to suggest that Lloyd is sympathetic to Rodriguez’s revolutionary views. When I posed my concern to Lloyd’s publicist at ECM Records, she obtained the following e-mail response from Lloyd: "My attraction to this song has nothing to do with politics, but for the Sentiment of the lyric and the beauty of the melody." In any event, Rodriguez has ironically found his music banned from broadcast outlets under several socialist regimes, including Venezuela, because of its overt American influences.

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