Good poets aren’t always good polemicists—or even good explicators of their verse. Mystification is often central to a poet’s mission. What Stevens called “the hum of thoughts evaded in the mind” is precisely what is dismantled by analysis, which might explain why major poet-critics like Coleridge or Eliot have been few. When most poets talk about their own work, we listen for the hum of evasion.
David Lehman’s Poets on Poetry series wants to change this perception. Blue Notes, a collection of poems, essays, and interviews by the Pulitzer Prize-winning poet Yusef Komunyakaa, balances the polemical with the poetic, pairing verse with more prosaic self-interpretations. Like an Olympic skater whose leap is scrutinized with slo-mo, play-by-play commentary and an out-of-breath sound bite, Komunyakaa’s art is presented with the full exegetical treatment. “Nude Study,” for example, opens with the erotic eccentricity of “Someone lightly brushed the penis/alive. Belief is almost/flesh. . . . ” But in the commentary that follows, Komunyakaa shines a glaring light on the poem’s dark indeterminacy; he wants to make sure we don’t miss that the poem also “addresses the fear associated with the myth of black male sexual prowess.” So intoxicating is Komunyakaa’s sensuous abstraction, the tacked-on commentary feels like a postcoital checklist.
More useful are Komunyakaa’s short essays on jazz and poetry, in which his powers of synesthesia are in full force. In “Shape and Tonal Equilibrium,” after weighing the collective impact of figures like Charlie Parker and Langston Hughes, he abruptly abandons the essay form to sing the blues. Komunyakaa decides he can say it best in a playful, mellifluous riff on cultural incongruity, where the speaker—singer, really—tries “to hide in Proust,/ Mallarmé & Camus/but the no-good blues/come looking for me.” In “Twilight Seduction,” Komunyakaa puts himself into a sexualized cutting contest with Ellington’s bassist, and feels inadequate in comparison: “Simply/because Jimmy Blanton/died at twenty-one/& his hands on the bass/still make me ashamed/to hold you like an upright/& a cross worked into one/embrace.” In fact, Komunyakaa hears the music of poetry with swinging lyricism. These lines are self-reflective enough without the trappings of curatorial explanations. Komunyakaa’s blue notes resound most eloquently when you simply hear them.