May 27, 2011KR BlogKR

Post Beginning With a Line from Mark Irwin

Time’s a game of catch and pitch, Irwin writes in “Elegy” in the Winter 2011 issue Kenyon Review.

The line haunts as I read Irwin’s “Poem Beginning With a Line by Milosz” in the May 2011 issue of Poetry, which begins “The most beautiful bodies are like transparent glass”– from Milosz’s early poem “Hymn.” In the 14 lines that follow, Irwin transforms the idea. “What appears transparent is really flame / burning so brightly it appears like glass.” “The bodies that seem / transparent are made of an ice so pure it appears / to be glass sweating“” The end is Irwin’s own, but the way he arrives there–returning at the beginning of each of his sentences to Milosz’s then abstracting or riffing from it–also seems to belong to Milosz.

This poem, like so many works I admire, has implicated me in its call and response, its pitch and catch, and held me, a quantum particle oscillating between several places at once.


Cleveland Museum of Contemporary Art. 2011 Tri-C Jazz Fest. Robert Glasper Trio arranged in a corner of the foyer to play to about 200 people.

In the first motion–hard to remember how long this takes, maybe 5 minutes, maybe 10, until someone leans against an emergency exit door and the alarm starts screaming–they’re working through a phrase I don’t recognize but that slowly turns toward a phrase from Herbie Hancock’s “Maiden Voyage.”

Until the alarm goes off, this is an auspicious beginning. Glasper recorded “Maiden Voyage” on his debut album Mood, and then returned to it in the sessions for his Blue Note masterpiece In My Element, where he combined Hancock’s tune with Radiohead’s “Everything In Its Right Place.” Glasper’s insight is that the primary melodic figure of one tune seems to echo the other–their rhythms slightly differ–so he can play them both at the same time and still have space to riff off the phrases into something momentary and individual.

The alarm brings this to an end, but when the Trio commences again they work on another Hancock tune–“Little One” maybe, though I don’t recall for sure. As it resolves, Glasper says “That was a little something I wrote“” It’s the first in a running series of musical jokes, and most of the audience is in on it since we know this is Hancock. What follows is a series of riffs about Glasper’s relationship to Hancock, including phrases like “Yeah, we’re friends–on Facebook,” that continues throughout the night.


At least twice Glasper jokes that he wrote a Hancock tune–and he starts playing a Monk tune after saying that he was going to “play something new.” These moments stick with me in part because they’re funny, and they show not only Glasper’s humor, but the humor of a music so many people think is stale or esoteric.

But I think about these moments also because they say something important–they show something important–about the experience and position and the art of the musician or the poet who comes after. I’m not talking about Romantic belatedness or anything so melancholy, but what I imagine as a basic problem of all art: How does one artist, having learned from the work of his or her elders or precursors, both signal the debt the new work owes to the old and keep historical subsequence from being artistic subordination?



I conn’d old times,

I sat studying at the feet of the great masters,

Now if eligible O that the great masters might return and study me.


Which is to say, the later artist has to re-wire the timeline, to create loops or circles in it. When Irwin writes “Time is a game of catch and pitch,” the last verb “pitch” suggests that the ball doesn’t rest with him but will fly again, and anyone would know that a game of catch involves passing the ball between two people.

But for this to be possible, the later has to step into the moment with the earlier, the elder, and to claim some kind of ownership of what has become common property.


This is what I think is at stake in Glasper’s jokes, which are just glosses on the re-ordering work of his performances.

And this is what’s happening in Irwin’s “Poem,” where there’s a kind of jazz in the movements. Maybe we can read Irwin’s rearrangements and reconfigurations of the notes of Milosz’s line and the repeated return to Milosz’s line as a starting point for a new improvisation and refiguring–maybe we can read these movements as entries in a kind of conversation at the end of which Irwin’s poem inhabits Milosz’s even as Milosz’s inhabits Irwin’s.


Not everybody’s comfortable with this.

I remember a workshop I taught maybe five or six years ago when, in the context of a conversation about “getting past writer’s block” I suggested we begin an exercise by pulling a line from a poem and working off it–using the pre-existing line to determine a rhythm, to begin the flow of ideas.

One student would have none of it. He thought this was little more than common theft. In his offense he wrote nothing. I left workshop that day thinking about his blank paper, how heavy it must feel to believe you can only touch whatever you own alone, how lonely never to have borrowed anything“


Was it Eliot, we ask, who said good poets borrow, great poets steal?

What he actually said was:

One of the surest tests [of the superiority or inferiority of a poet] is the way in which a poet borrows. Immature poets imitate; mature poets steal; bad poets deface what they take, and good poets make it into something better, or at least something different. The good poet welds his theft into a whole of feeling which is unique, utterly different than that from which it is torn; the bad poet throws it into something which has no cohesion.

Which presupposes that poets borrow. Like jazz musicians borrow. Which is to say to quote and transform. Which is to say to improvise from one language into another. Which is to say to move into another pitch what has been caught. Which is to say, is it not, not only to cover but to re-cover, to do the work of elegy when the recognition of the phrase reminds us of what is past, to fold the past around so it is the future of the present, so the present is the past of the past, to loop it all, so we can, after all talk back, call-and-response, pitch-and-catch, not, after all, transparent, but bright as glass?