While poetry and jazz have gone together longer than chocolate and peanut butter, poetry about jazz is usually about as interesting as the poetry -- and, for that matter, the jazz, the chocolate, and the peanut butter -- you get from high school students. From a really bad school. On an off day.
Thankfully, this new poetry collection from jazz fan Steve Dalachinsky -- all of which was written while he listened to avant-garde saxophonist Charles Gayle perform -- usually isn't about the music. With a few exceptions, Dalachinsky instead takes inspiration from the music -- from its tones, structures, and moods -- in how he writes, not what he writes about. And that, to quote a poem he didn't write, makes all the difference in the world. Especially since Gayle's playing could've inspired some truly terrible poetry.
Deeply entrenched in the avant-garde, Gayle's free jazz style is often chaotic and seemingly unstructured; to the uneducated ear or un-opened mind, it could sound like noise. Or someone tuning up. But while Dalachinsky's work here is sometimes as free and chaotically structured as Gayle's playing, with words and phrases strewn around the page, many of the poems in this collection are traditionally structured, albeit still in a free verse form, and are similarly more concrete (relatively speaking) in their style. It is almost as if Dalachinsky sometimes took direct inspiration from the way Gayle was playing, while other times he just happened to think of something to write about while he was sitting there, enjoying the music.
The irony of all this is that if there was ever a poet who could wax poetic about jazz in a way that wasn't high school-ish, it's Dalachinsky, a man who is as enamored with, and knowledgeable of, jazz as he is poetry. In fact, his 1999 spoken word album, incomplete directions, had him reading his work while accompanied by jazz musicians, most notably Gayle's sometime sideman William Parker. But reading through Final Nite, one can't help but applaud Dalachinsky's decision to take the road less obvious.
Because of all this, Final Nite doesn't require that you listen to jazz, Gayle's or someone else's, while you read it. Or even that you know anything about the music, though people who hate free verse should probably not bother cracking the spine. But for fans of expressionistic poetry and free-form expression, Dalachinsky's collection will engage and delight, whether there's music playing or not. - Paul Semel
The Final Nite can be purchased on the Ugly Duckling Presse website.
Mr. Semel has written about anime for such publications as Emmy, E! Online, Lemonade, and this website.