Review of Jim Cohn’s Venerable Madtown Hall (CD, DVD) and Commune (CD)
by Randy Roark
Two thousand years ago, if you heard a poem, you almost undoubtedly heard it in the presence of the poet. Even in the case of history poems that were recited over many generations, as each new poet gave voice to the ancient tale of the wrath of Achilles, say, the physical presence of the poet was still necessary. But with the arrival of the written word, the poem began to be something beyond the utterance of a poet—it became a text. This text did not need the presence of the poet (in fact, it would outlive the poet), it could be translated and enjoyed by anyone in any part of the world at any time, and the poem itself would never change. In fact, a written text over the past two millennia—unlike other versions of mechanically duplicated art—is one of the few things that has not changed even as the means of reproducing it have changed—from chisel to brush to pen to printer’s ink to typewriter to computer screen.
For the past five hundred years, most people all over the world have encountered poetry predominantly through its printed form. Rhyme and meter remained central to poetry for the first few centuries after the Gutenberg press, but the remnants of the mnemonic and performance traditions of oral literature were no longer necessary and gradually faded away. For over one hundred years now, regular rhyme and meter and traditional poetic forms (outside of poet-musicians like Bob Dylan) are definitely not the norms in poetry.
But at the same time, over the last century a handful of poets have attempted to acknowledge poetry’s oral roots by including musical accompaniment or dramatic performance to their poems. I’m most familiar with the attempts made by the “modern” poets William Butler Yeats, Federico Garcia Lorca, Ezra Pound, Langston Hughes, T.S. Eliot, Basil Bunting, and Louis Zukofsky; the Beat writers, especially Ginsberg and Kerouac; and the “jazz” poets of the San Francisco Renaissance, including Kenneth Patchen, Kenneth Rexroth, and Lawrence Ferlinghetti. A generation later, when poetry slams and rap became popular, poetry most fully returned to its ancient oral roots, with rhyme, rhythm, meter, music, and the poet’s voice and presence once again essential to the poem itself.
The technical advances in computer capabilities in the early 21st century are a godsend for poets and musicians, especially those who are both. Current audio recording, mixing, and editing technologies bypass the studio entirely; design, printing, and duplication processes bypass the publisher and the pressing plant entirely; and the Internet allows poets and musicians and artists to make their work instantly available to anyone with a computer and an internet connection anywhere in the world within seconds. In fact, the physical object—the book, the CD, or the DVD—isn’t even necessary anymore. So in a way the poem as text has survived another radical revisioning of its duplication and distribution process and remains what it always was, what you are reading right now—dark letters against a lighter background.
It’s not surprising that some of today’s most innovative poets are very deeply involved in using these new technologies in the performance, preservation, and distribution of their work. And this brings me to the two new releases under discussion: a CD (Commune) and a CD/DVD release (Venerable Madtown Hall) by Boulder poet Jim Cohn. Jim has been very active in the Boulder poetry scene for almost forty years—first as a student at University of Colorado writing department, then at the Jack Kerouac School of Disembodied Poetics. He has apprenticed and recorded and collaborated with Allen Ginsberg and (in the spirit of full disclosure) it was in 1979 in Boulder that I met the author, while we both worked with Allen and studied at Naropa, and we have remained friendly ever since. In the early Eighties, Jim ironically left the center of the oral poetry universe for Rochester, New York, where he earned a graduate degree in American Sign Language. He worked until his retirement a couple of years ago as an disability specialist. He returned to Boulder in the late Eighties, and since 1990 has been the publisher of the influential Napalm Health Spa literary annual. In 1997 he created and continues to direct the on-line Museum of American Poetics (www.poetspath.com), which last year published Andy Clausen’s selected poems Home of the Blues, a massive issue of Napalm Health Spa featuring epic poems by over fifty living poets, as well as these two new releases. Incidentally, there are currently eight CDs of Jim’s poetry and music listed on CD Baby, where he is quite reasonably recommended for people who like Albert King.
Although these two recordings were made almost simultaneously, stylistically the two performances are quite different. On Commune, it’s Jim and guitarist Dan Groves in the studio with a bank of effects pedals or maybe it’s just an iPad. Over mostly shrieking soundscapes, Jim (mostly) hisses vaguely threatening lyrics through an effect that flattens his intonation as if one is listening to a chthonic voice from the bottom of a well. Or perhaps overhearing a fading newscast from the future—and the news is not good. There are also quieter pieces such as “Symbol of Repeat” and “My Double” (one of the few poems here that relies on a strong connective narrative), and on “One Black Hole, Straight Up” Jim almost croons, the microphone so close you can hear his in-breath between the lines. One of the most cohesive of these dispatches on Commune is the ironic and sneering “They Say You Can’t Wage Peace,” whose caustic asides hold very close to a single theme. It would be difficult for me to summarize the actual sermon but it’s very clear that the world it describes is at its wits end.
The construction of this and the other poems in both collections often make me think of how Anne Waldman—another poet embracing new technologies and incorporating them into her performances—once described her own poetry. She said she did not intentionally write anti-narrative or even non-narrative poetry but rather she employed what she called a non-literal narrative. She composed her poetry, she said, by finding different threads or ideas that she grouped by feeling, and then she uses words to weave them into an image in Pound’s sense—an intellectual and emotional complex experienced in a moment of time.
In the DVD accompanying Venerable Madtown Hall, one is invited into the studio where Cohn and his keyboardist Bob Schlesinger (bassist Chris Engleman also appears on several tracks) record live in the studio. It’s obvious there is a lot of collaboration between poet and musician throughout, as some of the pre-performance chatter is included. Here the musician and poet decide on a style, a tempo, and a feeling for each poem’s accompaniment. This is where questions such as “Piano or organ?” “Stax soul or Motown soul?” are decided. Then somebody counts in and the vocal track is recorded live alongside its improvised musical accompaniment.
On Venerable Madtown Hall, Jim’s voice is clearer and less distorted, and the pianist plays in a variety of more-or-less song stylings. This session seems influenced by some of the intimate conversations that Kerouac favored between musicians and himself as lyricist, such as his recordings on Blues and Haikus with saxophonists Zoot Sims and Al Cohn, and his work with pianist Steve Allen on Poetry for the Beat Generation. These pieces are also generally more sedate than on Commune, where one senses mostly the bitterness and disapproval of a poet in opposition to current events. But on Venerable Madtown Hall the emotional range more clearly includes light humor and even hints of evanescent joy that pass like unexpected sunbeams through several of the pieces.
It takes great skill to compose lyrics to be recited to improvised music, and it takes great skill to improvise music to poetry measured primarily in lines without consistent rhythm or meter. But what’s even more remarkable—and especially evident on the DVD included with Venerable Madtown Hall—is that on both of these new releases Jim Cohn and his musicians demonstrate their ability to listen as well as speak, to harmonize as well as to soar. These performances—although composed of music in support of lyrics—are less songs to the performers than dances, with poet and musician both giving space to their partner and getting support in return. As someone who has worked with musicians, I know it’s often difficult to find that happy match, but on these releases, Jim has found three. One of the better examples of this sense of collaboration is the inspired “Inscrutable Variation,” which Cohn almost sings while Bob swings behind him like Thelonious Monk.
The poetry Jim has chosen to record here is composed (I’m guessing) with these kind of musical collaborations in mind. Each line floats like a single chorus from a saxophone, preceded by and followed by an extended silence. This encourages us to hear the lines as if dislodged and separate from but still enclosed within the poems themselves. The lines appear at irregular intervals like fragments of overheard conversations or cartoon balloons floating across the sky. Then at some point the music begins to fade, and we wake from that particular dream.
Presented in this way—as a collection of performances, not texts—these poems recapture some of the drama and surprise of spoken—less often written—poetry. If we are reading poems, we know where the poem ends before we begin, we can skim and skip over the bad bits, we can go back and re-read passages if we feel we’ve lost the thread or when something has been particularly well said and we want to be certain to remember it. But with the poem as performance, we have no choice but to listen to the words as they are spoken by the poet. In this case that’s because of the author’s rather curious decision not to include lyric sheets. But I can say that over a day since I last heard the recordings I can remember the lines “things that cannot possibly exist are utterly real” and “clouds are a manifestation of sky” and “the dead dream of breathing.” But I can’t even look the lines up to make sure I remember them correctly. This means that in a way Jim Cohn has reclaimed the poem from text and returned us to the very beginnings of poetry … via the most modern of technologies and sensibilities.
September 9, 2013