When I was an undergrad, if you wanted to study Greek myth and literature, you majored in the “Classics.” But if you wanted to study epics and myths by brown people, you had to major in anthropology. The curriculum was patchwork, haphazard, unserious. If you got lucky, a professor might tack an epic or myth on their syllabus from a region you hoped to study—sometimes. But epics by people of color were and still are studied outside of the high-walled category of “literature.”
So I learned early on that in order to find the inspiration I was looking for, I had to leave my American notion of writing behind. It was immense to be relieved of the expectations the American canon placed on literature, immense to be relieved of the holy individual. When I was too young to understand expatriatism to be a real possibility, studying these myths was a way to live elsewhere. Myth is a home for the imagination. It is the imagination’s playground. It is also a refuge for the soul. These epics were so dynamic, the landscape so vast and playful, that studying them helped heal a lot of the damage inflicted upon my creativity via colonial education.
So I’ve been wondering lately about finding sustenance from other genres, other art forms. I read a great deal of poetry now, but when it’s time to work, my writing is sustained by the mythology of South Asia and Africa. I’m compelled by this history, and the vestiges we still carry into our every day lives.
Another strong influence I have is an obsession with the independence struggles that took place from the 1940s through the 70s internationally. I keep returning rather habitually to those decades. Within this, the art form with which I find myself most engaged—for refuge and inspiration—is jazz. So, it seems that no matter where I turn aesthetically—from architecture to cinema—all of the work was produced either within the ancient colored world or within the context of anti-colonialism and the verve toward independence.
Why epic? Well, for one, these myths are just a helluvalot more fun than what I was used to. The work is so prescient, so giddy, so scandalous, so philosophically devastating—all at the same time. A king is arrogant, so a god changes him into a woman. But then, when the king learns his lesson and the god is ready to change him back, the king refuses. He loves being trans, he says. He doesn’t want to go back “because women experience more pleasure.” Or in another myth someone falls head over heels in love with someone else, but their love goes unrequited, and they both die remembering each other. And then, absolutely no big deal centuries later, these two lovers find each other again, in different bodies. But now they’re enemies on a battlefield. And just as they meet and are about to bludgeon each other to death, they remember each other, lay down their weapons, and embrace. Or more commonly, one remembers and the other doesn’t. Or say you have traveled for a lifetime, walking toward Heaven. Say you’ve lost all of your family, except for a stray dog. And out of nowhere, along the roadside, a pond begins to speak to you, questioning you for hours. Depending upon your answers, you can or cannot enter Heaven. Or perhaps the most devoted god of all is a little monkey. Or the goddess’ child is an elephant (long story). The deities fly, they ride on tigers or giant eagles. The Ultimate returns again and again in different animal forms. I know: he is a boar sometimes. But in one incarnation he sleeps in the middle of the primordial sea, atop a bed made of giant cobras, symbolizing the scintillating energy we all have hissing so beautifully throughout our own bodies. What’s not to love?
I’m also obsessed with the aesthetics of this time, especially the work of 10th century saint and grammarian, Abhinavagupta. He wrote magically about the power of suggestion in poetry. I think his suggestion is what we now call silence. Poetry is supposed to ravish us. Art should leave us mute. We shouldn’t be able to look away. A poem should take us by the neck and drag us into the moment or sensation it creates. But rarely, it’s been said, are we willing to give ourselves over, so the artist must have a clever aesthetic. Suggestion, says Abhinavagupta, is one way to achieve this.
So, for example, say you were a musician and wanted to suggest the experience of longing. You might play a long thirty-minute rag one evening. You would choose a note or beautiful chord and play all around it, even bending the notes to almost touch the note, but never ever play it. And of course, the audience, without knowing why, will begin—subconsciously—to long for just that one note. Instinctively, their desire will build. They will grow uncomfortable, something subtle will gnaw. And then, just when the note’s absence becomes unbearable—like a kiss—you play that note. You riff all over it. And the audience is relieved, and leaves grateful for having been escorted on a journey from despair to release. These are the kinds of aesthetics that compel me.
Of course, Sanskrit poetry isn’t the only literature that relies so masterfully on suggestion or silence. For example, writing about haiku and renga, Robert Hass said, “There is nothing quite like this…in the western literary tradition. The nearest to it, perhaps . . . is the American jazz band of the 1920s.” Later he says, “. . . the nearest thing to Basho’s hokku in the West in the twentieth century is Louis Armstrong’s solo in ‘Tight Like That’ or ‘Potato Head Blues’.”
This connection between jazz and haiku comforts me a great deal. I know there is this much-trumped myth in American letters that all poets descend from either one of two camps: Walt Whitman’s or Emily Dickinson’s, but what if your calendar goes much further back than all that? What if you grew up in a culture that had nothing to do with the literary projects of Dickinson or Whitman? Poet Reginald Harris recently made an astute observation about this. He said, “The Whitman/Dickinson thing is easy . . . too easy . . . facile really. Maybe even a tad lazy. Are the blues more Walt or more Emily?”
I think the blues are ancient. And jazz is the blues’ twin sister. And so jazz is another ancient influence to which I turn almost daily. The music is contemporary, but the aesthetic is as old as rain. I’ve learned a great deal about poetry by listening to great female vocalists like Shirley Horn, Betty Carter, Carmen McRae, Sarah Vaughn, Billy Holiday, etc.—that whole astonishing cadre of black female genius that walked the Earth for a few decades, belting. To me their work reflects some fine mysterious line between history and the individual. They knew how to take the ballad (a literary artifact) and empty it out, making every word theirs. They made English do what it could not do before. And how anti-colonial of a project is that? They could make “Mary Had A Little Lamb” sound like your most profound grief. You were the lamb, and the grass the lamb ate, and you were Mary looking for the lamb, too.
Recently, I’ve been listening to Shirley Horn again (and again). Starting and stopping, rewinding, meditating on the same two bars. No matter how often I do this, I’m always stunned by her economy, how she’s able to reach such sublime heights by maintaining intense restraint. She also has an uncanny ability to delay the rhythm of a song, to play it ever so slowly, and not have it fall apart. But most of all, her impeccable phrasing just cuts my head clear off. Think about her rendition of Kermit the Frog’s “It’s Not Easy Being Green”—who needs a shrink after that? Or the way she begins the cover “Come in from the Rain” with this resigned and breathy “Well . . .” which is followed by three pulsing seconds of silence before “. . . hello there . . .”— it’s just pure genius.
What’s the correlative in poetry? Enjambment perhaps. Consider Rita Dove’s masterful poem “The Regency Fete” from Sonata Mulattica. It’s a perfect example of how phrasing in jazz might be translated into to an aesthetic practice in poetry. Like Horn’s “Well . . .” Dove’s line breaks function existentially, suggesting sometimes two or even three metaphysical ideas while remaining syntactically sound.
These are the reasons I turn to jazz and epic: the tenderness and meticulous care they take with language’s magic; the joy not simply of articulation but of an articulation made sublime. Of course, what both these forms have in common is timing, breath, rhythm: meter. For me, poetry remains an art of song. If I do my job well, you won’t notice that I’m singing to you, you won’t notice certain meters. Hell, if it’s really good, I won’t notice either.
Ultimately, however, more than any of the reasons I’ve mentioned above, epic and jazz remain primary mentors for me because of their ability to elucidate what in life can never be articulated. Every art form has its magic and its limitation. Narrative can only go so far. I love that. That’s when metaphor walks into a room, sits down, crosses her legs, lights a cigarette and smiles at you. Language can point at the ineffable, it can take you right up to its door, it can indicate, but ultimately there is this immense, mysterious—perhaps even holy—silence about being a little bi-pedal being scrounging for meaning. And the irony here is that we writers use language to explore this silence.
How similar then are jazz and ancient literature. Both forms use language to propel us to a place where there’s nothing left to say, or nothing that needs to be said, or nothing that can be said. Ultimately, narrative is not their goal. Instead, it is a tool they use to give the audience a profound experience of its own humanity. Narrative is a tricky ploy to distract the mind, something to give the restless dog in us a bone. But what’s really occurring underneath it all, and so skillfully rendered, is a tender procession inward towards the Self. With musical accompaniment.
Robin Coste Lewis is a Goldwater Fellow in poetry at New York University. She was a finalist for the War Poetry Prize and the National Rita Dove Prize. A Cave Canem fellow, she holds an MTS in Sanskrit from Harvard. She has taught at Wheaton, Hampshire, and Hunter Colleges.