blackbirdonline journalFall 2018  Vol. 17 No. 2
an online journal of literature and the arts
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Body Swayed to Music: Levine among the Musicians
A review-essay of The Poetry of Jazz, by Philip Levine and Benjamin Boone, Origin Records, 2018

If you say “poetry and jazz,” you may evoke a great many clichés and assumptions, most of them involving berets, bongos, and finger snapping—or if the poet who springs to mind isn’t Beat, then he or she will be an academic wearing something downscale but tweedy, awkwardly placed in a rhythm section, and the effect will be like a cocktail party happening in two acoustically separate rooms, the poet mumbling in one and the band jamming in the other: and which room do you want to be in?

As for the project under consideration here: forget all that. When I first heard about this recording of Philip Levine’s poems with jazz, I had misgivings. When I first actually heard it—strapping on my earphones and diving in—I was instantly convinced.

In the first place, the poet is Philip Levine, one of the towering greats of the late twentieth and early twenty-first centuries. Given his presence, and given the timing (Levine died in February of 2015; the CD was released in 2018), those of us who love poetry owe the project a particular level of attention.

As do those who love jazz. The composer/saxophonist Benjamin Boone has a broad and deep track record as a musician and composer. Does he command quite the name recognition as Levine? Who does? Who cares? This recording shows him quite the poet’s equal (I choose these words carefully, and I mean them). What does it take for a composer to confront this brilliant poetry and understand how to give it the resonant accompaniment it requires, and then to stand toe-to-toe with the Maestro himself and sway him into music?


Here’s the lowdown, according to Benjamin Boone. In 2012, a performance was scheduled as a fundraiser for Fresno Filmworks at the historic Tower Theater in Fresno, California. Levine taught at California State University in Fresno for decades. Boone had joined the faculty there more recently. The fundraiser was to be an evening of jazz and poetry—nothing further was specified—and Boone, finding himself approaching this date with seriousness and with a certain level of normal performance anxiety, asked Levine when he wanted to rehearse.

Levine, Boone says, gave him a look, and said, “Why would we want to rehearse?”

“Well,” said Boone, “we don’t want anything to go wrong.”

At that, Levine redoubled the look, saying, “Ben. What could possibly go wrong?”

If Boone was prone to anxiety, this answer did nothing to calm him; he had come to Levine on the advice of a writer friend, who assured him that Levine was a national treasure and that “They Feed They Lion” is one of the greatest poems in the language. From Boone’s point of view—as he would be in charge of organizing and fulfilling 95 percent of the logistics of the event—plenty could go wrong.

“But Phil, you’ll at least come to a sound check, right?”

“Sure, Ben, I’ll be at sound check.”

But on the evening of the event, at the appointed time, one hour before the performance, the sound check commenced and Levine was not present. Then time came for the performance to begin. Still no Levine.

“What should we do?” Boone asked the other musicians.

The pianist David Aus, who Boone says has a fundamentally Buddhist approach to life, said, “Ben, it is what it is. I say we start playing.”

With Levine still not in sight, the music started. Then poet Peter Everwine did a short reading without music, and Levine arrived in time to pick up from Everwine to do a short unaccompanied reading of his own. Knowing Levine was present, Boone led the band in a couple of tunes without Levine (that was the first time Levine had heard Boone play); then the poet took his place and the real show began.

Boone told me that the first three poems the poet read felt unsettled against the music; to his ear, Levine read too fast at first, and the poems and the music didn’t lock. Until they did.

“From there on in, he was like a musician. A great one. It was magic.”

The results were impressive. And the idea for a studio recording was born.


Magic is an operative word here. The lyric dimension of poetry is, in a certain tradition of reading, considered the poetic dimension of the magical; but it is also the dimension of the musical. What this means for the kind of text-based poetry of which Philip Levine was a master is open to broad (and narrow) discussion. In the loosest parlance, his body of work would not be considered among the most “lyrical” of oeuvres; he would more often be described as conversational, sometimes discursive, often (though hardly always) narrative. He has in him some of John Berryman (more) and some of Robert Lowell (less), both teachers of his at Iowa; these influences are well established. It may be less often remembered that Levine also, a little later, studied with Yvor Winters at Stanford—a poet who, in his lifetime, was enormously influential and is now largely forgotten, or ignored, since his insistently traditionally formal poems are not fashionable now; even the neoformalists seem not to have championed Winters.

That Levine was a student of his seems strange; one is hard-pressed to find a shred of Winters’s DNA in Levine’s writing. But Winters, one of that mighty, hybrid strain referred to in the trade as the “poet-critic,” was a formidable and brilliant intellect, deeply read and profoundly knowledgeable about poetry. He introduced Levine to writers not assayed under the aegis of Iowa, in particular the French poet Tristan Corbière, whose subject matter (“the maimed, the isolated, the despised,” as Levine describes it) was important to Levine. Winters also introduced him to the English poet Elizabeth Daryush, who is just the sort of writer Winters knew all about. Of Daryush, Levine has said:

[T]he moment I read Daryush, I felt I’d discovered an incredible poetic source. I began to imitate her syllabic experiments, which I found astonishing, for working from her models allowed me both to possess formal requirements and to use a diction as close to speech as possible while keeping a measure of control, or perhaps . . . a control of the measure (My Lost Poets, 56).

There is much in this paragraph that can for present purposes be profitably unpacked in due course. But for the moment, one more central—indeed crucial—source must be added to the mix from outside the stable of Winters, or of Berryman (though also fascinatingly crucial to Lowell): William Carlos Williams, the poet who so powerfully seconded Whitman’s insistence on a poetry that is purely and completely American, made from the materials of American speech—a word I here emphasize to clarify its distinction from music.

Levine tells us that it was while he was studying with Winters, a poet not interested, to say the least, in the incorporation of elements of vernacular, that “the full force of Williams’s poetry hit me; I suddenly realized that I could incorporate much of what I loved in his work and be simply free, a condition my chaotic life seemed unable to tolerate” (My Lost Poets, 56).

That Levine gravitated powerfully to Williams’s brand of free verse practice is obvious, though no less vital for being so. What is less obvious is how Levine’s other influences—the crazed and yet perversely formal jangle of Berryman’s Dream Songs, the quiet and unobtrusive formalism of Lowell’s Life Studies, the “astonishing” syllabic experiments of Daryush—remain alive in Levine’s poetry (as indeed the sonority of Keats remained alive in Williams, and also in Levine, who adored Keats). “A measure of control,” Levine said, and “a control of measure”: in that witty chiasmus Levine sums up the poet’s prosodic job.


I first heard of this recording when I was asked to review it, and I was, I admit, full of trepidation. What if it stank? What if I hated it? Or in a way even worse, what if it turned out to be what was most likely: mediocre? There was nothing mediocre or ordinary about Philip Levine, but what if this album was just another run-of-the-mill “poet reads with music” outing?

But from the first moment I heard the recording—I mean, in the first moment, the recording itself—I was galvanized. It sounded gorgeous. Instantly gorgeous. By which I mean nothing more mysterious than that it is very well produced: well recorded, well engineered, perfectly mixed, beautifully mastered. Every part of each performance here is, in that magical effect an excellent recording can produce, present. Phil Levine, among the musicians, is present. That fact alone was enough to move me to tears.

But beyond my personal, subjective response to hearing Levine’s voice alive like that (I loved the man and I miss him), I understood enough about the craft of the studio to want to know more. In my first e-mails to Benjamin Boone, I asked, “Who mixed this, and who mastered it?” Part of the key to any recording, but especially one like this—in which we want to have the music perfectly rendered in all its dimensions but without interfering with a single syllable of the poems—is in the hands of the engineer who does the mixing (adjusts and tweaks the level and the timbre of every track). But more crucial still is the wizard who masters the recording, a process whereby a shaman of electronics performs via voodoo incomprehensible to mere mortals a miracle of acoustic sculpting, whereby the recording becomes a three-dimensional performance, each player embodied impossibly in his or her own space in the air.


Boone told me that the album was mostly recorded in Fresno.

“We did a final mix there, but I wasn’t happy with it”—words often heard in studios, where mixing is an obsessive, endless, argumentative, and tedious process—“so I took it to NYC Systems Two Studios. Mike Marciano there is amazing. He really helped make each track have its own sound world. That is what we were aiming for and he did it. And pianist Donald Brown (also Kenny Garrett’s producer) was there when we mixed it. So hats off to Systems Two. They got it.”

All that labor expended by so many consummate professionals is immediately apparent in the quality of the recording. That is what I heard as soon as I put on my headphones, and what I hear in this album throughout, from beginning to end.

As a result, Levine’s voice—his vocal, let us call it—is perfectly rendered and precisely placed (in that three-dimensional sense that excellent mastering produces). Not a word of any of the poems is lost, nor is a single note from any of the instruments. Nowhere is the poetry overpowered by the music or vice versa. And nowhere does the listener feel that the engineers have strained to make this happen or used any cheesy studio effect to sustain it.

Convinced I was in good hands, I began to pay attention, deeply, to Levine’s performance. He reads like a vocalist singing, by which I mean he is attending to the music, and his phrasing is at every point calculated both to grant the words their space and to allow them both to be buoyed by, and yet be mindful of, Boone’s compositions. Each phrase of every poem is carefully measured; the phrases complete themselves and are allowed to hover, resonant in the song.

My first impression, just listening, was that the phrasing I was hearing must be identical to the poems’ lineation. Levine is famous for writing a certain kind of free verse line, what he calls in his tongue-in-cheek poem “A Theory of Prosody” “the short cat line.” But when on third or fourth listening I printed out all the poems and followed the text on the page, I discovered to my surprise (but why was I surprised?) that it was not so. Levine’s phrasing on the recording does not coincide with the poems’ syntax (the musical phrase is not the grammatical phrase), nor does it coincide with their lineation: it is a third thing, indeed from the point of view of craft it is a new thing.

Practitioners of “free verse” eschew certain musical “artifacts” (meter and rhyme, the hallmarks of songwriting) and no longer count syllables and/or accents, the way metrical poets do. Their materials are in a sense thus simplified, and basically what they work with is the sentence and the line break, which create, in the dance of the poem, a constructive tension. But Levine’s reading of these poems in a musical environment showed me that he used a third element: the musical phrase, which is as present in the voice of the poem on the page as it is in the recordings: the performance simply enhances that element, foregrounds it.

Thus, for instance, the poem “The Music of Time” comes out this way (the slashes represent the points at which Levine ends each phrase on the recording):

Now I can go
back to my single room, / I can lie
awake in the dark and rehearse
all the trivial events / of the day ahead, /
a day that begins when the sun clears
the dark spires of someone’s God . . .

To be clear: on the recording, the only pauses are at the slashes; the line breaks are read straight through. On the page, Levine is very careful about lineation, using it to create syncopation and small, fleeting ambiguities that clarify as soon as the next line begins. In the recording, he is purely concerned about how each phrase, so to speak, sings. Like a fine vocalist, he plays variations within the music; he honors the musical meters of Boone’s compositions but also works constructively against them. He hyperextends his phrases over the musical boundaries of the measure (an effect worked in precisely the same way by jazz vocalists such as Ella Fitzgerald and Sarah Vaughan). And so we get “of the day ahead,” a short and resonant phrase, followed by the cascade of “a day that begins when the sun clears the dark spires of someone’s God.”

Not only is the melodiousness and the effortlessness of this phrasing beautiful to listen to, it is also immensely suggestive about Levine’s prosodic craft. Would these phrases be different on the recording if Boone’s music were different? Undoubtedly. At the same time, though, we can feel the presence of Levine’s own music in the choices he makes as he reads. This, revealed very starkly, is how Philip Levine’s ear worked. It worked that way in the recording studio; but it worked that way in the writer’s studio as well. The musical phrase is as much a part of his craft as the sentence and the line. This is a measure of control and control of the measure in one. It is fundamental.


It is one thing to write lyrics for a song; to “set” a poem to music, to take the text of a poem and give it a literal melody, is a different but not unrelated craft. In the former case, perhaps, the music and the language of the song come into existence at the same time, in terms of process, though in practice I suspect this rarely happens so neatly. Many of the great songwriting duos divided the labor precisely, one writing the lyrics and the other the music. How is the process different for Bernie Taupin and Elton John, say—John receives lyrics from Taupin and melodizes them—than for the composer Morten Lauridsen setting a poem by Rilke? Setting aside the differences in genre and the different uses to which the final music is to be put (which is admittedly setting aside a lot), but thinking only in terms of process, there might be said to be no difference at all. When Sheryl Crow and her collaborators found Wyn Cooper's poem “Fun” in a bookstore and turned in into “All I Wanna Do,” were they songwriting or setting? Who cares, you might be inclined to say, it went platinum! What do we call it when The Fugs write music for William Blake’s “Grain of Sand”? In terms of the marketable product, these labels really do not matter; but as markers of process, they may reveal a great deal.

The task that Benjamin Boone undertook in his collaboration with Philip Levine, however, is of another kind. The music he composed is not designed to support a singer but a speaker, a reader. Therefore the problem was not to devise melodies for Levine’s poems but to create a context, a milieu in which the poems could live, and become—ideally, at least—even larger and richer and stranger than they are on the page, or, perhaps more accurately, so that they could be alive differently than on the page. Or perhaps yet more accurately still, the problem is to create a new page, one made of music.

This kind of composition is a different art from songwriting or setting. So far it has no name of its own. I have labored to produce one that will do it justice, without success. Even to describe it isn’t easy, because there is a paradox at the heart of the matter.

Whenever music and language concretely and pragmatically meet for the purpose of coexistence, tension results (if this sounds to you like an archly abstract description of human relationships, then you are, as we say in the trade, hep to the jive). Poets often say they want their poems to sing; but do they really? If it is true, as Walter Pater famously said, that “all art aspires to the condition of music,” then yes, poems must want to be songs. But if it is also true, as the poet Marvin Bell put it, that “If poetry is nothing but music, what chance does it have against the real thing?” then the relationship is more problematic than it might appear at first glance. Music has an immediacy and an emotional richness in the moment that is undeniable to most people. That it also lacks content (when it is instrumental music, or music sung without words) is less often remarked upon, but a poet might well wish to embrace that condition, since language tends to be all content, and poets have to labor mightily, often, to transcend that fact.

By which I mean: if language is designed to spend most of its energy conveying information, and music conveying none, how can there be a meeting point?


Anyone coming fresh to the art of songwriting may be shocked to discover how sparse most song lyrics are. A famous case in point:

Well, a friend of mine named Steve Goodman wrote that song
And he told me it was the perfect country & western song
I wrote him back a letter and I told him it was not the perfect country & western song
Because he hadn't said anything at all about mama
Or trains, or trucks, or prison, or gettin’ drunk

This you will recognize (if you are at all hep to the jive) as a spoken word section of David Allan Coe’s recording of “You Never Even Called Me by My Name,” written, as we are told, by the great Steve Goodman. Goodman’s response to this riposte might well have been, “Good God, Coe, what do you want? The song is already four verses and a bridge! Songs can’t be much longer than that if you want them played on the radio!” Of course Goodman being Goodman instead wrote one more verse, in which he absurdly incorporated everything Coe asked for, which in this instance was only possible because the song was already funny; the added verse makes it even funnier, and it succeeded very nicely on the radio.

For present purposes what is important in that story is that Coe’s complaint encapsulates a tension among the triad of tradition (in this case the tradition of country-western music), form, and information. Even though the song in question is not exactly laconic, still Goodman had not put everything in—not all the “information” demanded by the tradition, and Coe calls him out on it. The beginning songwriter will often come to despair because the perfect narrative in his or her head simply cannot be accommodated by the relative brevity of song form; all the logical connections, all the backstory, all the psychologizing—not to mention the moral of the tale—would challenge Homer to fit into four stanzas and a bridge (and then there is the pesky matter of meter and rhyme!).

A moment of maturity might arrive when the aspirant realizes that brevity in songwriting might be a blessing rather than a curse: that song lyrics don’t necessarily have to make “sense” (thank you Bob Dylan), and that people on a dance floor or in a concert hall listening rather than reading are content to let the experience of the song flow over them. As Smokey Robinson put it: “Ooo, baby baby.” What more, really, is necessary to the bridge of that song?

The poet who—like Philip Levine—writes primarily for the page is in the opposite situation, especially if he or she writes so-called “free verse,” in which formal demands, while not absent, are muted. For songwriters, measure is a given; for free verse poets, measure has nominally been abandoned (though this is a myth of free verse practice, it is a real myth). The ways in which the textual poet can go wrong are probably equal in number to the ways in which the songwriter can go wrong, but the practicalities are different. A good songwriter knows he or she can depend on the music that will eventually be part of the enterprise to buoy the lyrics, to give the words extension, dimension, edge, and momentum; if the songwriter doesn’t understand that symbiosis, if the songwriter doesn’t know how to take it into account, then the fledgling song will fail.

The textual poet, on the other hand, has built the musicians into the text. I write this sentence with genuine trepidation, because it contains multitudes: the fact, for instance, that poetry and music have been married since the dawn of human consciousness; the fact that for millennia no one would have made a distinction between “poems” and “songs”; the fact that, even in “free verse” (and this is why I put the term in quotation marks and call it “so-called”) the practice of breaking lines is a reference or an homage to a time when poems were always set to music and sung. The poet’s toolbox, the elements of craft, used to be routinely referred to as prosody, a word that seems at some point to have become old-fashioned, probably because some have thought it refers only to matters of traditional form; but there are prosodies of “free verse” too, because what sits at the heart of the word is its ancient Greek definition, “toward song.” It reminds us that all the poet’s labor, all her craft, all his intelligence, are expended in building a rhythm section into the dead, silent page.

The composer who sets a poem to music aspires to give the song already in the poem an actual, literal voice. That practice is different from writing a song, even when songs are written the way John and Taupin, or Rodgers and Hart, wrote songs. In the songwriting process, everything is provisional; music and lyrics, at least in theory, can change to accommodate one another. The composer setting a poem, on the other hand, confronts a fixed text. Either he works the way a sculptor is sometimes said to work, chiseling the marble to find the shape already present inside the block of stone, or she seeks to impose her own song on the poet’s original. Either way, there is an agon, but the wrestling match is with something already there, to which one would bring something extra. Even the singer is extra—or especially the singer. Now a voice engages the poem that is other than the poet’s own voice. This is an act of appropriation, of possession, that is thrilling and transformative when it works, and deadening when it doesn’t.

Benjamin Boone’s enterprise, and that of other composers who compose for musicians and poets—for musicians and text, one might say—is in a different dimension from any of the above. Songs, whether pop songs or lieder, neither present nor honor texts, nor should they. The songwriter’s work lives in the air; the composer’s setting of a poem transcends the page and seeks to return the poem to its primal condition (as if it had one). What Boone has done is designed to preserve and honor the text—which is, after all, the poet’s instrument, and deserves as much respect as any bagpipe—while simultaneously supplementing it. His art in this instance must acknowledge the fact that the textual poet builds a rhythm section into the text; the real rhythm section in the studio has to be aware of these other “musicians,” and give them space in the recording.


When I spoke to Benjamin Boone about the process whereby this CD was executed, there were certain things I was very curious about. The first was whether Levine went into the studio with the musicians, or whether the musicians recorded tracks over which Levine, alone in the studio, read his poems.

Boone said that he had suggested to Levine that it would be more efficient (as well as less taxing: it must not be forgotten that Levine was in his 80s when this work was done) to record the music, at least the basic rhythm tracks, first and let him record his tracks after.

Levine’s response? “Why would I want to do that, Ben? I’ve sat in recording studios reading my stuff to myself plenty of times. I want to work with the musicians! That will be fun!”

And so the poet and the players convened session after session in a studio in Fresno, California, making the recordings. Another poet—especially one Levine’s age, who was also, by a certain point in the extended recording process, not in good health—might have found the lengthy, nitpicky process onerous. Levine loved it. He spent hours doing what is done in studios: sitting in a booth on a stool wearing headphones and staring at a microphone, recording take after take until everyone is satisfied, and then moving on to the next track. He stayed at it faithfully for the requisite long stretches.

One of the marvelous things about the finished product is the joy in Levine’s voice. It is very clear that he is indeed having fun. It shows in every recording here. And while there are many things for which to praise Benjamin Boone in the making of this gorgeous album, to me first and foremost is this: you can hear Phil Levine loving it.


In the interest of full disclosure, I will say here that I knew Phil Levine moderately well. I was neither an intimate nor an indispensable friend of his, but I was a friend. During a certain period our paths crossed often; we spent a good many evenings, in larger and smaller groups, talking. He loved conversation and he loved in particular to talk about jazz. I have gone on record elsewhere some of the conversations we had, and do not want to repeat myself, so it will suffice to say that his love for jazz began in his hometown. Detroit in the ’40s and ’50s was as much a music city as later on, when Motown started rolling hits off its brilliant assembly line: jazz lived there vitally, for a long time, and Levine as a young man, while in high school and later as a factory worker and college student, had the opportunity to hear many of the greats up close. He got to know some of them personally as well, because some were classmates of his at Wayne University as it was called then: the guitarist Kenny Burrell was there, as were the pianists Tommy Flanagan and Bess Bonnier; they were close friends and peers of Levine’s then, as was the great and inimitable baritone saxophonist Pepper Adams, and the drummer Elvin Jones, who of course went on to monumental fame in John Coltrane’s classic quartet. That is very illustrious company, even though they were all just kids.

As far as I know, Levine never played an instrument in any serious way. I suppose he didn’t have to; he had poetry, and the page was his instrument. But the depth of his understanding of the music he loved was remarkable, and like that of a practitioner (a fact I noticed in my conversations with him and which was borne out by Ben Boone’s experience). He got it the way a musician gets it. And he loved it, perhaps, even more than many musicians, for whom the unyielding demands of the business and the grind of the life can wear down passion. Even so, somehow he was a player, and no ordinary one: he was a monster, which is a way of saying a master. When he got onstage, he always blew the room away.

That’s what Boone and his musicians, and also Levine, discovered three poems into an unrehearsed performance one evening at the Tower Theater: Levine found the groove with the other players, and once he was in it, he never left it.

“At a certain point,” Boone told me, “his reading slowed down; his phrasing changed. Before that, the band was in one place and the poet in another, but he was listening, he heard it, he got it, and then that was it: he was our singer.”


For anyone who loves music or poetry, but especially for those who love both, there are wonders on this album. Consider the one that’s apt to be anyone’s favorite, “I Remember Clifford.”

One thing I enjoy about this recording is its recursiveness. Levine wrote the poem in memory of the brilliant jazz trumpeter Clifford Brown, who died in an automobile accident in 1956. Brown was only twenty-five years old at the time of his death, and so left us tragically less than he might have; he was a Keats of jazz (but alas not the only one). Levine’s poem—really a minor poem of his—concerns his wandering into a jazz club in Detroit in the early 1950s and discovering Clifford Brown performing there. After a long shift in the factory, the narrator walks down a dark street in the snow and hears a trumpet playing.

My heart quickened
and in my long coat, breathless
and stumbling, I ran
through the swirling snow
to the familiar sequined door
knowing it would open on something new.

There the poem ends, in a moment of expressly stated transformation, of epiphany just about to happen. As a poem, it’s vintage Levine. On this album, it becomes heartbreaking—partly due to the joyous quality of Levine’s reading, partly due to the excellent composition that arrives along with Levine’s voice, and partly for a different kind of decision that Benjamin Boone made.

The poem’s title refers us to Clifford Brown, and to the narrator’s memory of hearing him for the first time all those years ago, but it also (enter recursiveness) refers to a gorgeous tribute song written by the saxophonist Benny Golson, so well known by now that it has become itself a standard. “I Remember Clifford,” recorded by Golson and then by many others, is an elegiac instrumental, a reflective ballad that evokes the atmosphere of Brown’s own work. For this poem, Boone composed a melody that is strongly reminiscent of, but not repetitious of, Golson’s composition. Anyone who knows Brown’s music is likely to know Golson’s composition, and so will be struck, as I was, by the extraordinarily tactful, effective work Boone did as a composer here.

But he did another excellent thing as well. Levine was always in the Fresno studio with basically the same core group of musicians. Boone is a saxophonist specializing in soprano and alto, each of which he plays wonderfully on most of these recordings (seriously, the man has deep and abiding chops; do yourself a favor and give him a listen) and he did the solo work on the original track. But as he listened to the playback of “I Remember Clifford” in the studio, and again and again at home, he found himself wondering, “Why is there a saxophone soloing in this? Clifford Brown played trumpet!”

“It was a tough decision, in terms of my own ego,” Boone told me. But in the end he contacted, through a friend of a friend, the trumpeter Tom Harrell. Harrell, now seventy-one, is a master musician who has played with just about everyone, from Stan Kenton and Woody Herman to Horace Silver on down. Who better to channel Clifford Brown?

Boone replaced his saxophone track with one recorded by Harrell at Systems Two Studio in Brooklyn—using “Coltrane's old personal mic on loan from Ravi Coltrane,” as Boone told me in an e-mail. The result is nothing short of devastating. Harrell’s playing—he is credited on the album as playing trumpet, but I am virtually certain he’s blowing flugelhorn—is beyond flawless. A trumpet player deeply influenced by Clifford Brown at a formative point in his musical education, he is the perfect choice for this recording.

Harrell plays a head, a melody, that invokes both Brown and Golson’s elegy for Brown; then Levine reads the poem in a voice as rich and resonant as Harrell’s horn, which goes on playing behind him. Levine’s vocal timbre is sax-like, and his and Harrell’s instruments counterpoint. Then the poem ends, and Harrell solos at length. He could have gone on forever. But what happens is that Levine reenters and reads the last third of the poem a second time—the only such repetition on the album—with the music coming to a fermata and then to silence as he reads that last line again like a quick cadenza. The result is that this small poem is lifted up, reified into something even more resonant than it is on the page: it becomes in the highest sense a song.

Having introduced a “star” into the mix for this recording, Boone decided to call on a few others. Many of the poems chosen for this album refer directly to jazz. For a poem about Sonny Rollins, Boone employs the tenor saxophonist Chris Potter; for one about Charlie Parker, Greg Osby, the alto sax player, does the honors. And for a superb poem in which the narrator’s ninety-one-year-old mother has a dream about John Coltrane, the soloist is Branford Marsalis. The Coltrane homage would present a challenge to any tenor player, but of course Marsalis, who among other things has boldly made his own recording of the full suite that is Coltrane’s masterpiece, A Love Supreme, is up to the job. All of these musicians are superb and add dimension to the album (but, it must be said, none of them smokes Ben Boone).


In our conversation, it occurred to me to ask whether Levine had had the opportunity to hear the final version of the album, since he died fairly suddenly after the recordings were done but before the final mix was created.

“I’m not sure,” Boone told me, “but I don’t think so.” It breaks my heart to know that Levine might never have experienced this album in its polished form, but especially that he might not have heard Tom Harrell on “I Remember Clifford.” It would have blown him away.


I asked Boone what the musicians had before them on their music stands during the recording sessions. I wanted to know this because everything at every point on this album falls into place perfectly—and yet there is plenty of room for soloing, so improvisation is part of the equation—that much but not all of it must have been strictly composed. But how much of each, in what proportion?

“On their stands for every track,” Boone told me, “the musicians had a score, and they also had a copy of the poem we were working with.” So the music was scored; but what kind of scores did he mean? Jazz musicians often work with charts that are little more than a diagram of chord changes. Boone chuckled when I asked this (because yes, reader, I too am hep to the jive).

“It varied,” he said. “One piece, ‘Arrival,’ is pure improvisation.” “Arrival” is the shortest track on the album and features Levine with only the bassist Spee Kosloff; it’s a minute and a half of conversation between the poem and the double bass about a train, and it is excellent: you can hear how well Kosloff listens to the poem, and how he speaks back to it. So improvised is the music here that Kosloff gets composing credit for the track.

“On ‘By the Waters of the Llobregat,’” Boone said, “every note is composed; nothing is improvised.” This poem is one of Levine’s homages to the people of Spain and the heroes and victims of the Spanish Civil War. The Llobregat is a river in Catalonia and was one site of the terrible Catalonia Offensive, a defeat for the opponents of Franco, who lost their capital, the city of Barcelona. There is no battle in the poem: two women and a girl are “resting / in the shade of the fir trees” while far off “the roar of the world” can be heard, and of “awakening men / and then the machines . . . that know what needs to be / done and do it.” And then the women and the girl are gone, and no one notices:

no one sits down to weep for the children

of the world, by the Ebro, the Tagus,
the Guadalquivir, by the waters
of the world no one sits down and weeps.

This is a late poem of Levine’s; it appears in a posthumous volume The Last Shift, and shows, as does the whole book, that his powers as a poet had not flagged.

“How do you compose music for a poem like that?” Boone mused. “How would you improvise to it?” The music for this track is austere, a piece for solo piano. And I think it is fair to say that it isn’t jazz, strictly speaking—though it is, too, since jazz can do anything, and since the word “jazz” is more or less meaningless beyond a certain point anyway. The music for “By the Waters of the Llobregat,” appropriately, is quiet, but there is violence in it, quick high dissonant jabs of the piano floating on a river created by the instrument’s very lowest strings.

Benjamin Boone as a composer and as a player works from a very broad musical base; his training is as much in “classical” as it is in “jazz,” and his experience encompasses both those labels and others as well. That is fortunate for this piece, and for this entire album, since Boone is able to bring to bear whatever musical language he needs in service of the poems.


I also asked Boone how the poems were chosen—whether he picked them, or Levine picked them, or whether they did it together. It turns out that there was a long dialogue between them, mostly carried on via e-mail, in which Levine would send Boone poems to consider, and Boone would reply whether he thought he could create a composition suitable for this poem or that poem.

There are fourteen tracks on the finished CD; most of the poems are new or newish, ranging back chronologically as far as “What Work Is” but no farther—with one exception, “They Feed They Lion,” a poem that is far older than any other on the album.

When I first saw the CD’s playlist, I was both surprised and not surprised to see “They Feed They Lion” included. I heard Levine read many times, but I never heard him read that poem. I think he’d gotten tired of reading it. I heard people ask him, before he took the lectern, to read it, because it was their favorite; and more than once I heard him firmly but politely refuse. “They Lion” for Levine was like “Midnight Hour” for Wilson Pickett.

I asked Boone, “Did Phil suggest ‘Lion’ for the CD?”

Boone said, “That was the first poem of Phil’s I knew about. When I was about to move to Fresno, my friend Danny Folz-Grany, who is a writer, got excited and said I had to look up his favorite poet, Phil Levine, who lived in Fresno, and I had to read this great poem! That was frankly the first time I heard of Phil. So I guess I brought it up in the beginning.”

“Was he reluctant at all?”

“No. Right away he said, ‘okay, why not, let’s do it.’”

Then, without my having to ask it, Boone answered my next question, which was going to be, “Did Levine have suggestions about the music?”

“I think,” Boone said, “I still have the e-mail in which Phil told me how he thought the recording of ‘They Lion’ ought to go. I’ll look for it, and if I find it I’ll send it to you.”

Of course he still had it; how could you possibly lose such a thing?

I’ve been thinking about how best to do They Lion. I settled on a strategy of going in the opposite direction from what we’ve done in the past. Let the poem be . . . what? . . . violent? . . . attacking? brutal? . . . & the music fairly calm until the pause before the storm of the final stanza. And then the horn continues into the final stanza—that would be the only time the horn & the poem are heard together. Have a break after each stanza of say half a minute or less, a break without fireworks but with mounting intensity, & then GO! In the breaks between stanzas the horn answers the reading voice of the previous stanza.

That is quite specific and well considered. The recording follows his instructions exactly. The “horn,” in this case, is Boone’s soprano sax, on which he plays, mostly between the stanzas as directed, sheets of sound highly reminiscent of Coltrane’s “My Favorite Things,” a fine irony indeed considering the subject matter of this poem.

It is telling that Levine wants his own reading to be (perhaps) “violent, attacking, brutal,” since nothing else on the album has these qualities. But “They Feed They Lion” is not like any of the other poems on the album, and that isn’t because it’s older than the others: it’s because “They Feed They Lion” is sui generis even in Levine’s corpus.

His reading of it is, as he wanted it to be, different from the other tracks here. He is pushing harder. “He wanted to sound like a preacher,” Boone said.

When I listen closely to this track, earphones on, I hear different qualities in Phil’s voice than I have ever heard before (and I’ve listened to him a lot). I asked Boone how the session had gone.

“It was intense,” he said. “We’d been in the studio for four hours, working hard the whole time. At some point, Phil said, ‘I’m tired, fellas. Maybe we should call it a day.’ I said, ‘That’s cool. We’ll knock off for now and start off with “They Lion” next time.’ ‘Wait,’ Phil said, ‘“They Lion” is next up? Jeez. Let’s go ahead and do it.’”

Four straight hours in a recording studio is no joke. The level of concentration while recording is like nothing else: you’re listening, listening, listening as hard as you can, to yourself and to the other participants. You do a take; then you do it again. It can wring out a twenty-year-old in no time. And Levine was in his 80s.

You can hear the strain of the labor, the time put in, in his reading. On the first word of the third stanza, earth, his voice actually breaks. But for this strange, passionate, devastating poem, breakage is called for. Breakage is the subject and the tone: “Earth is eating trees, fence posts, / Gutted cars.” The wheels are coming off. So that in that final stanza, the horn and the voice lock, and wrestle, and dance, and die: “From all my white sins forgiven, they feed.”

His voice broke, but they left the breakage in. It would have been easy to punch in a fix, but they chose not to.

The track was done in a single take.


However much Philip Levine owed to his great master William Carlos Williams—however much he valued plain speech, and the American voice—I am convinced that at bottom he always knew his poetry was music, just as I am convinced that, for all his skepticism and his incisive wit, Philip Levine was at bottom a deeply spiritual man. He might not have wanted me to say so; these things were I think very private for him, both song and spirit. But otherwise how are we to understand a story like this:

I composed my first poems in the dark. In fact in the “double dark”: that is, at night in a small woods that only the moon lit and also totally without the guidance or knowledge or light, if you will, that great or good or even mediocre poetry might have given me. In truth I never thought of these early compositions as poems; I never thought of them as anything but what they were: secret little speeches addressed to the moon when the moon was visible and when the moon was not visible to all those parts of creation that crowded around and above me as well as those parts that eluded me, the parts I had no name for, no notion of except for the fact they were listening (My Lost Poets, 1).

That—as Wordsworth said to Keats on hearing a passage from “Endymion,” an observation cited by Levine in another essay—is “a very pretty piece of paganism.” The impulse to speak to the invisible moon from a copse of trees, to have one’s words travel into the mystery, to the other side, is sheer shamanism. And all poets, all musicians, all artists are the children of the shamans, who sang and go on singing songs that propel them to the realm of the gods or into the Dreamtime.

Ordinarily we would not think of Philip Levine in that context—he is so human (the most human of humans, in my experience) and so concerned with the joys and the pain of men and women, their labor, their lives—that dark groves and moons and solitary songs to the ineffable are simply not, we may think, his milieu.



There is a gap in our understanding (in my opinion) of some fundamental power, or linkage, in our humanity that we can glimpse in the space between the word lyric (as in lyric poetry) and lyrics (as in song lyrics). It is almost the same word, but not quite. Poems are almost song lyrics, but not exactly. Put another way: what is the difference between the voice of a singer when she is speaking, and the voice of a singer when she is singing? What is the difference between the speaker who speaks when she ceases to speak and sings? That human becomes a different creature when the song begins, and the words she sings become different words, the words on the mind’s mundane metaphorical page metamorphosed into the words shimmering in the air.

Textual poetry, paradoxically, participates in that mystery, though in a different mode. The poem on the page is a score for consciousness. The poet puts the words there the way the composer writes notes on a staff; the reader is the musician who, in the act of reading, embodies (literally) the performance. It is the peculiar power of writing—as opposed to speaking or singing—that the interior energy of words is transferred from the mind of the writer to the mind of the capable reader. I say capable because the reader, like the musician, has to have the chops for the gig.

“I’ve always envied the jazz musician,” Philip Levine wrote, “the ability to break into new song day after day, night after night, to be able to listen and answer to his or her fellow musicians. . . . By comparison poetry is so utterly solitary and interior. I think of young [saxophonist] Wardell Gray playing at the Blue Bird with abandon and control, his artistry become body, muscles, breath, the stuff of life, maybe even digestion. I see in memory the whole person alive in the song, body and soul.” This is what it means to “aspire to the condition of music,” that transubstantiation of everything human, even what you had for breakfast, into the pure sheer power of sound in the air, moving from mind to mind, from soul to soul, with control, yes, but at the same time with abandon.

The textual poem shares in that power too: Whitman’s “who touches this book touches a man” is a transubstantiation as well, and a real one. Nothing mystical about it, Whitman might say: this is our life on earth, person to person, mind to mind, soul to soul.

Philip Levine participated richly in that life—living the solitary interiority of poetry but also the brilliance of the unquenchable fire of music and the musician’s journey toward it. In his time among us he gave us many indispensable gifts, and on departing he has left three more: a posthumous book of poems (The Last Shift); a posthumous book of essays (My Lost Poets, from which I have quoted copiously in this essay); and the recording The Poetry of Jazz. This last, it must be said, is surely something Levine always wanted to do, whether consciously or not, and to listen to these tracks is to hear, among all the rest of it, the pure pleasure he took in doing it. The album, then, is not only a gift to us: it is also a gift to Philip Levine, one for which we, and Levine, owe thanks to Benjamin Boone, who, though not a student of poetry, read Levine so well, thought about the poems so carefully, and built for the poems so beautiful and enduring a musical home.

This album proves once and for all that Philip Levine had no need to envy the jazz musicians, for he was, as musicians say of great players with enormous chops, a monster: body and soul, right down to the ground.  

Levine, Philip. My Lost Poets: A Life in Poetry. Knopf, 2016.

   Contributor’s notes

   The Poetry of Jazz audio

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