The power of diversity in music and writing – and a great new book on poetry

With ‘diversity’ a current buzz word, I’ve been pondering what it means to me, personally. Take the idea that black culture matters (which is what ‘diversity’ has come to signify in popular modern parlance). A no-brainer as far as I’m concerned, but whereas others are identifying black musicians or writers to back up their cause I’d rather ponder the great, ride high on their gifts – I’m thinking Langston Hughes, Parker, Mingus, Walcott, Baldwin, Morrison, Armstrong, Holliday, Ellington, Basie, Fitzgerald, Angelou, the MJQ (Modern Jazz Quartet) and so on – accepting the riches they’ve given me and forgetting the issues of colour or racial origins. When I first encountered Fitzgerald, Ellington and Bechet (as a kid I’d play their records constantly) I had no idea they were black, but I did know that they were better than virtually anyone else in the genre at the time – and still are. Quality is what matters and it’s still the Number One priority, at least as far as I’m concerned.

I listen to the enriching music of Max Reger – who’s about as dead and white as it’s possible to be, stylistically at least – watching a video where the conductor is Wayne Marshall. Would either you or I guess that Marshall is black without foreknowledge? Not by listening, that’s for sure. Take the MJQ’s late pianist John Lewis playing straight Bach, or Keith Jarrett in Bach or Shostakovich. The stew is boiling and no one sensitive to culture can resist its powerful aroma. Celebrate individual ingredients by all means, but never forget that context is everything. A good deal has gone pear-shaped since the Sixties, but one Sixties legacy has remained potent: cultural cross-pollination (and by that I don’t mean multi-culturalism, which is a very different subject).

What prompted this heartfelt outburst is a recent book on poetry, the best ‘history’ I’ve ever read as it so happens, John Carey’s ‘A Little History of Poetry’ (Yale, £14.99). Most studies on the subject ply their narrative with a certain level of pedantry, dotting ‘I’s and crossing ‘T’s where eagerly pushing forwards would be a far better option, and which is precisely what Carey does here. He starts with the Epic of Gilgamesh, enters the realms of war, adventure and love with Homer and Sappho, then proceeds among the Latin classics (including Virgil), Anglo-Saxon poetry and, beyond that, the likes of Dante, Petrarch and Villon, the Elizabethans, John Donne, then the age of individualism, including the gnomic Herrick whose work I hardly knew. Happily, and with thanks to Oxfam in nearby Watford, I was able to acquire a handsome Herrick ‘complete works’ and am currently lapping it up. Religious individualists are covered, as are the Romantics and the likes of Yeats, Pound and Eliot, their vices as much illuminated as their virtues. Major Americans such as Whitman, Stevens and Dickinson are prominent, and so are the Germans Goethe, Rilke and Heine, though oddly Hölderlin is absent.  Meaningful – and memorable – quotations are plentiful and, yes, [Langston] Hughes, Walcott and Angelou are all there. The beauty of Carey’s book is that it gives you reasons to take poetry on as an urgent project (20th century Brits such Larkin, [Ted] Hughes and the likes fire straight from the hip), making it a necessary subject. Of writers on music only Alex Ross, whose newly issued ‘Wagnerism’ is a modern masterpiece, can compare. So if you’ve a friend or relative who reckons he/she doesn’t like poetry, this is your chance to prove them wrong.  

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