On 13th February 2021, the poet Matthew Dickman posted on Instagram: ‘I wish the poem I wrote 14 years ago was still true.’ The poem in question is ‘Chick Corea is Alive and Well’ – an elegy for the jazz pianist, written fourteen years before his death.
Most people are familiar with the elegy – a poetic form used to lament a death. Those who studied GCSE English Literature in the noughties will probably remember Ben Jonson’s ‘On My First Sonne’, and those who stuck around for A-Level might recall Wilfred Owen’s ‘Miners’. My time studying literature at UEA was delineated by elegies, among them Frank O’Hara’s ‘The Day Lady Died’ and Denise Riley’s ‘A Part Song’.
An elegy does not just mourn past deaths; it can also anticipate them. In ‘A Dog Has Died’, Pablo Neruda struggles to come to terms with the death of his pet, and in doing so reflects upon his own:
‘My dog has died.
I buried him in the garden
next to a rusted old machine.
Some day I’ll join him…’
The elegy, when it succeeds, also functions as a rehearsal of death for the reader (certainly I cannot read this particular Neruda without dreading the prospect of my own aging dog’s demise). ‘Chick Corea is Alive and Well’ is, in Dickman’s words, an ‘anti-elegy’. In one 2009 reading, Dickman asks his audience to help him choose the next poem. He asks if there are any Chick Corea fans in the room, and in response to a faint murmur of assent says with obvious enthusiasm: ‘Oh, I’ll read that one then!’
Leafing through his book in search of the poem, he tells the story of a hot Texas night he spent drinking whiskey and listening to Chick Corea, saddened by the thought that such a brilliant musician was dead. Dickman wrote an elegy in response, only to discover a few days later that not only was Corea alive, he’d been booked to play a concert in their town, forcing Dickman to rework the poem into its present form as an anti-elegy. Slapping the table for emphasis, he describes the reaction of his brother and fellow poet Michael Dickman to the revelation: ‘You can’t write elegies for people who aren’t dead!’ and the crowd splutters with laughter.
It’s always odd watching Dickman perform. To do so gives me a flash of recognition, because his poems (and, more embarrassingly, his big glasses, button-down shirt and slightly unruly hair) have helped me to form my own identity as a poet. But it’s odder and infinitely more tragic to watch this particular reading, knowing that ‘Chick Corea is Alive and Well’ is now as great an anachronism as that original, unpublished elegy was when Dickman wrote it.
I have used ‘Chick Corea is Alive and Well’ countless times to illustrate how to increase pace and build momentum in poetry; it has informed my own use of internal rhyme and assonance. Listening to Dickman read it reminds me of the huge debt free verse owes to jazz (consider the obligatory bebop-and-benzedrine montage in every film inspired by the Beats). The way it begins – slow, conversational, almost tentative, like the first sporadic notes of an improvised jazz piece – then intensifies, finding its own rhythm and discovering its own poetry as it goes, is as good a testament to the power of free verse as any I know. Dickman writes:
‘He was dead. And I? I was sad,
listening to his fingers, his poor dead fingers, flying
like ghosts over IT DON’T MEAN A THING
IF IT AIN’T GOT THAT SWING, and thinking
this man’s a genius! playing Ellington like a bartender
plays a Singapore Sling, all that maraschino cherry
sweetness, a little clink of ice, and his voice…’
Chick Corea passed away on the 9th February 2021.
Featured image credit: Ice Boy Tell via Wikimedia Commons
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