The Thing about Joe Sullivan

By Roy Fisher b. 1930 Roy Fisher
The pianist Joe Sullivan,
jamming sound against idea
hard as it can go
florid and dangerous
slams at the beat, or hovers,
drumming, along its spikes;
in his time almost the only
one of them to ignore
the chance of easing down,
walking it leisurely,
he’ll strut, with gambling shapes,
underpinning by James P.,
amble, and stride over
gulfs of his own leaving, perilously
toppling octaves down to where
the chords grow fat again
and ride hard-edged, most lucidly
voiced, and in good inversions even when
the piano seems at risk of being
hammered the next second into scrap.
For all that, he won’t swing
like all the others;
disregards mere continuity,
the snakecharming business,
the ‘masturbator’s rhythm’
under the long variations:
Sullivan can gut a sequence
in one chorus—
—approach, development, climax, discard—
and sound magnanimous.
The mannerism of intensity
often with him seems true,
too much to be said, the mood
pressing in right at the start, then
running among stock forms
that could play themselves
and moving there with such
quickness of intellect
that shapes flaw and fuse,
altering without much sign,
so wrapped up in thoroughness
it can sound bluff, bustling,
just big-handed stuff—
belied by what drives him in
to make rigid, display,
shout and abscond, rather
than just let it come, let it go—
And that thing is his mood:
a feeling violent and ordinary
that runs in among standard forms so
wrapped up in clarity
that fingers following his
through figures that sound obvious
find corners everywhere,
marks of invention, wakefulness;
the rapid and perverse
tracks that ordinary feelings
make when they get driven
hard enough against time.

Roy Fisher, “The Thing about Joe Sullivan” from Selected Poems, published by Flood Editions. Copyright © 2010 by Roy Fisher. Reprinted by permission of Bloodaxe Books Ltd. (Great Britain).

Source: Selected Poems (Flood Editions, 2010)

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Poet Roy Fisher b. 1930


Subjects Arts & Sciences, Music

Poetic Terms Couplet, Free Verse


British poet and jazz musician Roy Fisher was raised in Birmingham, England, and educated at Birmingham University. Describing Fisher’s exploratory, Modernist-influenced poetic style in a review of his Selected Poems for Poetry, poet Daisy Fried noted: “Sometimes prose, sometimes lineated, they are dense except when they aren’t, restless except when still, improvisational in feel inside a kind of nonce formal rigor.” Fisher . . .

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Poem Categorization

SUBJECT Arts & Sciences, Music


Poetic Terms Couplet, Free Verse

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Originally appeared in Poetry magazine.

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