'If you can’t be free, be a mystery': Billie Holiday, Rita Dove, and Jazz Elegies at Paris Review
At Paris Review, Chantal McStay considers jazz elegies, specifically in Rita Dove's poetry that explores the life, legacy—and sound—of Billie Holiday. This past Thursday marked the 55-year anniversary of "The Day Lady Died." In her article, McStay highlights a few ways that Rita Dove evokes Billie Holiday in her poem, "Canary."
Billie Holiday died fifty-five years ago today. Many eminent American poets have elegized Holiday, attempting to capture something of her exquisite voice, whose unique tough-tender grain suggested a life of extremes. Langston Hughes’s “Song for Billie Holiday,” Frank O’Hara’s “The Day Lady Died,” and Rita Dove’s “Canary” are just a few of the diverse poetic responses to the loss of Lady Day; Kevin Young’s anthology Jazz Poems devotes an entire thoughtfully curated section, “Muting (for Billie Holiday),” to her memory.
These works belong to the larger tradition of the jazz elegy, a genre that attempts something next to impossible: to commemorate and preserve music that’s defined by its immediacy and transience. The grain of the voice. The physicality of the performer. The improvisations and flourishes and intangibles that exist for one night only. If the essence of jazz exists in the moment of performance, then much of the work of the jazz elegy is to make such music legible while also acknowledging the futility of such a project.
Rita Dove’s “Canary,” from 1989, begins:
Billie Holiday’s burned voice
had as many shadows as lights,
a mournful candelabra against a sleek piano,
the gardenia her signature under that ruined face.
I first came across “Canary” in Dove’s 1991 collection Grace Notes, which, as its title suggests, is full of poems that navigate the subtle intersection between word and sound, poetry and melody. I was struck by the Holiday elegy for its reverence—for its refusal to impose a tidy summation on the jazz figure. There’s no hint of the pathetic. Dove doesn’t try to capture Holiday—the image of the caged canary suggests that’s already been done by too many. Instead, she focuses on illuminating complexity, putting language to the strange sadness that flickers throughout Billy Holiday’s music. [...]
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