Poem of the week: Hang Gliders with Saxophones by Ian Pople

A vision of jazz’s iconic instrument as an acrobatic, airborne wonder

Hang Gliders with Saxophones

The saxophones circle in the air
above the moor, the thermal column
that the breath supports.

Keys rest neatly on the pads,
pads rest neatly on the air,
one and two and three and four fingers

supporting wings above the Earth.
Between sky and crushing ground,
they overblow the octave, one to another:

sopranino and baritone,
alto, bass and tenor,
soprano too; Roland Kirk’s

manzello, stritch. Levers
and rods hold taut the bell for air;
in early autumn heat with rooks

and crows careening in the blue.
Sonny Rollins - ‘Saxophone Colossus’
on up-draft wings, black flaking

against the sky, his poignant sound
above the peat drift and the craquelure
of moorland, maggoty with sheep.

Ian Pople is a quietly meticulous poet with a substantial body of work deserving far wider visibility than it’s so far received. His latest collection Spillway: New and Selected Poems is an opportunity to savour his verbal delicacy and fine-tuning. Pople brings a meditative intensity at times to the observations he records.

In this week’s poem, originally published in his 2018 collection From the Evidence, he works in a genre that often finds him very much at home, ekphrasis. Finding images for the least programmatic art form, music, the writing is bold and playful as it reaches for the transcendental.

Hang-gliding and saxophone-playing make surprisingly harmonious dance partners. Both have the use and control of air in common but the coupling of the two activities says more. It joins the art of sport and the sport of art, as wiser civilisations than ours have succeeded in pairing. We’re reminded that making music involves a risky, exhilarating physical thrill, both for the player and, when the performer has the virtuosity of Sonny Rollins, the audience.

Pople’s response is close in spirit to the “enormous yes” inspired in Philip Larkin by Sidney Bechet and, like the Larkin poem, is composed in tercets. The assimilation of hang gliding into the picture exposes the more ekphrastic quality of Pople’s technique and helps him achieve the difficult, nearly impossible task of making words evoke music without writing smoothly melodic verse. He can be both impressionistic and stubbornly precise.

Metamorphosis replaces metaphor in the first tercet, where the vortex of airborne saxes is imagined as a thermal column - “a rising mass of buoyant air that transfers heat energy vertically”. Birds as well as hang gliders use thermals, and, later in the poem, Pople conjures, as if from the bell of the instrument, “rooks and crows // careening in the blue”. Before that, by way of a build-up of the big themes, Pople enjoys some nuts and bolts of technical jargon, such as the keys, pads, levers and rods with which the saxophonist’s fingers access a bigger range of notes than allowed by the 25 tone-holes alone. The crucial mechanics of “lift” are emphasised by the repeated forms of the verb “support” and the image of “crushing ground” - literal for the glider, metaphorical for the artist.

A certain music stirs in the names Pople lists in stanzas four and five, denoting variously modified kinds of saxophone, the route leading to the innovative Roland Kirk before we meet the “Saxophone Colossus” himself, Sonny Rollins. He doesn’t appear by name until the penultimate stanza.

As I read the poem and looked up some of the technical terms, I began to imagine what joy there might be in playing the sax, especially after I’d realised that overblowing the octave was a technique I’d quickly mastered, like every other primary schoolchild, when first learning to play descant recorder. How we revelled in, and how our teachers abhorred, those gritty shrieks. Overblowing can be done beautifully, though - even on the descant recorder, if you breathe right. It produces a note an octave above the one your fingering would have made, as explained here.

Rollins himself seems to undergo metamorphosis and become a bird “on up-draft wings, black flaking // against the sky, his poignant sound / above the peat drift and the craquelure / of moorland”. That word “craquelure” instantly gives height to the observer, places him between the wings of the glider, looking down on the distant tiny patterns and striations of the moor.

Moorland is often utilised for hill-farming, and the damp environment can encourage parasites in the sheep. So the “maggoty with sheep” are unlikely to be dead sheep, and the image doesn’t set out to ditch the poem’s sense of elevation with an antithesis. “Here’s one thing, and here’s another” is the angle of observation Pople favours, and it enables him to steer the poem calmly earthwards after riding the thermals.

Here’s an introduction to hang gliding, in case you’re feeling adventurous. But Sonny Rollins should play us out this week. From rich pickings, I chose this one - The Everywhere Calypso.


Carol Rumens

The GuardianTramp

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