Nathaniel Mackey: The music of poetry

This is Duke University. My poetry and my writing draw so much on music.
My earliest interest in poetry was as a kind of musical speech, a kind of musical writing.
Music is such a central part of all the ritual practices around the globe and throughout
time. I listen to a lot of international music,
music from around the world– Portuguese fado, flamenco, ritual music from Cameroon, that
kind of thing– in languages that I don’t understand, but I’m getting something out
of it. The lessons in tone, rhythm, cadence that you can learn from that listening are
important as a poet. Sometimes I will feel a line or phrase as
a rhythm or a pulse before I have the words for it. Later, you know, I find the words.
Sometimes you start with that kind of listening. In my work I’ve been trying to bring poetry
back into a closer alliance with music. I hope that it does what I’ve experienced in
listening to poets whose musicality has really lifted me and really taken me into some other
space and time, some other way of experiencing space and time, perhaps. That’s what I’d like
it to do, you know. Produced by Duke University, online at

2 Replies to “Nathaniel Mackey: The music of poetry

  1. Math is deep in human sensation.

  2. I took several classes from Nate back in the 80's and all I have to say is that even more than his wonderful books and amazing literary journal, when Nate talks and says what is on his mind in the moment the man's erudition and depth of insight come to the fore and informs an energy or dyamic circuitry that is nothing less than wisdom in its rawest and most blazing intensity. For me, he has no equal anywhere as a living literary or even philosophical figure, or not that I have ever encountered in my bizarre life from birth as a vagabond and wanderer and some time resident of 47 countries in my 55 years. If anyone asks me what is genius I will say I once knew a genius in California a guy named Nate. And I don't get quite get the same sense from reading his amazing works, not to knock their depth and calibre of the1st degree. But even further to all that, in my experience, he is even greater as a teacher and yet even more so as a shear awesome presence. I have never met anyone like Nate. I will always feel that I was so lucky to have taken classes from Nate back in the day, but not only for he what he taught but for who he was and I am sure still is. It was always a mystery to me, how could someone be so on the mark and so insightful so consistently.There seemed to be some deep and long ago attained level of realization. I know, I sound like a ridiculous fanatic admirer but I just say here what I honestly feel decades after what it was I initially experinced as a mere university student attending his seminars. I will also never forget how upon a chance meeting at a jazz club, I then got to shake hands and exchange a few pleasantries with another one of my heroes, the guitarist and band leader James Blood Ulmer. Mr. Ulmer seemed to know Nate on a familiar level and perhaps respect him as much as I did. I say that because after the gig James made a bee line to hang out with Nate. Looking back on my experience as a student, I suppose, all I can say is that it was akin to learning how to speak, think clearly and honestly for the first time, and I never wanted to look back. My own parents were no slouches but suddenly I saw what being articulate might actually entail. I can say that thanks to my hero Nate, I will always say to the youngsters, "Let us never take for granted our wonderful teachers that we might have had the great good fortune to meet. They are just as worthy of our respect as our parents!" Saluations and dedications to Nate and all of our wise and learned community, may no one be deprived of wisdom and insight and inspiration, such as Nate seemed to bestow upon myself and all those who appreciated what he was doing for us just by being who he was/is. May our teachers be always protected and forever blessed!

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