David Rigsbee, author of the poetry collection The Red Tower: New & Selected Poems, was a classmate of artist, poet and musician Gil Scott-Heron, who passed away on May 27, 2011. The Red Tower contains a poem Rigsbee wrote about Scott-Heron, called “Gil’s Sentence.”
Rigsbee sent these words in remembrance of Scott-Heron:
When Gil Scott-Heron died this week, few who knew of him could have been surprised. He had been fighting the effects of drugs and attendant ill-health for years, much of it chronicled in places like The New York Times and The New Yorker. And yet, the real effect of his death has been widespread among Boomers like myself because Gil managed to do something that few in our self-regarding generation—certainly no poet—has done—and he did it at the beginning of his career: he wrote an immortal line. I remember Mark Strand saying to me in a hallway at the august American Academy in Rome—an institution where Gil’s shadow never fell—that this was the poet’s only job. All else was meat-extender. The line, “the revolution will not be televised” is imprinted on everyone born before 1960 and many who were born after. It gave the lie to liberal romanticism, even as it brought home the truth that all politics is personal.
Gil was a fellow student at the Writing Seminars at Johns Hopkins back in the early 1970s. He cultivated the menacing look popularized by the Black Panthers and the Last Poets: outrageous Afros to affirm Negritude and sunglasses to show he was unimpressed by the dazzle, be it his own or that of the culture. Imposing, deep-voiced, thin and attentive, he cut an impressive figure and managed to acquire the authority of the taciturn. I wrote a poem about a time he rose to defend me in the poetry workshop when he thought I was being unfairly attacked. Everyone was astonished at his sudden advocacy, as he had been virtually silent the whole semester. The poem goes on to register the divergence from this momentary accord, to our quite different destinies.
In later years, many wished to claim Gil as the “godfather of hip-hop,” a role he declined to accept, preferring to see himself as a jazzman, much the way Dylan prefers to see himself as a song-and-dance man, rather than a prophet. But Gil’s oeuvre includes novels, poetry, and music (not excluding rap), so attempts to slip from the embrace of any one category can only been seen as an affirmation of his protean talents. In spite of his run-ins with the Man and his crack addiction, he continued to speak truth to power, though sometimes with the burnt smell of tragedy mingling too easily with the whiff of farce. When he missed a parole hearing a few years ago, he explained to the judge that his absence was understandable: he had to attend an Alicia Keys concert. When my daughter moved into her first apartment two years ago a few doors down from the Blue Note on West 3rd Street, I happened to notice a poster that made a catch in my throat: “For One Night Only: Gil Scott-Heron.” No longer a drinker, I didn’t go to pay the $35 cover to drink ginger ale. Around the corner was the Café Reggio, where I last saw my old friend Joseph Brodsky, sipping espresso, smoking, and holding court. I tried to impress on my daughter, an NYU student, the magic of these associations, and it consoles me that she gets these passages, even as she rises to her own kismet.
From The Red Tower:
Gil’s Sentence “Gil Scott-Heron to Be Sentenced”
— NY Times, July 9, 2006
“I find that rhetoric does my thinking for me,”
she said, flipping the page, moving on,
having out-Plathed Plath, including
the bitchy conjurations of voice
that threatened to make all a trick
and fostered ill will. Next up, me.
I read my serious, inadequate verse
and recalled the assassinating queries
of my undergraduate workshops:
“What is the function of the ego in this poem?”
“What does the third person mediate? Or is it
really you?” So often the poem came down
to you, and after my soft-voiced rendition,
silence followed suit, a reset button
before the class critic trained an interrogating
eye on one offending line. Elliott Coleman,
too aged and amiable to rein in
the revolutionary spirits of the seminar
pretended a real point of craft was at issue
and let the sans-coulottes have their way.
“It’s sentimental,” said one. “The subject
is unstable,” said another. I had
no answer to these questions and sat
silently, a you, while the rest of the eyes
wobbled back and forth as if not quite
believing their luck in having stumbled
on a massacre. Then a large black man rose,
I mean actually stood up and in doing so
tipped over his unlocked briefcase
spilling old cups, record albums, a copy
of his recent (published) novel and some spoons.
Scanning the table, he who had been silent
all semester debuted a serrated baritone
that wondered about the merit of intention,
something he thought neglected (“Intention is
the moon I follow,” I seem to remember
his saying, though the verbatim trips here).
He was risen to that defense when justice
was poetic and of course snubbed me
later when I tried to ingratiate myself
with a lame joke in our apartment elevator.
That other was about language: that was all.
But this was the weekend. He was in his
other world with his band, his other means.
Four or five menacing afros with shades
followed him silently up to a different view
of that white moon out in the alley,
beyond my place, beyond where I got off.