The Poem

(Critical Guide to Poetry for Students)

A twenty-three-line poem, Paul Zimmer’s “The Duke Ellington Dream” consists of four stanzas of varying lengths. In free verse that organically echoes the modulating rhythms and tempos of the very jazz it describes, the poem relates a “dream” of the persona, here—as in many of Zimmer’s poems—Zimmer, a daydream in which he plays with Duke Ellington’s band. As in any dream of heroism or excellence, in this fantasy Zimmer is not only a part of the band, he is in the spotlight. To effect this feat, he must also be the one who walks his own way to his own beat, although it both dismays and delights (albeit grudgingly) his idol, mentor, and leader; he must be the perfect but intractable student who learns the lesson so well he outstrips and outshines his teacher and does it with an illimitable supply of “cool.”

The dream begins when Zimmer saunters into a club where arguably the most famous jazz composer and musician of the twentieth century, Duke Ellington, is playing with his band. In his dream, Zimmer is a member of Ellington’s band or perhaps a guest soloist, although that option might be less probable because of Ellington’s obvious disapproval of the way Zimmer casually strolls in late to join in the gig. As Zimmer puts it, “Duke was pissed.” Despite Ellington’s continuing annoyance with him and in clear and unabashed defiance of the bandleader’s huff, Zimmer takes his place with his tenor sax as the other band members...

(The entire section is 426 words.)

Forms and Devices

(Critical Guide to Poetry for Students)

From the first line of “The Duke Ellington Dream,” Zimmer mimics the tone, mood, and rhythms of jazz. “Of course Zimmer was late for the gig,” with its sinuous meter and liquid sounds, provides a jaded and irreverent counterpoint to the guttural notes and sibilance of the second line, with its hard-hammered meter: “Duke was pissed and growling at the piano.” The continual shifting of meter throughout the poem mirrors the ever-changing rhythms of jazz, virtually imitating the various solos of the jazz musicians, from the slamming downbeat of Ellington’s piano to the staccato riffs of the drummers to the curving, circuitous rhythms of Zimmer’s tenor sax. Even the recital of the names of the bandmembers—“Jeep, Brute, Rex, Cat and Cootie”—helps to evoke the sounds and rhythms of the band as they reinforce the aspect of “coolness,” epitomized by Zimmer’s late arrival and the affirmation at the end of the stanza that “the boss had arrived.” Each of these rhythms, sound devices, and tones are present within the first stanza alone, though its overall effect is more laidback than succeeding ones, taking its note from Zimmer’s unhurried, and apparently deliberate, entrance.

The tempo steps up in the second stanza as the focus moves from Zimmer himself to his playing and the impact it has on the “whole joint,” which immediately begins “jiving.” Word choice is important in terms of evocation of atmosphere as well as sound:...

(The entire section is 524 words.)