Monday, May 4, 2009

In the beginning was the word...

I recently attended The Marin Poetry Festival.  It was an outdoor, all-afternoon event in beautiful Sausalito, California.  The full range of the poetry continuum of the bay area was represented, from little-known local screamers, all heat and no light, making it up as they went along, to Kay Ryan, the poet laureate of the United States, and several poets somewhere in-between these two endpoints on the poet notoriety spectrum.  One such poet was Sharon Doubiago, and for my money--$5 cover charge, to be exact--hers was the best reading of the day.  Turns out, it was her birthday.  And while that may have contributed to her terrific reading, I told her why I enjoyed hearing her more than anyone else that day, during a break while she signed my copy of Love on the Streets, her latest volume of poems.

What came through Doubiago's readings was her value of the primacy of the word above anything else.  What do I mean by "the word?"  I mean the text, the actual words, the diction, the stuff of which poetry is made:  LANGUAGE.  Next came her reading of the word.  And finally came her--her as poet, her as first person persona, her as a person.  Many other readers that day got it bass-ackwards:  it was obvious that they considered themselves the most important part of the art.  Next came their performance.  And finally, if at all, came respect for "the word."  

This is not to disparage the skill with which some readers render text to an audience.  It is just to say that bad poetry cannot be saved with good reading, and that in order to produce art, the creative act must utilize craft earlier than its conveyance to an audience--craft that produces unique and artful combinations of words into syntactical units that can stand on their own and be interesting, entertaining and elucidating, no matter how poorly or how well they are later read aloud.  A hasty slapping on of paint, no matter how loud a color, cannot make up for faulty workmanship on a bridge purporting to carry people from the mundane to the sublime.  What is required is a little knowledge of engineering and a commitment to use the strongest materials.  

Or, as in the case of The Music Man, in order to have a real band, you gotta have some horns to blow!  Listen to these notes from Doubiago's poem, "I Was Born Coming to the Sea":

I was born in Seaside Hospital on a Long Beach.
The buoy I heard calling from the sea
was a boy calling me
a year to the day they left Ducktown, Tennessee.
While I was coming, Daddy rode the rails
to catch the wheat harvest in Washington,
Mama waitressed the last road west,
a Japanese cafe at the end of Redondo Beach pier.
We rode the Midnight Ghost, Daddy and I gone north for some money,
while Mama and I at the sunset end of the world
brought food from across the sea.

It's not that this poem cannot be read with passion nor acted out in a way that entertains us.  And the poet herself is certainly not absent--she is there in almost every line.  But the reason this poem is magnetic is because, while the narrative is from common experience, the language is heightened in an uncommon way, the way poetry has supercharged language for centuries:  with poetic devices that resonate with the meanings of the words, either read or heard.  

In short, in the beginning was the word...

And the word was God!