Coastal Nights and Island AfternoonsPoems 2001-2006

April 10, 2007 11:00 pm
Al Young, California's poet laureate, will read selected works Friday in Crescent City (Photo by Bryant Anderson).
Al Young, California's poet laureate, will read selected works Friday in Crescent City (Photo by Bryant Anderson).

By Hilary Corrigan

Triplicate staff writer

Al Young wonders if the plants near his window will fare better with sunlight filtering in between the blinds instead of pouring in unscreened.

"I could easily sit and write a poem about these plants who are tired of this guy who is always messing with them," Young said.

Lately, though, the 67-year-old poet has focused his craft on the state of the world — war, environmental, societal and political problems ignored by a culture that markets and sells.

"All this manufacturing and consuming is eating up the planet," Young said. "We're surrounded by things that are about to disappear."

The public no longer can trust TV, magazines, newspapers and books that seek to make money by selling something.

"But they can trust a humble poem," Young said. "There's no one between them and who's saying it."

The California poet laureate will read his own work during a stop in Crescent City on Friday, part of a statewide tour that lets Young perform with other poets and musicians, meet with the public, visit students and lead workshops. It also spotlights the craft that can elucidate world issues and connect communities.

"It's an old art, and it's a universal language, and people need to be reminded of this," Young said. "It can be dull, dead language or it can be one of wonder and awe."

For the last couple of centuries, poets have tended to use first-person narratives to relate personal accounts.

"But poetry is much bigger than that," Young said, noting its use in sacred texts and to narrate historical events or explain scientific theories.

Students who may never write a sociological essay might craft a poem on critical issues, instead. For instance, Young's "Coastal Nights and Inland Afternoons" — the title poem of his recent collection — details the need for Mexican immigrants to work in America after American imports degraded the farming jobs in their homeland. Another poem follows the falling value of the U.S. dollar.

"We've become such a spectator culture that it doesn't occur to us that there was a time when we didn't have all this high-tech communication," Young said. "We talked to each other."

The poetry medium can be used to discuss anything, and Young finds that children best understand it.

He once visited 12- and 13-year-old boys and girls at San Leandro Juvenile Hall near Freemont. Surprised by their excitement over poetry, he asked how many of the approximately 100 students knew loved ones who had died in violent acts. They all raised their hands.

"And then you understood that they were looking to poetry for some meaning," Young said.

He finds similar reactions in children from rich suburbs who lack family attention.

"People get the false idea that they are alone," Young said, calling the idea a dangerous one that ignores humans' dependency. "We are inextricably linked to one another."

Politicians and advertisers understand poetry's power, though, using it to sell and persuade the public.

"We get very confused," Young said of the impact.

He points to the political talk shows that split TV screens between arguing conservatives and liberals.

"These are terms that are just meaningless," Young said, noting Republicans' failure to conserve and Democrats' failure to remain liberal.

He recites a litany of public relations phrases and White House jargon — "collateral damage," "enemy combatant," "damage was estimated at" — that cloud truth.

Young wants readers and listeners to remember that they can turn off computers and TVs, and that if film, graphics, paintings and dance all disappeared, poetry would remain.

"They would all be intact in poetry," Young said, pointing to the imagination. "It's nice sometimes to be the one who has to come up with the picture."

When Young speaks, he replaces harsh words like"constant" with the more melodious "continuously." He uses "nose-dive" as a verb. His voice lifts and falls slowly.

While readers may see words on a page as poetry, Young views them as entombed until a voice breathes them to life.

A Mississippi native who played tuba, trumpet and guitar through school, Young now sings. He grew up in Detroit, Mich., after his musician father moved for a job with General Motors.

Music streams through Young's poems that refer to Yo-Yo Ma, Elvis, James Brown, "Ring of Fire" and "My Girl."

"The two are very close to each other," he said of the art forms that use rhythym, melody, intensity, playfulness. "They're both sonic phenomena."

Both are formed with frequencies and vibrations.

"That's what poetry is and that's what music is," Young said. "You're back with the original theater."

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Poetry Jam Plan

With a bass player

collaborating, California Poet Laureate Al Young and

others will read pieces on Friday. The Top to Bottom Tour through the state

celebrates April as poetry month. Among the public events:

•Free social mixer and

book signing at 5:30 p.m.

at the Del Norte County

Library courtyard.

•Poetry reading in the

library at 7 p.m., with a $2

donation and limited

seating.

Poems Online

Read samples of Young's poetry with this story online at www.triplicate.com.