“People think that the text is the poem. A poem doesn’t really exist until it’s sounded. No poem is complete until you hear it.”
That’s what Al Young, California Poet Laureate, told a group of Santa Monica High School students when he came to the school last week to do a series of readings in the school library.
For the 11:30 a.m. session, students from three English classes filled the seats in the Samohi library. Several of them clutched copies of Young’s latest book, Coastal Nights and Inland Afternoons (Angel City Press), and followed along as Young read selections.
As a poet who has taught at many universities, Young is no stranger to standing before students and talking about his work. He told the Samohi students that he had visited 10 years before and liked the school because “you’re not afraid to be a little different.”
In between poems, Young talked about his background and about the ideas and events that inspired his poems.
He was born in 1939 and grew up during World War II in a small town in Mississippi, “Which strictly speaking doesn’t exist any more – it was wiped out by Katrina.” His family later moved north, as his father, a jazz musician, sought better job opportunities. Young came to California when he was in his early 20s and has lived in the San Francisco Bay Aarea for much of his life.
Young’s poems deal with love, nature and cultural figures ranging from Mozart and Bach to John Coltrane and Lionel Hampton. He read the students the poem he had written about an encounter with cellist Yo-Yo Ma.
You catch yourself on a train with Yo-Yo Ma. Dapper sucker that he is, Yo-Yo’s got his cello all packed in advance and as always he is dressed if not to the nines, then certainly to the sevens and eights.
The poem concluded with Yo-Yo Ma telling Young that he liked to ride on Japanese trains because they contain cars that don’t allow cell phones and that, as a musician, he needs “silence and solitude.” Young realized that the right thing to do was to “sit way back and shut the hell up.”
Young told the students about definitions of poetry. “We largely think of poetry as something that has to do with us.” But in times past, “poetry was used for healing, was thought of as magical.”
When a girl asked him how he “got into” poetry, Young told her of the oral tradition that ran strong in his hometown in Mississippi. “Conversation and recitation was a big deal. Some people couldn’t read, but they could recite the Bible by heart.”
When another student wanted to know what he thought of rap music, Young replied: “Rap is poetry. Poetry takes a lot of forms. People who teach it in schools and colleges think they own it.” At the same time, he acknowledged that he did not like the “misogyny” and “materialism” that he heard in rap.
Someone asked Young how he became Poet Laureate. “I don’t know,” he said half-jokingly. The position is appointed by the governor and people can submit nominations, but the poets themselves can’t apply.
Young was busy explaining how “laureate” comes from the bay laurel, sacred to the ancients, when the bell rang. The students went on to their other classes but possibly Young’s words would stay with them:
“I always loved poetry and I loved the fact that we’re seduced by it before we know what it means.”