When we moved to Charleston SC from Los Angeles, I wondered, what does it take to be a poet around here? We made the rounds of local poetry readings and I was a little surprised. In the first five or so readings we attended, the poet would read their poems—good ones—and than pick up an instrument and proceed to sing their songs. The first was Paul Allen. He is one hell of a poet. He has one poem, a Southern gothic childhood reminiscence, “The Man with the Hardest Belly,” from his book American Crawl, that is classic.
He also writes folksy country-western songs and plays guitar. He sounds pretty good, and I’ve heard that when he has a band behind him he is even better. The Poetry Society of South Carolina has its readings in a church. One night a poet was reading and accompanying his songs on a dulcimer. He happened to strum a couple of notes of Amazing Grace, and quite unself-consciously, the entire audience started to sing. Then there was Tom House, who also read his poems and then sang his songs. He has that ‘high lonesome’ Appallachian twang that gives you the shivers. He sang one rather spooky satire, "I’m in Love with Susan Smith.”
He recites and sings, and partly improvises, his poems while playing an amplified kora. He is a master performance artist in the African bardic tradition.
And of course there is Kwame Dawes, who sometimes breaks into song during a reading, or has a stage full of musicians jamming to his poetry. And why not—he was the lead singer of a world-class reggae band.
Incidentally, Kwame has a beautiful inaugural poem. When I first read it, it seemed rather prosy, until I realized I was reading a chain of sonnets. I think the public poem is hard to write, hard to strike that balance between a work of art and public rhetoric or pronouncement—but Kwame did it—speaking of music, listen to his poem.
Sometimes I wish I could see a festival of all these singer-poets. I imagine it under the oaks, on a warm summer night in June, here in Charleston.