Sunday, November 29, 2009

Poet / Storyteller

The other evening I went out to hear Charlie Chiarelli perform. He's an actor, musician, and storyteller who made his name telling stories about his immigrant Sicilian boyhood here in Hamilton. He's no longer working the Canadian-Sicilian bit but was trying out a new direction. I enjoyed it; it suits him.
He is taking stories (plots) from Boccacio's Decameron and using them to tell today's stories. In itself, this is nothing new; Shakespeare too borrowed freely from Boccacio. The surprising thing is that the stories, transposed into today's language and imagery, come across very well. It may be true that, as I've been told, there are only a small number of possible basic plots: the rest is details and embellishments. In Charlie's hands (and mind, and mouth) the embellishments made the stories.
The twist came when our host introduced him as "the poet of the North End" and at first I went "Humphf, a poet? Not likely." But I began thinking. The main function of the bard, the skal, the scop, the poet in the beginning was to remember and tell the stories of the tribe. The storyteller continues that tradition perhaps even more so than the poet.
Now that poetry has given in to self-indulgent introspections and explorations of emotion and experience, who is left to tell us about things, and other people, and far away places? Even the singer/balladeer has become self-involved. The popular media is so skewed that much of it is irrational flim-flam, an entertainment for the masses. So who will tell the story about Jake down the street or what happened to Betty last week? The mantle seems to have been passed to the storyteller, the one who can keep it straight and simple the way the poets and the singers used to.
It's probably a good thing that many of our immigrants come from places and cultures that still honour the storyteller. Without such "new" blood our records of the simple parts of our lives could become as distorted as soap operas. Who will record the true story of Colvin's Brave Stand? Not one song will be recorded, not one poem published. But sometime down the road a storyteller will say, "Once there was ... "
Poets, in a time of unrest and injustice we need to do more than bemoan the times. We need to lead by example; we need to keep and tell the stories of ordinary people.

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