Sunday, December 07, 2008

How Deep Is The Ocean

Ever wonder how deep the ocean is?

Well, listen to this poem–one of many that make up Carole Boston Weatherford’s biography of Billie Holiday in verse–and you may discover a new way of thinking about the ocean and its depth:
How Deep is the Ocean?

Without the microphone,
there would be no spotlight,
no band backing me
with bluesy swing.

My voice was small,
barely an octave,
but the mic enlarged my songs,
let me hold listeners close.

With the microphone,
my voice was an ocean,
deep as my moods,
and audiences dove in.
(from Becoming Billie Holiday, Wordsong, 2008)
If you move through the poem slowly (the title is from one of the songs that Holiday used to sing), closing your eyes after each stanza, you can almost hear Holiday singing the words and see the images that served as the catalysts for Weatherford’s imagination.

In the first stanza, I feel as if I’m in the audience, one of Billie’s fans, watching as she holds the microphone close to her lips and sways to the music–that bluesy swing–as the back-up band plays behind her.

And, then, in the second stanza–because Weatherford moves us in close, zooming in on that mic–I feel as if I can hear Billie’s voice in my ear, a whisper, a caress, drawing me even closer in her embrace, thanks to the last line (“let me hold listeners close”).

And the third paragraph, where Weatherford moves us again, deftly, from something so small, “barely an octave,” to the expanse of “an ocean.” (How did Weatherford do that? )

I love the image of Billie’s voice–of Billie thinking of her voice–as an ocean, “deep as my moods.”

And I love that sudden, unexpected reversal, how that ocean becomes an image to share with readers (and with listeners within the poem itself), inviting us to dive in, too, as she plumbs the depth of her soul in this song.

Becoming Billie Holiday is a fictional memoir told in poems, and the poems are as rare and beautiful as the voice of the woman who inspired them.

Here’s how Weatherford describes her effort in the Afterword:

“Combining oral histories from Billie Holiday’s contemporaries with the myth she honed in her sensationalized autobiography, this verse memoir imagines her legendary life from birth to young adulthood.... The young woman who speaks through these poems is Billie Holiday before heroin and hard living took their toll.”

Those are the dry facts behind the research.

But to understand Weatherford’s accomplishment in this book, you must read the poems themselves.

That’s because with these poems Weatherford has managed to create a song all her own, a song that will linger in the reader’s mind much the same way Billie Holiday’s voice lingered in the hearts of her fans long after she left the stage.

For more information about Becoming Billie Holiday, visit:

And to read more about Carole Boston Weatherford, visit:


laurasalas said...

(Now that you're on my Bloglines, I'm catching up on a few recent posts:>)

I do adore this poem...and even moreso after your thoughtful notes on it. I really enjoy the way you describe poems, Bruce. You're analyzing them, but not in any dry academic way. It's the way the poem makes you feel, and occasionally pondering how the poet accomplishes that effect. THAT's the way to analyze poetry to me. By reaction, not dissection.

Bruce Black said...

Reaction, not dissection... that says it perfectly. It's the difference between using your heart and using your head. As writers (and readers), we sometimes forget that powerful writing--whether poetry or fiction--relies on an emotional undercurrent flowing just beneath the words.