My teacher Mary Holmes used to call Los Angeles the “last gasp of Western Civilization.” She might have expanded her geography to include San Diego had she known about this little poem that my friend found scrawled on the Mission Beach sea wall several years ago:
Surf, dooby, chow,
Party, helmet, sleep.
Say it over a few times. It has many virtues: simplicity, clarity, rhythm, honesty. It has become one of my favorites. Not only because in it one may, in Philip Thompson
’s words, “Behold the darkness of one long good time.” The poem is an instance of a profound paradox. Its being says more than its words.
Why did the anonymous poet, whose words proclaim that he lives in the body, of the body, for the body, bother to compose this ditty, to write it on a wall? From whence sprung his affection for metaphor (“helmet”), his embrace of rhythm (trochaic trimeter catalectic), his fidelity to chronology, his generalizing of an ideal day? Why not just live it? What is the impulse also to say it?
The Mission Beach poet is a pagan, of course, worshiping nature and sensation. Or so he thinks. Yet is there a more devoted worshiper of the invisible in our time than such a surfer? He rises from sleep to surf, desiring to ride the perfect wave perfectly, to find his way into harmony with the mysterious nature of the land-longing waves, the sea itself, rhythm, beauty.
As in surfing, so in verse, something in him craves more than physical sensation. The poem exists because the poet craves to embody meaning in an artifact, to convey it to his fellow human beings. He may know nothing of the forms of Plato or the logos
of John or the ordo amoris
of Augustine, but being human like them, he cannot live without more meaning than the merely physical world can provide. And so he writes a poem, worshiping the invisible whether he knows it or not.
My teacher would not have been surprised by the poem’s paradoxical nature. In Mary Holmes: Paintings and Ideas
, she calls paradox “the natural condition of the world. It is both the working principle and the mystery of life. . . . We are always surrounded by paradox because all of creation is the union of opposites. All energy comes from the union of opposites.”
By mysterious paradox the Mission Beach poet consoles me. Even as his words depict Western Civilization’s dying away into mere sensation, his poem cannot help revealing that there is more spirit to our life in the body than our body can contain.