Some things I am thinking about what is now becoming my “new” “project.” It does come from revisiting Harryette Mullen’s Muse & Drudge, and also from reconsidering Notorious B.I.G. At the AWP Hip-hop Poetics panel, Adrian Matejka talked about how Biggie was the clearly the superior wordsmith, though Tupac is more “significant.” Here, I think Adrian meant, “culturally significant.” Anyway, having been listening to a lot more Biggie (I blame my Bronx-bred Oscar for this), I am inclined to agree about Biggie’s wordsmithing. The wordplay is deep, quite layered. The results of his wordplay are interesting.
These are not at all new or incredible things I’m saying here. This is just language compressed into lines to forward a narrative with musical qualities. OK, poetry then, composed of digestible poetic lines filled with language that is accessible, everyday words used in interesting ways, producing interesting results. This is poetic experimentation.
I say all these things now, to think again about why Harryette Mullen is making a comeback in my poetics. It’s that use of “common,” everyday language in ways that make you think again of their meanings, many of which are unexpected and loaded. The music is very familiar, even catchy. The “container” feels easy to handle, and then there’s the subject matter.
So then both of these are the challenge — making that container feel manageable, and really going there with the complexity and even difficulty of the subject matter. Really though, even when the container is manageable to me (or us, if you are with me here) when does your general reading public ever pick up a book of verse as their daily reading material?
And here I do not mean books of “inspirational verse,” and “affirmation,” packaged as such, with “inspiration verse” and “affirmation” types of stock images that are supposed to be simple and profound — sunrises and such — but really make me think of Jack Handy’s “Deep Thoughts.” The kinds of images that you can slap any old obnoxious inspirational meme message on and call it a day.
I was thinking of this on BART, on the way to work the other day, rereading Reginald Dwayne Betts’s Shahid Reads His Own Palm. This is not your everyday morning commute reading material, though other commuters did eye the book with curiosity. It just got me thinking again about poetry, Poetry being so intimidating to the general reading population, such that it’s dismissable with one sentence — “I don’t get poetry.”
Betts’s work, however “tidy” in form, however well-considered each line break, however well-punctuated each sentence, is dense and difficult, precisely because the subject matter of this collection is difficult and complex. The poem (or Poem), poetry (or Poetry) as a medium for handling difficulty.
Do those who resist the difficulty of poetry (Poetry) ask, well, why can’t you just say it in a simple, straight forward way?
Could there ever really be a way to “say” “complex” things simply?
Biggie did not say things simply.
I look at Mullen again, and Betts again, and think, these poets are not being obtuse, or elliptical.
What does this mean for my own poetry? I used to love what I thought of as being open-ended when I was writing elliptically. But that was part of an ongoing process of figuring out my own poetic language. What “works,” and what doesn’t. When are you saying too little or too much? These days, I ask myself, would I even want to try to “say” “complex” things simply? I go back to my use of language, and languages (plural), smart word choice and multilingual code switch, and then what I can do with the poetic line.
Here, I am not advocating for an elevated poetic diction that seems to be meant to alienate the general reading public, by talking down to the general reading public, and fixing itself firmly within institutional space.
I find that insistence on elevated poetic diction suffocating. For me, it tells me that the Poet’s act of writing the Poem precedes any other considerations, say, addressee, persona, speaker. In these types of Poems, the Poet is always the speaker, even when claiming to be writing in persona. The Poet always reminding you of his/her central presence as the creator, and always reminding you of the Poem’s poem-ness. I’m sure I’m guilty of having done this too; as an emerging writer transitioning from “spoken word,” into my MFA program, and into other poetries, especially the kind that gets published (This is problematic, yes? Published by whom?), I was hyper-conscious of elevated poetic diction as an expectation. That is, as a Poet, this is how I thought I was expected to write, otherwise, I would always be a young spoken word artist.
Here, I am not advocating for a kind of dumbed down use of language, or an oversimplified poetry rife with declarative statements. I was teaching Carlos Bulosan’s poems, “If You Want To Know What We Are,” and “I Want the Wide American Earth,” and my students and I discussed his combined use of vivid, specific, evocative, and accessible language, and then also very lofty ideal, political language. We discussed his audience of similarly educated laborers (i.e. migrants lacking formal education, speaking a self-taught English), the urgency of the message, and the need to organize and mobilize them towards collective political action.
Language and strategy. Poems written to reach many people, and to open up complex ideas.
What does this all mean for me now.
This is not to say I am writing a hip-hop opus. Nor is this to say I am going to record a “spoken word” album. Nor is this to say I would ever diffuse the density or difficulty of my own poetry projects for sake of a singularly defined “accessibility” — who determines this? — in which all meaning is processed and handed to you as an over-explained pithy saying, with a lovely ribbon and bow. Nothing left to think about, nothing left to question.