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February 13, 2007

Watson? Can you Hear Me? Watson, I need you!

I never thought I would be excited to read something out of a textbook. I really never thought I would be a little giddy over an essay about poetry and historical context, but I was really looking forward to reading this. The title is what got me interested, as its a theory I've had for a long time, but that's for later in this diatribe.

"When a reader recognizes a novel to be such, or chooses it because it is such, he is certainly using evidence from outside the work as well as evidence from within. He is recognizing features in the novel he holds in his hand which resemble those in other novels he has read."

I love this quote because it helps sum up a lot of the feelings I have toward the notions of authorial intent. For the reader, they can't help but draw similarities to other things they have read. We do it all the time for things, but does that always prove a point in a story or help shine the proverbial light on anything within the text?

This quote also struck me when considering the grand scheme of this essay. Are poems historical acts? Personally, I think they are. And I want to make a few examples here, but allow me to provide you with a little authorial intent - I, as the originator of the following, am a fan of all forms of music. I love, and I mean love, old-school rap - pretty much anything from the Sugarhill Gang through, oh, about the year 2000. Not that I dislike modern rap, I just find it harder to defend. I also love old-style country western, which has been morphed into more modern-day "Americana" or "new-folk."

Some would ask - how can someone love both rap and country? Well, they're two peas from the same pod.

Let's look for a moment. Rap is poetry. In fairness, it has gone away from those roots. It is very hard to defend "Get Low" as poetic, however, a song like "California Love" or "Changes," the latter especially, are poetic. Just because they don't openly discuss things in a grand scope, as Yeats noted by saying "Things fall apart; the centre cannot hold." Yeats wasn't even addressing a "historical" event, as it has/had not happened yet. The world was not ending and the second coming was not happening.

Tupac, however, he addressed racial intolerance, which had reached, sadly, another peak in the 90's with the race riots and police brutality. Tupac said

"I see no changes all I see is racist faces
misplaced hate makes disgrace to races
We under I wonder what it takes to make this
one better place, let's erase the wasted
Take the evil out the people they'll be acting right
'cause both black and white is smokin' crack tonight
and only time we chill is when we kill each other
it takes skill to be real, time to heal each other
And although it seems heaven sent
We ain't ready, to see a black President, uhh
It ain't a secret don't conceal the fact
the penitentiary's packed, and it's filled with blacks
But some things will never change
try to show another way but you stayin' in the dope game
Now tell me what's a mother to do
bein' real don't appeal to the brother in you
You gotta operate the easy way
"I made a G today" But you made it in a sleazy way
sellin' crack to the kid. " I gotta get paid,"
Well hey, well that's the way it is"

I imagine for a number of you, this is the first time you've ever heard this song. That passage came from the second verse. The other two are equally as poignant, but I've elected to not reprint those here because of a few suggestive words. But the passage is telling a story, and isn't that at the very center of poetry and literature? Naturally, you have a few outliers who preach strange sentiment, but the majority of writers just want to tell a story. And rap music tells a story and it does so through rhyme and rhythm. Through measures and beats. It is poetry. Nobody ever said that poetry has to be innocent and "good" as it can very easily be raw and powerful, and sometimes that requires the use of some off-colour language.

Even in historical context, a song such as "California Love" makes note of the passing of time and gives itself to a historical analysis. Dr. Dre even says so by describing "I been in the game for ten years makin' rap tunes/ ever since honeys was wearing Sassoon."

Now, I understand this isn't entirely the point that Watson was getting at, but he touched on it. He addressed the notion that often a time-period or age is important to know about a poem as it will aid in understanding the meaning behind the writing, such as the World War I poets who have a view of a fractured world, unable to ever be whole once more. Knowing these things are important, and these are a lot of the issues you can find in rap music.

The same can be said for country/western music. Before the days of things like "She Thinks My Tractor's Sexy," the Western song told a story, usually one of heartache. Songs like "On The Evening Train" are tales of sorrow and loss, as a child bids farewell to his dead mother. Many other "country" songs of old were derived from hymns or spirituals - songs such as "I'll Fly Away" are inspirational and, typically, are used by artists in times of hardship as a means of guidance.

Once again, into the 1990's the country music scene was still within its own niche market. It hadn't yet exploded onto the scene and didn't have to conform to the soon-to-come Shania Twain syndrome of making story-songs a bunch of dancing songs. Even those artists who had become famous, such as Kenny Rogers and Dolly Parton, mostly, kept true to their roots. People such as David Allen Coe and Chris LeDoux, and my personal favorite, Garth Brooks stood apart from the rest. And that was what country music was - it stood apart from the standard rock and roll formula, especially during the drug-induced 1970s and 80s, finally coming into its own, even for a few years, in the 1990s.

Rap and country, though, they make strange bedfellows, to say the least. Not often can you really compare them, but really, they tend to be more similar than some would like. They both have rebels. They've got rivalries (Dixie Chicks v Toby Keith) and drug advocates (Willie Nelson and Snoop Dogg).

Like I said, though - not every rap song is worthy of being analyzed and given the title of "poem." Things like "Raise Up" from Petey Pablo is not exactly what I would call an achievement in word play. And some will claim this a point of contention, but I find Eminem to be an excellent lyricist and poet. He might use some words that people don't like or do things in his life others don't care for, but that goes along with studying the "authorial intent" and historicism of the poet.

Even by the same measures - Jazz can be studied historically because it is always changing, and that truly is the point of good, solid jazz music. It always tells a story, but doesn't say a word. Jazz music is the musical speech for the artist. You can always tell what the musician is thinking or feeling when playing. You know if they are falling in or out of love, or if they've lost someone dear to them. You can tell if they've just got a promotion at their day job or saw their son take his first steps. Jazz music doesn't have to ever say a word and it can tell an entire story. Set a jazz album to a football game and see how often it syncs up with the game. It might scare you.

Poetry is historical. It doesn't have to be limited or grouped into "poems about the end of the world" or "poems about World War II," though it aids studying that time period. I've written poems about one moment of fun or one night when I had a good time. I've written them about break-ups and loss. Just because they weren't moments of global significance doesn't mean they weren't "historical" events. Keats' Grecian Urn wasn't world changing, either, but rather him looking upon an urn at a museum and he wrote about it. One moment in the poet's life then becomes the work itself.

Unfortunately, though, the same thing happens when one looks at historical time-periods; the Liberty Valence effect takes place. History, ultimately, will be recorded and passed down differently than it actually happened. There's no two ways about it. Dr. Jerz will be the first to tell you about in the courtroom and with court reporting how unreliable witness testimony truly is because our minds play tricks on us.

Rap music tells a story, Poetry tells a story. They both can provide a snapshot of a moment in history and normally do. Are poems historical acts? Yes. Generally they are. There are exceptions to this rule, but not often. In fairness, sometimes it takes a little digging into the author's life/circumstances to understand the historicism of a work (read: knowing Coleridge's addiction and his sleeping/dreaming of "Kubla Khan" only to be disturbed by a visitor, thus creating the shift in the poem).

I admit, I would keep going here, but I'm just too cold and too tired. Maybe another day. Maybe in class. The world may never know.

Posted by KevinMcGinnis at February 13, 2007 12:42 AM


I agree with many of the points you have addressed. I think sometimes many of us tend to look way too much at the author's background, rather than looking at the society being presented to the author. Although Tupac is writing lyrics about his society and the world around him, he is also writing songs about his own life, and some of the troubles he is facing.

Now that I am off of Rap Music, Watson provides a perspective that gives us another opportunity to look at an author's intent behind a piece of literature. I find it important to look not only at Keats's life, but to look at how Romantic poets thought and wrote in their specific time period. That is the historical act behind the specific piece of writing we are looking into so deeply.

Posted by: Jason Pugh at February 14, 2007 5:50 PM

I agree totally, Jay. I do agree that Watson was getting at the notion to study society, too, and not just the author specifically and all of that fit into the "genetic" criticism we kinda covered before.

I even mentioned in a previous entry about formalism and how I was a formalist critic, but I can't help but feel as though, at the same time, I'm a societal critic too - only too often do social movements and problems create poetry. A perfect example is the war in Iraq. It doesn't matter if you are for or against the war because both sides are creating art and poetry about the war - much the same as we have studied the likes of Wilfred Owen and Siegfried Sassoon who wrote of the experiences of World War I. I even heard a poem (it was on Def Poetry) titled "The Day Jam Master Jay Died" (or something very close to that). Do a Google search for "Jam Master Jay" and "Poem." You'll be shocked to see how many people wrote something about that event.

And maybe its just a personal quirk of mine, but I love trying to relate things to music. Personal interest aside, I think something like this will be an excellent teaching tool in my classroom - let's be honest for a moment here and remember how moody teenagers are (it was one a few years ago for all of us) and they find a means of expressing themselves through music.

Posted by: Kevin at February 14, 2007 8:07 PM

Wow, Kevin, you did get excited about this, didn't you?

I'm not a huge rap fan, but some rap lyrics are truly beautiful poems when they're by themselves. Their lyrics are definitely good sources for supplementing society's ways at the time in which they were written. And country songs, too. I swear, Garth teaches me a new lesson daily.

I don't write a lot of poetry. I just don't think I write it well. Tiffany told me it really helps, though, if you just need to write something and not worry about it being good. She always reflects on the poetry she wrote back in the day, thinking about how she's changed. I've done the same recently--and I did, in fact, learn a lot about myself and my feelings in the past. http://foreversorry.livejournal.com/2003/01/09/

That, for example (since you're added to my list and can see it).

Way to bring these thoughts around so well, Kevin, I wish I could make these connections that you do.

Posted by: Valerie Masciarelli at February 14, 2007 10:55 PM

After reading this wonderful and lengthy blog I really understand what you mean. Finally, someone had recognized Tupac as a poet. By reading poetry, we will have a basic understanding of the times and once we have that info we will have a basic info on the author and etc. It is like a domino effect...once you read past the first word then it all comes down on you.

Posted by: Kevin "Kelo The Great" Hinton at February 15, 2007 3:57 PM

Hello, I write poems that are religious and sad
and that has meaning. Iam doing some research on
line right now to find a web site that will pay me for writing my poems. I have no job at this time because my vehicle was repossed in November of 06 last year, But i won't go into detail about that. To make a long story short, i would like to write poems or type them online and get paid. Do you have any suggestions or advice for me?
Sincerily, Learley Wells
P.S.Remember,i have no money to put out at all.
zero, ziltch!

Posted by: Learley Wells at May 24, 2007 11:09 AM

Learley, you might want to check out a library copy of the latest edition of Writer's Market, which is a good -- and realistic -- source of information on writing as a profession.

If you want to write poetry, you should do it.

If you want to eat and pay the bills, you should also find a way to do that, too. (Probably a different way.)

Posted by: Dennis G. Jerz at May 24, 2007 3:54 PM

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