“Making A Tin Thing Sing”: Kevin Young and Contemporary Poetry

Jean-Michel Basquiat

Note: The following post is a talk I gave at a grad student conference in March 2009.  It was written as a talk, so there’s a bit of repetition built into the language of the piece that is hopefully not too distracting. I wanted the piece to have an extended life beyond its 15 minutes of delivery back in ’09, so I’ve posted it here.

As of Friday [March 13, 2009], Nikki Giovanni’s recent collection Bicycles: Love Poems was Amazon’s best-selling poetry volume, outpacing collections of work by Dante, Milton, and Robert Frost, in addition to volumes of Dr. Seuss being purchased by parents and relatives for recent graduates. Giovanni’s stature seems to lend credence to Dana Gioia’s claim in “Disappearing Ink: Poetry at the End of Print Culture” that “an author’s print readership now heavily depends on attracting an audience initially through oral performance” (20).  Giovanni maintains a rigorous schedule of readings and public appearances (which included a recent appearance at the Lincoln Memorial celebration of the president’s bicentennial birth), she has appeared on National Public Radio and other media outlets (in radio, print, and television), she recorded a Grammy-nominated album of her work, and she was recently named one of Oprah Winfrey’s 25 “Living Legends.” Print alone did not elevate Giovanni tothe top of the charts, and the fact that the rhythms and cadences of her work can be easily transmittable through spoken performance allows her to utilize sites beyond the printed page to introduce her work to people who rarely find themselves in the poetry sections of a bookstore (be it physical or online).

Broadly speaking, all printed poetry is audiovisual: when read aloud or in silence, its lines coexist on the page and in the ear.  Gioia uses the “audiovisual” label in his essay to specifically refer to authors interested in “the creation of verse that can work equally well as a typographic entity and as a spoken performance” (24). I find this description problematic, given that poetry is not “audio SLASH visual” in the sense that one format can serve as an effective substitute for the other.   I imagine that a poet giving a reading does not wish that you substitute this experience for looking at the work in print — turning a blind eye to his or her line breaks and stanzas as they appear on the page — just as he or she probably does not desire that you put your hands over your ears as you read the poems.  The auditory and visual elements of a poem on the page seem to always be entwined, working in tandem, not meant to be separated.  Most poems are not intended to function “equally well” as an oral performance and as a work in print.

Nikki Giovanni and other contemporary poets do compose work that conforms well (if not equally well) to the genre of the poetry reading, a form that requires the author to step outside of his or her home on the page and appeal solely to an audience’s auditory appetite.  Regardless of how one feels about the aesthetic merits of their work, Giovanni, Billy Collins, Seamus Heaney, and Maya Angelou (among others) are authors who have used the public performance of their work to help carve out a prominent space for themselves in popular culture at-large – not just as best-selling poets, but as best-selling authors – an impressive feat in an age when poetry is bought and read less frequently than it has been in the past.  But these popular poets have not abandoned print and the appearance of the poem on the page, and Gioia does not suggest that all poets will one day forsake print altogether. But (though he does not mention any of these authors by name) he may certainly mark their composition of poetry that lends itself easily to oral performance as work in the vein of “Shakespeare, Marlowe, and Milton.” Gioia frames these canonical writers as those “who understood how to bring richly complex poetry off the page without losing anything” (31).

Gioia declares at the end of “Disappearing Ink” that the “richly complex” poetry in the contemporary moment with the best chance of reaching a wide audience (and of re-invigorating the form) is that which turns away from “the typographic traditions of Modernism” (31).  His chosen representatives of this tradition here are Ezra Pound, E.E. Cummings, and William Carlos Williams: for Gioia their interest in “poems that could not be realized as speech without totally or partially dissipating their effects” is highly conditional on the fact that they were “confident in their place in print culture” (24).  Contemporary poets who wish to make a living at their craft and return the form to a more prominent space on the landscape of popular culture should, in Gioia’s estimations, be more cautious and more conscious of the fact that the major avenues of distribution available to them require an oral performance of their work.

I come here not to bury Dana Gioia: his major claims about the state of commercially popular contemporary poetry are more than just provocative.  In many ways they seem to accurately assess the conditions of the market, and an awareness of how the venues for oral performance available to contemporary poets may shape the form and sound of their work seems worth considering by readers, critics, and the poets themselves.  But I think a shovel is needed to unearth not only Pound, Cummings, and Williams, but also more recent contemporary poets whose work is difficult to translate off the page via the generic conventions of the public reading.

At the same time, a poet may certainly be interested how an audience “hears” his or her work even if the poems do not conform neatly to the voice-centric reading style of the public performance.  I hope here to frame  the work of one such poet –  Kevin Young –  in a manner that illustrates his unique consideration of the tensions that exist between how poetry sounds to the ear and appears to the eye.  Young seems to have little interest in composing the kind of work that Gioia prefers: instead of writing poetry that “can work equally well as a typographic entity and as a spoken performance” (24), his work reveals what he describes in a 2006 Ploughshares interview as “the sort of living language of the everyday” (188).  Young argues that this language is made up of more than just “how…people speak” and he cites an interest in exploring through poetry “many other vernaculars, whether it’s the vernacular of the blues, or the vernacular of visual art,” among others (188).  When various sights and sounds are combined in his work in playful and provocative ways, Young claims that while we are left with something “quite jarring and strange” we are also confronted with a more accurate and complex vision of “what I like in life and poetry” (188).

Young’s most ambitious project to date has been the composition of Devil’s Music, a work he describes as “an American trilogy” which spans three collections and five years: 2001’s To Repel Ghosts, 2003’s Jelly Roll: A Blues, and 2005’s Black Maria.  For our present purposes I’d like to center our discussion on the “jarring and strange” language present in To Repel Ghosts, but in order to frame Young’s project and its interest in exploring the sights and sounds available to the contemporary poet, I’d like to first walk us back to the book that precedes it, 1995’s Most Way Home.

In a 1997 interview with Callaloo, Young, who is African-American, notes that the writing in Most Way Home (his first volume) is primarily interested in “trying to get down…the way people speak, especially black people,” a vernacular that he sees as being “misrepresented or over-simplified” in most writing that attempts a similar project (46).  I’d like to read a long excerpt of Young’s thoughts on this matter to further illustrate his perspective on the relationship between print and the spoken word:

We could point to lots of things, not necessarily just the Oakland ‘ebonics’ controversy [a reference to the 1997 ruling where the city’s school board recognized ebonics as a distinct language], but the way they’ll have a guide to ebonics listed in the paper.  And it will say, well, T-H-E becomes D-E, and that’s exactly what I didn’t want in [Most Way Home].  I want to get a sense of how people spoke from the order of the words, the words they would choose, the way things were aligned – I don’t want no apostrophes or letters cut out of words.  Because my sense of black vernacular was not that…I think too often that dialect is represented as English with something missing. (46)

Young is clearly uneasy with how black dialect is traditionally represented in print (presumably by writers of various races and ethnicities), and he attempts to confront this discomfort by adopting strategies of writing that (for him) more accurately reflect the rhythms and syntax of the spoken word on the page.  Line breaks, deviations from the Standard English conventions of punctuation, and variations in the spacing between words in a line are just some of the techniques used by Young in Most Way Home.  And while Young’s specific focus on exploring the sound of black dialect may suggest that the short lyrics of this volume may be ideally suited to oral performance, his primary project here also seems to be an attempt to translate dialect into print, making the arrangements of verse as it appears on the page an essential component of the work.  Most Way Home‘s arrangement as a volume (there is a prologue poem and four chapters, and two chapters feature long poetic sequences, in addition to shorter lyrics) also demonstrates Young’s interest in the interplay between the poems and in the construction of a larger unified narrative to the collection (one centered around imaging a sense of “home” and the implications of that imaginative act on constructions of communal and personal identity in a variety of contexts).

In To Repel Ghosts, Young once again composes with an eye (and ear) towards an extended narrative, this one primarily concerning the life and work of Jean-Michel Basquiat, the famous (or infamous) young black prodigy of the 1980’s New York art scene who died of a drug overdose at the age of 27.  The collection’s subtitle describes it as “five sides in B minor,” and its table of contents reflects an imagining of the volume as a sort of boxed set of music: 117 numbered “tracks” are arranged in various sides (labeled Bootlegs, Hits, Takes, B-Sides, and Solos) across two discs (Zydeco and Mojo).  Young claims that the decision to arrange the volume in this fashion was partially driven by his desire to acknowledge his shared love with Basquiat of records and vinyl (Ploughshares 188).  In the volume’s “Liner Notes” he continues to push the metaphor of the volume as a collection of music, calling it “an extended riff – Basquiat and his work serve as a bass line, a rhythm section, a melody from which the poems improvise” (345).  The framing devices of the volume in one sense prepare us for its engagement with particular generic conventions: the syncopated rhythm of the work here may have more in common with the sound of jazz music than the sound of canonical poetry.  This sound is also said to be played in the key of B minor, one whose historical associations with melancholy (and with Beethoven’s labeling of it as “the black key”) seem to evoke both the racial identity and the tragic death of Basquiat.

But Young, clearly aware that he is not literally composing music for a boxed set, also uses his table of contents to remind us that To Repel Ghosts is a work composed on the page, in print.  If we take a look at the reproduced portion of the table I handed out at the beginning of the talk, we can see that two of the “Takes” on Side 3 have been crossed out: they do not appear within the pages of the album.  Basquiat frequently made use of text in his paintings and often left words crossed-out in finished work, and in the Liner Notes Young uses a quote from the painter to suggest his own motivations for using them here: “I cross out words so you will see them more: the fact that they are obscured makes you want to read them” (345).  In addition to piquing our interest in the motivations behind these defacements, the presence of these strike-throughs in the published manuscript of To Repel Ghosts reminds us of the material versions of the work that preceded this edition: the drafts and revisions that are indicative of the writing and rewriting that are composed in earlier stages of this process linger on in this obscured form.  We may even be further reminded that the poems here are not spontaneous, improvised riffs but rather calculated, composed experiments in print.

Let’s briefly look at two of these experiments in verse: “Gray” and “Urgent Telegram to Jean-Michel Basquiat.” I am primarily interested in their incompatibility with the genre of public performance, a forum that Dana Gioia sees as being a vital tool for the contemporary poet.  “Gray”’s title refers to the name of the art-noise band Basquiat performed in at New York’s Mudd Club in the early 80’s.  Taken singly and out of context from the rest of To Repel Ghosts, the poem borders on illegibility (well, for those of us not obsessed with the New York art scene in the 1980’s).  It seems difficult to imagine why one would remove it from its home within the larger narrative of Basquiat’s life found in the collection.  My point here is that Young imagines the poems of To Repel Ghosts as parts of a bigger picture (skewed and fragmented though that picture may be): “Gray” is in one sense a set of notes that make up the “extended riff” performed by Young.  This poet is more interested in exploring the conventions of the poetry volume in print as a space to experiment with long-form narrative techniques: although I claimed just before that the sound of To Repel Ghosts is informed by jazz, the shape of the volume can also be framed as a continuation of the efforts of William Carlos Williams (Paterson) and John Berryman (The Dream Songs) in poetry (and Young cites these two authors, among others, as major influences). Young is not alone in this particular wing of the contemporary poetry laboratory: Paul Muldoon (Madoc: A Mystery) and Jeffrey Yang (An Aquarium), among others, also experiment with book-length sequences and narratives.

But let’s return to this particular poem to continue a discussion of its resistance to the expectations of oral performance.  “Gray” is a fragmented narrative with a multiplicity of voices: in addition to a snippets of a more traditional third-person limited narrator that describes the poem’s various settings, jumps in time, and Basquiat’s actions, we also hear and see skewed parodies of news anchors (“This now in—” at the beginning of the poem and “We interrupt this program” towards the end) and public service announcements (“It’s 10 o’clock America, do you know who your children are?” -instead of “where”), snippets of Basquiat’s journals and text from his paintings (the capitalized sections, some of which are crossed-out), song lyrics (Nah nah nahs), and the voice of 80’s cartoon character Fat Albert (hey hey hey).  Additionally, some elements of the print here seem inevitably lost in oral translation: in addition to its crossed-out sections, Young preserves Basquiat’s tendency to write entirely in capital letters in his journal. The consistency of the typography does not seem to indicate an elevation in volume (unless I missed the Journals being named “Basquiat’s Book of Shouted Phrases”).  It is difficult to imagine an accomplished actor, let alone Young himself, successfully alternating between all of these voices in a spoken performance.  But Young is clearly interested in how these different sights and voices look and sound when mixed together, and he seems to combine them in a collage-like fashion to evoke not only the various mediums and influences of Basquiat’s life and work (experimental music, experiments in typography, the influence of television) but also potentially the “jarring and strange” sounds that surround us in contemporary American culture.  And the printed page provides him with a canvas that allows him to combine these seemingly-disparate elements.

The “Urgent Telegram to Jean-Michel Basquiat” finds Young hailing the conventions of a specific genre – the telegram — one we don’t normally associate with poetry.  The page that precedes this work in To Repel Ghosts provides us with some context: in a snippet from an interview with Basquiat, we learn that the painter abandoned his telephone and forced his friends and business associates to communicate with him in this fashion: he tells Henry Gedzahler that “because people are spending more money with telegrams they get right to the point” (338).  Young’s telegram seems expensive and somewhat impractical: then again, so is the very demand that one will only communicate with one’s friends in this fashion.  But Young also seems interested in using the telegram’s repeated “STOP” to imagine a (too-late) plea for Basquiat to “come down some day and see us again.”  Young is playing with the sound of this repeated word (STOP), but he is also interested in the typography of the telegram and conventional arrangements in poetry: the writing is in all-caps, and it is also arranged as three three-line stanzas.

In the “Liner Notes” of To Repel Ghosts, Kevin Young provides a quote from Basquiat which implies the artist’s appeal: in describing “the seeming casualness of his canvases,” the painter declared that “Everything is well stretched even though it looks like it might not be” (345).  Basquiat’s work – populated by child-like figures, icons of popular culture (be they Batman or the boxer Jack Johnson), and seemingly-obtuse statements (PAY FOR SOUP, BUILD A FORT, SET THAT ON FIRE) – is often dismissed as sloppy or intellectually shallow (and these opinions are not helped by the stories of Basquiat’s drug abuse and the speed at which he painted).  But Young, in his poem “Campbell’s Black Bean Soup,” praises Basquiat’s attempts at “scraping the uncanny” and “making / a tin thing sing.”  Young also attempts to make a “tin thing” – contemporary poetry – “sing,” but in doing so he is conscious of the material it is made out of – not tin, put print.  To Repel Ghosts constantly challenges and complicates our presumptions about the relationship between print and sound, and it also suggests that despite the predilections for oral performance, the work begun by the High Modernists regarding the varied nature of exchanges between the eye and the ear is worth pursuing further in the twenty-first century.

One response to ““Making A Tin Thing Sing”: Kevin Young and Contemporary Poetry

  1. Terrific, thanks—

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