The Worst Filing System Known To Humans

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Reload the Canons!

This series of articles is an attempt to play through The Canon of videogames: your Metroids, your Marios, your Zeldas, your Pokemons, that kind of thing.

Except I'm not playing the original games. Instead, I'm playing only remakes, remixes, and weird fan projects. This is the canon of games as seen through the eyes of fans, and I'm going to treat fan games as what they are: legitimate works of art in their own right that deserve our analysis and respect.

Monday, December 12, 2011

Fall 2011 Paper Roundup Clambake And Panic Attack Extravaganza 3

Hey, the Saul Williams paper is done! I fear it's actually less coherent than its precursor Modern Music, Modernist Poetry (which is still one of my favorite posts on here) but I'm running on very little sleep now, so perhaps I can be forgiven. (And, more importantly, my other essays for this class were awesome, so it doesn't matter too much if this one is a bit shaky.)

If you don't feel like slogging through that, though, just spend some time listening to Saul Williams's actual works.

The following are particularly awesome:

I'll probably pull apart some of his poetry and music in a later post.

Modern Mythweavers:
Saul Williams and a New Path for Poetry
As Saul Williams emerges into the spotlight of contemporary poetry and music commentary, one of the more common claims one hears is that he and his fellow slam poets are charting a new path for poetry that will revitalize the medium. This is perhaps half the truth. It is certainly true that Williams is drawing from popular music in his poetry in a way that appeals to younger generations. And it is certainly true as well that the slam poet movement, of which Williams is a part, utilizes performance in a way that enhances and completes the works. The performance of poetry is, to these authors, as important as the composing of poetry upon the page. However, the traditions utilized by Williams and his contemporaries can be traced back through the millennia to far older oral traditions. Although Williams's work in particular proposes a new poetic idiom derived from contemporary culture, it depends ultimately upon the whole history of the poetic art.
Williams offers three innovations to modern poetry, all drawn from older traditions but presented here in a radical new combination. First, his pieces are in a state of perpetual revision; there is no ur-text locked into place through publishing. Second, his pieces are a mashup, utilizing multiple layers of allusion and meaning but drawing upon low, pop sources as well as vaunted literary and religious sources. And third, his pieces draw power and meaning from multimedia performance that enhances the words through sound and movement. None of these ideas are new, of course. Some emerge from oral traditions of early human history. Others come largely out of the development of modern poetry. All, however, share an origin in a musical rather than a traditionally poetic medium: rap and hip hop. In drawing upon his hip hop roots and linking them to more academically established poetic traditions, Williams utilizes the tools of both contemporary music and older modes of poetic construction to create works simultaneously accessible and difficult; works which can only be described as modern myths epics.
Eternal Revision and the New Oral Tradition
Revision is a natural product of the oral tradition (Bronwen). When one cannot write stories or poems down, the works will naturally mutate over time. And, of course, any transcription of a work from an oral tradition will undergo modifications, whether in the form of monks inserting Christian theology into pagan myths or Langston Hughes trying to “deliver voice and music” through misspelling (Wheeler 62, Bronwen). But the presence of such changes in Williams’s poetry seems strange. After all, the sounds of poetry can be transcribed not only through the traditional means of the printed word but through video and audio recordings as well. And yet, his printed texts, recorded words, and life performances often differ in minor and sometimes major ways.

 Consider, for example, the difference between the printed text of his poem “Sha Clack Clack” and the performance given at the University of Connecticut in 2007. The text in The Dead Emcee Scrolls concludes simply with the lines “I’m here at the end of the road, which is the beginning of the road beyond time, but where my NGHS at” (Williams “Scrolls” 197)? In the performance, however, Williams extends this section with two added sentences: “Oh, shit, don’t tell me my NGHS got lost in time?/My NGHS are serving unjust time!” (Williams “Sha Clack Clack Performance”). These additions allow Williams to clarify the end of the poem while adding another layer of meaning onto “time” (specifically, that his fellow African Americans are suffering unjust prison sentences). This is only one of the changes made in the performance. Most obviously, the first two chapters of the poem are completely absent from the performance, but there are a number of other minor words and lines added to enhance the live flow of the work. This complicates the idea that the Dead Emcee Scrolls version of the poem could be seen as a definitive version. It seems that Williams’s poetry, like the poetry of many slam artists, is far more fluid in composition (Somers-Willet 25-26).

A partial explanation for this phenomenon may be found in a piece by Baba Brinkman entitled “Performance Feedback Revision,” which applies the concepts of evolutionary mutation to rap music. The suggestion of the rap is that it is possible to adopt, even in a literate society, an oral storytelling mode that takes a primary text and then revises it on the spot in response to the audience’s reaction (Brinkman). Previously the poetic composition and revision process occurred largely out of the sight of the public unless released at a later time, as with Eliot’s notes for The Waste Land, but Williams and Brinkman are utilizing these revision techniques to constantly spin and revise their rhymes live, making the audience a part of the composition process (Somers-Willett 25-26). The process is a product at once of ancient oral traditions, 80s and 90s sampling culture, and 21st century internet culture preoccupations with remixing and crowdsourced art, and it is a process promoted heavily in slam poetry (Somers-Willett 25-26, Ellis 45).
The method also allows Williams to create a kind of modal poetry, where the same set of lines can be reused in S√HE, the Dead Emcee Scrolls version of “1987”, and the song version found his album Amethyst Superstar. There are a number of poetic themes that Williams can mix and match and add upon to create new compositions. His poetry can be seen as operating like music in that a composer might utilize a set of recurring themes within a score that are repeated and altered to create specific moods and meanings (Bronwen).
Mythic Heroes in the High and the Low
This fascination with revision carries over into a more modern quality: the fascination with an accruement of numerous sources and inspirations in order to create a modern mythology. This tendency can certainly be traced back to works like T.S. Eliot’s “The Waste Land,” which heavily borrows (or plagiarizes, as some early critics charged) from countless literary and religious sources in order to create a modern myth. Williams operates in much the same way, using wordplay to blend allusions into one another and layer systems of meaning. The end result is a series of quasi-religious texts. The Dead Emcee Scrolls and ,said the shotgun to the head are both overtly framed as mythic narratives, with shotgun telling the story of a prophetic servant of the female aspect of God, and The Dead Emcee Scrolls containing ancient uncovered “Lost Teachings of Hip-Hop.”
What makes this clearly fantasy- and mythology-informed structure fascinating is the fact that Williams draws upon both modern low culture and older high culture (“Interview”). This is perhaps not a revelation to a reader even mildly familiar with his works—after all, he obviously and explicitly credits hip hop as one of his major influences (“Interview”, Scrolls xi-xxx). However, this interest carries over into far more unexpected realms. Consider the following lines from his poem/song “Talk To Strangers”:
And no one seems to recognize the symbols come to life
The bitten apple on the screen and Jesus had a wife
And she was his Messiah like that stranger may be yours
Who holds a subtle knife that carves through worlds like magic doors (“Strangers”)
The passage fits effectively into the song’s broader message of reaching out to others, but it frames the message in an explicitly mythic way through its connections to Gnostic revelation and the transformation of the metaphorical into the real. The last line stands out, however, as particularly odd. Its origin comes from the tool of power in Phillip Pullman’s fantasy trilogy His Dark Materials: the subtle knife (an item which gives its name to the second book in the series). This is notable simply because Williams is drawing here not from traditional literary or mythological sources, and not from modern urban culture, but from a children’s fantasy series. The argument being made implicitly here—and explicitly in the first two lines of the passage—is that all culture—whether arbitrarily described as “high” or “low”—contains the same mythic messages, and there is truth in unexpected places. Thus, the explicit message of the song—that individuals may, beneath their surface appearances, have “wisdom [that] trips you out”—is mirrored in a subtler message that what is thought of as throwaway culture may also contain deeper wisdom.
The origins of this method come from the “chop and screw” remix and mashup culture, where the beats and lyrics of other artists are reworked into new songs (Somers-Willett 101). Just as the modal poetry mixing method allows for new layers of meaning stemming from the combination of existing lines, this sampling and mixing allows for layers of meaning drawn from the combination of outside sources. This is, of course, not particularly different from a writer such as Anne Carson—the strategy of allusion is basically the same, and the end result—extremely dense poetic works that require decoding in order to “figure out,” as Williams puts it, “what the fuck I was talking about on page X” (shotgun 184). Williams opens the possibility, however, of creating complex strings of allusions from pop as well as classical sources.
“1987” again effectively portrays these techniques. Although the poem quickly loses narrative coherency, its subject, as with many of Williams’s poems, is the intrusion of a prophetic and mythic voice into a modern urban setting. The poem, arranged in chapters like a book of the Bible, begins with a lengthy listing of cultural items associated with urban culture, and introduces a narrative of the narrator (presumably Saul or an avatar) riding somewhere with his “NGHs Duce and Wayne” (“1987” 77). The second chapter begins with the interrupting presence of a man judged by the others to be crazy—a prophet figure who, in an almost Campbellian moment, offers services to the listening men, an offer which the character Ralph initially refuses by turning up the music (“1987” 78). This moment allows Saul to introduce one of his first cultural allusions in the form of the quote “I’m the E double,” a line from the rap “You’re A Customer” mentioned earlier in the first chapter. This allusion is a recognizable shoutout for an audience familiar with hip hop, but it serves the dual purpose here of linking the more worldly characters with hip hop culture, while the prophet figure is linked more with the ancient traditions of Christ, black slavery, and Atlantis (although he does seem to know the men—“’Wait isn’t Juanita your mother?’” he asks) (“1987” 78-79). From the moment the characters acknowledge the prophetic figure the poem begins a fast move away from recognizable narrative, transforming into a psychedelic journey that simultaneously seems to encompass a slave girl’s journey to America interrupted by a spiritual death and resurrection as she is tossed overboard, Christ’s passion, the death of Tupac Shakur, and, finally, a meditation upon the basic misogyny and self-destructive ideology of modern hip hop.
The way Williams juggles such a dizzying array of meanings depends largely upon the references he makes and the reader’s ability to draw upon both high and low culture to make sense of the works. The line referencing Tupac Shakur, for example, specifically describes him as being “in lotus form,” a reference to Eastern spirituality and the connection between the lotus and the Buddha (“1987” 82). Williams sets Tupac up as a martyr figure for the art of hip hop, a fact that he acknowledges in the introduction to The Dead Emcee Scrolls, whose title is “a reference to the two hip-hop icons whose deaths have served as an example of what can happen when the power of hip-hop is misused or simply over-looked” (Williams Scrolls xxviii-xxix). It is a parallel that Williams makes explicitly elsewhere in his notes for the text: “An emcee tells a crowd of hundreds to keep their hands in the air. … I love the image of the happy Buddha with his hands in the air. Hands up if you’re confused” (“1999” 143). And, of course, there is the transformation throughout the text of the pejorative slang “nigger” into “NGH,” a transformation that mirrors the vowelless spelling of the name of God, YHWH (Williams Scrolls 109-110).
The end result is a poem that describes a complex and troubled past for all of hip hop and its associated culture, described through a lens of myth, religion, and history. It is comparable in many ways to Williams’s acknowledged predecessor Langston Hughes and makes similar innovations as Montage of a Dream Deferred (Wheeler 79-81). In this work, the past and the present collapse into one, and Williams finds in the popular music of his day a parallel with far more ancient traditions, just as Hughes discovered meaning in jazz and the blues. The moment of time’s collapse in the poem arguably comes with the final rap battle-style chapter, where Williams announces that “emcees look me in the face and their eyes get/weak. Pulse rate descends. Hearts rate increase” (“1987” 85). The bravado and boasting quickly gives way, however, to a realization that the speaker—and, by extension, hip hip culture—has “ignored the feminine side” and their culture’s past, and concludes with a dark vision of the culture destroying itself. Williams thus engages in a transformative process where the low and the high are blended together to generate a scriptural dialogue of voices comparable both to Old and New Testament sources, and to the voices of the aforementioned Dream Deferred (Wheeler 81, Samson). It is a modern myth or quasi-religious teaching that draws heavily upon oral pop culture as well as ancient texts in order to gain authority and resonance (McKean 50).
Acting Poetry
With these layers of wordplay, allusion, borrowed lines, and planes of reality, it might seem that Williams’s poems are far too complex for general audiences—ironically the exact opposite of the charge of shallow simplicity sometimes leveled at slam poets. Williams manages to keep his poems comprehensible through the final tool borrowed from hip hop: the power of the live performance. Unlike contemporary poets like Jack Gilbert or Frederick Seidel, Williams not only performs his poems, he clearly considers performance an integral part of the creation and enjoyment of his works. Furthermore, as his commitment to keep the audiences of his music dancing demonstrates, Williams places a particular importance upon audience response (“Interview”).

As much of the previous section dealt with an explication of “1987,” it is useful now to examine an example of Williams performing the piece live in order to explore how his performance clarifies and enhances his poetry. The video itself, found through a simple YouTube search, was recorded at Fremont High School (the city and state are not given) a year after the publishing of The Dead Emcee Scrolls. From the beginning Williams’s showmanship is apparent. His first few lines are delivered slowly, allowing the audience to register the cultural allusions, but then the recitation picks up, only slowing down again when Williams reaches the shift from the main framing narrative to the prophet’s story (“1987 Performance”). This emphasizes the narrative shift into stranger territories, allowing his audience to register the change in voice and content. Williams similarly lingers over some of the more subtle and complex puns in the poem, such as on the lines “She swam silently and fled into the blue Si./La So Fa Me Re Do Si…” or the pun on the word “scales,” which is used here in both a musical sense and in the sense of fish scales (“1987” 82-83). Again, Williams utilizes the art of performance to clarify his poem and highlight passages that might otherwise be confusing for the reader.
Perhaps the most significant moment of the performance, however, comes in the concluding chapter of the poem. Here, Williams builds back up from his more lingering delivery to a rapid hip hop delivery, as befits the rap battle content of the chapter. This builds tension across the lines until Williams reaches the line “And when we rock the mic we rock the mic” where the audience spontaneously responds with a shouted “right!” in imitation, again, of a classic hip hop song. This is the culmination of all the other stylistic elements that Williams makes use of. Presented in this simple set of lines is the use of an allusion to popular culture, a cue from Williams as a performer that the audience should respond to and become actively involved with the recitation of the poem by calling back, and a live revision from Williams after he receives this audience feedback: the closing lines of the poem are interrupted by a refrain of this line, resulting in both a tight interaction between Williams and his audience and a verbal tug of war between the machismo of the rap and the introspection of the ignored feminine side.
“1987” is shown, by this performance, to be a poem tied strongly to the nature of performance. It is in performance that the full complexity of the poem can be realized due to the audience’s participation. And, conversely, the invitations that the poem as a text, and Williams as a presenter, give to the audience to participate in turn transforms the poem from a dead text—a Dead Emcee Scroll—into a living experience. His works thus are born out of “slam poetry’s commitment to pleasing its audience” but they ultimately avoid the reaction against “elitist academic poets,” choosing instead to use the techniques of crowd-pleasing and audience participation in order to support the academic-level complexity (Somers-Willett 22).
Saul’s Prophetic Poems
Saul Williams frequently deals with a prophecized future in his poems, whether through prophetic characters such as the narrator of SHE or the speaker in 1987 or through the framing narrative of a document like The Dead Emcee Scrolls. The prophetic message seems to be one of spiritual reform in line with modern feminism, a reform of hip hop culture toward greater self awareness, and a reform of society toward equality. The way in which Williams composes his poetry, however, supports one other potential transformation: the transformation of poetry.
In essence, Williams uncovers three powerful tools through his poetry: the poem as a constantly evolving document, the poem as a modern myth or scriptural text composed of both high and low culture, and the poem as a performance piece that is best understood in the context of a living and actively responding audience. Of course, these are all techniques that have emerged periodically even in poetry’s modern era. Lesley Wheeler’s survey of modern poetry performance reveals that many of the techniques used by Williams emerged periodically, and largely separately, within poetry throughout the modern era. Langston Hughes and T.S. Eliot have already been mentioned as significant predecessors to Williams’s technique of alluding to high and low culture. And although the discussion of revision largely focused upon more ancient oral poetic traditions, the constant revisions that Walt Whitman made throughout his life to Leaves of Grass cannot be ignored as a major predecessor to the revisions Williams makes. Eliot again seems relevant here, due to his occasional recycling of youthful poetic motifs into his later, more well known works. In fact, Williams might, in some ways, be seen as the final culmination of a number of different strands in modern poetry, with the buildup in poetic tools across the last century resulting in a kind of absolute poetic freedom, where techniques can be utilized to fit each momentary need.
Ultimately, however, the three techniques Williams embraces come together to create a poetic mode that emphasizes the interaction between culture, author, and audience in a powerful and compelling way. The closing moments of the “1987” performance, and a number of Williams’s other performances, demonstrate a strong audience interest. Although it is difficult to judge at this point whether this audience interest translates to the all-important economic success of Williams’s albums and poetry, this interest does suggest that perhaps the emphasis Williams places upon the interaction of author and audience might allow for a revitalization of the poetic medium itself and a movement of the medium back into the public eye. Far from being “the death of art,” as Harold Bloom melodramatically proclaims, Williams and the other contemporary performance poets like Baba Brinkman or Ross Gay offer a new way forward for poetry (Bloom qtd. Somers-Willett 21). The rebirths in his works may yet signal another rebirth: the rebirth of broad interest in poetry and a new mode of oral mythmaking. Ultimately, unlike the modernist poets that asserted poetry’s basic incomprehensibility and the failings of language, Williams provides a profound example of the power of the written and spoken word when joined together as one.

Works Cited
Brinkman, Baba. “Performance Feedback Revision.” Hammersmith Apollo, London. 20 December 2009
Browen, Low. "Poetry on MTV? Slam and the Poetics of Popular Culture." Journal of Curriculum Theorizing 22.4 (2006) NP. Web.
Ellis, Lindsay, Anne Ruggles Gere and L. Jill Lamberton. " Out Loud: The Common Language of Poetry" The English Journal 93.1 (2003) 44-49. Web.
McKean, Thomas A. "Tradition as Communication" Oral Tradition 18.1 (2003) 49-50. Web.
Samson, Frank L. "I’ll Conjure Me A World: Biblical Images and Figures in the Work of Saul Stacey Williams." Journal of Religion and Popular Culture 3.1 (2003) 49-50. Web.
Somers-Willett, Susan B.A. The Cultural Politics of Slam Poetry: Race, Identity, and the Performance of Popular Verse in America. Ann Arbor: University of Michigan Press, 2009. Print.
Wheeler, Lesley. Voicing American Poetry: Sound and Performance from the 1920s to the Present. New York: Cornell UP, 2008. Print.
Williams, Saul. “1987.” In The Dead Emcee Scrolls, 77-85.
---. “1987 (Performance)” Freemont High School. 13 April 2007.
---. Interview with Robert Walsh. Callaloo 29.3 (2006): 728-38. Print.
---. S√HE. New York: Pocket Books, 1999.
---. , said the shotgun to the head. New York: Pocket Books, 2003.
---. “Sha Clack Clack.” In The Dead Emcee Scrolls, 89-97.
---. “Sha Clack Clack (Performance).” University of Connecticut. 13 November 2007.
---. The Dead Emcee Scrolls: The Lost Teachings of Hip-Hop. New York: Pocket Books, 2006.

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