After reading my profile of A.D. Thomas in the Ruapehu Press, Taupo-based writer, Chris Eyes, initiated a correspondence with both of us here in Taumarunui, across the lake (and over some hills). One thing led to another, and the topic of conversation turned to poetry. This essay by Chris is the first in a three part series about poetry and poets. A.D. Thomas’ response will follow next week, and I’ll add my 33.33 cents the week after. Enjoy the conversation, and please add your own comments about poetry below (Help me out – I’m still writing my contribution!)
Here’s Chris Eyes:
I’m a pipe dream poet, full of big ideas that are either whispered or unspoken. For me poetry is a peaceful repose, a chance to step back and analyze the world and look deeper into the quagmire of modern times. In some small way poetry lets me admire what is good and great about humanity and our habitat, before we are engulfed by the pixelated jaws of our future. It is a counterpoint to productivity, a pondering dose of creativity that stirs the passions we need to thrive and even survive. In short, it encapsulates our humanness.
The poetry I read is full of life and love but also recognizes the pull of death and the pang of pain. It seeks truths and absolutes in a world of human constructs, using one of our greatest inventions and crowning achievements, language, to say, or at least attempt to say, things that are beyond words, to convey ideas and ideals and cut to the heart of the id of society.
Poetry has rules but like most rules, it’s more fun when you break them. Poetry can be moulded or reappropriated to suit the times or mood of a nation or a people. I come to poetry in different ways.
Take rap music. Rap is poetry reincarnated, made relevant and re-imagined for the modern world, where shock value has currency, and currency is what people want, along with guns, fast cars and fat arses. There are two rappers I’d like to mention who largely shun these preoccupations and have tried to use their music and poetry to change the way their fans see the world.
Kendrick Lamar and Kate Tempest, a Black male from Compton, Los Angeles, and a White female from Brockley, South East London, are two performers who embody the spirit of modern day poetry. They both use the power of hip-hop to magnify their message, to put punch into their words so they hit that much harder. They combine entertainment with an attempt to elevate their audience’s consciousness by telling stories of hard lives, the stories of the forgotten and the forsaken.
“Shit don’t change, until you get up and wash your ass”, Lamar claims his Grandmama told him on the track ‘Institutionalized’ from his multiple Grammy award winning album To Pimp A Butterfly. And Lamar believes he should’ve listened more to the words of his elders. ‘King Kunta’ on the same album uses powerful imagery to contrast the highs and lows within Black culture and of the White culture that oppresses it:
Straight from the bottom, this the belly of the beast
From a peasant to a prince to a motherfuckin’ king
Toward the end of To Pimp A Butterfly, a poem, written by Lamar’s friend, compares the struggle to break out of the hood with that of a caterpillar breaking free from its cocoon. His fourth studio album Damn, released in April 2017, is a multi-layered masterpiece which tackles political and personal issues in an America that’s going a little crazy. Ok, it’s going more than a little crazy.
Kate Tempest is a more traditional poet by trade. Her poetry is tied to her performance of it and her thick East London accent permeates her words. Her work, while available in written form, is made to be read aloud so as, to paraphrase a statement she made on a recent BBC Start The Week podcast, to allow for the ear to pick up what the eye might miss. Her work Brand New Ancients compares our modern woes with those from antiquity and finds much in common between us now and the humans and Gods who inhabit the past.
We have the same petty peeves, the same hunger and thirst, the same greed and lust, jealousy and pride; just now they are manifested in more technologically enhanced ways.
Her rap music is an extension of her poetry and the production provides a potency to her verse, which only increases when the beat stops. Her a cappella demands your full attention. Let Them Eat Chaos, Tempest’s second studio album, is a concept album that imagines a disparate collection of people awake at 4.18am. The album documents their thoughts and aspirations and fears, before linking them in an awakened moment of togetherness. In Let Them Eat Chaos Tempest starts out with a wide lens and pulls in tighter and tighter still, her work hinting at the private motivations that create our collective downfall. She spirals into the consciousness of her subjects to discover what ails them and asks, in the voice of Esther on the track ‘Europe is Lost’, “What am I gonna do to wake up?”
The Guardian writes that Tempest joins up “the visionary poetic tradition of William Blake and TS Eliot with the shape-shifting energy of hip-hop artists such as the Wu-Tang Clan and MF Doom.” I couldn’t have put it better myself.
There are many other poetic geniuses in rap, including (and not limited to) American rappers Tupac Shakur and Nas and the duo Run The Jewels (RTJ). Nas has recently teamed up with Elisa New, an American Literature Professor at Harvard University, to dissect his lyrics, and a fellowship at Harvard was set up in his name in 2013.
Maybe this is the start of a trend to recognise lyrics as part of contemporary poetry. Let’s not forget Bob Dylan was the most recent recipient of the Nobel Prize for Literature and fans of his have long debated and demanded that his lyrics be considered as poetry in their own right. Take this snippet, from ‘It’s Alright, Ma’:
And if my thought-dreams could be seen
They’d probably put my head in a guillotine
But it’s alright ma, it’s life and life only
I carry poetry around with me each day. We all have our favourite musicians who, through the lyricism of their songs, we consider a poet of high regard. American artist Ben Harper has many gems amongst his lyrics, one of which my wife and I have paraphrased and engraved on the inside of our wedding rings. The line, from ‘Heart of Matters’, goes: “You can’t just say ‘I love you’ / You have to live ‘I love you’”. We have distilled this down to “I will live I love you”.
I also have a verse from Cuban national hero Jose Marti’s poetry collection Simple Verses tattooed on my chest. The tattoo, which I have in the original Spanish, ends with the line:
Before I die, I want my soul to shed its poetry
Marti was a strong advocate for Cuban independence from Spain in the late 19th century, making him an inspiration for Fidel Castro’s and Che Guevara’s revolutionary movement which finally took power in 1959. Marti definitely led a full life, bridging the political and literary worlds of his time and place. It gives his poetry gravitas, and the way he died assured his words would live on in perpetuity. He was shot charging toward Spanish troops in an almost suicidal two-man charge, dressed in black atop a white horse. His commitment to the cause was questioned as he did not participate in combat, and Marti died trying to prove himself to be a worthy revolutionary.
Do not bury me in darkness
to die like a traitor
I am good and as a good man
I will die facing the sun
Pablo Neruda was another involved in the causes of his age in a Chile that was wracked by political turmoil. There is controversy over his death, with some saying he was killed by lethal injection, on the orders of Augusto Pinochet, after being hospitalised with prostate cancer in 1973. Another Nobel Prize winner for Literature, he is revered in South America and beyond as a “people’s poet” who awakened a continent’s consciousness.
For me, two poems spring immediately to mind. The first, called A Dog Has Died, provided me with comfort at a moment of deep sorrow, as I’m sure anyone who has lost a pet will attest to:
My dog has died.
I buried him in the garden
beside a rusty old engine.
There, not too deep,
not too shallow,
he will greet me sometime.
He shared simple heartfelt truths using simple heartfelt language. I like that. David Foster Wallace is quoted as saying of American poetry but ultimately, I feel, of all poetry, that “… it’ll come awake again when poets start speaking to people who have to pay the rent…” in the book Although Of Course You End Up Becoming Yourself.
Emily Dickinson is a poet after my own heart. Her vast collection of some eighteen hundred poems went largely unpublished until after her death in 1886 at the age of fifty-five, after a large part of her adult life was spent holed up in her room in Amherst, Massachusetts. Her work has become widely known after Dickinson’s sister reneged on her promise to burn her papers. The strength and power of her work was allowed to enter the world. Her poems explore her internal debate with the value of the Church and its beliefs around death and the afterlife, and also contain insights into her depression and anxiety, reflected in the mood of the world she shut herself away from:
There is no frigate like a book
To take us lands away,
Nor any coursers like a page
Of prancing poetry.
This traverse may the poorest take
Without oppress of toll;
How frugal is the chariot
That bears a human soul!
I’m not a scholar of poetry by any stretch, and I’m sure the poets would value the opinions of those that are more than mine. I like to keep it simple, I’m not one for getting too highfalutin about things, but I do think deeply about life and poetry encompasses that, it distils life and all its banality into something greater, like bread, or whisky, does with grain. These are merely the opinions of someone who is interested in poetry and dabbles in it, always around the edges. Another dabbler is a friend of mine, Ben Horgan. He has a phrase in one of his lines of verse which I admire and is, I believe, the essence of poetry:
Never let yourself underestimate your feelings
New Zealanders as a whole largely neglect our emotions. Born of British fortitude and Māori Mana, we don’t always do well at letting out our feelings and often perceive the acceptance and acknowledgement of them as weakness. Look at the suicide and depression numbers, the extent and realities of which are only now being felt and brought out into the light. We have a strong tradition of poetry, but I wouldn’t say it is widely known or embraced. Sam Hunt looms large over what I know, and through him I’ve cottoned on to Baxter and Hone Tuwhare and their contemporaries. I’m still learning and enjoy the process of discovery.
Poetry changes like any art form changes. It evolves as we evolve, and technology is dragging us faster and faster into the future, maybe faster than we can keep up with. We need to keep exploring our poetry for ways of saying what can’t be said; for finding words when there are no words. I’m thinking about poet Tony Walsh aka Longfella, whose reading of ‘This Is The Place’ after the Manchester terror attack reminded Mancunians and people the world over to “Choose love”. His words helped them, and all of us, find resolve in the face of terror. “The poem is memorable,” said The Guardian, “that’s part of the point of poetry – you take it with you to hold on to.”
And as our man Sam Hunt says, “Charm it crazy.” So, here’s to the future of poetry and those that carry the torch, who will give it the life it desires, to be written and read, spoken and heard, to put the fire of life into our language of words.