Language Poetry, Decoded

My 403 read Jay-Z’s book Decoded for class a few weeks ago, not long after our unit on Language Poetry in 370. I was really struck by what I thought were some important similarities between Jay-Z’s work and Bernstein’s poem “The Lives of the Toll Takers,” as well as Jay-Z’s and Lyn Hejinian’s visions for their respective media. I’ll admit that I don’t know much about hip-hop, so I’ll use Decoded as a cipher for understanding some wider generic conventions. I’ll focus on “Barbarism” and “Lives of the Toll Takers” as a way of understanding Language Poetry and its goals.

Hejinian’s the hippie-feminist at the top of this page. Charles Bernstein is a poet, professor, theorist, and scholar. Jay-Z is this glamorous former-crack-dealer-from-the-projects and, well, Jay-Z. They write in different time periods to different audiences. But I’m not sure they write to entirely different ends. I think comparing them yields surprising results.

Charles Bernstein

First, I think it’s useful to examine their politics. In “Barbarism,” Hejinian sums up the Language Poetry project in distinctly political terms: “The pervasive hypocrisy of the 1950s and 1960s was operating in several strategic forms: as outright lies…as deceptive metaphors…and, finally, in the more subtle form of a complete failure to examine political language and indeed any language at all, thus establishing the pretense that language is ‘natural'”(323-24). On the same page, Hejinian lists the major contentions of Language writing, many of which relate to the social structures of language.

Jay-Z gets political in Decoded, too, albeit in a less theorized way: “America, as I


understood the concept, hated my black ass” (154). He describes the poverty and racism in the same projects that yielded hip-hop music, and contends that hip-hop “was hugely influential in finally making our slice of America visible through our own lens” (155). He also argues that the “War on Drugs” was a patently racist endeavor, designed to imprison young black men. Though Hejinian and Jay-Z express their projects in vastly different ways, they both focus on challenging accepted conventions of language as a way to challenge the received (and corrupt) social order. They both achieve this goal, in part, with an emphasis on word-play and punning.

We all talked about, and hopefully enjoyed, the wordplay in “The Lives of the Toll Takers”; my favorite was “rhymes may come and rhymes may go, but there’s no crime like presentiment.” Or, in an anticipation of MasterCard, “A picture is worth 44.95 but no price can be put on words.” We talked about how the disruption of these idioms and cliches shows that our received language, just like our received social order, is not natural or necessary. Based on the principles of Language writing, Jay-Z’s forwardly political “American Dreamin'” challenges the received social order in both form and content.

Specifically, American Dreamin’ disrupts conventional images and idioms through coded references to drugs – references Jay-Z does, indeed, decode in Decoded (33-34). One of the first lines in the song states, “We need a place to pitch, we need a mound.” “‘Pitch’ was slang for a hustle,” Jay-Z explains in a footnote, though the reference to baseball seems the most obvious. This is just one example of a song full of wordplay, and he references the wordplay in the lines “The ironies are/ And at all costs better avoid these bars.” In the annotation, Jay reveals that the “ironies” are a self-conscious reflection on the ironies (or, as Hejinian might say, hypocrisies) of life in the underclasses, as well as a reference to the song’s wordplay, and a play on words itself – the “iron” of the next line’s prison bars. Another example are the rapidly rhyming lines, “Survive the droughts? I wish you well?/ How sick am I? I wish you HEALTH/ I wish you wheels, I wish you wealth/ I wish you insight so you could see for yourself.” Jay takes the idea of “well-wishing,” perhaps most often seen on a Hallmark card, and disrupts it in several ways: “The well is a literal place to store and draw water,” he explains, “so I’m wishing my fellow hustlers the foresight to stash, to be resourceful…to have a place from which to draw.” He also surprises the listeners by wishing them “wheels” and “wealth,” which may not typically be part of the Hallmark-card variety of well-wishing. Finally, Jay contends that the use of “insight” refers not just to perception but also to “sight in, the ability to see beyond what’s visible, to see even within your soul.”

Jay’s line-by-line decoding in Decoded shows that his lyrics are often layered with meanings and connotations intended to simultaneously call to mind several disparate images, often images that disrupt one another (the conflation of selling crack with the Great American Past-time, for example). Considering hip-hop’s stated political and social aims, I think some of these rhymes, intentionally or not, actually fulfill the goals of Language poets.

9 thoughts on “Language Poetry, Decoded

  1. As Jay-z said in 99 Problems “I don’t know what you take me as,/ Or understand the intelligence that Jay-Z has.” Needless to say, Jay is a pretty clever guy. From his business ventures in clothing, music production, and sports franchises to his unparalleled stature in the landscape of contemporary hip hop, Jay-Z has established himself as one of the greatest rags to riches stories of our time. A man with formidable natural talent and a profound work ethic rising above the unfortunate circumstances of his background to realize success is the very definition of the American Dream. Nevertheless, Jay-Z seems, as you have pointed out, to rail against that American mythology while paradoxically embodying it. In Justify My Thug, Jay asks “Mr. President, there’s drugs in our residence/ Tell me what you want me to do, come break bread with us/ Mr. Governor, I swear there’s a cover up/ Every other corner there’s a liquor store – fuck is up?” Rather than advocating the justice of the society that has allowed him to become so successful, he casts the leadership of that society as oppressive and disconnected from the problems he faced growing up. In this way Jay-Z does indeed serve the purpose of barbarism, of a challenging political other, that Hejinian describes. Through his appropriation of the generically “american” image of baseball, linking it to the struggle for survival faced by urban poor instead of a cliché of americana, he bends language to his own political ends. I think that your comparison between Jay and language poets is interesting and valid, and that it raises many possibilities for looking at hip hop in general through the lens of poetic scholarship.

    • I also think the comparison between Jay-Z and Hejinian is fair. Both are in some sense poets, poets with very different styles, but perhaps not so different agendas. I have never read “Decoded”, but it seems very much like Hejinian’s “Barbarism”. “Decoded” and “Barbarism” both seem to be linked to a political agenda. I think it is important to note that Jay-Z’s political agenda stems from his background as a poor black male from the projects, while Hejinian does not share this same history. Hejinian’s style is clearly different from Jay’s, but I think you are right to point out that they do essentially share the same goals, and both use language and pop culture to accomplish these goals.

  2. You might have mentioned that the photo of Charles Bernstein is “Photo: Charles Bernstein, New York, November 1997, copyright © John Tranter, 1997″, from Jacket magazine. I don’t want a fee, just a mention. JT, Balmain, Sydney, Australia.

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  6. This is just one example of a song full of wordplay, and he references the wordplay in the lines “The ironies are/ And at all costs better avoid these bars.” In the annotation, Jay reveals that the “ironies” are a self-conscious reflection on the ironies (or, as Hejinian might say, hypocrisies) of life in the underclasses, as well as a reference to the song’s wordplay, and a play on words itself

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