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.

Quotation in Rich’s “Planetarium” and Niedecker’s “Thomas Jefferson”

Adrienne Rich’s ode to science’s forgotten women, “Planetarium,” and Lorine Niedecker’s domestic portrait of the United State’s founding father, “Thomas Jefferson,” seem to have little in common other than a connection to history. After all, one celebrates forgotten heroines while the other praises one of the most recognizable (not to mention male) personages in American history. But while re-reading these poems, I noticed that both use quotations liberally. The conscientious student in me reflexively searches for a citation or source; none to be found. At best, Niedecker and Rich hint at the speaker of a given quote, sometimes fleshed out by a footnote judiciously inserted by an editor; but this is poetry, not a term paper – the poets leave MLA citation at the door. So if the quotes aren’t aimed at providing a kind of historical accuracy to these two poems, why would the poets use them?

I can’t pretend to know for certain, but following up on these quotes has proved to be a fruitful way of unpacking their effects on the poems as a whole. We can start with “Planetarium.” The first quote Rich uses describes Caroline Herschel as “a woman ‘in the snow/ among the Clocks and instruments/ or measuring the ground with poles'” (4-6). A search for the source of this quote reveals little; it seems to be from a journal entry. If my guess is correct, then this is significant because it grants Herschel a voice within the poem. She describes her own activity, probably with little realization about the metaphorical significance of her activity as a lone woman “in the snow” – that is, exploring the previously barren land of a woman’s place in the sciences.

Just as Herschel has a voice in “Planetarium,” the much more famous Tycho Brahe chimes in as well: while alive, he described his own eyes as “virile, precise, and absolutely certain” (18). Rich again departs from her speaker’s voice to inhabit another’s voice, this time Brahe’s. In Brahe’s own words, the eye capable of finding a heavenly body must have these qualities. This powerful eye “encounters,” rather than “finds” or “locates” or even “discovers,” the supernova. Significantly, Rich uses Brahe’s quote to refer to “an eye,” not necessarily his eye – and when she locates that eye in “Uranusborg,” the footnote amends: “Actually Uraniborg,” Tycho’s observatory. But this footnote glosses over Rich’s play on words here – William and Caroline Herschel discovered Uranus. “Virile, precise, and absolutely certain” is Brahe’s quote, to be sure, but it doesn’t describe Brahe, it describes Caroline’s eyes. Taking Brahe’s words and applying them to Caroline gives her the recognition she deserved historically but has also gained recently. The next Brahe quote Rich uses accomplishes the same purpose: “Tycho whispering at last/ ‘Let me not seem to have lived in vain'” (24-25). Once more, Brahe’s quote about himself applies equally well to Caroline: she did not live in vain, certainly, but until her work was fully appreciated in its own rite, she seemed to have lived only as her brother’s assistant, interchangeable and replaceable. Weaving quotes into “Planetarium” lends a historical legitimacy to the poem and reminds us of the historical legitimacy of Herschel herself by drawing comparisons between Herschel and Brahe.

Niedecker’s use of historical references is, I think, less pointed toward the vindication of an individual (and “others,” as the dedication of “Planetarium emphasizes), though it is just as pointed toward the achievement of historical accuracy. Niedecker’s quotes are also much less obscure than Rich’s – usually words from Jefferson himself, they can be powerful enough to support a whole line by themselves. For example: “Roman temple/ ‘simple and sublime'” uses a quote from Jefferson describing the designs for the Capitol building. “He spoke as Homer wrote,” Jefferson said of Henry, both in life and in Niedecker’s poem. Madison says of Jefferson during the drafting of the first ten amendments: “He remembers…/in splendor and dissipation/ he thinks yet of bills of rights.” Niedecker includes John Adams’s appraisal of Jefferson’s daughter Maria (Polly), along with Jefferson’s own last words.

The entire poem is written from Jefferson’s imagined perspective – why include bits of his real statements? Why set off the historically accurate parts of the poem at all? I think there are some similarities with Rich’s use of quotation here. The quotes certainly lend historical legitimacy to the poem – it comes across to me as a sort of “If you don’t believe me, take a look at this” approach. Niedecker brings in some heavy hitters from early American history to lend their words to Jefferson’s portrait. Niedecker includes plenty of cozy, imagined details from Jefferson’s life in her poem – for example, his letters home to his daughter inquiring about crops at Monticello, and Polly’s death. Where Rich uses quotation to show similarity between Caroline Herschel and men like Tycho Brahe, Niedecker instead uses quotes to create a contrast between the public and the private Jefferson. I think in both cases, the quotes go to show the failure of traditional means of historical recording – like quotation – to tell a real truth about the subject matter. We as students rely a lot on quotes to reveal important facts about the past, but do they really tell us what we think they tell us?

Don Draper in an Emergency

Don Draper reads Frank O\’Hara

This clip is from the first episode of Mad Men’s second season, and Don Draper is reading Frank O’Hara’s poem “Mayakovsky” (pg. 71 of our text). Draper first sees the O’Hara collection Meditations in an Emergency in a bar at midday, and when he mentions to the book’s owner that reading in a bar “makes you feel like you’re getting something done,” the reader responds, “Yeah, it’s all about getting things done.” O’Hara’s poetry is patently not all about getting things done; nevertheless, the stranger in the bar piques Don’s curiosity, and he buys a copy of the book.

Hearing Draper’s husky voice read O’Hara’s typically flamboyant poetry, or seeing, as we see in this video clip, Draper’s harsh handwriting on a copy of an O’Hara volume, feels a bit dissonant at first. Proclivities toward drinking, chain smoking and casual sex aside for the moment, can you imagine two people less compatible than alpha-male Don Draper and light-hearted, fun-loving, free-versed O’Hara? And just in case we haven’t noticed that Mad Men wants us to think about O’Hara, the show lifts the title of the season two finale directly from an O’Hara poem and volume: “Meditations in an Emergency.” Mad Men bookends its whole second season with O’Hara. What’s the connection? How does Draper figure as O’Hara?

I don’t have an answer, but I have an idea. First of all, Mad Men has distinguished itself as a show preoccupied with the particularities of time and place. The episode “Meditations in an Emergency” practically adopts JFK’s thick accent as its soundtrack, playing ubiquitous addresses to the nation about the Cuban Missile Crisis. Its characters constantly discuss the potential looming nuclear attack in hushed tones, in the break room, in the hair salon. We hear frequent explicit conversation about the crisis: “If the world is still here on Monday, we can talk,” Draper defiantly tells the company negotiating the purchase of Sterling Cooper. “Nuclear war…we could be gone tomorrow…” Peggy worries to a priest in the confessional. Most other conversations assume the ominous undertone of impending doom, as well. As a friend advises Betty concerning her unwanted pregnancy, “Sometimes the best thing is to do nothing and wait.”

O’Hara, too, is obsessed with his time period; we see contemporary cultural references all over his work, not to mention the constant name-dropping of New York hot spots. In O’Hara’s poem “The Day Lady Died,” he gives us the day, month and year within the first three lines, before mapping his progress across novelty shops in hipster Manhattan. He generally doesn’t talk about the Cold War or the Second World War, though; this seems to me a glaring absence. At the same time, it’s not difficult to notice his sense of purposelessness: “I wish I were reeling around Paris/ instead of reeling around New York/ I wish I weren’t reeling at all,” he writes in “Adieu to Normal, Bon Jour to Joan and Jean Paul.” I can imagine Don Draper sharing the sentiment.

I think O’Hara’s poetry contains more of the anxiety characteristic of Mad Men than it may seem on a first reading (or on my first reading, at least). Take “Mayakovsky,” for instance. I first read O’Hara’s line “the catastrophe of my personality” as playful and sardonic. Draper’s mournful voice recalls, well, a catastrophe. Doubt. Insecurity. And take this exchange from Mad Men’s “Meditations,” as two former lovers reflect on the crisis:

Peggy: “Why are you smiling?”
Pete: “Because you’re still here.”
Peggy: “I was hoping the train would be empty.”
Pete: “Have a drink with me.”

Now, remove all the punctuation and this sounds like an O’Hara poem to me; a poem “full of anxious pleasures and pleasurable anxiety,” as O’Hara writes in “St. Paul and All That” (213).

So how are O’Hara and Draper pushing against each other? A volume of hip, free-form poetry by a vocally gay man in the hands of Don Draper (does anyone remember Sal’s fate at Sterling Cooper?) immediately colors my understanding of his character; meanwhile, the ominous soundtrack and voice of this “Mayakovsky” reading changes how I read the poem. The layering of O’Hara over Mad Men also, for me, brings together two disparate characters over a common point of crisis to which they can share a reaction. Don Draper and Frank O’Hara would have been walking the same Manhattan streets, hearing and sharing the same worries during the Cuban Missile Crisis; though their lives were quite different, this episode shows that they may have experienced the same “meditations in an emergency,” or at least meditations in the same emergency. In any case, Mad Men forces me to read O’Hara as a poet of a time period marked not only by jazz and abstract art but also by crisis, uncertainty and war.