– language and language alone, with Eminem
In 2010 I did a spoken introduction for Eminems movie ‘8 mile’ at the university of Groningen, and it went like this:
Hi, my name is, my name is Ruben van Gogh. Before I start this small introduction, there are a few confessions I’ve got to make, some official announcements, as you will. First of all: I have never seen this movie, it will be my first time, so I’m actually very curious what I am about to see tonight, and really looking forward to it. When ‘8 mile’ was released I wanted to go and see it offcourse, but I forgot to actually do so, perhaps the baby needed a clean diper, or I had too many other things on my mind. I don’t know anymore. Anyways, I didn’t make it to the movies.
Secondly: I’m not a particullar fan of rap and hiphop, let alone: a so called ‘conaisseur’. I like some of the hiphop artists and songs I happend to run into and which I like for all kind of particular reasons, that’s it. And a lot of them I don’t like at all. Just like it is with poetry and their poets – I never like them because it is poetry alone, I only like it when it does something to me for all kind of particular reasons. Or when I know the poets personally, that will help too. Or to paraphrase poet and critic Ilja Leonard Pfeijffer: I tend to appreciate poetry more, when I know the poet personally. Speaking for myself, I have no personal acquaintance to any rapper, I only spoke to Dutch rapper Blaxtar once.
I am fascinated by rap though, and I am a fan of Eminem, I have read all the lyrics of his regular albums for a few times. And, almost pointless to say, listened to his albums as well, and for a long time kept on doing so on a regular base. When Eminems album Encore hit the stores I wrote an article about him for the Dutch literary magazine Passionate, that was in 2004, and then, I have to admit, I forgot a little bit about Eminem: perhaps the second baby needed a clean diper too, or my mind was occupied by other interesting things and thoughts. I don’t know anymore. Perhaps Eminem forgot a little bit about himself too. You can read the Passionate-article on my website rubenvangogh.nl, there is a section articles in there.
So, when I was invited to introduce ‘8 Mile’, here in Groningen for Studium Generale, it provided me with a nice oppurtunity to catch up with him again, and see what I had been missing since 2004, what he had been up to. So espacially for you I bought his latest two albums, which I therefore hardly noticed: Relaps and Recovery and started to listen and read again. And specially for getting to know his youngest album, Recovery, one of his best, I am glad I did and was invited. Perhaps I would have missed it other ways, since I don’t listen to popular radio-stations that much anymore, and certainly stopped watching music-channels on television. To be honest, it is no fun what so ever to have rap-music on your hifi, or tele, when you are not really paying attention to it. It is a bit like poetry in that sense, only to be enjoyed in full concentration – at least, for me.
But first, let’s follow the road, the yellow brick road, back in time, back to Groningen, to the ninety’s, when I lived at the Nieuweweg, and later on moved to the Bedumerstraat. I had quit my studies Human Geography unsuccessfully and little by little started to become a poet, although, at that time, I didn’t know that one day I would become a professional one, introducing a movie about a famous rap-star in my old hometown. It was the time, then, when the music-channels MTV and, later on, TMF appeared on cable-television and the amount of rap-songs started to influence my thoughts about poetry, my own poetry at least.
At first, I thought poetry was about to loose it, for rap was filled with the strength of sounding words, and seemed far more stronger – and far more popular then poetry. So I thought rap would completely take over poetry as a kind of stronger replacement, and since I was no rapper whatsoever, this would be the end of me. But then I realized that rap could influence poetry as well, not necessary destroy it, but create a new sound within poetry itself, a new line of development. And it did, not only in mine, but also, looking with a broader view, in the landscape of poetry.
In the introduction of the Dutch anthology Doubletalk – rapoetry, an anthology with poems and lyrics of poets and rap-artists, which appeared in the late ninety’s, Dutch poet, anthologist and first Dichter des Vaderlands (poet laureate) Gerrit Komrij introduced the word Zigzag-poetry, to describe the jumping and sound-full use of language he noticed in rap. He even stated that rappers saved poetry just right in time with their mouth-to-mouth breathing they gave to poetry, their kiss of live. The anthology got a NUGI code, a categorical index-code, for music, so in bookshops it couldn’t be found on the poetry shelves, only in the more popular popmusic-courner. I got my self in the habit of replacing them anthologies myself whenever I walked in a bookstore.
There was a festival called Double Talk as well, where poets and rap-artists shared stage together and where I met poets like Ingmar Heytze, Hagar Peters, Menno Wigman and Tommy Wieringa (as a poet) for the first time. Strange enough, I forgot the Dutch rappers who where there as well. Yeah, Extince was in the anthology, but he wasn’t on stage — too bad.
But the poets found a unliterary enthusiastic audience, they ever since tried to find again, and seem to have found nowadays. For Double Talk almost turned to be a kick-off for literary festivals with a strong awareness for audience principles as well.
Ok, back to Eminem and rap. Well I do think rappers gave their kiss of live to poetry, but then everyone split, lived their lives separately and has forgotten a little bit about each other. Although you still can link some rap-based influences on some poets and their poetry: mine, in the sound of a lot of my poems, the flow of it you might say, like you can find it in Ilja Leonard Pfeijffers poetry as well, then, in the tough and aggressive metaphors in Erik Jan Harmens poetry and even in the strange way the poems of Alfred Schaffer jump from strophe to strophe in a zigzag of sceneries and thoughts. But I can imagine that those poets, except for me, don’t see it that way, if you would ask it themselves. No one knows himself to the bone off course, so don’t believe them when they deny and tell them Van Gogh told so. But at least rap can provide you with a way of looking at poetry, and an extra tool of understanding, reading and enjoying some poetry.
There is one subject in poetry where the two dó seem to meet, and that is at poetry-slams, especially at foreign poetry-slams. Since in the Netherlands you can become the National slam-champion with poetry which will be recognized as real poetry by critics who write about real published poetry: for instance Erik Jan Harmens in the past and Ellen Deckwitz in future [and I was right, yes, I was right, Ellen did win – RvG 2011]. But in the USA, winning a poetry-slam is big business, is the real shit. There you will find sounding zigzag-poems with a rap like flow, but the real American slam-poet is a poet and will complain about so called slam-poets who aren’t real poets, but unsuccessful rappers and actors: a few years ago an American slam-poet actually did, complaining to me about the disturbance of true poetry-slams by rappers who couldn’t get a contract for an album and turned to poetry-slam, or actors who couldn’t get a role in a movie or role-play and turned to it as well. I thought, hey well, if the’re ain’t no good, they won’t win and then there is no problem. But I am afraid they did win, now and then, and that was the problem.
When giving lectures at high-schools, students will sometimes ask me if I can tell them what the difference is between poetry and rap. First of all, I would say that poetry is ment to be poetry, where rap is ment to be rap. Certainly for poetry this is the case, and it is my definition for poetry; but I never tell that to high-school-students, because I think they will think that’s crap. And I reckon it isn’t the proper way to get them prepared for their final exam-period — that their teacher will ask: what is poetry, and they say: oh, poetry is what is ment to be poetry. But it is true though. Second, I think some rappers will call their lyrics poetry or poems as well, where I don’t know – or if they do, I don’t know who, poets will never call their own poems raps as well. That’s a difference between rap and poetry too. But third and most importantly, and the only thing I tell them students, I think there is this slight difference in what comes first when writing or creating it, and it is only a very small difference of looking at things, and the only rapper I spoke about this, Blaxtar, didn’t agree with me either. But I do, because it is true, and here I go.
I feel there is this difference in the order of what comes first. In poetry it will start with a thought, or a thought about a thought, a direction to a thought, a where-to-go, and once this beginning has emerged, words are to be found to get into this thought, or to follow this direction, and there they come, these words, carefully, bit by bit. And in rap, I think, it’s the other way around: words will start to appear on their own, they just seem to come and go, responding to each other, and they will be followed at a close distance with emerging thoughts and meanings, acting as the bounding principle.
So with poetry thoughts and meaning will be the given fact and words will follow, and with rap words will be the given fact an thoughts will follow. In the beginning there was thought versus in the beginning there were words.
But, this will only be the case for the one who is actually writing or making the poem or the rap-lyrics. The one who is enjoying the lyrics, wether reading or listening to them, will just experience a togetherness of words, sounds and their meanings. But poetry was always mend to poetry, and rap was mend to be rap.
There is some proof for all this. And that is the free-style, you will often see in rap-battles: the scenery of ‘8 Mile’. The words they will just come and go, and it is the strength or quality of the rapper who is spitting them, to get some meaning involved just in time, before the words float away to get lost in a meaningless spitting sea. And it is the bravery to just start this flow of words, without a direct concern about the meaning or thoughts, which characterizes rap.
I have to admit I only saw one battle in my life. That was in Utrecht, in a program I had to moderate, in which ambassadors of Dutch Cultural Capital City candidates discussed why their city was the best candidate. For this program we also invited some rappers from this cities, to defend their city in a freestyle battle. And it was an amazing pleasure to hear everything discussed return in their raps, combined with some dissing at the other cities – all very eloquent done.
One thing, as a poet, I learned from rap, is never to be afraid to start your lyrics. Any written first line, will automatically lead you to the second, and then the third, and where in rap every new line will give birth to the next — making it a chain of lines connected to each other very clearly, a product of linearity, and an explanation for the possibility of brilliant freestyles — the poet will experience a different process in writing: his third line can make it necessary to change some words in the first line, which on their turn have some consequences for the already written next lines, so the poet will continuously work on different lines at the same time, rewriting them again and again, every new line can change old lines. So for a poet, it is almost impossible to do a freestyle and end up with a poem. But I think, for a poet, I’m quite a linear writer, a slow-motion freestyler, very very very slow-motion that is.
It is almost, like a rapper works from within his lyrics, where a poet works from above.
They say poetry is all about silence, well in reading you certainly have them white-lines, where in rap creating silence almost seems a forbidden thing to do, the flow has tot go on. But it were the small pieces of absolute silence in Eminems first hit, which draw my attention to him. The little silences between the words: Hi-my-name-is–my-name-is-my-name-is (wikkewikkewikke) Slim Shady!
I bought the album, and started listening without close listening, just experiencing the incredible amount of jumping sounding zigzag-language and thinking about what it could mean for my poetry. Yeah, I could figure out, even without understanding what he was rapping about in a detailled way, Eminem was a brilliant rapper and everybody who was enjoying language in a creative manner had to love it, or at least had to be fascinated by it. But, to be honest with you, he was the rapper I just happened to run into, and there had to be dozens of rappers who could spit their lyrics in brilliant sounding ways too. I’ve got some albums of The Roots, and I really like them – in a more musical way I have to admit, because I never paid any close attention to the content of the lyrics, but that’s also because if I would, I had to read the lyrics while listening to the songs. I’m not fit to be concentrated enough to listen to English language, in poems and music that is, and fully understand it as well. And as for speaking about The Roots, I’m afraid I’m not black enough to really understand them.
To be honest, I don’t know if I fully understand Eminem too. Ok, I’m white, I’ve got my divorced parents, very descent divorced I have to say, I lived my childhood in Friesland, and you could easily mistake that for a kind of Detroit, but it is not thé Detroit of Eminem, it is the Detroit of Ruben van Gogh, I’m not involved in a never ending love-hate relationship with the mother of my children, I hardly feel any anger inside of me, and I didn’t make millions with my lyrics, neither did people felt the obligation to respond to my poems in an aggressive way, despite some stupid critics off course who I could easily kill, if I had the skills to do that with a pen.
So, why Eminem, beside his spitting qualities you could find on other rappers too? Despite my lack of close-listening, I easily could figure out Eminem was not only rapping about all kind of heroic things rappers seem to be obliged rapping about when they are rappers: how great they are, how well they sound, how much money they make, how tough their neighborhood is and fuck the rest, yeah fuck bitches and fuck everyone who fuck with your bitches too etc etc. Eminem did all this, but he was also rapping about how critics mixed up what he was rapping about with reality and the difference between words and the actual acts they describe. That there are two different worlds: writing what you are going to do in a rap and doing so (well, not doing so) outside the song in reality.
He was rapping about what rap is while rapping. And that is something I recognize in poetry. As a poet you are always aware that a poem is a poem, and that you are writing them. Whether it is about life or death, it is always partially about poetry itself too, at least it tends to be. There is a self-awareness in the matter of poetry, like poetry seem to know it is poetry. And in the raps of Eminem I discovered this same self-awareness for rap.
I think you can treat Eminems lyrics in a literary way, thanks to the fact that Eminem himself does so too. First of all he splits himself up in different Eminems he uses as personages in his albums: Eminem – his artist name, Slim Shady – his violent alter ego, Marshall Mathers – his real name. So, for every song you have to figure out who is speaking in it. Then there is the everlasting development of his hate-love relationship with Kim, where he is sometimes rapping about in a narrative way and sometimes in a theatrical way, like you are a direct eyewitness in his life – for instance, the almost horrifying tender Bonny & Clyde, where he is talking to his baby daughter while driving to a lake to get rid of Kim’s dead body and the song Kim where he is actually killing her in a scary movie-like scenery.
I think it was Dutch Nobelprice-misser Harry Mulish who once said about criticism: every example the critics complain about I already knew when I was writing them, and still I choosed to do so. Well, you could say something like that about Eminem too: he always seems to be aware about what critics (professionals and the average white family-man) accuse him of, and defending his motivations for doing so in new songs and albums. Always stating that it’s only lyrics he is bringing tot the world, and sighing: ‘damn, how much harm can you do with a pen’, it’s interesting to see how his thoughts about it changes through-out the albums. In his first hit-single ‘My name is’ he starts with: “Hi kids, do you like violence?” And the kids backing vocals go: “Yeah, yeah”. “Do you want to do exactly what I did?” “Huhu!” And then describing some horrible examples of things saying he had been doing to himself, whereby the kids are loosing more and more of their beginning enthusiasm. Making clear that not only his acting out of violence, but also the appreciating of it is only done in language.
Then about this topic about his violence and his being an idol for kids, a lot of examples and statements comes along in his albums: that he commits his violent acts only in his lyrics, that it is nothing compared to the accepted violence every kid can experience in movies, television shows and, yeah, real life perhaps, that violent rap was never a problem in Harlem (that is: within the black community) but only when white kids started to see Eminem as a roll-model and ever since his album Encore, he is more and more trying to figure out where his anger comes from and how he should cope with it.
And I think this is why, alongside his brilliant spit-capacities, his humor in well-sounding language, Eminem is such an interesting artist to follow. He reflects on his past albums and songs, quoting them, placing them in his changing insights. He is like an critic, criticizing himself in new songs to be criticized in future furthermore. And in the sequence of his latest two albums you will get this in short: Relaps can be pointed out as a, for Eminem standards, old fashioned album, in which he is being violent against almost everything, being very Slim Sahdies, with only a slight piece of reflection. Relaps was followed by Recovery: his most personal album, full of self-reflection and awareness, in which he apologizes for Relaps (on might say, his Slim Shady side) and expressing the need of self development.
Nevertheless, it is filled with violence too. But, like on theatre you will have the phrase functional nudity as a nice excuse, Eminem’s functional violence is a nice excuse too. But you must never forget to look deeper into the Eminem show, to recognize the exploration he is acting out on his own violence, the mechanisms about it and it’s appearance in language, and language alone.
Like he states in his latest album: I’m the shit stain in the underwear of life. That’s language, folks, that’s his language. Now let’s see what kind of shit he will spit in ‘8 Mile’.