For centuries, the world of poetry has been divided into many separate factions. The Beats, the New York School, the Romantics; even today, when poetry’s relevance has been subjugated to more of a romantic anecdote status than actual, high-profile literature, its various categories remain. But especially prevalent in today’s literary community is the slam poet: Def Poetry Jam-style performers whose words are intended more for the stage than the page. There are, of course, times when traditional poetry and slam poetry coexist – such is the case of Jack Kerouac School of Disembodied Poetics (a.k.a. Naropa) co-founder, Anne Waldman, whose poetry is equally moving in writing and in one of her jaw-dropping performances. But what does she have to do with the so-called “hip-hop poet laureate,” Saul Williams? Pointedly, the fact is that Williams could learn a lot from Waldman’s example.
Williams has delivered his Dead Emcee Scrolls: The Lost Teachings of Hip-Hop to a world that is ravenous for any insight into the psyche of a young black man; where even rich, upper-class white males can pretend to find great and profound meaning in one of 50 Cent’s CDs while waxing their fathers’ yachts. And in this respect, Williams delivers textured insight, which refuses to cave into the glamour that has been built around hip-hop culture. He refuses to glorify that which has harmed and at the same time popularized perceptions of Black life. This is why Williams’ music and spoken word poetry are important. His canon of work doesn’t just dwell on slappin’ bitches and cappin’ whitey, but also speaks from the juxtaposed reality of what people assume a black man should be and what a black man actually is.
But, here comes the million-dollar question: does it actually hold up on the page? Unfortunately no. The poems in this book are so dependent on their creator’s flow that, when read in “scroll” form, they just sit lifelessly, waiting for someone to animate them. This is the main reason why there is such a division in poetry today. It is rare to find a spoken word poet who does not write simply for himself or herself. The poems lose their accessibility in favor of the drama of the stage. There are some great American poets, such as the aforementioned Waldman and Amiri Baraka (someone else who Williams should stylistically study up on), who have enough power over words to engage more than just their fans. But Williams is not one of these great American poets, and unfortunately for those who aren’t already converts, this tome will clearly demonstrate that there was something lost in translation.
Reviewed by Megan Giddings
This review is also posted on The Modern Pea Pod.