This post is part of the Found Poetry Review’s Book Review series. Questions or comments can be directed to the author, Douglas Luman. Photo: Kanye West at Lollapalooza Chile 2011 by Rodrigo Ferrari, Santiago, Chile
A poet I know once said that when he was young that he didn’t know if he should think that John Lennon was a good or bad person; he simply didn’t know if he could trust him. What’s most surprising about this anecdote is the level of intimacy that is assumed, the way it treats celebrity as a kind of secondary factor, as if it were possible for someone to have struck up a casual conversation with Lennon to determine his relative “goodness” or “badness.” Now, more than ever, in an age of rapidly-growing direct-to-consumer media, be it paparazzi or (more or less) legitimate news outlets, it feels that this kind of statement rings true with the implied relationships that world culture has with certain high-profile artists. We feel as if we know them and their patterns and habits largely due to the emergence of short-form communication tools such as Facebook, Instagram, or Twitter. Merely spending an afternoon on Twitter following a favorite artist is more likely than not to yield an unprecedented trove of mundane information that makes these celebrities verge on endearing. Though many may fit this new media artist-audience relationship model, few have a stronger personal resonance than Kanye West.
Of all the books about which I’ve written for The Found Poetry Review, Mr. West is the first column into which I’ve inserted myself so directly due to the emergence of such a celebrity figure that I, like Sarah Blake, have an odd, fraught relationship with (albeit that the term “relationship” is subject to the same kinds of whimsy and constraint discussed above). Often, in discussing him, I refer to him as Blake does, “Kanye” or “Ye”; I feel some degree of pain or discomfort when he acts out in public in ways that demonstrate an overdeveloped sense of ego; when Kanye says something brilliant and shocking, I feel as if he is the presidential candidate who has just secured my vote by arguing for library reform as their platform. I think it is no stretch of the imagination to think that Blake and I understand each other on this, but moreover that this investiture in discussing and using Kanye West as a vehicle for things we cannot say (a common pursuit of poetry) is both freeing and troubling. As Blake writes in “Aftermath,” “What deep hole in the Earth is this?”
But, on a larger scale, the book attempts to reckon with the same kinds of parallels to myth-making proposed in the opening of this review. It seems like no coincidence that the anecdote discussed above is in reference an historical figure; every generation has some amount of dominating figures, and Blake uses this notion of the myths that culture creates about these heroes and antiheroes in a fittingly baroque register, employing Greek myth as a ready metaphor. Character archetypes of Hades, Persephone, Achilles, Paris of Troy, and King Menelaus appear late in the collection and are mapped onto the popular culture landscape such as in “Kanye Raps, ‘ ‘ Part 1” in which “Paris is most definitely Kanye,” “Helen, then is Kim Kardashian,” “Athena is Nicki Minaj,” and “King Menelaus is a great number of men in America.”
We are fundamentally interested in mythos that surrounds such public figures, and Blake’s investigation of her own relationship with the artist in Mr. West takes the form of an attempt at conversation with the mythic, attempting to navigate and break down the barriers that surround the construction of the persona of Kanye West to be able to reveal the setting in which the book takes place, a method that brings to mind T.S. Eliot’s “Mythic Method” which “is simply a way of controlling, of ordering, of giving a shape and a significance to the immense panorama of futility and anarchy which is contemporary history.”
And, in pursuit of attempting to define or shape how the poet is attempting to grapple with the notion that with history, “[s]o much is false, and the voice of the viewer.”
Part of the reason why FPR is interested in any text certainly also has to do with concepts of appropriated and citational poetics, another complex relationship that Mr. West works its way through. Lawyers for the artist would not allow Blake to print lyrics from his work in the book and, as such, Blake finds her way into and around this issue by visibly marking out where lyrics might appear within titles or poems and as section headers, cleverly finding a way to make the reference such as on the section divider for “the fallible face” which, like all of the episodes of cited lyric, features a large gray mark-out of the field where a citation might occur with the caption “Kanye West, ‘Through the Wire,’ line 6 of verse 2.” Even poem titles such as “Kanye Raps, ‘ ‘ Part 1,” make a commentary on the kinds of separation that mythic characters have from us through their own control of history, potentially to the point of dictating both what the terms of the conversation are, but also what they aren’t.
And, there is certainly more “found” moves in the text, from the use of West’s Twitter account, reports from news media, interviews, descriptions of YouTube comments, and music video moments. As Blake writes in the backmatter, “[i]f I could include videos in this book, I would.” This appendix is, itself, a kind of annotated bibliography which directs reader to the various sources and cited experiences that lead to either text in the poem or the generation of the text of the poems, and are often sources to which Blake was denied rights. It is part catalogue, part tribute, part defense of, and part argument with Kanye, in which Blake directs the reader to lyrics, newspaper articles, books, and other media that tell a more complete story in both the voices around and of voice of Kanye, himself.
However, Blake makes note of the idea that both Kanye and his art are heavily steeped in notions of appropriation, sampling, and the kinds of meaning that are made from them. In “In Song,” Blake writes of Kanye West’s track “Through the Wire,” (in which the verses detail a near-fatal accident after which West had his jaw wired shut—this song is largely credited for the beginning of his ascent to stardom, as he rapped the lyrics despite his injury) that Kanye engages in meaning-making beyond merely making references. The track, and West himself on other occasions, references Emmett Till, associating his injury with Till about which Blake writes
[p]eople have been outraged, by Kanye Must // feel a connection to this boy. And Because of Kanye // Emmett’s story is on the internet again. 65 years later // Kanye knows what appropriation is.
What of this notion of “personal connection,” though? Despite the removal that controversy and myth may create, Blake still has a desire to articulate her connection with West outside of using a “method” to create the persona of so public a man. Often, the humanity of celebrity is not the focus of reportage or coverage of the artist, but Blake finds a way to make stark connections between herself and West as if she knows him well, though not really knowing him in the same way that we know the people around us. Yet, the speaker of these poems still possesses some understanding on a fundamental level the struggles and vicissitudes that are essentially human. Writing of public dislike for West in “Hate is for Hitler,” the speaker recounts that (in reaction to “hate” of Kanye West) “I think Kanye’s like me, / and I think it’s incomprehensible, / I think he and I and my mother and Donda West // are easily moved. / We enter into discourse thinking first, / love.”
Mr. West is a stark entry in the emerging field of biography or memoir-in-verse that takes on both alternative subject matter and form to, itself, reappropriate myth and the nature of storytelling in an age when media is paradoxically more present and less in control of how persona is portrayed. However, in Mr. West, the complicated relationships between poet and artist, poet and legacy, poet and source material, artist and legacy, and any permutations thereof create a new kind of modern myth—the kind that, even though it may be a fabrication, can actually have personal meaning.