Tuesday, September 18, 2007

The Price of Talent

Eminem                                 Rimbaud         

SNAP. I told a friend that I would write this essay, but he works for a newspaper and can't use my graphics. Rimbaud was a far greater poet than Eminem could ever be, but he was the Eminem of his day. Still, I have to admit that in an age of no poetry, Eminem has been at least a flashlight in a time that needed a torch.

He's a crude, illiterate bum. Whereas Rimbaud was a crude, highly literate bum. Rimbaud wrote:

Comme je descendais des Fleuves impassibles,
Je ne me sentis plus guidé par les haleurs :
Des Peaux-Rouges criards les avaient pris pour cibles,
Les ayant cloués nus aux poteaux de couleurs.

J'étais insoucieux de tous les équipages,
Porteur de blés flamands ou de cotons anglais.
Quand avec mes haleurs ont fini ces tapages
Les Fleuves m'ont laissé descendre où je voulais.

Dans les clapotements furieux des marées,
Moi, l'autre hiver, plus sourd que les cerveaux d'enfants,
Je courus ! Et les Péninsules démarrées
N'ont pas subi tohu-bohus plus triomphants.

La tempête a béni mes éveils maritimes.
Plus léger qu'un bouchon j'ai dansé sur les flots
Qu'on appelle rouleurs éternels de victimes,
Dix nuits, sans regretter l'oeil niais des falots !

Here's a reasonably ept translation of the first four verses of Rimbaud's Le Bateau Ivre. (Well, it's not a poetic translation, I admit, such as you'd find with Mallarme's translation of Poe, but these are things you should never ever try at home, kids. For example, I charge disgusting amounts of  money for translating individual poems from Baudelaire's Fleurs de Mal into English. You don't even want to know what it costs for my versions of Cain et Abel and Les Litanies de Satan. I shudder at the expense when I think of it myself. Hideous. Extortionate. But ultimately worth it.)

On the other hand, there's Eminem. Like Rimbaud, he's an enfant terrible, an artistic anarchist, a sexual enigma (though it's unlikely Detroit Boy had an affair with a bald 19th century French poet named Verlaine), and a remarkable innovator in that he reinterpreted rap as a form to the point of discovering that it didn't have to be about listing how much sexplay, gunfire, and gold dentrifice he was sporting. In the context of the the 21st century this counts as a significant artistic breakthrough. Eminem said:

Now hush little baby, don't you cry
Everything's gonna be alright
Stiffen that upper lip up little lady, I told ya
Daddy's here to hold ya through the night
I know mommy's not here right now and we don't know why
We feel how we feel inside
It may seem a little crazy, pretty baby
But I promise momma's gon' be alright

It's funny
I remember back one year when daddy had no money
Mommy wrapped the Christmas presents up
And stuck 'em under the tree and said some of 'em were from me
Cause daddy couldn't buy 'em
I'll never forget that Christmas I sat up the whole night crying
Cause daddy felt like a bum, see daddy had a job
But his job was to keep the food on the table for you and mom
And at the time every house that we lived in
Either kept getting broken into and robbed
Or shot up on the block and your mom was saving money for you in a jar
Tryna start a piggy bank for you so you could go to college
Almost had a thousand dollars till someone broke in and stole it
And I know it hurt so bad it broke your momma's heart
And it seemed like everything was just startin' to fall apart.

You have to admit, this is a far cry from boasting about all the women you've sodomized. That's why I have a soft spot for Eminem. And I contend he really is the Rimbaud of his time. All the rest of his colleagues spend their endless iambics bragging about Bentleys, the huge rear ends of the women they abuse, and their willingness to shoot everyone who doesn't agree that they've nailed more women than anyone else. In this context, Eminem is as great an innovator as Rimbaud and then some.

Studs who wrote either masterful poetry or inspired doggerel.

The greatest point of confluence is what could be. Rimbaud gave up poetry at the age of seventeen and took up smuggling guns. He told his literary friends that he had already accomplished all he needed to as a poet. He was right. It's probable that Eminem has accomplished all he needs to as a rapper. Of course, no one was offering Rimbaud millions to keep on repeating himself for countless CDs. Maybe -- just maybe -- Eminem has the same caliber of character as Arthur Rimbaud.

The window is open here for all your bets.

UPDATE. In reviewing the post, I find I was harder on Eminem than I meant to be. Wordsmithing aside, he does fulfill the prime requirement of a true poet -- he rips his own ribcage apart to expose his naked beating heart. And in doing so, he proves beyond doubt that he does have a heart. Given where and what he comes from, that's astonishing. He is absolutely a poet. Probably not as great as Rimbaud, but that's for history to decide, not me. That a form so degenerated from its inception as rap could produce one real poet is a miracle. I shouldn't have damned him with faint praise. As I did. To make up for it, I ask all of you to go here and watch the whole thing. Then ask yourself if you could be so honest and (gulp) eloquent? (If YouTube is your measure, also check out Rimbaud here. No music, no beat, no French, and he's still astounding...)

Please note that this is not a response to commenters, of which there have been none on this post. The ones who know something about Eminem know nothing about Rimbaud. And vice versa. That's my job.

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