Tuesday, September 18, 2007
The Price of Talent
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
Dans les clapotements furieux des
La tempête a béni mes
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
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
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.