Monday, February 21, 2011

The Terms of the Form

In an interesting piece that weighs criticisms of Kanye West's My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy, Chris Jackson makes what I found a useful point for framing my recent efforts to listen to and study rap music:

We all know that rap is narrative, with unreliable narrators, and that the point-of-view in any narrative is not necessarily the point of view of the writer, but then we occasionally choose to forget this; in those moments we make judgments on rap songs without making the effort to first understand them on the terms of the form.

Wednesday, February 16, 2011

Homeroom [EXPLICIT]

Today in homeroom a promo played over the TVs, trying to drum up interest for the upcoming swimming season.

The music for the promo was a rap song I'd never heard before. The clip ended with a couple lines that the swimming coaches probably would have preferred not to have broadcast under their imprimatur to the entire school at 7:55 a.m.:

Told her beauty is why God invented eyeballs
and her booty is why God invented my balls

I raised an eyebrow, but none of the freshmen in my homeroom seemed to notice.

I thought the rapper's voice sounded familiar, though, and I asked the students who it was. A kid near the front of the room said it was G-Unit. Then I realized who it sounded like: Kanye West.

Thinking about ways of talking about rap and hip-hop in my African American Voices class next year, I've been reading about and listening around in the genre lately, including Kanye's recent album My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy. I guess the timbre of his voice had wormed its way into my consciousness.

The student challenged me, so I looked up the lyrics and confirmed that it was indeed Kanye, making a guest appearance on the Lloyd Banks song "Start It Up."

"That's pretty sad," I told him, smiling, wanting to make it cut a little deeper, "when I know rap better than you do."

The lines are obscene, of course, not to mention crudely sacrilegious and completely inappropriate for homeroom. But on the level of sheer wordplay, they're pretty impressive.

As the bell rang and I walked out into the hall, I thought of all those 17th century wags, poets like John Wilmot, Earl of Rochester, who delighted in writing sexually obscene and politically transgressive poetry. One might develop a comparison between contemporary mega-star rappers and these decadent aristocrats.

I doubt their poems were ever read after morning prayer at Eton, though.

Friday, February 11, 2011

My First Sexual Experience, in 100 Words

I'm having my seniors write 100-word stories on Monday. This story is one I wrote years ago and have been giving out as an example almost as long. As I ran off the assignment today, it occurred to me that this blog might be a good place to share this story, to get it off my chest in a more public way. So here you go.

It's about 1% fictionalized.

The Night Elizabeth Dorsey and I Swapped Spit

“Can I have some gum?” she asked, jog-bra’d, brown hair sweaty. We were seventh graders.

I took the wad from my mouth.


She plucked it away, popped it into her mouth, and smiled.


As she bounced back onto the court, laughing at Phil’s banter, I felt a buzzing emptiness in my stomach. Slightly dizzy, I ran after an errant volleyball.

Later, nervous, at the drinking fountain: “Can I have my gum back?”


I took it like Communion, tasting her warm saliva.

During rotation she asked for it again. Back and forth, and then she left. I kept chewing.

Thursday, February 10, 2011

Bishop on The New Yorker

As a lover of the New Yorker and a (less fervid) admirer of Elizabeth Bishop, I found this Dwight Garner article delightful. The opening paragraph:

“What I think about The New Yorker,” the poet Elizabeth Bishop wrote in 1940 to her mentor, Marianne Moore, “can only be expressed like this: *!@!!!@!*!!”

Wednesday, February 9, 2011

Brownstein on Franzen & Goodman

This Gabriel Brownstein essay, a side-by-side comparison of recent novels by Jonathan Franzen and Allegra Goodman, gets it exactly right. I have read only parts of Freedom and none of The Cookbook Collector, but Brownstein's evenhanded discussion matches exactly my feelings about Franzen in general, and the contrast with Goodman matches the one I see between Franzen's memoir The Discomfort Zone and Kathleen Finneran's less-known masterpiece The Tender Land.

The essay is well worth reading in its entirety, but here Brownstein sums up his point:

Franzen is dancing with you, sure, and with Walter and Patty as well, and his moves are wild and Tony Manero dazzling—but he’s not wholeheartedly on the floor with his partners. Allegra Goodman loves her characters—they absorb her attention as if she could wish for nothing more, and she offers them intimately to her readers, so much so that the author herself all but vanishes. Franzen’s characters meanwhile exist somewhere beneath the glory of his prose. His book is not so much addressed to the intimate reader, it’s addressed to the judges and the crowds. His characters are anxious, but he is supremely confident. He has managed to shuck the difficulties of postmodern fiction while retaining much of its cool and distant pose.

Saturday, February 5, 2011

Lift Ev'ry Voice

Born in 1871, James Weldon Johnson was a poet, a songwriter, an educator, a novelist, a diplomat, and an activist, the first African American to head the National Assocation for the Advancement of Colored People.

In 1900, Johnson, then a school principal in Jacksonville, Florida, wrote “Lift Ev'ry Voice and Sing” for a school commemoration in honor of Abraham Lincoln’s birthday. Set to music by Johnson’s brother, the song would eventually come to be known as “the black national anthem.”

While doing a bit of research on "Lift Ev'ry Voice" for a project at school, I came across this rendition of the song, which accompanies a montage of images from African American history. It was originally presented at the African American Church Inaugural Ball. I found it pretty moving.

Friday, February 4, 2011

Black Odyssey

My essay comparing Toni Morrison's Beloved and The Odyssey is up at the Millions today, the first Friday of Black History Month.

I'd like to affectionately dedicate it to my students who mocked my obsessive Odyssey references as we studied Morrison's novel this past semester and I developed the ideas that I explore in the essay. Thanks for your patience, guys.

Wednesday, February 2, 2011

Mitt, Health Care, and the GOP

Erik Hayden at the Atlantic notes a new development in the struggle over the health care legislation:

Why is a state able to impose a mandate that people buy health insurance, but not the federal government? Variations of that question have plagued Mitt Romney as he's tried to differentiate his Massachusetts Health Care plan from President Obama's health care reforms. But when the question was recently posed by ABC's George Stephanopoulos, the Republican responded succinctly: "States have rights that the federal government doesn't have," he said, before asserting a state's right to try different things to see what "works" and issuing a non-apology for his plan. On Good Morning America Tuesday morning, he "refused to apologize" for Massachusetts's plan.

Pundits have now seized on Romney's answer as a potential strong strategy for a looming 2012 presidential bid.

This line of argument—that it's OK for states but not for the federal government to implement such a plan—along with Paul Krugman's point that the Obama health care reform is quite similar to '90s-era Republican proposals, makes me see more clearly than ever that a large part of the Republican zeal for undoing the reform is merely a desire to take a political victory away from the President.