I’m not sure when I lost my grip on popular culture. It’s gone, long gone, but when and how did I fall off the face of the contemporary world? I’ll admit to having been stuck in Old World conventions for a very long time, sincerely missing vaudeville, watching Fred Astaire and Eddie Bracken, reading P.G. Wodehouse, collecting chinaware produced in the 1930’s, but I wasn’t entirely asleep. Not entirely.
I think the last moment in which I could safely argue that I was fully conversant with best selling books, edgy new movies, trends in the arts, political movements, fashion, television and musical genres was somewhere between the late 1980’s and the mid 1990’s. Converse All Stars, break dancing, Hacky-Sack, Nightmare on Elm Street, Nintendo, Beanie Babies, Elmo, Boy Bands, Weird Al, Spice Girls, Pokemon, Grunge.
Not lost yet.
Then, I don’t know, I just started to miss cues. P2p file sharing, World Series of Poker, online slang, Cold Play, Kanye, Arctic Monkeys …
All of which is to say that I missed the apparent storm surrounding Lil Nas X and Old Town Road – for those as clueless as I, a contemporary pop culture reference to a spat between country music purists and those who welcome a broader definition of genre in the streaming age. This is the cover story in this week’s edition of Time Magazine and one I was determined to understand, especially as I had recently heard a podcast (thanks to my daughter) in which a writer described being uncomfortable when asked to respond vocally when attending a concert. His inspired fanciful example: I say ‘Quoth the Raven’, you say ‘Nevermore’, to which his partner replied, “You heard Poe rap?”
Faithful readers will remember that I’ve been unearthing landmines in the battleground of genre. So, while I’ve never been rocked by Poe, I did immediately wonder how other less contemporary voices might have crossed genres, immediately moving to Robert Frost, as one does. Thus, “Out, Out-“
The buzz saw snarled and rattled in the yard
And made dust and dropped sticks so hard,
Sweet-scented stuff when the breeze drew across it.
And from there those that lifted eyes saw shit
Five mountain ranges one behind the other
Under the sunset far, Vermont, you mother
And the saw snarled and rattled, snarled and rattled,
As it ran light, like life was battled
And nothing happened: day was almost done
Call it a day, make some fun
To please the boy by giving him the half hour
That a boy counts so much standing in the shower
His sister stood beside him. She the law
To tell them ‘Supper.’ At the word, the saw,
As if to prove saws knew what supper meant,
Leaped out the boy’s hand, like payin’ rent
He must have given the hand. However it was
Neither refused the meeting, give up the buzz.
The boy’s first outcry was a rueful laugh,
As he swung toward them holding up half
Half in appeal, but half as if to keep
The life from spilling. Then cuz the boy was deep
Since he was old enough to know, big boy
Doing a man’s work, though a kid with a toy—
He saw all spoiled. ‘Don’t let him cut my hand off—
The doctor, when he comes. Don’t let him bring no groun’ cloth ’
So. But the hand was gone already.
The doctor put him in the dark real steady.
He lay and puffed his lips out with his breath.
And then—the watcher at his pulse say death.
No one believed. They listened at his heart.
Little—less—nothing!—and no more part.
No more to build on there. And they, since they
Were not the one dead, went on to play.
As I look at what I’ve done to Frost, two ideas come quickly and in opposition. The first is that I have taken a chainsaw to a truly subtle poem; the second is that even with my mucking around, some of Frost’s tone remains. Frost would have been nauseated by the use of forced end rhymes; he prefered internal rhyme, midpoint full stops, and iambic pentameter to evoke heightened speech; I tried to leave those conventions in place where possible, but see the franken-foolishness of mixing scraps. What seems clear is that without a driving beat or chorus, this version remains self-consciously literary. There’s no room for other voices, affirmation, emphasis, syncopation, off-beat, back-beat, amplification. What musical bed belongs under this piece? Nothing hops into view.
Is rap poetry? Both use words, alliteration, assonance, rhyme, both are spoken, or can be spoken. If a connection helps poetry appear more hip and rap more edifying, sure. But the difference between coming into being as music and coming into being as typography is enormous. My sensibilities are inevitably stuck somewhere between the last two years of college and the first five years of my working life. I stretch from time to time, and I admire genius when it appears in any context, but there are only so many new tricks this old dog can take on.