MTV Books, 2006
Review by Michael Scharf
In 2006, Saul Williams published “NGH WHT” as the lead poem of his collection The Dead Emcee Scrolls (MTV Books). Like “The Man with the Blue Guitar,” “NGH WHT” is a serial poem in a Christological set of 33 cantos.
The song form and lyric are often understood as related historically and hierarchically: songs came first, but lyric, while derived from song, is the higher form.
Discussing the related Dylan-a-Poet? problem, Joshua Clover says something like “the songs are not lyric poems: they’re songs.” Different expectations, and no hierarchy implied. The same move can be made with It Takes a Nation of Millions… and also with versions of the page/stage problem: performance poems are performance poems
The fact that a new set of critical categories is in the process of being formed for digitally recorded poems means that digital audio reproduction of poetry is probably a form in its own right.
One also thinks of forms that begin as written lyric and end up something else: Schubert’s setting of Mayrhofer’s “Auflösung” (a lied, though not the first), and Schönberg’s setting of Jens Peter Jacobson’s Pierrot Lunaire (sprechstimme).
It’s wrong to think in terms of a hierarchy of ‘related forms’. The relation is something more like ‘forms that have shared elements’. Form, like genre, and other categories wired through desire, is a spectrum.
But: for the last 30 or 40 years, at least part of form has not resided in the piece, but in internalized, and shifting, modes of reception, or expectation. It’s thus possible to project the structures of lyric writing, its constraints and particularities, into and out of other forms.
It’s hard to do, though. Reception theory is pretty well entrenched, but the insideness-intrinsicness thing is constantly reinforced.
It’s a beautiful definition. Even with the integral and the space inside it, though, it implies up and down. It also completely fails to capture the material part of lyric writing. (I know he was talking about his own thing, and leaves room with the interrogative, etc. I’m not trying to say it’s not a major statement.)
When I see Drew Gardner perform one of his poems with a keyboard or full ensemble, the primary structure of reception I’m deploying is “poem.” Ditto when watching Brandon Downing’s Dark Brandon: Eternal Classics. Yet there’s very little that’s conventionally lyric-like about those works.
I think what I find so amazing about “NGH WHT” is the way it allows – and encourages, with a kind of taunting – the projection of multiple structures of reception that haven’t been deployed together before. I think that’s part of what people mean when they talk about a poem’s embodying a unique perspective: one ascribes an anticipatory consciousness of that multiple projection to the poem’s author/‘author’.
Here are some of the tropes that are in play for me in reading “NGH WHT”:
The trope of the lost greatness of hip-hop surfaces not just in the alliteration and rhymes but in the canto’s tonality and posture, which recall the meticulous position-paper-like quality of artists of the late 80s and early 90s. References elsewhere in the book to specific influences and peers reinforce that feeling. The elegiac tone (which that comes in more forcefully later) and the canto structure itself recall Tennyson’s “In Memoriam.”
The trope of High Black Literature, and the culture exchange’s expectations of Williams’s own work with respect to such, are deployed brilliantly within hip-hop’s rhetoric of competitive cutting and boasting. “Bigger Thomas I promise” is at once a non-ironic identification with the character Bigger Thomas’s violence, an identification with Richard Wright’s literary projection of himself into tropes of sexualized black male violence, a promise of literary greatness in the creation of a character equal to Bigger Thomas, an ironic comment on the expectations that surround a Serious Black Artist, and a mirror held up to rap – and its cultural achievement – that shows Bigger behind them.
In the contractions of NGH, BCH, etc.: tags, but also pop concrete, and a churchy block grandeur that recalls biblical repetitions of JHWH. The contractions also brilliantly represent the unrepresentability of the loaded terms they denote: “WHT” has a particularly unstable set of meanings, careening from what to white.
I also find myself reading Williams’s speech-like rhetoric as a taunt to a literal, reductive reading of “I HATE SPEECH” poetics. In a literal version of I HATE SPEECH, identity work, and the kind of direct statement that often characterizes it, is seen as a limit on the kind of ideologies-destroying free play that IHS poetics sought. Many of the identity tropes that fuelled Black poetry of the 1970s – a close identification of ‘author’ and “I,” and a belief in the possibilities of radical self-determination through language and otherwise – show up in hip-hop (to the point where an artist of the era took the name of Speech). Williams makes one read these tropes as multiply historical (i.e. he makes me see those same modes in 70s poetry, 80s & 90s rap, and non-ironically in “NGH WHT”), and as politically efficacious in a manner that eluded IHS poetics. A literal, reductive reading of IHS is a straw man, but it was in play for me.
The poem’s opening line limns the taboo quality, in high work, of gender and race stereotyping, and announces its code allegiances with vernacular takings-back. At the same time, the over-the-top dick swinging of the first stanza proclaims both the exhaustion of the tropes, and of the author with them. It’s not that the terms don’t still have a huge charge, and it’s not that bringing that into ‘poetry’, and troping that bringing for the author’s own use and furtherance, isn’t part of the move here. The whole maintains an exquisite balance between all of that and a knowledge of the limits of, and the pain inflicted by, BCH discourse.
I don’t think this poem has gotten the attention it has deserved at least partially because it was not released within conventional poetry channels, another way in which convention determines reception.