As Saul Williams emerges into the spotlight of contemporary poetry and music commentary, one of the more common claims one hears is that he and his fellow slam poets are charting a new path for poetry that will revitalize the medium. This is perhaps half the truth. It is certainly true that Williams—along with other contemporary poets such as Ross Gay and Baba Brinkman—is drawing from popular music in his poetry in a way that appeals to younger generations. And it is certainly true as well that this new crop of poets utilizes performance in a way that enhances and completes the works. The performance of poetry is, to these authors, as important as the composing of poetry upon the page. However, the traditions utilized by Williams and his contemporaries can be traced back through the millennia to far older oral traditions—a fact openly acknowledged in their works. Although Williams's work in particular proposes a new poetic idiom derived from contemporary culture, it depends ultimately upon the whole history of the poetic art.
Williams offers three innovations to modern poetry, all drawn from older traditions but presented here in a radical new combination. First, his pieces are in a state of perpetual revision; there is no ur-text locked into place through publishing. Second, his pieces are a mashup, utilizing multiple layers of allusion and meaning but drawing upon low, pop sources as well as vaunted literary and religious sources. And third, his pieces draw power and meaning from multimedia performance that enhances the words through sound and movement. None of these ideas are new, of course. Some emerge from oral traditions of early human history. Others come largely out of the development of modern poetry. All, however, share an origin in a musical rather than a traditionally poetic medium: rap and hip hop. In drawing upon his hip hop roots and linking them to more academically established poetic traditions, Williams utilizes the tools of both contemporary music and older modes of poetic construction to create works simultaneously accessible and difficult; works which can only be described as modern myths epics.
Some of that should look familiar. It is, after all, not that different from some of what I argued in Modern Music, Modernist Poetry. In some ways, this could be seen as an expansion on those ideas. The jury is out on whether or not I can really pull it off.
If none of this caught your fancy, though, you could always read FILM CRIT HULK's explanation of why Edgar Wright, the mastermind behind such things as Shaun of the Dead, Scott Pilgrim Vs The World, Hot Fuzz, and other such delightful insanity. I'll probably keep this format up for the next few posts as well: my stuff, then someone whose work is far more competent than my own, in case my stuff bored you to tears.
Let me know what you think.