Tulips & Ballerinas (Or, The Power of the Word)
The first time I read e. e. cummings it was a fall afternoon in an English classroom. Sixth grade, during the poetry unit. I was assigned to research Christina Rossetti while my best friend was assigned Edward Estlin Cummings (e. e. cummings, Ms. Martin said, he always spelled his name in lowercase). It was “i carry your heart with me,” which tends to be the most well known and touted of his works these days. While it is a beautiful poem which encapsulates all the hallmarks of Cummings’ style — intentional disregard of spelling and punctuation, imagery derived from using words incorrectly, and an affinity for parentheses — it only scratches the surface of Cummings’ capabilities and all he accomplishes with them.
A Harvard alum, Cummings became involved in the first World War in 1917, and was drafted into the army the following year. His debut novel, The Enormous Room, was informed by his military experience and his detainment in France. He would follow with the poetry collection Tulips & Chimneys, a collection in which Cummings has as much fun with language as he did in his letters during the war (to alleviate boredom Cummings and his friend William Slater Brown often wrote letters specifically designed to provoke French censors, which led to their detainment). At 179 works, Tulips & Chimneys is a labyrinth of metaphor and scattered letters that refuse to conform to any kind of linguistic rule — and that’s saying a lot, considering this is poetry. Poetry is one of the most malleable forms of writing. Its very existence stands in accordance with emotion and in denial of grammar rules like subject-object sentences and proper paragraphs, but Cummings takes it to the next level. In Tulips & Chimneys, he explores as many poetic styles as he can, from structured, classical sonnets to the jumbled, magical mess which Cummings became known for. “Of Nicolette” in the “Tulips” chapter is one of the first works in the book, and is much in keeping with the typical Cummings hallmarks. The final verse reads:
shunning the sudden moonbeam’s treacherous snare
she sought the harbouring dark,and(catching up
her delicate silk)all white,with shining feet
went forth into the dew:right wildly beat
her heart at every kiss of daisy-cup,
and from her cheek the beauteous colour went
with every bough that reverently bent
to touch the yellow wonder of her hair. (Cummings 9)
His collection of “Impression” poems, also in “Tulips,” detail just that: impressions of people, places, things, and sensations. “Impression X,” a personal favorite, gives Cummings a chance to flex his deftness with imagery and descriptive language:
As Cummings entrenches himself deeper in his own morphology, his poems become bolder. They demand more — more space on a page, more movement than one’s eyes are prepared for, and above all, more thinking. The words retain the same soul, but their use and presentation is such that it requires the reader to work for comprehension. It’s almost like relearning how to read. “&: Seven Poems I” from the “N” chapter encapsulates this best.
The absurdity of Cummings’ linguistics coupled with his heightened imagery creates a level of intimacy for the reader unlike anything else. The only writings similar to Cummings’ works are other works of his, and that singularity allows reading him to feel very secret and special. This also allows him to explore universal emotions such as love, sex, death, hope, and leisure in a manner that feels uniquely suited to the reader. Piecing together his words in one’s head and connecting to the heart underneath is akin to picking a lock; connecting each tiny infraction against linguistics to find a core which feels more enlightened than anything grammatically sound could achieve.
It was far too late on a school night the first time I listened to Kanye West.
I was a 19-year-old college freshman in her second term who’d spent the fall in complete isolation. Going back home and not coming back had been a real possibility. It stands to reason, then, that my first Kanye West album would have been The College Dropout, his 2004 debut which made an instant impression for its skewering of educational systems, its contagious hooks, and its simultaneous admiration for and defiance of the rap genre. His first was not my first, however. It was his fifth. After a long period of cranking out classic albums and topping the charts with songs like “Stronger” and “Heartless,” Kanye interrupted Taylor Swift’s acceptance speech for Best Female Video at the 2009 VMAs, and became universally hated in an instant. The controversy and bad press lead him to isolate himself in Hawaii, where he confronted the crossroads he’d reached as an artist and a person. Two roads diverged in a wood: the man reflected in the eyes of every college dropout, or the monster who robbed Taylor of her time to shine. The man or the monster. Kanye took neither route, and emerged in 2010 with his opus: My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy.
As a genre, rap relies on adherence to language in a way that no other form of music does. There are no riffs for embellishment, no tunes to be hummed, no third element to bolster the whole. There is only the spoken word with a beat behind it. In rap, the lyrics aren’t just lyrics — they’re the melody too. In the span of 69 minutes, Kanye creates infinite melodies through the spoken word. His lyrical innovation is at its peak as early as the bridge of the opening track “Dark Fantasy:”
At the mall, there was a seance
Just kids, no parents
Then the sky filled with herons
Saw the devil in a Chrysler LeBaron
The pronunciation of the end of each word is manipulated in such a way to create an airtight rhyme scheme. At the mall there was a seONs/just kids no perONs/then the sky filled with herONs/saw the devil in a chrysler leberON. The specificity at work provides the listener with a tangible example of the beauties and nuances of the rap genre that would go disregarded by a casual listener. The track “Power” introduces us to Kanye’s use of homonyms and like-sounding words, particularly with the second verse:
Fuck SNL and the whole cast
Tell ’em Yeezy said they can kiss my whole ass
More specifically they can kiss my asshole
I’m an asshole?
You n***as got jokes.
The symmetry of sound here makes a listener have to actively think in order to properly digest the meaning. The words are just different enough to become new, but similar enough to be linked in the mind: perfect equilibrium. “Power” also speaks to the album’s pop cultural awareness; “fuck SNL and the whole cast” serves as retaliation against the jokes made at Kanye’s expense on Saturday Night Live in 2009. Halfway through the album comes perhaps the lyrical pinnacle: “Monster.” A track which features two of the other most prominent rappers of the 2000s and 2010s, JAY-Z and Nicki Minaj. A track which contains multiple microcosms of the entire album’s creative verve and perhaps the greatest rhyme in history:
Have you ever had sex with a pharaoh?
Ah, put the pussy in a sarcophagus
Now she claiming that I bruised her esophagus
Head of the class and she just won a swallowship
I’m livin’ in the future so the present is my past
My presence is a present, kiss my ass
“Sarcophagus” and “esophagus — ” a rhyme so absurd in its content, and yet so perfect in linguistic integrity. Two words that have no business being put together, but which somehow work through their united sound. The word “presence” is put in place and warped into three different meanings within the span of a few seconds.
Kanye’s craftsmanship throughout My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy provides one with a strange channel into his personal experiences with fame, love, morality, image, and self. My favorite song of his is the album’s penultimate track. It’s a very strange song, much more lyrically simplistic and melodically dissonant than any of the other tracks, and it samples a song from indie darling group Bon Iver instead of the big name stars present everywhere else across the album. It’s the song that most people skip, and in all fairness, it doesn’t really belong there. Maybe that’s why I like it so much. Every time I listen to “Lost In the World,” the song feels like nobody else’s but mine. Its simplicity becomes intimacy. Its strangeness becomes a secret. I see Kanye, and he sees me, and we are bound by the pain we share.
I’m lost in the world
Been down my whole life
I’m new in the city
And I’m down for the night.
Whereas Cummings provides us with a labyrinth, Kanye shows us a corridor, lush and captivating, but straightforward, with the sound and guidance of the voice to act as our North Star. The lock we find at the end of the journey is the same as Cummings’: intimate, relatable, tangible. Our own.
The written word and the spoken word are two different entities with two completely unique effects. Listening and reading are not the same experience. Kanye and Cummings both know their way around a word in very different ways. One is written and one is spoken, and one follows the rules to a “T” and the other throws the rulebook out the window, but they’re the same because they’re both words. They are cut from the same cloth and wrapped around the same heart. The word allows us to know what the moon would taste like. The word allows us to see each other eye-to-eye, soul-to-soul. The word can even make it possible for a lonely college student to connect with a millionaire narcissist.