Kanye’s Inferno

[Below is an unedited essay written for a graduate seminar on Chaucer and the major Italian poets. It was approached with a certain giddiness that eventually transformed into something a bit more serious. Admittedly, there are a number of problems with the essay as it exists in its current form; these likely exist as some combination of grammatical and logical.]

Still from Kanye West's

Still from Kanye West’s “Power” video.

Lost in the Woods: Kanye West’s Nods to Dante and Boccaccio

Lost in a Dark Wood

Hip hop artist Kanye West recruits American indie folk singer-songwriter Justin Vernon and his song, “The Woods,” to serve as the foundation of the penultimate track, “Lost in the World,” on the polarizing rapper’s critically-acclaimed 2010 album, My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy. On the track, Vernon sings, later joined by West, “I’m up in the woods / I’m down on my mind / I’m building a still / to slow down the time.” By making these lyrics the central focus of one of the closing tracks on the album, West is highlighting his personal tribulations and a degree of celebrity exile the artist endured in the years leading up to the album’s release, which included the loss of his mother (former chairwoman of Chicago State University’s English department), drawing the scorn of two U.S. presidents, an oft ridiculed gaffe at a music video award show, the general public derision of the rapper’s unabashed narcissism, and his eventual admission that he had contemplated suicide several times during this period (a confession somewhat unprecedented in the world of hip hop) (Young, “Artist of the Year: Kanye West”).

Vernon’s aforementioned lyrics and West’s use of them are rooted in a long tradition of a deep wood (that likely expands beyond the boundaries of western literature) as a metaphor for what might now be called an existential crisis. Vernon’s image of a presumably wintery wood may have originally, for instance, been conceived as an allusion to Robert Frost’s “Stopping By Woods on a Snowy Evening;” Vernon famously holed up in a cabin within a wooded area to record his first record, suggesting Thoreau’s Walden may have also played some part.

On his album, however, Kanye West seems to be nodding more specifically to the opening tercet of Dante’s Commedia, which finds the poet aimlessly (in the midst of what might be considered a suicidal depression) in a “dark wood” (Hollander, Inf. 2). Moreover, it would seem that West’s use of Dantesque imagery and narrative informed both the promotion and execution of My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy, an album that explores the themes of Hell, the intersection of spirituality and sexuality, and the beatification of a principal female character. The use of this imagery, whether thoroughly conscious or not, yields specific implications that should impact the nature of reflection on not just Dante, but Boccaccio (marked specifically by West’s use of salacious, near pornographic lyrics) and other key Italian poets as well (and their often conflicted relationships to one another).

Dante v. Naples and the Influence of American Hip Hop

In his essay “Whiteness and the Blackening of Italy: La guerra cafona, Extracommunitari and Provisional Street Justice,” Joseph Pugliese draws attention to the graffiti marring a monument to Dante in Naples. The essay frames this discussion in a sociopolitical light, briefly summarizing turbulent circumstances leading to the unification of northern and southern Italy. He reads the graffiti as follows:

…situated within the historical genealogy of contestatory acts of brigandage, the defacing and spectacular resignification of a statue of Italy’s iconic nationalist poet evidences a vibrant southern culture connected both to its insurrectionist past and to contemporary transitional counter-hegemonic cultural movements, such as African American hip hop culture. (Pugliese, 9)

Pugliese’s assessment is worthy of note because it accounts for the specific intentions of the southern Italians marking the statute of Dante, rather than write it off as a general apathy toward a cultural/literary icon—this is, rather, an issue rebellion against the nationalization of the Italian language that Dante is said to have promoted by writing in the vernacular. Pugliese explains:

The Neapolitans have desecrated both the poet’s call for a pure Italian language and the state’s imposition of a hegemonic monolingualism, as embodied and petrified by the white stone figure. Palimpsests of languages, ciphers and tags are graffitied onto the statue’s base, encroaching up to the very toes of the poet. (Pugliese, 10)

The placement of the Dante statue in Naples is described by Pugliese as “damning:”

The iconic white figure, symbolizing the purity of the Italian/Tuscan tongue, is here permanently dispatched to the miscegenated African-Oriental nether regions of the Italian nation-state. Swirling up from the very base of the statue is a Babel of languages that defies at every turn doctrinal impositions of cultural purity and linguistic monoglossia. (Pugliese, 9)

Pugliese goes on to further describe the influence of American hip hop on the region as a principal factor setting the Neapolitan perpetrators of graffiti and Dante in opposition, citing the revolutionary/counter-culture aspects of the genre’s relatively short history (Pugliese, 18). Critics may suggest that Pugliese fails to account for many socioeconomic/ethnic subtleties acting on the region, or that he is simply over intellectualizing an act of vandalism. However, his willingness to explore the intentionality (or at least the underlying historical implications) behind the acts of graffiti is important to this discussion of the conversation between the Italian poets and American hip hop, even if his essay explores a scenario where the two worlds are set against each other. Pugliese describes an unfortunate scenario in Naples, where Dante, the poet of exile, diffident and singular in use of religious imagery and invention, is now cast as symbol of hegemony and nationalism. It is worth mentioning that no such account of defamation yet exists for the statues of Dante, Boccaccio, and Petrarch in Florence, which seems to point to some truth in Pugliese’s assessment, at least in terms of deference to the poets in northern Italy.

Navigating Dante & Kanye’s Personal Infernos

In his five-star review for My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy Matthew Cole of Slant Magazine writes,  “For 20 years, rap’s aesthetic has been monopolized by authenticity, and it’s high time it got a bit of competition from fantasy (Cole, “Kanye West: My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy”).” This sentiment is echoed in another glowing review (also full marks) by popular music online publication Pitchfork. Ryan Dombal writes, “With his music and persona both marked by a flawed honesty, Kanye’s man-myth dichotomy is at once modern and truly classic (Dombal, “Pitchfork: Album Reviews…”).” There exist more examples of music criticism praising (or in some cases deriding) West’s emphasis on fantastical elements and imagery on his album, while also drawing attention to the “classical” quality of the music and promotional aesthetics.

The effect of West’s use of fantasy is not at all dissimilar from Dante’s own employment of the (to borrow the phrase) “man myth.” In dealing with his own political exile and interpersonal relationships, Dante casts himself as the central character in his descent to the underworld (and eventual ascent into paradise). In a similar display of self-confidence (if not arrogance), Dante also places himself, early in Inferno (specifically with the introduction of Virgil in Canto I and Ovid, Lucan, Homer, and Horace subsequently in Canto IV), amongst the greatest poets in classical literature:  “And then they showed me greater honor still, / for they made me one of their company, / so that I became the sixth amidst such wisdom (Hollander, Inf. 73).”

This move is not far removed from the posturing and name-dropping typical in the hip hop genre, emphasizing the fact that poetry and hip hop share a common wellspring. Of course, the current vernacular of the rap genre renders Dante’s display of confidence extremely modest by comparison. However, Dante’s deftness and charm in navigating the subject of his position amongst these poets should not take away from the fact that it was, for the time, an extremely potent display of bravado. It also establishes a stronger reader confidence, perhaps somewhat vicariously, as they are asked to subscribe to Dante’s highly personalized, fantastical descent into Inferno.

West devotes much of first half of My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy to establishing the same swagger and credibility, and indeed, the album is best read as a loosely constructed concept that explores depths of the pop star’s own personal Inferno. This reading is supported by several pieces of Dantesque imagery used in the promotion of the album, including a 35 minute feature film directed by the rapper, as well as the work’s lyrical content.

On the opening track, “Dark Fantasy,” West enlists fellow rapper Nicki Minaj to establish the fiction and fantasy behind the album’s proceedings, which she dispenses by juxtaposing West’s tale with some unnamed work of the past. “Yes, it’s awful blasted boring,” she says, referring to what seems like no tale in particular, while affecting a faux-British accent. It is possible to view this curious introduction as a sort of musical establishing shot; once again it seems American hip hop is set against (at least the air of) “stuffy” or “white” literature. This might explain the accent, which walks the line of satire.

Ultimately, however, West takes the reigns of his fantasy immediately following this introduction. He, like Dante, is cast as both the principal narrator and pilgrim for the rest of the album, abandoning any suspicion that Minaj will fulfill that role. West consistently positions himself in respect to other pop stars during in the album’s opening songs. In the promotional film for the album, Runaway, the same song is accompanied by footage of West driving through a dark, wooded roadway in a sports car, which is wrecked (in a very explosive fashion) as this opening scene comes to a close. The car and its destruction should be read as symbolic and congruent with the rapper’s self-awareness of the “sin” of prodigality prevalent in hip hop culture.

The opening song also features allusions to various musicians, including Nas (a fellow rapper), the Beatles, and inescapably Michael Jackson. All of these allusions can be read as West’s attempt to establish himself as the dominant, most relevant presence in pop music. On the song “Gorgeous,” West raps, “I don’t believe in yesterday, / and what’s a black Beatle anyway? / A fuckin’ roach? (West, Track 2 – “Gorgeous”). The jest is a likely a reference to Billy Preston, an auxiliary member of The Beatles, often referred to as the “Black Beatle.” He may also be internalizing the terminology as a way to highlight the absurdity of drawing a racial line between The Beatles and their black collaborators. West’s pop allusiveness here is reminiscent of Dante’s own dense intertextuality; both seem to use these references as a starting point for launching criticism in their respective genres.

On “Dark Fantasy,” also establishes the theme of a Hellish landscape as central to the work. He quips, “Sorry for the night demons that still visit me (West, Track 1 – “Dark Fantasy”).” As the song’s principal producer, West emphasizes the lyric by applying a vocal effect that makes that verse sound demonic. His apology should be read as ironic, if not forced, establishing his confidence in subjecting the listener to his own personal trials.

Later in same song West adds, “The sky filled with heron / I saw the devil / in a Chrysler LeBaron / And the Hell, it wouldn’t spare us (West, Track 1 – “Dark Fantasy”).” The image of the sky filled with heron here is curious, but also suggests the sophistication of West’s allusiveness. In Book X of Homer’s Iliad, Athena, as a display of her favor, sends a heron to Odysseus (Stewart, “Odysseus: Hero and Wander”). That West has a sky full of heron seems to point to a nuanced self-awareness of his own inflated ego, which also serves as a foundation for his self-criticism later in the album.

Dante also employs the story of Odysseus as a way of dealing with the ideas of narcissism (more specifically Narcissus) and pride. In Cantos XXVI and XXX of Inferno, the poet introduces a parallel construction (that spans across the three canticles of the Commedia) dealing with both Odysseus and Narcissus respectively. In Canto XXVI Odysseus (here referred to as Virgil’s Ulysses) is punished in the tenth bolgia as a false counselor (Hollander, 489). There is some debate as to how sympathetically the reader is meant to respond to Ulysses’ punishment, as Dante’s treatment depicts the Greek hero as full of grandeur and charisma, perhaps indicating a level of empathy on the poet’s part (Hollander, 489). Robert Hollander notes in his translation of Inferno, “And a further complication is of more recent vintage:  what should we make of the at least apparent similarity between Ulysses and Dante himself (Hollander, 489)?”

Dante deals with the subject of narcissism in a similar way in Canto XXX. The reference to Narcissus marks another launching point for a parallel construction that is resolved in Paradiso (Hollander, 562). Dante becomes increasingly interested (and possibly amused) by an argument between Sinon and Master Adam (Hollander, 562). Adam’s rebukes Sinon, “For you to lick the mirror of Narcissus / would not take much by way of invitation,” but Dante could just as easily be the target of Adam’s quip (Hollander, 557). The rapt attention Dante pays to the two bickerers indicates a level self-reflexivity. Virgil seems to affirm this suspicion when he scolds Dante:  “‘Go right on looking / and it is I who’ll quarrel with you’ (Hollander, 557).” Virgil’s warning could have just as easily benefited Narcissus in his account of the myth. This suggests Dante’s awareness that he could have shared in the same prideful fate, which he is ultimately able avoid as he progresses through the canticles.

Much like Dante, Kanye West begins to streamline his personal Hell into a shared experience, making aforementioned image of Satan in an automobile, perhaps, to emphasize the materiality of hip hop culture and its alignment with sin. This notion seems to be affirmed by a later song, “So Appalled,” which with its foreboding string and synthesizer arrangements, a sequence of a guest verses, and sheer length wallows in the prideful, excessive “sins” of hip hop culture. The listener should be aware, aesthetically, that they are in the Kanye’s lower realms of hip hop Hell by this point in the album. The bombast that informed the album’s opening songs has now transformed into something much more introspective and self-critical, a movement Dante also appears to make as he continues his descent into Hell.

Enter Eros and Boccaccio:  Censorship and The Intercourse of Sexuality and Spirituality in West’s “Dark” & “Twisted” Fantasy

West’s first selection for the album cover of My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy was banned in certain retail stores because of its painted depiction of a nude, winged woman straddling the rapper in a scene of intercourse. West referred to the woman as his “Phoenix” and the winged woman also features prominently in the promotion film for the album. Ultimately, West kept the album cover, but also introduced a series of variations for different retail markets. While the censorship was mostly restricted to the marketing sphere, it draws attention to the intersection of overt sexuality and spirituality prevalent in the lyric content of the album. Furthermore, the beatification of what West terms “bad bitches” is referenced to often enough to be considered a purposeful construction. The curious introduction of an image of America as a woman with her legs spread, featured in a sample of poet/musician Gil Scott-Heron’s “Comment #1,” which closes the album, also requires further exploration.

Whether conscious or not, the comparison’s that can be drawn between West’s discussion of sexuality and spirituality and Boccaccio’s own in The Decameron are exploring. Even by today’s lax standards, West pushes against established boundaries in pop music with his graphic lyrical depictions of sex. These images are almost always broached within the context of Christianity, not unlike the tales in Boccaccio’s work.

The song most worthy of this sort of reading (and certainly the one containing the most overt use of graphic sexuality on the album) is “Hell of a Life.” Here West raps, “Make her knees shake, make a priest faint, uh / Make a nun cum, make her cremate, uh,” reaffirming a preoccupation with sexuality and theology that is already present on much of the album. In one of The Decameron’s most popular tales (III, 1) the protagonist, Masetto, seeks employment as a gardener in a nunnery, guising himself as a deaf-mute, in order to bed the nuns housed there; the similarity should be self-evident (Waldman, p.171-177).

West also uses this song to address the issues of theology’s role in the bedroom. Later in the song he raps, “We headed to Hell for havin’ sex, huh?” The production contains the same demonic vocal samples featured elsewhere in the album, suggesting that Satan is (ironically) ever present in the song’s sexual procedures. West also seems to address biblical sodomy law (albeit indirectly), discussing the issue within the context in a biting racial criticism about the pornography industry:

Said her price go down she ever fuck a black guy, / or do anal, or do a gangbang / It’s kinda crazy that’s all considered the same thing. / Well, I guess alotta niggas do gang bang / and if we run trains, we all in the same gang / Runaway slaves all on a chain gang. (West, Track 10 – “Hell of a Life”)

It’s important to note that “It’s kinda crazy that’s all considered the same thing” most likely serves primarily to underline West’s frustration that it is considered “kinky” or “taboo” for a woman to have sex with a black male. However, given that the above lyrics follow “We headed to Hell for havin’ sex, huh, ” in short order, the listener might also understand that sins of the flesh are a sort of a packaged deal, punished tidily in an organized Hell, not unlike Dante’s. West’s response to divergence of sexuality and spirituality is characteristically defiant, stating,  “How could you say they live their life wrong / when you never fuck with the lights on?” or later, “Pussy and religion is all I need (West, Track 10 – “Hell of a Life”).”

The tenth story of the third day in The Decameron serves as just one instance of Boccaccio’s own interest in marrying those two concepts. The result stands out as one of the bawdiest tales in the classic, wherein Rustico, a monk, seduces a young woman by teaching her how to put the “Devil” into “Hell” so that she might obtain a closer relationship to god. In Guido Waldman’s translation, the scene plays out as follows:

But as the devil raised his head many a time thereafter and Alibek was always there at his call, ready to deflate him, she started to acquire a taste for the exercise and would say to Rustico: ‘I can see how right they were, those good men at Gafsa who kept telling me what a pleasure it was to serve the Lord.’ (Waldman, 243)

This “holy work” is among The Decameron’s most riotous and graphic depictions of sexual intercourse. The irony, humor, and crassness employed by West is not dissimilar from the goodwill of a poet like Boccaccio, whose own use of those devices might point to his frustration with Church’s resolve to further segregate sexuality and theology.

The Beatification of the “Bad Bitch” and the Ruin of Lady America

West makes references to “bad bitches” several times on his new album. This purposeful (and alliterative) construction should, for the moment, be disassociated from the indiscriminate use of derogatory terminology for women prevalent in the hip-hop genre. While the phrase fulfills these expectations early on in the album, referring to the notion of an especially promiscuous woman, the concept (through promotional pieces and lyrical content) evolves in way that raises the status of the sexually active woman at least to the same level of her flawed, male counterpart, and perhaps to something a bit more transcendent.

The music video for “POWER,” the first song to contain a reference to the “bad bitch,” was conceived as a painting in motion by the rapper (West, Track 3 – “POWER”). The classical influences on the promotional piece are heavy, which features a number of women draped around the feet of the rapper as a number of dagger wielding men sail toward him in slow motion, ready to attack. West seems to be operating in the misogynist mode that informs other songs in his genre, wherein he is the principal agent of power and domination. Later promotional materials feature the winged woman, who eludes West at every turn and eventually ascending to the sky, leaving him behind on a smoldering Earth.

If nothing else, the album can certainly be said to deal self-critically with the rampant misogyny in rap lyrics, while, curiously, also wading in it. On the track “Monster,” however, rapper Nicki Minaj reasserts her presence on the album, this time not as a false narrator, but a self-described “bad bitch.” Her verse adds to up to a perfect pitch in the drama. Following West’s assertion that he’ll “put the pussy in a sarcophagus” and hip-hop mogul Jay-Z’s painfully self-conscious rhymes (plus the admission that he’s not getting enough “love”), Minaj absolutely dominates the two hip-hop titans in every way, rapping, “You can be the King, but watch the Queen conquer.” She does, discussing her unquestionable earning power and sexual liberation, and for better or worse West exploits the drama masterfully. After this song, West employs a self-critical approach whenever discussing his relationships with women on the album.

Minaj’s chastisement shares some similarity Philippa’s eloquent defense in The Decameron (VI, 7), assuming we assess them both as characters in a constructed narrative. This should be the attitude assumed by those investigating an album billed as “fantasy.” Both characters exist in a world where men remain the dominant force (by authors whose intentions are suspect, but still divergent from the hegemonic view). In his tale, Boccaccio affords Philippa the courage and ability to humiliate the dominant male figure in her life and walk away having won her freedom from threat of a death sentence. Philippa in the tale, defending her adultery, uses diminutive, polite tone in addressing the judge:

‘I put it to you, Your Honour:  if he has always helped himself to do what he wanted from me for his pleasure, what was I do to do, what am I to do—that which is left over? Am I to throw it to the dogs? Is it not far better to place it at the disposal of a gentleman who loves me beyond all telling, rather than let it spoil or go to waste?’ (Waldman, 399).

Minaj, in changing the intonation of her voice, uses a number of different tones in delivering her verse on the track. At one point, she assumes the diminutive voice, rapping, “So, let me get this straight, wait, I’m the rookie? / But my features and shows is ten times your pay / 50K for a verse, no album out (West, Track 6 — “Monster”).” West drops everything but the beat during Minaj’s verse, drawing all attention to her lyrical dominance. Moreover, she has the last word.

The self-critical introspection that follows Minaj’s performance seems to culminate in the album’s closing track, where West remains silent, and looses the better part of a spoken word piece by Gil-Scott Heron, which sees the personification of America as a female and her subsequent ruin. The rapper drew criticism for using the poem, which is often associated with racial tension in America following the Civil Rights Movement. Critics suggest that the use was a half-handed attempt to associate his pop-music, for which he has enjoyed much success, with the political turmoil of that era.

However, within the context of the fantasy and narrative, it would appear that West took Heron’s personification literally, given that “Lost in the World,” a song largely about West’s interpersonal problems, musically leads in to “Who Will Survive in America,” the track featuring Heron’s poem. In fact, the separation of these two tracks might be largely rooted in that early criticism as it seems that West must have intended for Heron’s poem to be an epilogue to “Lost in the World.” In the poem, Heron also employs graphic sexual images as a means of delivering his message:

America stripped for bed and we had not all yet closed our eyes. The signs of Truth were tattooed across our open-ended vagina. We learned, to our amazement, untold tale of scandal. Two long centuries buried in the musty vault, hosed down daily with a gagging perfume. America was a bastard the illegitimate daughter of the mother country whose legs were then spread around the world and a rapist known as freedom, free doom. Democracy, liberty, and justice were revolutionary code names that preceded the bubbling bubbling bubbling bubbling bubbling in the mother country’s crotch. (Scott-Heron, “Comment #1)

West, in using Heron’s poem, seems intent on connecting this his own celebrity turmoil to a number of unresolved conflicts still plaguing America’s racial landscape. Whether or not this is simply an act of grandiloquence on the part of the rapper remains for debate, but it is Heron, not West, who ends the album—with a question:  “Who will survive in America?” It is a question that belongs to the exile, not entirely removed from the frequent prophecies of political turmoil in Florence, constructed by Dante in the Commedia, and Boccaccio’s concern with the same city (and its relationship desexualized theology) following the Black Death. Heron’s plague-like, sexual imagery seems to serve West in a similar way in the closing his album. It might also be suggested that the mysterious winged woman featured in his promotional film served as an embodiment of that ideal. She woman flies away from west in the film, in her own ascent to the heavens.

Implications and Conclusion

There is a question of intention that haunts any criticism attempting to link great works of literature with their contemporary popular cultural counterparts. A certain amount of biographical criticism may help answer the question of intentionality in this examination (West’s mother, again, served as the Chair of the English Dept. at Chicago State University and her focus was literature), but the ability to connect these seemingly disparate worlds is of equal importance. What these connections might indicate about the status of poets like Dante, Boccaccio, and even Petrarch in their time is in some ways illuminated by the way we treat pop-stars in the contemporary world. In a day when literature was a principal form of entertainment, did these poets enjoy a similar amount of celebrity? If the answer is yes, does that give any credibility to West’s portrayal of himself as the pop star of exile? These questions and more are raised by a sort of criticism that bridges these two worlds, severing both literary and, perhaps, anthropological endeavors. It is a criticism that should be approached seriously, fighting all intuitions toward self-consciousness and bashfulness (perhaps not entirely avoided here—great pains will be taken to eliminate any instances of qualification). There is no doubt that a number of key differences exist between these time-segregated works, but that they share common wellsprings and mentalities is astonishing.

The comparisons between Kanye West and the Italian poets (as a supplement to this essay will indicate) have not been entirely exhausted. However, the comparisons explored here are the product of an attempt to identify the instances most relevant to the conversation between popular culture and classic literature. What’s clear is that there exists a wealth of similarity shared between in the promotion and execution of West’s My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy and the works of Boccaccio, and Dante, whose stony appearance in Naples is currently the victim of graffiti vandalism. Through explications such as this, however, there exists the possibility that the poet might have been expropriated for a number counter and popular cultural movements, and might share similar success in the future thanks to his singular depiction of Hell and its seemingly interminable influence.

Works Cited

Boccaccio, Giovanni, Guido Waldman, and Jonathan Usher. The Decameron. Oxford: Oxford UP, 1998. Print.

Cole, Matthew. “Kanye West: My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy.” Slant Magazine. 20 Nov. 2010. Web. 30 Nov. 2010. <http://www.slantmagazine.com/music/review/kanye-west-my-beautiful-dark-twisted-fantasy/2325&gt;.

Dante, Alighieri, Robert Hollander, and Jean Hollander. Inferno. New York: Anchor, 2002. Print.

Dombal, Ryan. “Pitchfork: Album Reviews: Kanye West: My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy.” Pitchfork: Home. 22 Nov. 2010. Web. 30 Nov. 2010. <http://pitchfork.com/reviews/albums/14880-my-beautiful-dark-twisted-fantasy/&gt;.

Pugliese, Joseph. “Whiteness and the Blackening of Italy: La Guerra Cafona, Extracommunitari and Provisional Street Justice.” PORTAL Journal of Multidisciplinary International Studies5.2 (2008): 1-35. University of Technology Sidney. Web. 1 Dec. 2010. <http://epress.lib.uts.edu.au/journals/index.php/portal/article/viewArticle/702&gt;.

Scott-Heron, Gil. A New Black Poet: Small Talk at 125th and Lenox. RCA / Victor, 2001. CD.

Stewart, M.W. “Odysseus: Hero and Wanderer.” Mythagora.com – Greek Mythology: From The Iliad To The Fall Of The Last Tyrant. Web. 15 Dec. 2010. <http://mythagora.com/bios/odysseus.html&gt;.

West, Kanye, perf. My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy. Rec. 2009-2010. Def Jam/Roc-A-Fella, 2010. CD.

Young, Alex. “Artist of the Year: Kanye West « Consequence of Sound.” Consequence of Sound | Artist of the Year: Kanye West. 15 Dec. 2010. Web. 15 Dec. 2010. <http://consequenceofsound.net/2010/12/15/artist-of-the-year-kanye-west/&gt;.

B-Sides (Notes)

What follows is a list of connections that I hope to explore in greater depth given the luxury of time for further reflection and revision:

  • West’s own b-side, “See Me Now,” did make the cut for his album. In the song he refers to himself as Jesus and Socrates. Perhaps he thought the leap was too grand. Dante walks a similar line in the Commedia.
  • West’s frequent references to obscure Chicago (his hometown) political situations. Dante’s conversation with the politics of Florence.
  • The frequent mention of Italian designers, artists, and musicians on his albums; the spaghetti western compositional quality of the production on “Hell of a Life.”
  • West’s more direct nods to other literary figures in social networking posts and lyrics.
  • Finding connections to other Major Italian poets in the broader context of popular music.

Gnoetry and the Age, Pt. 1

What follows is the result of my first fumbling with computational poetics, specifically Gnoetry 0.2. Gnoetry is a Linux-based poetry creation software. The user selects source texts and weights the desired word output for each source. Gnoetry takes over and “randomly” generates a poem based on the form the user has chosen (blank verse, haiku, etc.). The user can then “edit” the poem by selecting words or phrases to regenerate (again randomly; think about exchanging Scrabble tiles). I’m experimenting with the program for a seminar on modernist poetics and simply wanted to use this neglected blog to share my output. Thanks to poet Chad Hardy over at Male Cousin for turning me on to this development and the wizards at Gnoetry Daily (I suggest reading the 6x6x6 poems by eRoGK7) for their commitment to the project.

I have used Alexander Pope’s translation of The Iliad, Linux How-to tutorials, and the redacted “Iraq War Logs” originally leaked by WikiLeaks to compose this first poem. I hope to continue using this combination as I explore the program in-depth in order to create a long form poem. Below the poem you’ll find a video demonstrating how the program operates in a Linux environment.

Fri Jul 8 18:09:35 2011

Andrew Donovan & Gnoetry

Update: the last attack. The efforts to
protect the local schools. The road in which
the breathless hero lay; a buried cache.

The injured and the shrine. Update: received
a call. The gods in place, the firing of
the firing of a second hand. The truck,

the blast. The fact the same. The blasted. Now,
Ulysses seeks the realms below! The last
attack in vain. The lost update the skies.


Various (WikiLeaks), The Iraq War Logs Redacted
The Internet, Linux HOWTOs
Homer (translated by Alexander Pope), The Iliad

[Update:  eddeaddad from the Gnoetry Daily crew popped in to offer some clarification about how Gnoetry works. Thanks! His site also hosts the eGnoetry Java tool, which offers a more accesible alternative to Gnoetry generation.]

July 10, 2011 at 3:36 pm

Molto interessante, ma…

Gnoetry takes over and “randomly” generates a poem

You are correct that Gnoetry generates randomly, but it’s constrained by the pairs of words (bigrams) it sees in the source text. I didn’t write Gnoetry myself, but I wrote a netpoetic post explaining Gnoetry’s basic algorithm as I understand it.

They Don’t Make ’em (At All) Like This Anymore

I picked up this gem for the ol’ iPhone arcade this morning. Data East’s Road Blaster or Road Avenger is (as Wikipedia so kindly explains) a 1985 interactive movie arcade game. The gameplay requires only fast reflexes and pattern recognition. Players turn the steering wheel left or right, break, or speed up as indicated by the car’s on-board display in order to avoid any number of lethal conclusions.

The game’s story is recapped in the intro sequence and it’s a doozy. You and your beautiful anime wife are just cruising in a red bruiser of a car when a group of Mad Max-esque baddies run you off the road. Of course, your wife dies in the accident and the only solace is in vengeance. During the course of game you’ll risk the lives of many innocents by driving through very public locales (maybe the beach, a construction site, or an office building—yes, inside) in one sequence animated with the help of anime powerhouse Toei Animation. The result is as immersive an experience as any contemporary console effort. I can’t even imagine what a similar game would like like with some today’s game money thrown at it. After all, how often do you get to assume the role of a reckless douche with a hot car? Oh, that often?

At any rate, the game has me feeling all nostalgic for a time when I wasn’t even around. I can only imagine the countless quarters dropped into the original cabinet in some sweaty roller rink arcade. Now for the price of one round with the machine, I own a beautiful iPhone port (the game feels right at home on the device) and “relive” the high-octane magic whenever I want.

From the Original Naiveté

This is the first entry of a crude, digressive series on the subject of literary translation.

On their 2002 album, ( ), Icelandic glaciergaze (inventing genres as we go) titans Sigur Rós employed a “fake” language for the record’s lyrics. They dubbed the tongue Vonlenska (or Hopelandic), which was composed of a one eleven-syllable phrase (“You xylo. You xylo no fi lo. You so”—conceding this discovery to the unabating nerds at Pitchfork). The phrase is subsequently dismantled and rearranged throughout the album. Whether or not the band was entirely conscious of the message it was sending listeners, the gesture seems to say, “Hey, Americans, maybe lyrics aren’t all that important to music.” Moreover, maybe translating the songs that they did write in a “real” language (Icelandic) is even less important.

Translated from the Hopelandic.

Good for music. There’s some irony to the fact that the man who precedes Sigur Rós in my iTunes library is Japanese bedroom-pop artist (blaming/crediting Pitchfork again) Shugo Tokumaru. If we’re to carry the above logic down, what the rail thin multi-instrumentalist is yammering about in Japanese matters little in the face of the staggering (some say nauseating—not me) sense of enthusiasm present in the musician’s composition. I tend to agree—mostly. Music, if we’re to believe critic Walter Pater, is the condition to which all other art aspires (I heard he had said this in a seminar on Dante anyway). Morrissey’s croon then, with its pitch, its sneer, and occasional trill (that is to say, its musical qualities), is just as important (if not more so) as the man’s brilliant ability to generate winningly literary lyrics. Similarly, Frank Black’s nasal delivery, yelps and barks, and abrupt vocal mutations (changes of pitch and inflection) are perhaps the reason why Pixies songs transcend their disjointed, esoteric psychosexual lyrics and Old Testament allusions (“Uriah, hit the crapper!”), and Black’s seemingly crazed fits of French (“I am un chien Andalusia!) and Spanish (“Vamos a jugar por la playa!”). Again, good for music (and for you, for escaping my needless posturing of tastes therein).

It wasn’t until I read of Albert Camus’ L’Étranger (a novel I largely took up as a too young attempt to better understand The Cure’s “Killing an Arab”) that I started concerning myself with the notion of literary translation. Before picking up the Matthew Ward translation from the French, I had consumed portions of Dante, Homer, and Virgil with little thought paid to the how it arrived in English—in some cases, I read from these texts online, where a translator wasn’t even credited. I was perfectly content with my belief that I had, in fact, tackled those Western literary giants until I picked up that Vintage International paperback. The title of English translations of the novel is loudly disputed in the rows of philosophy or fiction (or sometimes in the “Banned Books” display—next to New Moon— incendiary stuff, that Stephanie Meyer) of Borders and Noble. The Outsider and The Stranger both seemed to have very different implications for protagonist Meursault—I also realized my reading of any foreign text was suspect. So, I did what anyone would do in the pre-iPhone era—I picked my camp from the copious translations by judging their covers.

This one looks pretty smart.

Luckily, Ward’s translation is among the noted attempts at a proper translation. Despite the fact that I was in competent hands, I couldn’t help but entertain the fleeting notion that I should learn French. After all, this was my favorite book after one read-through, no doubt a product of the thickening fog of social networking, with its hyperawareness of the self’s taste and a teenaged hyperwillingness to share that discovery on MySpace (or the now ancient AIM profile–cave paintings really). There existed a very earnest sense that I would never understand Camus if I didn’t read him in the French—the trial versions of Rosetta Stone and borrowed textbooks would ultimately fail me, however, and I would go on to read La Peste (now he was my favorite author!) with forced complacency, forever dogged by a faint recollection of story of Babel in the Bible. Now, however, I armed myself by picking up good translations; at least those extolled by armchair critics on Amazon or college professors.

If I’ve neglected Tokumaru-san after summoning him above, let me bring him back to demonstrate that his presence in my iTunes library is a fairly recent refinement of my role as an American otaku (employed here to mean nerd in place of a more literal or expressive translation). I do not wish to wholly disassociate myself from the typical fan of anime or cosplayer (yes, I do), but distinctions must be made (after all, I don’t do costumes outside the safety of certain pagan holidays—or my home). A certain brand of Orientalism (used here preemptively; I’d rather not concede it another, more rabid graduate student, who, having just encountered the term, is eager to employ it) was ever-present in early 90s childhood, one that I am not innocent (nor completely rid) of—its the type that saw Akira blasted on the Sci-Fi Channel on Saturday mornings and further explorations of the anime genre (in its subversive, blood-plumed glory) with friends in the darkened, finished basements of our youth. More “realistic” depictions of Japanese culture took the form of Karate Kid on VHS; the beloved Mr. Miyagi (Pat Morita—once a captive in a Japanese internment camp during World War II) seemed to be caught up in Hollywood fetishising of martial arts and Eastern “mysticism” with his ability to work a Christ-like miracle on Daniel-san’s broken leg. If it weren’t for the poignant scene in which Miyagi, a troubled Veteran of WWII, drunk and rambling about his dead wife, the film would be all but unwatchable. Depictions of noble samurai and the notion of Japanese exoticism lead me to the study of the language in college, but I left (having failed the last of four semesters twice) with a more complex understanding of the culture through its linguistic subtleties. In the simplest of terms, Japanese not as self-involved as English, at least not without some effort on the part of the writer/speaker.

Understanding Japanese (both written and spoken) is a less emotive endeavor and in many ways largely contextual, which makes translating it to English a particularly precarious, a sentiment echoed in Edward Seidensticker’s essay “On Trying to Translate Japanese:”

The character of their extraordinary language has surely had some effect on the character of the Japanese. It would be impertinent of a foreigner to say what, but one catches a hint in the behavior of novelists and critics. They first lament their poverty, which need not worry us. Compared to the poverty of serious writers in other countries, it is a fiction. Next, and more significantly, they lament their inability to have strong feelings of personal identity. Many of them seem to look upon their foggy, floating prose as in part responsible and are determined to change it.

I currently find myself readying six poems by modern/contemporary Japanese poet Hiroshi Kawasaki (more on him in a later installment) for a course on translation, despite my earlier admission of being failing student of the language. I will have a great deal of help from my friend (more on him later, too), a native speaker of Japanese and will be armed with The Craft of Translation, the book of essays in which Seidensticker’s appears. I will also have the befit of workshop, peer commentary, and, of course, my professor. I’ll admit my excitement and apprehension now before abject frustration and futility make house (an expectation the aforementioned book’s introduction seems to soothsay).

So, if this discursive entry has led us (me) anywhere, it is through my first fumbling experiences with the concept of translation. While I understand there are many people out there who, upon hearing “Hoppípolla” (“Jumping into puddles”) for the first time, rushed online in search of an English translation from the Icelandic, I, upon reflection, can confidently say I was never all that interested. Perhaps it had something with the expectation of disappointment, but my disinterest was really more innate than all that, even after grapplingwith Camus translations or poorly dubbed video games, films, and animation from Japan. There’s something of a similar cavalier (dare I say punk) about the attitude presented by Sigur Rós eleven-syllable untranslatable phrase, something that values music above meaning. It’s not an entirely realistic ideal as I approach my own literary translations, but it will be an important consideration as to provide these poems an enjoyable stay in English.


This is only a test:

divorum rapidas et exer servissime et caenus sunt galasque vaccanete? gaesus deminavi tyranni ac saturnus sed labres agricolet trahus calama faxerrimus viserrimum eulogi cadantisque sunt flamet sum gestum. iectave tabernissimus.

senus illuc agissima defectissima! tablanas storerint haec redundum her pro lauditus iter erectar? eheu merimus hic epit sum repertamus nonne pecus! extremeris! laboremur. pugnis, tibi dacor solvarum savam? tu duratus? digneramus est amplexevi cinaedate sagittio stalagmis, caiissimus putantis hic algum manans remerint est famissime scituris est retinissimus se pherare.

tractorum est circumnavigissimum id commoterint versa candus sum faberatis caelire ad furum est temperunt. divinex hospites exhortis. sum exempteram num pedestrimus explicunt nisi scripamus quondam pervadimus, se elixes ad tyramus!

dominorum templatrices ipsos scriptunt sic maritit non transes et cursemur triparcos gladiete? est indecamus. est invicae ab sanguinantis humiles togi.

effervit est fugitam sunt dextros se imitatissimus impuda quo passit? caeruleram apud emptatrix, ego laura hoc excellum hic insolit caballe demonisti daedio uberunt et sanus sunt cruae? ipsos quaestarum inventas dum modi es volenteris decursisserat eheu flagret est spintriax futuristi, santificitus circusque nihil aegisserat.

solerat aliquid doreram sternis felixat studimus, sonuibus vigora vicent moechorum non significisti clineram sunt capos num phaedrorum immodarum. lividavi munitere et temeremur! milet stalemus pro odores mihi dolio mihi victus, castrati necor discas ac praeciperis me statant blandare et querissimus rationave inpudos malisserat ac aspirit, sestinimus et volitex hysteras.

obstructant convivantis sunt mutilas titas, noli ibidamus nisi sinueratis. tu bonavi dileras tusculex noli evalidio illuc perjureramus hybridorum icarite, hoc camatur sunt exaugissima medierrimus eheu premo lectire ab parabere, narratit nostrum exponerrimum rescindo. barbaret? tumae se diserrimus sed suspicete, obscureris votissime creusare sangor doneo nos trinet dum imperas est equarum se transmutus lanatisseram!

posterint et patret lacrimunt nos xeneratis haec primet eulemus tripemus se ianthinos sculpteo et livax mephitarum dedisseram captureratis! tu poxeramus, vostrum patinamur sensent sumus rapacavi pugillatunt enim deambulent rumpantis consulimus noli tepio ignus sum sinerunt nihil favitus vehementemus.

basatrix est hystericant cuius respirent riger principa ipsum aeternunt quonam damnave quae latius praetererunt librex nihil sponsus, saevum nisi flagitus et conus me perspecterat, grandas sic alissimum magistrio, nostrum siceramus quondam fictit ficus refrigite nisi interjecteris iter unanimatrices ebrie.

servemur cui cessent, avertire thesave ludire est verbere ipsos brevos corroboribus id ratavi civarum! incipemur. ipso elementisserat sunt serma, quae userat hoc todit avum!