Poetics III
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"It’s been said that overexposure is a curse on the creative soul..."

NOT THE POETRY OF SERIOUS REFLECTION,

NOT FOR THE WEAK OF HEART:

DECONSTRUCTING THE POETIC LEGACY OF TUPAC SHAKUR IN

THE ROSE THAT GREW FROM CONCRETE

 

by Frank S. Palmisano III

 

Pop lyricists have always been regarded as suspect when they make a break with the music industry and venture into more “respectable” fields of artistic expression. Nowhere is this more true, than when a few daring souls try to pass off their thoughts as poetry. Picture in your mind such transactions:  the complicated and ever-beguiling person of Jim Morrison or the Alaskan snow princess, Jewel, whose penchant for yodeling for food found her a golden Grammy or two at the end of the rainbow but nothing but dross when it came to her poetry. Other sellouts in recent memory, going the opposite way in their appeal to a mainstream audience, are people such as Oprah Winfrey’s inspirational friend Maya Angelou.

 

It’s been said that overexposure is a curse on the creative soul, especially when it begins in the star-soaked stratosphere and tries to return to the habitation of earth dwellers only to meet with rejection. Those who do art because they love it have always despised those who can do it and make a living off of it. That’s just how it goes. There are no definable criteria for one or the other. And certainly no one would ever say that all representing members in the heavens of stardom are as good as or better than those of us who can’t make our living following our dreams. So you would expect that there is a reasonable amount of skepticism voiced by the earthly lot when a heavenly creature from Hollywood tries to don the incarnate attire of a simple man or woman writing about simple things.

 

Likewise, critics who have had the obscene pleasure of commenting publicly on their poetry have had a field day nonetheless. There is then a sense of schadenfreude among us poets of lesser reputation who cheer when the critics who once rejected us now pull down those shysters from their ethereal heights. We relish in the misguided cues to the poet/singer brought on by bumbling record executives and talent agents, pushing their clients toward extra-curricular aspirations, while painting them as sentient beings of a deeper caliber than other average musicians, only to watch them drown in the critically acclaimed disasters they create.

 

So it’s reasonable to think that Tupac Shakur would find the same reception with his poetry. After all, what could a street-bred rapper bring to the world of serious poetry?

 

I came across Tupac Shakur’s poetry accidentally. Having always been a fan of his rap music, I was drawn to his poetry as it appeared to be a natural extension of his music. But then again, like so many others who tried to make this transition and fell by the wayside, there may not have been much hope for him.

 

The Rose That Grew From Concrete is a collection of Shakur’s poetry published in 1999. In four years, it still is able to exert a considerable influence on a core group of devoted fans trying to find a public forum that communicates Tupac’s inner sensitivity. One of the beauties of this exploration of Tupac’s poetry is that, we are told, it comes at a time of innocence, before the record contracts, the fame, fortune, incarceration, his shooting, and his “Thug Life” persona.

 

As a rapper, Shakur’s legacy is one ripped from the headlines. Gunned down in the prime of his life, Tupac became a victim of the lifestyle he lived. Art and reality came dangerously close in Tupac, and finally intermingled. The death of Tupac Shakur followed by the death of Christopher Wallace (A.K.A., The Notorious BIG) left a smoldering gap in the music industry that producers have had trouble filling ever since. Tupac’s brassy lyrics and stubbornness were set against the East Coast’s most formidable rapper, the three hundred plus pound Notorious BIG. As such, the untimely deaths of the two men, and their posthumous albums and songs baring suspicious titles such as “Life After Death,” and “Born Again” have brought the conspiracy theorists out in droves. While many hold out hope that the publicized deaths are nothing more than publicity stunts aimed at the record industry, others of us have resignedly accepted their passing.

 

Most professional poets would shutter to think that Tupac’s poetry should be given serious attention. After all, he makes no attempt to be in dialogue with academic poetry or the prosodic elements, so why should the academy take him seriously? To understand this reluctance, one only has to comb over the work of Charles Bukowski or a John Fante to see how this “due honor” clause can create animosity and ultimately end in rejection. It is someone as raw as Tupac who can celebrate rejection openly.

 

Tupac’s poetry lacks technical eloquence. By contemporary standards, it is evidenced by an uninformed presentation of the art. It is first a “poetry of the people,” for it adheres to a simple end-rhyme scheme and is most identifiable with the pejorative coupling of hallmark versification that serious students of poetry are apt to avoid. It is by and large the outmoded poetry experienced in popular culture, Shakespearian, romantic, the poetry expressed on the silver screen, brimming with fossilized meter and trite ephemera, and certainly not the poetry that graces the pages of academia or for that matter even the small press scene. In short, Tupac’s poetry does not work in the strictures of contemporary poetic expression.

 

Furthermore, attaching Nikki Giovanni’s name to the foreword was no accident. Giovanni is a respected poet whom we expect to deal with us in truth. Yet Giovanni’s deplorable and what feels like a contrived statement of Tupac Shakur’s life is little more than rhetorical and propagandist whining at the expense of a dead man.

 

There is a simple charm to Tupac’s words without running the risk of being simple. The Rose That Grew From Concrete is the most complete portrait we have thus far of Tupac’s bipolar artistic expressiveness.

 

Many critics have noted how Tupac’s lyrics shine with a sensitivity that few would expect to find in someone whose life could not avoid controversy. His hardcore gangster raps are sprinkled with existential cries for help, ultimate meaning, and comfort. In a genre most notable for promulgating ego, self-indulgence, and megalomania, Tupac is quick to point out his weaknesses and mortality. As such, his poetry is a sustained attempt to grapple with these important human issues. There is no “beat” in which his words can get lost or tied up in. There is no poetry laced in a heart-thumping track in which it drowns. Here, we must wrestle with a Tupac naked and exposed in his humanity. Here, the confessional poetry speaks, no chorus trying to cover it, no rhythmic diplomacy making it more acceptable to an urban culture indoctrinated in music.

 

In defining the impact that Tupac might have, I would like to draw attention to a couple of his poems that stand out, not on the basis of their poetic eloquence or technical symmetry, nor their imagery, but for their gritty heart, which is not afraid to be honest with itself despite the violent image of the man presented in the mainstream media who bears their burden.

 

Tupac has been described as a bundle of contradictions. It may be more correct to call him duplicitously. In his poetry, he freely accepts his fate, which manifests as personal alienation, but at the same time is married to the hope for acceptance. Tupac’s morbid fixation with death has been noted regularly in his songwriting. So much is this fixation a part of his person, that one would almost believe that his purpose in life could only be found in death. Death called to him from beyond the grave, and to fulfill his destiny Shakur was obliged to answer in his own untimely end. This is perhaps nowhere more evident than in his poem, “In the Event of my Demise,” which reads like a will and was written to be read upon the occasion of his death. There is a touch of the prophet in him; the Antichrist of Christ, who too must be crucified, who sets his face to Jerusalem in the growing shadow of the cross.

 

A pen and ink drawing by Claudio Parentela

All Rights reserved

In the event of my demise
when my heart can beat no more
I hope i die for a principal
or a belief I have lived 4
I will die B4 my time
Because I already feel the shadow's depth
so much I wanted 2 accomplish
B4 I reached my death
I have come 2 grips with the possibility
and wiped the last tear from my eyez
I loved all who were positive
In the event of my demise

 

Two themes are transparent throughout Tupac’s poetry: an impending sense of his own end and a structured sense of alienation. Tupac wears his mortality with mad abandon and contradictorily wants to keep it at all costs despite his need to live. Second, his alienation stems from a fixation on his absolute solitude and the untrustworthy nature of people who do not care for him. A couple lines from his poetry need only to be shown to make this point:

 

In a line from “Sometimes I Cry,” he writes:

 

I would cry among my treasured friends/but who do you know that stops that long/to help another carry on.

 

Or in “When Ure Heart Turns Cold”:

 

Loneliness becomes your routine friend/death seems like tranquility.

 

As suggested, alienation is not just a personal theme but a cultural one as well. It is a black America alienated from its roots in the ancient lore that spawned educated Africans, or men and women of stately virtue and kingly inheritance. Tupac speaks of captivity and marvels in the ancient accomplishments of his kinsfolk. In his poem “Untitled,” he writes: Please wake me when I’m free/I cannot bear captivity. The line is repeated twice, both at the beginning and end of the poem. He also muses on his people who reigned as kings in another place/the green of trees were rich and full/and every man spoke of beautiful/men and women together as equals. Yet the reality is too much for Tupac not to report:  but now like a nightmare I wake 2 c/that I live like a prisoner of poverty.

 

What is it that frees Tupac and his people? He answers: 4 I would rather be stricken blind/ than 2 live without expression of mind. The importance of freeing oneself, even if temporarily, resides in the imagination of the individual.

 

However, acceptance is as important a part of Shakur’s repertoire as is alienation. There is never a passive acceptance of his situation; neither is he willing to sacrifice the acceptance of others and demands of them the same standard; there is also an element of hope that, even if never realized, remains a secret place of comfort and strength. In his poem “In The Depths of Solitude,” he writes:

 

CONSTANTLY yearning 2 be accepted/and from all receive respect.

 

Similarly, in “The Eternal Lament,” cries for acceptance echo:

 

I am not a great romantic/but yet I yearn 4 affection.

 

No one doubts that Tupac’s poetry is hauntingly autobiographical, and while this remains its greatest strength (as it opens us to a unique soul that we would otherwise not have known outside of his media exploits and public life), it is also the poetry’s downfall.

 

Tupac’s poetry is demonstrative; there is an unquestionable connection between him, the world, and the metaphysical. But to triangulate this effort, the poetry must always begin and end with Tupac. The poet here is never the transparency that can step away from the art and allow us to take it in without him being its center. This kind of confessionalist writing can only work for so long, and perhaps the novelty will flag, once the legend of the person behind it does as well.

 

Second, Tupac’s appeal has never been in his delivery as much as in the individual behind the pen. This of course gives him a certain air of authority, granting him to speak about such things, but it also can be conceived as a weakness.

 

Finally, the charge will be made that if this were anyone other than Tupac Shakur (or perhaps another famous personality), that person would not be receiving a fair hearing. To this I can only say “perhaps”; but these poems were written while Tupac was still a poverty-stricken 19-yr-old trying to find his way through artistic expression. This is not the Tupac of MTV, parading around with wads of cash, driving expensive cars or throwing lavish parties as portrayed in videos. These poems are more or less the functional equivalent of an unknown poet trying to make sense out of his immediate surroundings, but having limited knowledge of the tools to do so. Therefore it is raw expression, never caught up in the artificial machinations of poetic prosody, which sometimes changes the experience and gives it a fairytale like quality. Tupac is not overly concerned with weaving metaphors in and out of his words. Simple experience communicates itself in the form of poems, where poetry cannot find it.

 

Borrowing the same title from this collection of poetry, “The Rose That Grew From Concrete” has gorgeous storytelling appeal to it.

 

Did u hear about the rose that grew from a crack

in the concrete?
         Proving nature's laws wrong it learned 2 walk

without having feet.
         Funny it seems, but by keeping it's dreams

it learned 2 breathe fresh air.
        Long live the rose that grew from concrete

when no one else ever cared!

 

 

Tupac begins with a question which turns from condescension or a “teaching” and filters down to us in the form of a teacher taking his cues from his young class. It is a moral after all, to adults and children alike: “If you keep your dreams alive, your dreams will give you life in return.”

 

Henry Ward Beecher once wrote: You never know till you try to reach them how accessible men are: but you must approach each man by the right door. Every once in a while, a public figure such as Tupac Shakur gives us a taste of what it means to be human in a unique context. What remains, we find, is that the human experience is no different than our own no matter who lives it. Unlike the group of confessional poets such as Snodgrass, Lowell, Sexton, and Plath, or the beat poets such as Ginsberg who met with strong opposition through voluntarily standing out and standing up against social and societal norms, Tupac’s confessionalism comes out of necessity. Even though it could be argued that confessional poetry deals with a range of dark human experiences, none are more dark than the ones that the individual does not bring on himself, something that is totally outside the bounds of the individual. It is in this that Tupac rested comfortably, and so does his legacy.

 

 

Frank Palmissano III is a semi-regular contributor to the Lummox Journal.  He also writes poetry. 

This essay was published in 2002.

 
 

Exploring the Creative Process since 1996