The Daily

The Poem Stuck in My Head

Thomas Sayers Ellis’s “Or,”

January 12, 2012 | by

Thomas Sayers Ellis.

Most of the poems stuck in my head are rap songs. Rap is the music I grew up listening to, and the lyrics from those days, the late eighties and early nineties, have stayed with me. I’ve forgotten most of the poems I had to memorize at school; of Keats’s “To Autumn,” I remember only the famous lines. On the other hand, Big Daddy Kane’s “Smooth Operator,” Rakim’s “Mahogany,” or Nas’s “N.Y. State of Mind”—these are poems I know by heart, from beginning to end, and will probably never forget.

Some people don’t believe raps are poems. They have a point. On the page, arranged into lines and stanzas, raps lose most of their appeal. I’m grateful to Bradley and DuBois’s enormous Anthology of Rap, if only because I now know what Raekwon is saying on “Triumph” (which doesn’t mean I understand it: “The swift chancellor, flex, the white-gold tarantula / Track truck diesel, play the weed, god, substantiala.” Can I get a footnote?). But when raps are spelled out like this they lose their fluidity, their life in three dimensions. Rap is not monotonous, though it is almost always composed in couplets and four-four lines. But the good songs always surprise you, leave you wrong-footed, put the emphasis or rhyme where you don’t expect it.

There is no doubt that Thomas Sayers Ellis’s “Or,” is a poem, but it is one of the few that feels to me like a rap—an especially good one. This is because of the way it establishes a pattern and then continually breaks away from it. The poem is based on the repetition of or, but as we read through it, what seemed like a formal constraint becomes a principle of transformation, a hinge that keeps flexing. The poem begins, as I read it, by riffing on the either/or logic of identity questionnaires (“You could get with this, or you could get with that,” as Black Sheep once put it, in a different context). But it quickly ramifies into geography, history, poetics. Read it out loud a few times and you might find you already have it memorized:

Or Oreo, or
worse. Or ordinary.
Or your choice
of category

          or
          Color

or any color
other than Colored
or Colored Only.
Or “Of Color”

          or
          Other

or theory or discourse
or oral territory.
Oregon or Georgia
or Florida Zora

          or
          Opportunity

or born poor
or Corporate. Or Moor.
Or a Noir Orpheus
or Senghor

          or
          Diaspora

or a horrendous
and tore-up journey.
Or performance. Or allegory’s armor
of ignorant comfort.

          or
          Worship

or reform or a sore chorus.
Or Electoral Corruption
or important ports
of Yoruba or worry

          or
          Neighbor

or fear of...
of terror or border.
Or all organized
minorities.

“Or,” first appeared in the October 2006 issue of Poetry magazine.

4 COMMENTS

2 Comments

  1. Tom May | January 12, 2012 at 2:01 pm

    Aha, poetry as hammering

    or

  2. Gary Gach | February 15, 2012 at 8:25 pm

    Thanks for the heads-up, Robyn, on this one. Sad to say Robert Pinsky wouldn’t acknowledge rap as poetry when he was US Poetry Laureate, but — heigh ho. Anyway & by the way, when poet/translator/editor Paul Vangelisti founded a new literary magazine (2008), he named it with the one word that he felt typified “alternative”ness … Or.

    (Tabloid format, free distribution; Otis College of Art, otis.edu).

    hands on the oar
    eyes on the star

2 Pingbacks

  1. […] For today’s prompt, we’ll look at Thomas Sayers Ellis‘ poem “Or”   […]

  2. […] a protest poet, a real intellectual, unafraid to cause alarm. His style is enjambed, urgent, and rhythmically afire; in the late ‘80s, he founded the Dark Room Collective to promote writers of color, and he’s […]

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