We’ve looked at many smaller poems, but how does one create a big one?
This won’t be an in-depth word by word analysis, but I’ll be focusing on the macro-structure of Dan Schneider’s poem called Big Red. It’s not found on his website at Cosmoetica, but it’s published in another online magazine. Go and check it out.
This ‘triptytch’ is based on the life of Malcolm X, the black power minister that was nicknamed Red in his youth due to his red hair. Each part of the poem looks at a different period of Malcolm’s Life – starting with his criminal youth, segueing into his period as an advocate for aggression against white oppressors, and finally ending at the time of his assassination, when he had converted into a higher spirituality.
Every part of the poem has an ‘argument’ that summarizes the portion, as well as an epigraph that opens up into its themes. At the start of the poem, there is an over-arching epigraph as well.
This top-down approach allows for a lot of space to maneuver. After deciding on the overall thematic structure, all Dan has to do is to fill in the gaps of each section and have the internal language bounce and play against each other. If he can do this successfully, then he will be able to bring internal life to this single character, while also having the structure itself surge outwards to comment on a greater kind of cosmic vision.
- The Arguments
Let’s start by looking at the arguments in each of the 3 sections:
The Argument: In 1945 a two-bit hustler named Malcolm Little ruled the Harlem night. Born on May 19th, 1925 to the Reverend Earl Little and his wife, Louise, Malcolm had a childhood fraught with temptation and danger. Taking a cue from the Romans, he became their greatest advocate.
The Argument: In 1960 a hollow hustler named Malcolm X held The Nation Of Islam. Born from the ashes of a February, 1946 arrest– and subsequent years in prison– X devoted his prowess to persuade to the service of one Elijah Poole cum Muhammad, a tin-pot prophet of the kind the Apocalypse forewarns. But X minded not.
The Argument: In 1965 a devout man named El-Hajj Malik El-Shabazz was murdered at 3:30 P.M. on February 21st. Born from a pilgrimage to Mecca, Shabazz drank from the well of Zenza, as well from his own soul. The Muslim-cum-Moslem, at last, was at peace.
The subtle poetry starts from these arguments, because these are where Dan, as the omniscient creator, can make his judgments upon Malcolm. Within the poem itself, he writes from Malcolm’s POV – so this is the only section where his ‘objective’ voice will come through.
Dan’s judgment is definite – Malcolm X was a hustler and he was a pawn to a ‘tin-pot prophet’ from the Nation of Islam. The first two sections are ironic and make fun of Malcolm’s hypocrisy while simultaneously using his voice – but the last section paints it deeper by having his final words be a grandiose cosmic vision. In this way, even this judgment isn’t purely fixed, but the entire poem works to paint him as a flawed visionary. It admonishes but lionizes the man in the best way possible.
- The Sections
The sections are entitled ‘Punk’, ‘Brimstone’, and ‘Bullet’.
Punk is written entirely in Afro-American vernacular, and this might, of course, cause some people to cringe since Dan definitely ain’t black – but he’s an ex-mafiosi with his fair share of the streets. I’m not American nor am I a scholar of Afro-American linguistics, so I absolutely cannot provide any judgment on how well he does the voice. Dan has said before that The Autobiography of Malcolm X was one of his most personal favourite books and he describes it like this:
“The 1st of the books was Alex Haley’s Autobiography of Malcolm X. In the ghosted pages detailing that brief foray of breath in form I 1st found a real kindred in words. An odd pairing, at 1st blush, I admit. But lighten Malcolm Little’s skin, move him forward 30 years, & lop a decade off the age of the teen Malcolm’s adventures & 1 curiously finds a near blow-by-blow assessment of my childhood in the gloomed streets of Ridgewood, Queens- just a bullet’s chip away from the Stygian heroin galleries of Bushwick, Brooklyn. I must have been in my mid-teens when I encountered the tale. I do not recall whether it was an assigned read at school or a chance encounter at a library. No matter. It mattered.”
So Dan’s intent on writing this part in such a style is critical, intellectual, and personal. Which you must bear in mind given that this part is a crude portrayal of how Malcolm Little fucks a white girl who was “shittin’ ‘bout how she needs a Negro stud to ‘set me right!’” with liberal scatterings of the N word – and how he beats up another guy for wanting to “rip me mah due”. It is unrepentantly racy and will definitely set off a million triggers from BLM advocates. Thus, thee fair warning to you all who care.
(For those who don’t care, it’s just fucking funny and far better than David Foster Wallace’s crappy attempt in Infinite Jest – the book that Dan thinks is one of the worst books of Literature to ever exist)
Most importantly, it paints a completely flawed and dark picture of Malcolm Little with unflinching grittiness and brutal language. Although, Dan has to do his poet shtick, and so he scatters some strange words here and there, like ‘copacetic’ and ‘combinated’ and similes like: “and dis bitch is like same Lillian Gish bein’ I tied down to some railroad tracks not knowin’ dat de Detroit Red Express is bearin’ down on her”
It also happens to use the slang ‘.45’ – although I’m not scholarly enough to know whether they used that term back there.
There are several important points here. The main refrain that Malcolm uses is how ‘everything has a price’, and how ‘you just gots to learn the system’. The encounter with the white girl ends with him terrorizing her while she’s tied up because she’s ‘crashing their scene’ – despite getting a good lay with her in the process. He beats up the other dude because he got ripped off.
Choice is another overarching thing, with the very first stanza saying “You can do it or you can not do it; that’s the choice – it’s like some cat who comes dicing for some reefer without any stash”. This ‘price’ and ‘system’ in this part of the poem refers to the society and the brutal exchanges in the underground criminal system – but by the end it seems to ring with cosmic proportions.
Brimstone is written in the form of one of Malcolm X’s sermons. It is a condemnation of the white man as a race and is aggressively Black Power. Yet, it also contains several ironies and hypocrisies when contrasted with the last section.
Malcolm, for example, calls out “what the white man so laughingly and gently calls – the game, the system, to steal and rob” – and this harkens back to the ‘system’ described in part 1. So that poses the question – were the vices that Malcolm was stuck in for the first section derived from this system of oppression, or was it born from his own choices?
There is also the repeating refrain in the sermon where Malcolm ‘charges the white man’ – ‘I charge the white man with havoc’. But Dan, with his crystal sharp enjambment, makes it so that each new repetition segues with the previous one, so it reads as ‘with havoc; I charge the white man’ – blending the condemnation with aggression Malcolm’s aggression and sinful ‘charge’. Other hypocrisies come within the sermon when Malcolm condemns the white man for ‘women in slavery’ – despite his own savagery against one in the first part. To add an ironic tone, Dan adds an ‘I know you know I know’ in that line.
Then, Malcolm ends each stanza of the sermon with this:
The acme of evil
Is the great white devil.
And it is just so goddamn RIDICULOUS a metaphor that I was giggling to myself. This ridiculous metaphor undercuts everything that Malcolm says in its ridiculousity.
Anyway, there are other parts where Dan will enjamb when Malcolm makes a statement that seems to be implicating something else, but when cut, will read like he’s implicating himself. For example:
I come before you as a vessel formerly filled with sins
Of the white devil; yet I come before you
I am nothing. I have nothing. I have no purpose
Save this service. And I come before you.
Which gives everything a more existential tone where Malcolm X is throwing himself into being a pawn for the Nation because of the lack in his soul.
This part has a strong tone of Biblical poesy, calling in mind William Blake and his mystical decrees. Cadences and repetitions that build into images. But being situated in a large poem like this gives the style a deeper heft, because the grandeur of the tone is put into question. And there’s also that constant ridiculous refrain to make fun of it.
After all that, this part ends with the prophetic:
“The truth is out there.
Just open your eyes…”
Before going into the climax, which is the transcendent verse of the dying reformed Malcolm.
Bullet – this is the moment when Malcolm’s tone becomes like a Messiah. It talks about relinquishing hate and being one under Allah. It includes this beautiful mystical stanza:
This universe is a tiny mote, caught
In the spin of minds and systems and galaxies
Mankind is but its simple wonder.
This, if you know Dan’s style, is his galactic description. Like the other poems where he will use galaxies and space as images to juxtapose off small micro human experiences. With this stanza, and the saintly tone, the ‘price’ and ‘system’ are placed in a cosmic light. This time, the karmic price and the systems of the cosmos.
And then, we get this as the finale:
My friends, this final tale shall I tell:
A man, one day, down to the delta
of a seaward river went. He feared
its terrible break and awful pull
until the sea spat mighty Leviathan
at his feet. As the beast slowly
and pitilessly died, the man did
nothing save roar inward, at this omen,
and he wept, in fear, as nothing,
nothing at all, occurred….”
And I myself – I was like: Did Dan Just Steal The Ending To Fellini’s La Dolce Vita As A Cosmic Parable In His Malcolm X Poem In Order To Create A Kind of Existential Echo Ending For Big Red HolyshitFuck?
Damn. Dan. Damn.
- The Epigraphs
The rule is – never use an epigraph as merely itself. Always use it to play off the themes, maybe even ironically refuting them if you wish.
The poem begins with this epigraph:
‘If there is no struggle there is no progress. Those who profess to favor freedom and yet depreciate agitation are men who want crops without plowing up the ground; they want rain without thunder and lightning; they want the ocean without the awful roar of its many waters.’ —Frederick Douglass
And this can be read as an admonition of the people who mythologize Malcolm X without taking into account his true flaws. It also calls up that ‘necessary aggression’ stance that Malcolm X stood for in his life. And one more reading is that it also harkens to that karmic sacrifice he has at the end of the poem – where he is finally free after a life of struggle.
Punk opens like this:
‘You are a glass that I have paid to shatter
and I swallow the pieces down with my spit.’
—Buying The Whore, Anne Sexton
Given that the entire frame of the first section seems to be Malcolm Little talking to another white woman, probably a prostitute that he’s pimping out to other people, this fits in perfectly. It’s calling to question his own love for vice – the ‘pieces’ that he’s swallowing.
Dan doesn’t just use the epigraph here, but he even makes reference to it in Brimstone, where Malcolm X says:
Spit out the white devil’s poisons,
spit out the white devil’s lies
lest you be surprised with the shards you find
infecting the very spit you swallow.
And given that Sexton was a Confessionalist poet, it could also be a sly nod to how Malcolm is himself using his sermonizing as a way to placate himself for the vices caught in his own soul from his youth. How what seems to be talking about greater societal things is actually an inward call to himself.
Brimstone, incidentally, uses this epigraph:
‘The man without a purpose is a man who drifts at the mercy of random feelings or unidentified urges and is capable of any evil, because he is totally out of control of his own life.’ —Ayn Rand
And this is probably the only time you’ll see Ayn Rand used in a manner that is correct.
But this epigraph pushes deeper into the existential void that drove Malcolm X to fall straight into his aggressive ministerizing.
And finally, Bullet has this:
‘Forget the Past, his fate and fame shall be
An echo and a light unto eternity!’
—Adonais, Percy Bysshe Shelley
Which is absolutely beautiful. I don’t think I have to explain it here.
With this, I have shown how Dan sets up his longer massive poetry – like building up a massive cathedral. He places the foundations, uses the correct epigraphs and setting to create the most complex picture of an individual he can muster, and fills in the details while having them interplay with each other across this portions. He has a very clear picture of what he wants to achieve and achieves it.
I have yet to swallow his humongous American Imperium – which spans the entire history of the USA and ends with a Science Fiction Space War section. Needless to say, the man’s skills are insane. Publish him, goddamn!