A common mistake new poets make is to only write from their own perspective. To be powerful, a poem must be confessional self-revelation. But this poetry will inevitably run into two major problems (besides probably being boring and temporary, because when we are honest, we know that we are not that interesting). It will be disconnected from the stream of historic poetry and, therefore, outside of the great poetic conversation of humanity. And it will be unable to take advantage of some of the greatest tools at a poet’s disposal: irony and satire.
Black Thought, of The Roots, is an excellent poet. He fills his poetry with assonance and internal rhyme without ever feeling like he just swallowed a rhyming dictionary and is now having coughing fits. He does not choose between sound scheme and meaning, but is able to bring them together like a combination punch, each working together and setting up the other. He is a wordsmith of the first degree. But one of the things that makes Black Thought stand out is that he understands what makes a poem worth coming back to.
I was once in a poetry writing seminar where we were assigned a series of words to work into a poem. I wrote my poem from the perspective of a nineteenth century train passenger moving west whose husband was just killed in a train robbery. We were told to read without explanation. The teacher asked, “Who’s the narrator?” It was obvious that the narrator was not me. It was not obvious who it was. I failed to make a character the believable narrator of the poem. (Which, obviously, is why I was in the poetry seminar and not teaching it.) Narrator-driven poetry gives us the opportunity to see from multiple perspectives. And seeing with two eyes is what creates depth perception.
On The Roots newest album ‘. . . and then you shoot your cousin,” one of the most powerful tracks is ‘When the People Cheer.’ Each stanza is written from a different perspective. The third stanza, Black Thought’s stanza, is written from the perspective of a sex addict that has reached both a financial and existential low because he is enslaved to sexual pleasures. He knows that what he is doing is wrong, but he can no longer resist the strip clubs. He turns in to an after-hours joint to blow his last dollar on a lap dance.
We then follow his shifting perspective. He enters the club, imagining himself a well-respected client. Women listen to him. They laugh at his jokes. He is offended at a slight hint of disrespect. He is a king (in his mind) with his harem only desiring his pleasure.
There are little ironic hints along the way: one stripper is a mom who needs money, one is saving for college. But the narrator shells out to play pretend with them. He is really just karate choppin’ (masturbating) in the corner. But he is paying them to feign that they respect him. The song is called “When the People Cheer.” The narrator thinks that he is addicted to the physical pleasures that the female body affords. But he is enslaved to his passions. His actual addiction is to the ‘respect’ that a strip club is actually selling.
This is where Black Thought’s mastery of the narrator driven poetic form whip-cracks. A good poem conceals and reveals. A good poem has layers that ask for multiple hearings. A great poem demands them. The last line of this stanza recontexualizes the entire poem. The last couplet begins,
And then she gives me lap dances and I’m thankful that
The earlier existential angst seems to have been swallowed by physical pleasures, but then the couplet and stanza resolve with,
She keeps providing the place for me to be unfaithful at…
Bam. It is all a lie. A soul-emptying sin. The music pauses and lets it echo. This sudden redefinition requires that we go back and hear the stanza, and really the entire poem, again. But now knowing that paying for fake respect is an ambush. It is a body of lies. A show. The opening line, ‘Lights, Camera, chemical reaction,’ is perfect. The last line invites us behind the curtain of the act. The pleasures offered are bait in the back of a trap.
The pleasures alone are flat. Only faithfulness brings existential peace. When you are married to a woman long enough for her to know you—your best and worst, to have fought and made up to be changed into someone able to take care of her, to love the children that she loves more than anything else—to have that woman’s respect means something. That respect is not for sale. You probably cannot even earn that respect. You can only receive it from her as a gift. And only when she trusts you enough to believe that you can handle it.
Because, the truth is, a wife’s respect is one of the most powerful things in the world. The quick and easy respect that the world sells on billboards and in commercials, in strip clubs and porn, is a sham. Real respect is not purchased. Real respect does not make you feel dirty and ashamed. Real respect from a real woman is what makes a man act manfully. It is hard to get. It does not come cheap. But that is because it is worth more than you can afford. (And I don’t care who you are; it is worth more than you can afford). It is purchased through consistent love, care, and protection. It is purchased through risking your own safety in order to be intimately known by your wife. And it is purchased through being a loving father, respectful in-law, and unswervingly faithful husband.
Men are built to run on respect, so it is no surprise that fake respect is a selling point. But it is only in learning to serve your own wife and gain her respect will there be any lasting satisfaction. There is nothing but emptiness on the other side of paying a woman to pretend to respect you. And ‘When the People Cheer’ puts that on display like few songs ever written.