Paul Beatty Essay - Critical Essays


Reviewers and critics often call Paul Beatty a hip-hop poet, a categorization that Beatty himself finds easy and superficial. He admits to being influenced by hip-hop, but resists wholly defining his poetry in those terms. Like hip-hop itself, Beatty’s poetry lives on the page as a model of innovation and change, yet resists being formulaically labeled as part of the African American oral tradition. For Beatty, the vernacular tradition, from the oral poems of the Greeks to the rhymes of hip-hop artists, is founded on multiplicity of meaning. He believes these forms should be looked to as a way to balance and blend seemingly incompatible things, such as playwright William Shakespeare’s timeless wit with rap artist Biggie Smalls’s keen grandiloquence. Recognizing this, critics also attempt to situate Beatty’s work as postmodern due to its ironic blending of multiple narratives across time and culture. Indeed, his influences range from blues and jazz music to cartoons, Japanese literature and film, the Enlightenment philosopher Voltaire, and comedian Richard Pryor.

For Beatty, who wrote two books of poetry while performing spoken word, recording language is a difficult, meandering process that cannot be bound by audience needs and expectations. While performing his poetry, Beatty found that his audiences, often solely white or multiracial, missed many of the cultural references readily understood by black culture. Rather than adjusting his style, Beatty decided to allow readers to have their own struggles when accessing his work and eventually found that audiences who gained exposure to hip-hop or urban language would come to appreciate and understand his work. Limiting his poetic voice was never an option, and by forging ahead, Beatty found much fun and absurdity in observing audience responses to his far-reaching and irreverent work.

On the page, Beatty’s poems take on an intentionally rollicking form and rely on the placement of words on the page and the use of white space to control the movement of language. Read aloud, the rhythms of rap and hip-hop are evident as the poems speed to their often elusive conclusions. Beatty’s imagery and dramatic situations freely borrow from both “the ’hood” and “the academy” as well as from everywhere in between. In doing so, the poems attempt to reconcile the false notion that low and high culture are mutually exclusive. The resulting collections showcase how critical comparisons of seemingly incompatible cultural forms can often...

(The entire section is 1028 words.)