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Essay

Alessandro Porco on Michael Holmes' "You Can't See Me"

(How Poems Work, May 2005)
Hip-hop has not, as of yet, extended its influence to the ring of Canadian poetry in the same way it has, to varying degrees, fashion, cinema, and dance, all active participants in the macro social-space of youth culture. Perhaps this is because Canadian poetry–its citizenry and institutions–has consciously endeavored to position itself culturally as mature, if for no other reason than to counter Northrop Frye’s claim of ours as “a literature that has not quite done it.” The end result has been a continued passive-aggressive articulation of youth culture as anathema to the nation’s more “serious” poetic project–whatever that may be….

p. Hip-hop has not, as of yet, extended its influence to the ring of Canadian poetry in the same way it has, to varying degrees, fashion, cinema, and dance, all active participants in the macro social-space of youth culture. Perhaps this is because Canadian poetry–its citizenry and institutions–has consciously endeavored to position itself culturally as mature, if for no other reason than to counter Northrop Frye’s claim of ours as “a literature that has not quite done it.” The end result has been a continued passive-aggressive articulation of youth culture as anathema to the nation’s more “serious” poetic project–whatever that may be…


Hip-hop has not, as of yet, extended its influence to the ring of Canadian poetry in the same way it has, to varying degrees, fashion, cinema, and dance, all active participants in the macro social-space of youth culture. Perhaps this is because Canadian poetry–its citizenry and institutions–has consciously endeavored to position itself culturally as mature, if for no other reason than to counter Northrop Frye’s claim of ours as “a literature that has not quite done it.” The end result has been a continued passive-aggressive articulation of youth culture as anathema to the nation’s more “serious” poetic project–whatever that may be.
That said, recently, a handful of poets have intimated an affinity for the formal features of hip-hop, interestingly breaking from the nation’s dominant sensibilities. Lynn Crosbie, for example, “[loves] rap music, especially gangster stuff, and in particular, its similes, which makes the songs so direct, strong, accessible.” Stephen Cain’s poetics have been described as the work of a “mixmaster,” spinning “In Kathmandu did Chaka Khan a greatly measure moan by me” or “to fear to say it clear to lucky man to sealing fan to peerless plan.”
And, Michael Holmes’ “You Can’t See Me”–an Ode to WWE Smackdown! performer John Cena–is one more fine example. He adopts many of Hip-hop’s devices: rhyme, similes, invocations of outlaw mythology, fashion consciousness, self-aggrandizing, and genre reflexivity. Holmes’ poem is not, however, simply an affectation of rap-flows; it is functional in that “the Cena kid’s” [_gimmick_] (defined by Holmes as “a wrestler’s persona”) is that of a [_homeboy_] wrestler who, on occasion, drops rhymes: what we have is an ode constructed in a poetic mode that is commensurate with its subject, while also accounting for the entirely constitutive nature of its subject by foregrounding his “word life.” The poem’s title is indicative of this very point: “You Can’t See Me.”
The poem’s most striking characteristic is, of course, its sonic resonance:
bq. like Eminem on a real bad day
or an LA cop alone with NWA
doing what he likes to somebody he hates
a ghost like Casper, but two times as white and twice as great
you be Mr. Friendly, he’s Mr. Intimidate.
p. The stanza contains a hierarchy of five individual rhyme-sound sets:
bq.. d[_*a*_]y–L[_*A*_]–NW[_*A*_]–h[_*a*_]tes–gre[_*a*_]t–intimid[_*a*_]te
    r[_*ea*_]l–h[_*e*_]–somebo[_*dy*_]–friend[_*ly*_]–b[_*e*_]
        t[_*i*_]me–wh[_*i*_]te–tw[_*i*_]ce
            like(1)–like(3)–like(4)
                al[_*o*_]ne–gh[_*o*_]st
What elevates such sonic ingenuity is the figurative language, such as simile—”the Cena kid seems untouchable / like Eliot Ness”—which affords Holmes the opportunity to invoke the outlaw mythology of Al Capone; in this case, Brian DePalma’s 1987 mob flick, [_The Untouchables_], is the cultural conduit. [_Bling-bling_] fashion consciousness follows–“wearing chains and locks and Lugz”–as well as the self-aggrandizing machismo of “beating Thugz with brains, brass knucks and bear hugs.” Finally, take note of the genre reflexivity: in a poem that inhabits a Hip-hop sensibility, we have explicit reference to the hip-hop artists most responsible for bringing Hip-hop to the suburban-white masses (which includes the likes of John Cena): Eminem and NWA.
Whether more of a rap influence extends itself into Canadian poetry remains to be seen. But I for one hope it does because, to be frank, the sophisticated machismo and music to be found in a poem such as Holmes’ is all too often lacking.