The Naming and the Codes: Things Outside of Poetry Where I Most Found A Poetics or Standing Up for Falling Down by Russell Dillon
The modes and opportunities for people to fail at understanding each other are limitless, yet still we develop codes in every aspect of communication. The essence and value of a code lays in its ability to serve as a vehicle for secret/private communication for a select few, while seeming like gibberish, nonsense or non-covert language to everyone else. Plainly, the code is a locked, private language within a larger, open, public, shared one. We are drawn to romanticize, if not fetishize, both the secrecy of the code and the body it is attached to, and further, if we find ourselves among the select few with the keys to the code, we can participate in a different world than those on the “outside.” There is a delicate balance in how we move through desire to infatuation, from acquiring knowledge and the thrill of a code’s secrecy, to an inevitable boredom once it becomes easily replicated, understood, or commonplace. A code intrinsically loses its value when disclosed and made available to the masses. Our cultural insistence on, and value of the rare or unique, of originality, is fed and fostered by this particular type of codification. Human life, on both individual and communal plains, exudes intent to maintain and share code. In considering my past, the aesthetic and general DNA in art as I’ve experienced it, I am also forced to illustrate how the failure in all of it remains my greatest pleasure.
Decoding here exposes a personal (flaw?) belief that a poet’s job is not only to put their hand upon a thing and name it anew, but to use the materials wrong, often reappropriating them from their initial purpose in the process. It is this belief, and my spastic rationalization of it that allows for a simultaneous construction and undermining of capital A art. Here, we exist as scavengers within the shadows of a former avante garde, hoping to break or fuck something up in such a way that it might shed light in the direction of what’s next. I look at two separate groups, one which will manipulate a record player to create new sounds to be built upon, and another that will look at a hand-rail with the intent of riding down it, to see the similarities in misuse/innovation also mirrored into their language and slang. With the development of new slang and code, a culture that grows more obsessed with drawing attention to itself and being understood, if not explicated, is constantly on the verge of outpacing its usage and a communal value placed upon an ability to obscure while being seen.
History has repeatedly shown how some slang becomes an accepted part of language, while other slang disappears. There is no indicator of which will happen when new slang (code) arises, so we are forced to wait and see, but in the meantime we can consider the artists and artistry of utilizing or deploying the code, in the brackish waters of construction and deconstruction. One matter of code, the concern of language appropriation, which points to broader racial and socio-economic implications, is a different discussion, though one that cannot be overlooked here. Here, I merely look to my relationships with hip-hop and skateboarding (as well as how they speak to each other, and each other’s codes), and the ultimate implication of style as it would define greatness, and the unlikely celebration of falling down.
In the middle of my lifelong affliction of being a dedicated, though not exceptional skateboarder, Big L’s song “Ebonics” forced me to consider many things, not least of which being my relationship with a personal history as well as its connection to an intensified engagement with language, as a poet. Regardless of how one stumbles through circumstance and experience to arrive at poetry, the path is beset at all times by the commodification of language, through advertising, propaganda, misinterpretation, white noise, buzzwords, and a culture of linguistic appropriation. This difficulty has created an intermingling of love for and confusion in many deployments of my own writing. According to Jane H. Hill, in our culture:
“words are commodified and become property, with their meanings and uses determined by their owners… speakers of the target language must dominate [those] of the donor language…and the dominant group must control the institutions through which linguistic resources circulate, [i.e.- markets, medias, schools, and the legal system].”
Here, it is important to acknowledge how and why slang may or may not be adopted as part of the public discourse—adapted into the more popular (dominant and controlling) lexicon (in Ms. Hill’s conclusion, the white racist subjugation). It’s disturbing how this implicated both myself and, poets in general, though here and arguably in the world I minimally participate within this specific dominant sector, and that if we consider language as medium (as a sculptor to marble or a painter to pigment) I can move along under the auspices that Ms. Hill’s essay is speaking to a greater importance, and mine a more personal examination.
Touching more on code and commodification, it is important to point to the following recent OED additions:
And, the obnoxious mash-up from the practically-an-emoticon sub-genre addition: happy-sad.
As this Culture vs. culture dance continues, it delves into its code, its own language and some more subtle variations within it. The code begins to react to, shape, and express the uniqueness directly responsible for its value, thus illustrating the voracity with which it is consumed. To understand this more I turn to DJ Premiere (coincidentally, with introductory music from Big L):
Perhaps one of the most famous quotes on this subject—often attributed to Louis Armstrong—is Thomas “Fats” Waller’s response to a reporter who inquired about a definition of Jazz: “Lady, if you got to ask, you ain’t got it.” This is going back to 1947, though I prefer the more popular paraphrasing that has endured, “If you have to ask, you’ll never know.” True code, true style.
To avoid my own discomfort with ranks and lists, I will keep my third-rail cloaked here, saying only that Big L is one of the greatest MCs of all time. He is also the only artist I have experienced to use language simultaneously as subject, medium, and vehicle of a song. Devoid of narrative, “Ebonics” is a slang thesaurus over a beat; an interesting departure for a rapper so lyrically gifted, his episodic rhymes are set almost directly in the lineage of Slick Rick. The only sample in the song comes from Nas’ Illmatic, released a mere four years earlier, which serves as a vocal hook for the chorus (“Speak with criminal slang/ vocabulary spills, I’m ill”), though doubles as a shadow and narrative, if not purpose of the song. In this minimalist fashion, where the song is barely patina’d with instruction, the hook is linked to the slightest of intros (Pay attention and listen real closely how I break this slang shit down). The beat itself is an under produced drum machine with a recurrent, brassy, dancehallish blast in two alternated octaves, for three verses.
Aside from these descriptions, most importantly, the song is etymological— illustrating an evolution of language with an earnest seriousness toward the playful. It invokes both the need to examine our current speech, as well as how our individual language may have been received, thereby culturally implicating the manner in which one relates, through language, to a code of multiple environments. We, as listeners, are granted a unique type of access previously unavailable, and what we are granted is neither validating, nor educational, it simply is. The song, almost absent-mindedly, exhibits the living vernacular of slang as much as it illustrates the ways language can become an action, if not environment, that one affects as much as one acquires. Ultimately, the song’s chorus disclaims its final hint at narrative, wherein it gracefully dissolves (I know you like the way I’m freakin’ it/ I talk with slang, and imma never stop speaking it… It’s just the way that I talk, yo.)
If, in poetic development, the supplement to acquiring language is inflecting experienced rhythms, then an individual’s linguistic musicality must also cast a large shadow. Aside from learned metric patterns and prosody (which arguably have their origins based in this same natural affectation), I’d argue that an individual’s rhythm is environmentally influenced and ingrained through repetition. Not quite as pronounced as an accent, these rhythmic drawls and percussions develop into instinct, which at times are so ingrained into an artist’s personal style, it can be argued as a benefit or detriment, differentiated by whether or not an artist is able to escape their own habits.
I believe the way we gather rhythm is as personal as it is learned and studied— an individual metric, familiar and perfect, even if scansionally questionable to others. Even saying this now, the conflicts it creates in me (nature vs. nurture/repetition/terroir) are problematic, though I personally cannot deny how I came to discover this as a personal truth through skateboarding (specifically in Boston in the late 90’s). In many ways, it built in me its own type of slang rhythm. The unique sounds of that city’s streets beneath urethane wheels is one of reverberated brick spacing and a translation of ecological pavement degradation vibrated more clearly into my bones than any visual of the Freedom Trail’s two brick opposition to the order of the sidewalk. The idea of asking people to recognize, much less acknowledge this even now embarrasses me, but I have never been able to deny it.
I am continually returned to recollections in the auditory. The sound through vibration and motion in those actions that made it possible to learn a landscape and become more familiar in repetition were a type of code, if not a language. Much like learning how to navigate a dark room, the memory, if not metrically attended-to movements, retains an auditory component that feels very important to me. There is a specific noise, an associated feeling in taking three big pushes on the apparatus, hearing the momentum of a specific set of side walk cracks, or storm-grate covers, and associating that with the timing of a leap, another motion, yet this education exists in trial and error. These combinations lead to the construction of an eventual hypothesis, an imagined understanding, a new opportunity to be proven wrong again and encounter a fall, or (far less often in my experience), some variation of success.
Having emerged from a youth of parking lots and the suburban sprawl of Long Island, the rhythms and repetitions mirrored a familiarity, even in their differences, from what I had come to know and how I had come to learn them. In this rhythm, a community and salon of sorts composed my counterculture and from this rhythm emerged the inherent code I have only recently begun to understand as being regionally unique, if not distinctly personal. Elements of appropriation have since co-opted this genre of my youth, as well, but that conversation is to be had among other old skateboarders at another time.
Skateboarders are a prime example of a people who are driven to “use a thing wrong,” and in this exhibit the elements of poetry that most interest me. From its first days, skateboarding has been the deconstruction of roller skates coupled with an additional piece of wood. The haphazard action, no matter how serious, to take a drained swimming pool and turn it into an environment that simultaneously embodies a collaboration with and struggle against form is arguably more artistic than athletic. Within this vision there is the re-appropriation of landscape. A bench becomes more than a place to rest, a blockade is an opportunity to return or push off from. In art, like skateboarding, there are only rules until they are broken; there are limits until they are surpassed. You may stop at a wall, or you may ride up it. An empty swimming pool can be a metaphor of drought, or the simile of a wave in 1976 bone-dry California. It is slang. It is theft. It is harmonious disjunction. It is code. Skateboarding’s importance to the few, its hybridizing and reappropriation and celebration of public design, has kept it in league with graffiti, breakdancing, and hip-hop (sampling, turntabilism, record manipulation, and the various elements of DJing: from creating a rhythmic flow, to the anthological qualities of a specific performance). It incorporates and manipulates, like all successful art, the improvisational and the orchestrated. It is dangerously useless to primary culture/enterprise, and through its own design exists as both momentary and mythological, becoming priceless to those both existing within its codes, and becoming personally encoded with/by/in the process.
In my earliest days, the code of location and maneuver, the poet’s original task of naming a thing, revealed itself in strange ways. With childhood skate spot names like Blue Glass, Lipslides, TOB, Brooklyn Banks, Ice Banks, Cheese Banks, Copley, C-bowl, Turtles, EMB, Hubba Hideout, the creativity and play maintained a serious frivolity that propelled itself, and continues well beyond its early participants. Meeting someone from a few towns over that could be speaking about the exact same location, but have a different name for the spot, would quickly assimilate based upon the prevalent proximity, the locals. Moving further into these codes, I discover that my limited ability to clarify (I plead “Fatts” Waller) the mention of “Kalis doing a SSBSTS down Hubba” as something that would take too much effort for its reward to most people. An interest in the principle information is required for someone to be truly invested in the base and genesis of the code. This instance becomes similar to explaining Hopkins’s development of sprung rhythm, or the impact of James Wright’s departure from more strict metrics on future generations in poetry to the occasional reader (argument over an imagined “occasional reader of poetry not writing poetry themselves” can be carried on amongst yourselves here).
There is much to be said for a culture that values innovation and progression so highly that the acronym NBD (Never Been Done) has emerged, and, in my opinion, further couples the athleticism of skateboarding with a mental approach more in league with the artistic than the physical.
One of the earliest books of poems I had ever purchased was Lawrence Ferlinghetti’s Pictures of the Gone World, wherein I found this poem that has remained with me:
Now looking back on this, I think more about Berrigan’s “Everything turns into writing.” In this poem the longing to identify, an almost desperate need to associate, shows through a narrowly artistic invocation, and alludes to Ferlinghetti’s stylistic and associated recognition of the surfers. They are hyper-humanized with a darling appropriation, though there is no intended harm. This poem and this time in my life came to illustrate an early moment, perhaps the first in which I had hoped to live like a poet in whatever I was doing, no matter how physically limited the illustration might emerge.
It can be quite confusing to figure out if poetry exists as culture, sub-culture, counter-culture, or all three, but there can be no denying personal and disparate styles within the genre. With hope, having gained knowledge, experimented, copied, stolen, explored, and lived with the individual questions that will arise through numerous ways of paying attention to a particular subject, a person will emerge with their own style. To adopt/adapt the popular scene from Full Metal Jacket, and furthermore, The Rifleman’s Creed:
“This (endeavor) is mine, there are many others like it, but this one is mine.”
Trying to talk about style is to take on another task of insurmountable particulars. Easy to recognize, hard to explain. “To achieve style, begin by affecting none.” E.B. White. I take this time to mention that style is not necessarily the swagger we have to come to associate through the advertising language of present day. Not grandstanding, but having a way or manner, often referred to as signature, because, at best, an ill explained history of penmanship affords the easiest illustration of stylistic, primarily unconscious, expression. With a distinctive voice, style can be achieved through a control or abandonment in delivery. “Sometimes you just go on your nerve,” like O’hara. Think fingerprint, snowflake. “It’s just the way that I talk, yo.” That which is not interchangeable, which requires a certain amount of understanding or mastery may become specifically recognizable to others and becomes the subject’s “own.” Understanding the thing and completing the action with naturally composed/controlled ease, a grace, and tinge of the personal that exudes confidence without being overly stressed by the physical effort. The ability to recognize a skateboarder by their silhouette, if not just in the way they hold their hands while performing a trick is similar to the admission of a literary judge recognizing the work of an author in a blind submission slush-pile. It’s not wearing all black, it is how you wear all black, Mr. Cash. It is not any one thing, it is the culmination of those things. John Hancock. Herbie Hancock. Jackson Pollock’s splatter and the transposable elements it excludes. There is no “jumping gene” for this portion of an artist’s DNA, to co-opt Dean Young’s thought, and it is important here to mention that there is nothing more important in this stylistic endeavoring than growth and progression as an artist. There is an opportunity here to comment on “fake style,” and I will skip it. “If you don’t live it, it won’t come out of your horn.” One is not truly a master until one has mastered oneself, which echoes with the Zen ha-ha of impossibility and riddle, of code ever changing, of eternal search, struggle, and failure that is the embraceable all, it is not everything, but it is nearly the entire point.
Note to selves: Fail better. Fall Higher.
In all of this, what becomes most evident and ardent and painfully clear is that I am as desperate for failure as the slight escape of it into what we might label “success.” While I was writing and struggling with the personal meaning of this essay, the famed skateboarder and innovator Rodney Mullen was interviewed in the wake of a recent Ted talk, and it further illustrated for me that the worst thing for our spirits is the idea of falling for the last time, and here, he steps away from code as best he can. The thought in a moment after failure or falling can be the embodiment of stasis or surrender… it is the getting up for the last time that is the truest defeat, because no matter what happens after that, you will either continue to experience your final victory or your final surrender, but there will be a finality there. The true things I have learned from these sources and codes and attempts is that we are never truly obscured, and we are never truly revealed. My particular lineage of poets, my tribe, all seem to operate with the belief that language is both the embodiment and a tool for explaining how people don’t understand each other. There is always something lost in the translation, and this may be its own creative genesis and artfulness. There is a failure, and an explication of it. In an attempt to show you what lies behind the code, we present to you now: deeper code. We don’t always know what we are trying to accomplish, and in trying, we discover.
In the try, and the failure, we are in constant collaboration with our limitations; a coding of individual gifts, a struggle against the influence of ourselves to make a thing, and how ultimately, that thing must live. As much as the desire to see and decipher code, there must be something beyond the code. “Drink more Ovaltine” can ruin anyone’s Christmas if we recall Ralphie’s pre-Red Rider BB Gun journey. There will never be a formula for explaining ourselves to someone who is without a shared language, thought, or experience, yet there is a commonality beyond that. There, the code within the code that is something else entirely— not DNA, not humanity, not language, but the initial code, the code all other code is based on. It is this code that no one ever truly understands, which is the one cause for every other explanation, the ones that haunt us with their slight illumination. We are in constant pursuit of some truth we hope to get just close enough to, though we never quite hit the mark. Which is why: art. Which is why: everything. Which is why: getting up. In doing this, we keep learning, if not progressing. In all of it, we must remain eager to fall, because standing up is our entrance to witness, and through constant falling, I’ve aimed to get slightly better at doing both.
Full-Frontal Author Photo
I don’t like to think happiness is impossible.
I do not care for mustard, either.
I know this will probably end in the parlance
of our time, where I too will turn the weapon
upon myself in the wake of a senseless
and preventable action. I am scared of becoming
the kind of ghost that is starved for air.
The disappearance I would most like to make
is the hocus pocus of many years dissolving
all of this glue before I drift off holding
only a memory of your face. I would take you
unbodied, into my hands one last time,
and I would drain you like this, empty you
into my mouth overflowing like a child
unaware that they can drown in a rainstorm.
There are plastic flowers glowing neon
in the shadows of gravestones so fresh, they
have not been marked away from final hope.
There is no technology we can place in the stead
of our grief, and there can be no more running.
In the corners of this all, when I am inevitable
and closest to capture, my most returned to
manner of escape is to take you all by the hand.
I take all of your hands and I pin them to the sky.
Russell Dillon was born in New York in the mid-seventies and just hasn’t been able to get over it. After attending a number of schools, he received degrees from Emerson and Bennington College, later ending up in San Francisco for nearly a decade. Now, back in New York he only eats burritos facing West and continues to co-edit the magazine Big Bell. Poems have appeared, or are forthcoming, in Lumberyard, H_NGM_N, Forklift, Ohio, 5 am, Parthenon West, Mi Poesia, Bright Pink Mosquito, and Green Mountains Review, among others. A chapbook, Secret Damage, was released from Forklift, Ink in 2009, and his full-length collection, Eternal Patrol, appeared from Forklift Books in the summer of 2013. After snapping his Achilles tendon in 2011, he became even worse at skateboarding.
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*Hubba Hideout pic via