What Rough Beasties, take 1

At the end of this past semester’s jazz poetry course, the class spoke about how some hip hop artists—A Tribe Called Quest was a favorite—can approximate the themes and rhythmic flow of jazz. While we talked, I realized that, though I’ve tried my hand at a handful of jazz inspired poems in my day, I’ve never written a poem inspired by hip hop or rap. Of course I knew what I had to do in order to rectify the situation. I had to write a poem, a sonnet, about the Beastie Boys.

As I tinkered with the first few images that grabbed my attention, I found that my narrowed scope—fourteen lines—made for some pretty tough decisions. Should I concentrate on the whiny kids from Licensed to Ill, the instrument-toting musicians of Check Your Head, or the politically charged authors of To the Five Boroughs? Obviously, one sonnet wouldn’t do. So it was decided: it’d be seven sonnets on the Beastie Boys, one inspired by each album.

Even before I got much writing done at all, I couldn’t believe what I found: a couple of the songs or videos that I chose to address oddly seemed to reflect themes from various poems by W.B. Yeats. Hmm. It sounded silly, even to me. But I decided to go with it. And that’s how I ended up trying to write seven sonnets about the Beastie Boys, each filtered through a poem of W.B. Yeats.

A strange project, I know. But for better or worse, I plan to post the attempts here, starting from 1986’s Licensed to Ill and ending—for now—with 2011’s Hot Sauce Committee. As for the series’ title, I just had to go with What Rough Beasties, with an apology to the concluding lines of Yeats’ famous “The Second Coming:” “And what rough beast, its hour come round at last,/ slouches toward Bethlehem to be born?”

A few words about the first installment below. In “Among School Children,” Yeats asks, “how can we know the dancer from the dance?” I’ve always been interested in how intelligent people can project such stupid personas. The Beastie Boys, despite the misogynistic and alcoholic characters they portrayed early in their recording careers, have grown to be some of the more compassionate and aware musicians out there. But, as in Yeats’ analogy of the dancer, how the heck are we supposed to distinguish the idiots from the sympathetic humans when they both inhabit the same frames?

Lastly, I decided to break each of the 14 lines of my sonnets into two, if only to give the “page” a jagged sense of modernity. Anyway, enough. Or too much.

Here’s the first poem:

What Rough Beasties:
Sonnets for the Beastie Boys filtered through poems of W.B. Yeats

I. Fight for Your Right filtered through Among School Children
(Licensed to Ill, 1986)

The party’s tame
              until the boys pile

in, hammer the TV
              to shards, & spike

the punch. They three pull off
              the image of imbeciles

so well that one can’t
              be blamed for thinking

they’re idiots.
              It must have been a joke,

their first image,
              but separating the rapper

from the man is hard: like
              distinguishing smoke

from fog, or trying to tell
              the couch dancer

from his dance.
              In the end, the room is fuming

like the crashed Boeing
              on the album cover.

The stereo’s still pumping,
              the bass still booming

as the three crawl out
              the door. But years after

they shed those personas,
              that night’s ruins

will trail them, the party’s smoke
              clinging to their skin.

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