Monday, December 14, 2015

Poem of the Week 12.14.15

I’ve been waging an internal war with myself over this post all week and the arguments go a little something like this:

No Maggie you can’t write about Hamilton again.


And repeat. But you know what? It’s my last blog post (I’m retiring and I’m sad about it, honestly), it’s the end of the semester, Hamilton is amazing, and Lin-Manuel Miranda’s verses are the sweetest poetry I can think of. Besides, he did initially perform an early version of the opening number from Hamilton at a poetry jam at the White House back in 2009.

That performance is actually the crux of my post. So many artists I’ve studied are removed from me by generations. Don’t get me wrong; we do have stuff to learn from the canon, from the old masters who walked the path ahead of us. But the side effect is we get this warped view of art. The Great American Novels we’ve studied only exist in our head as the final draft. We don’t see revisions. We don’t see long nights sobbing through edits. We don’t see the rewrites, the sleep lost, the destroyed prototypes. Sure, if you study authors you see glimpses of the frustration that plagues the craft of writing, and of any creative endeavor, for that matter. But when you’re sitting up past bedtime glaring at a Microsoft Word document that just won’t work and you’ve got a copy of Lolita or Tender is the Night or Mrs. Dalloway grinning at you from your bookshelf, it almost feels like the greatest books descended from the heavens, not that an actual human being with thoughts and feelings and writer’s block created it.

Which is why you need to pay attention to your contemporaries. This Puerto Rican dude playing Alexander Hamilton on Broadway right now is my contemporary, despite the fame, and if you check out his Twitter, he talks about his writing process all the time. He sends out a message claiming he’s gonna get some writing done, and then two hours later he’s posting pictures of his dog and bemoaning his lack of progress. We’ve all been there. I’ve been there like twelve times this week. He’s also divulged endless factoids about Hamilton and his own idols and inspirations, answering fan questions and annotating the lyrics with his own asides. Learning about his sources, his struggles, and his approaches to writing a piece of work that I regard with such esteem has only enriched it for me.

It’s such a reality check when you remember the idols you put on pedestals are real people, because guess what? You’re a real person too, and that means you can do it just as well if you have enough drive.

For all intents and purposes, the 2009 White House performance is a first draft that will live on the Internet forever. Back then, the musical was merely a gleam in Miranda’s eye; his initial project was a collection of songs he referred to as The Hamilton Mixtape, and as I said earlier, this song became the opening number, eponymously titled “Alexander Hamilton.” The lyrics are, actually, remarkably similar. The most notable difference is while the stage version incorporates all the major characters as they discuss Hamilton, as well as Hamilton himself, the White House version is a solo track sung by Aaron Burr, Hamilton’s rival and eventual killer. Burr functions as an antagonistic narrator throughout the musical proper, in a way Miranda describes as similar to Judas’s role in Jesus Christ Superstar.

The other thing that’s fantastic about the White House version is the crowd reaction. “I’m working on a hip-hop album about the life of someone I think embodies hip-hop: Treasury Secretary Alexander Hamilton,” Miranda introduces himself. And the crowd laughs. And he retorts, “You laugh! But it’s true!” He goes on to describe Hamilton’s background, how he clawed his way up from poverty as a bastard orphan in the Caribbean to be a Founding Father, with nothing but his quick wit and writing skill. “I think he embodies the word’s ability to make a difference,” Miranda explains, with this obvious earnestness that’s impossible to refute. Honestly, isn’t that what we’re all trying to do as writers? Make some sort of difference with our words and our wits?

I could annotate all the lyrics to mark all the foreshadowing present in “Alexander Hamilton” but we’d all be here all day. I’ll touch on the most important ones. The melodic structure of the first few lines recurs constantly (“How does a…” and onward; the words following the initial question change each time they show up, in “A Winter’s Ball,” “Guns and Ships,” “What’d I Miss,” “The Adams Administration,” and “Your Obedient Servant,” all with Burr narrating). Hamilton’s repetitions of “just you wait” foreshadow Burr’s first solo song that doubles as a statement of his personal philosophies, “Wait for It.” The melody of the company singing Hamilton’s name crops up in “Non-Stop,” “The Room Where It Happens” and “The Reynolds Pamphlet,” all with ominous intonations, almost as though his name is warped into a curse. It does everything an opening number should do: it sets the tone and brings us into the world we’re about to experience.

So here, for your viewing pleasure, are both the White House version and the Broadway version, and I linked to the annotated lyrics, because it’s better when you know them. The first draft and the final, available for public consumption until the end of the Internet. Ron Chernow, author of the Hamilton biography that Miranda used as a primary source, describes the song as perfectly condensing the first forty pages of his book into a four-minute song. And Lin-Manuel Miranda is a joy to watch, so you’re welcome. Poetry in speech, poetry in motion.

Congrats to all of us for making it through the semester, and have a wonderful winter break!


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