Benjamin Norman / The New York Times

Kanye West performs at the Harper's Bazaar Icons party at the Plaza Hotel, during New York Fashion Week on Sept. 9.

September 11, 2016

MEISEL | What Kanye West Means for Poetry

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I always knew them French fries was evil man
Smelling all good and shit
I don’t trust no food that smells that good man
I don’t trust it
I just can’t”

—Kanye West, “The MacDonald’s Man”

Within the pages of Frank Ocean’s new magazine Boys Don’t Cry lies a poem named “The MacDonald’s Man,” written by none other than Kanye West. Presented through a series of photographs in which the poem appears on retrofitted MacDonald’s drive-thru screens, “The MacDonald’s Man” is a typical Kanye West performance. It resists interpretations while, at the same time, inviting them. Among the discussed themes: paranoia, conspiracy, inequality, utopian Communism, conformity and Frank Ocean. Despite the lines, “I always knew them fries was evil man/smelling all good and shit,” MacDonald’s seems to think it’s just a friendly expression of appreciation for their fries and “smooth apple pies.”

I find it compelling how consistent the patterns of Kanye’s reception are. With each new step from West, waves of reaction and thought ripple underneath it. His new lyric is no different.  As with plenty of other Kanye West moments, crowds of think pieces and commentaries and illustrations have risen to dissect it. More serious “literary” establishments and the ever-serious “literary” correspondents for pop culture rags now find themselves, like I am here, writing extensively in slight, ironic tones about a poem on French fries.

The effect of this is that you’ll often have articles more difficult to take seriously than the poem itself. Like Kanye’s work, sometimes this question of seriousness seems the intention. “On the Poetics — and Elusive Subtext — of Kanye West’s Poem About French Fries,” by Katy Waldman, paradoxically attempts a close reading of the poem even though the writer derides it as “artfully artless jibber jabber.” Meanwhile a satirical article at the Paris Review proposes that “if the ketchup/salad/burger/shake band represents the possibility of a labor movement, the pie represents total communism.”

Obviously a (stale) sense of humor is at work in these pieces. Here, though, the joke comes from how absurd the poem itself is. But maybe what many of these articles don’t want to notice is that any attempt at a reading of “The MacDonald’s Man” lends itself to ridiculousness. Besides the highly abstract narrative depicted in the poem, not much context or concept appears. If I go by just the text alone, no implication of any specific allegory or interpretation comes forward. It is a straightforward poem about a classic menu item. Yet that doesn’t stop readers from pushing narratives. The website Genius’ interpretation veers towards a take on conspiracy and authority. Elsewhere, an illustrated version refrains from allegory, choosing instead to depict the fast-food items in cartoon-style format.

Personally the most fascinating element of this poem isn’t any particular reading but that West can produce a work that conditions such a wide spectrum of interpretations. This peculiar openness has something to do with Kanye’s use of language in the poem. As Katy Waldman points out in her criticism of the text, “the speaker’s observations announce themselves in the same flatly gleaming monochrome as a MacDonald’s logo.” Ironically, what Waldman views as a shortcoming ended up becoming a compelling element to me. It is about making art from the everyday, including everyday language. West has presented a poem whose key image encompasses a wide frame of reference. Think of all the things that come to mind when someone says, “MacDonald’s”; think of how many people in the world must recognize that connection of sounds and the image that it stands for. To then implicate these references in a purposefully vague narrative produces a multitude of personal responses. That’s why, for example, we can have both an ironic Marxist reading and Joey Bada$$ reading it aloud with the utmost seriousness.

All the sudden, the ingenuity of “The MacDonald’s Man” amounts to the same style of expression behind Warhol-esque pop-art. Pop culture in a vacuum. On repeat. The line between the language we use and the food we consume and the ideology behind it all blurs. Like Dadaist poetry near the start of the 20th century, Kanye’s poem is a playful piece of literature which attacks the boundary between what should and shouldn’t be taken seriously. Even more amusing, however, is the refusal of the clickbait intelligentsia to acknowledge this possibility. Instead, the normal reactions amount to humorous condescension and rejection of the poem on its supposed lack of skill and technique. Hence the absurdity that arises when you try and use your English B.A. interpretive skills to close read this poem. But shouldn’t it be obvious that Kanye’s not trying to be Yeats? Shouldn’t we understand that Kanye is thinking of poetry not as an artifact of beautiful and meaningful language but as open to the same experimentation as other media?

“The MacDonald’s Man” folds the highbrow seriousness of literature in on itself. People come out and denounce it not as a poem, but as “good poetry.” Well I do think it’s a good poem, but for different reasons. While I wouldn’t go far as to say Kanye’s poem had any expressly political intentions, I will say that when you have people criticizing your art on both conceptual and technical grounds as nonsense and garbage, your art has touched on their politics in some manner. Of course, this approach again aligns Kanye with the “anti-art” of the Dadaists, but more so than these artists, West issues works to a grand and hungry audience. So instead of complete rejection by whatever establishment, his popularity ensured this poem would generate a mass of search engine refuse, a widespread confusion as to how Kanye could think “The MacDonald’s Man” was a good poem. But I insist that “The MacDonald’s Man” has asked poetry and pop culture’s conception of poetry an important question, if only by exposing the limits of its definitions.

Stephen Meisel is a junior in the College of Arts and Sciences. He can be reached at [email protected]Appearances will appear alternate Mondays this semester.