Books

An Intimate Reading of Jean-Michel Basquiat’s Poetry

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Cover of ‘Jean-Michel Basquiat: The Notebooks’ (all images courtesy Collection of Larry Warsh/Copyright © Estate of Jean-Michel Basquiat, all rights reserved/Licensed by Artestar)

Those familiar with the artwork of Jean-Michel Basquiat will agree that he is a writer. Language and text factor heavily in all his work, evidenced by the early graffiti pieces (done under the pseudonym SAMO) that launched his career. The Unknown Notebooks, on view at the Brooklyn Museum, features the pages of eight of his notebooks lining the gallery walls in vitrines and frames. While this show does much to bring forward the image of Basquiat as a writer, encountering hundreds of pages of text in the exhibition space is challenging for even the most fair-weathered museumgoer. In her New York Times review of the exhibition, critic Roberta Smith claims, “The show could have used an area for visitors to sit and study the catalog — there’s space for it.” Seeing and reading the pages in the gallery certainly make one want to spend more time with Basquiat’s writing, and Princeton University Press’s forthcoming facsimile of the notebooks provides this time for closer study.

The Notebooks, which looks and feels like a cheap composition notebook — Basquiat’s medium of choice for writing — presents actual-size reproductions of the pages of his eight notebooks, with no interruptions or annotations, save the brief forward by the editor and their owner, the art publisher Larry Warsh. The book offers the intimate reading experience one expects when engaging with an artist’s private musing. Although while reading through these pages, it’s striking how little they seem private. The lettering is as deliberate and composed as that in his painting, if not more. While there are certainly pages that seem more like sketches than final products, these writings are not tests for ideas to be finalized in paint; they are poems in the vein of Basquiat’s influences such as William Burroughs and Rene Ricard. Their status as poetry is noted in Jennifer Clement’s Widow Basquiat, the story of Suzanne Mallouk, Basquiat’s on-and-off girlfriend: “Jean-Michel comes into the bar every day. He reads Suzanne his poems from his ‘Black and White Notebooks.’”

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Spread from ‘The Notebooks’ (click to enlarge)

Throughout his writing Basquiat continually reuses words and phrases, each time building and layering further. He writes, “I FEEL LIKE A CITIZEN IT’S TIME TO GO AND COME BACK A DRIFTER” as a single line across the top quarter of a page in the first notebook. The following page continues:

I FEEL LIKE A CITIZEN IN THIS PARKING LOT COUNTY FAIR
IT’S TIME TO GREYHOUND AND COME BACK A DRIFTER
PUT IT ALL IN ONE BAG

Haunting, the capital letters, appearing like hieroglyphs, scream at the reader. His mark-making is both chaotic and deliberate. Dieter Buchhart notes in his Brooklyn Museum catalogue essay, “The line itself remains a graphic element, however, that is randomly variable, with the letter E frequently appearing as three parallel lines — as is the case in the two poems above, where the two Es in “FEEL” appear as six linked lines, visually dragging the phrases as they are elongated across the page. This elongation is also auditory. In reading the collected poems in one sitting, flipping back and forth between its pages, patterns emerge — the repetition of words and phrases and the layout of text across the page call to mind the concrete and beat poets, who engaged with spatial layouts and auditory rhyming and pacing. There is a singsong quality to his use of “GREYHOUND,” forcing the noun to play as a verb. At times it seems like only sounds unite the various words in a line.

LEAPSICKNESS
THE LAW OF LIQUIDS
THAT THORN IN MY HEAD NAGGING MY FISTS CLOSED
VICTIMS OF EMBELLISHED HISTORY
THE SPORES FLOATE

The alliteration of the first two lines unites the words despite how unrelated the imagery may be. And then there are those clumsy three lines, seemingly added only to elongate the final word a little more. In an essay on Basquiat and poet Kevin Young, John Yau ties these “discontinuities (staccato rhythms, inversions of meaning, parodies of familiar phrases and tunes, harsh puns, shorthand slang, obsessive lists of words, and quotes)” to “improvisational music,” particularly jazz. There is certainly a musical quality to “LEAPSICKNESS / THE LAW OF LIQUIDS,” which Basquiat repeats throughout the notebooks. Phrases like these echo throughout, something that is harder to notice without the easy ability to flip back and forth between the pages.

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Spread from ‘The Notebooks’ (click to enlarge)

In a more rounded handwriting, the phrase “LEAPSICKNESS / THE LAW OF LIQUIDS,” appears again in the second notebook.

GIVE THE BALDHEADED MAN A QUARTER
PULL IN A DOG TO DRAW SANDPAPER
CENSOR HIS HABITS
FREEZE FRAME ON A DRUNK IN THE PLAZA
LEAPSICKNESS
THE LAW OF LIQUIDS

Like following characters in a novel, the collected notebook pages allow the reader to follow the echoes of motifs — such as colonies of egg-laying roaches, floating spores, or the girl with “HER THIRD EYE.” In accurately reproducing and maintaining the order and handwriting of Basquiat’s notebooks, the book not only demonstrates his development of motifs and rhymes, but also the progression and variation of his lettering style. For example, the roaches first appear in the final stanza of a poem midway through the first notebook:

THE COLONY OF ROACHES IN THE OVEN LAY EGGS
UNDER TINFOIL IN THE OIL SWAMPS OF
BROILED STEAKS.
COOKED AND RECOOKED

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Spread from ‘The Notebooks’ (click to enlarge)

In the first notebook, the letters are neat and tight. But when the roaches appear in the final notebook, they have shifted both visually and verbally. Relegated to the bottom right of the page they appear in list form in bulky letters that hang over the ruler lines:

ROACH EGGS
ROACH EGGS
ROACH EGGS
ROACH EGGS
ROACH EGGS
ROACH EGGS
ROACH EGGS

Writhing down the page as one would imagine the hatched roaches. This is not to draw an overly simplistic correlation between the presentation of the words and their meaning, but rather to highlight that besides being an integral and informative element of Basquiat’s visual practice, text was equally informed by visual concerns. Rather than the existing narrative of Basquiat as a talented painter and draughtsman very much engaged with the written word, the facsimile of his notebook pages allows us to imagine him as a poet, very much engaged with the imagery of daily life, whose writing exhibited the vision of a painter.

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