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Poetry Goes to the Movies: 8 Mile

Eminem Water Splash by HPW Photography, under a Creative Commons licence

The decade-old question of whether the lyrics featured in popular music can ever be considered poetry, usually phrased along the lines of ‘Is Bob Dylan better than Keats?’, took another form a few years back when Eminem was modish. The Guardian ran an article in which Giles Foden compared the rapper to Browning, declaring the song ‘Stan’ ‘to have all the depth and texture of the greatest examples of English verse’. Too much? Well, no less a person than Seamus Heaney weighed in to say in 2003, ‘There is this guy Eminem. He has created a sense of what is possible. He has sent a voltage around his generation.’

In our latest Poetry Goes to the Movies blog, we’re heading to Detroit, setting for Eminem’s one and only substantial film role so far. The history of pop is littered with examples of suddenly popular musicians pushed into films, frequently with unhappy results. Released in 2002, 8 Mile is, however, no Spice World: The Movie, or perhaps, more appropriately in this context, Cool As Ice. This is in no small part thanks to the wise decision to thinly fictionalise Eminem’s poverty-struck background in his native Detroit, although in somewhat more sober-style than the rapper’s colourful reworkings of autobiographical material. Not only did 8 Mile’s choice presumably make the role less of a stretch for non-thesp Marshall Mathers (Eminem’s real name), it gives the film a certain grit almost entirely lacking in the sub-genre of the rock film. And how interesting to be watching it in the wake of the recent news about Detroit declaring bankruptcy. Not a surprise if you watch this film.

8 Mile, named after a street in the Detroit area's rough Mile Road System, tells the story of Rabbit (Eminem), a white trash (for want of a better description) would-be rapper struggling to make it. He’s got nothing but troubles: deadbeat friends holding him back, a low-paying hard-labour job, and a habit of picking girlfriends who know just how to mess with his head. Worst of all, his alcoholic mother Kim Basinger is shacked up with a younger man, General Zod of all people, and is the source of much of Rabbit’s friends’ humour at his expense.

When we first meet him, Rabbit is preparing to take part in a rap battle. Only he chokes on stage, unable to get a word out, much to the mockery of the audience. His non-performance wins him the unwanted attentions of a local gang, Leaders of the Free World, the film building towards a second rap battle, where the stakes become somewhat higher for Rabbit.

Is it poetry? The rap battles look very much like the inheritors of the flyting tradition, down to the same focus on cowardice and scatological matters. Rabbit/Eminem is, whether you care for his music or not, an expert rhymer and deployer of devastating insults: his takedown of the Leaders of the Free World at the finale is worthy of William Dunbar and Walter Kennedy at their spikiest. Poetry is a broad church and it can surely find a pew for Mr Mathers.

Coming soon: Can you handle Bad Writing’s constructive criticism?