On the Poetry Beat
What’s the rapport between rap and poetry? In his review of The Anthology of Rap for the February 2011 issue of Poetry, Adam Kirsch suggests that the genres’ similarities are, paradoxically, tantamount to their differences:
Rap is considerably more artful than most American poetry written in the same period covered by the anthology, 1978–2010. Technique has declined in importance in poetry over these years, while a premium has been placed on conceptual innovation — on the idea behind a work rather than its execution.
In rap, on the other hand, verse technique — rhyme, rhythm, assonance, and witty simile, all of which constitute a rapper’s “ﬂow” — is valued above everything. The result is that people who are poetically gifted are drawn to the form, and their competitive efforts raise its level of sophistication higher and higher.
It’s a compelling case—that rap adheres to an older standard of poeticism, one that emphasizes technique, form, and wordplay, and that this tendency renders it more “poetic” than current poetry itself. Do you agree that artfulness in American poetry has faded? Can you come up with counterexamples? Do you, like Kirsch, find the poetic landscape to be dominated by “conceptual poetry”—and if so, do you mind?
Let’s put this issue of Poetry to the test. How is it for craft, for moments of flow? A top contender might be these lines from Thomas Lynch:
the way grace and gratis, wherefore gratitude
partook a kinship such as cousins do,
singing the same tune in different voices,
much as grave and gravitas, then gravity
kept one earthbound, grounded, humble as the mud—
the humus, so-called, God wrought humans from.
You can’t miss the wordplay here—partly because of Lynch’s italics—and a flexible iambic pattern keeps the beat.
Kirsch notes that the editors of The Anthology of Rap, in setting down lyrics that rappers had only ever sung, needed to come up with their own line breaks and orthography. In other words, the editors nudged rap in the direction of contemporary poetry—which, with some notable exceptions, is an event for the page rather than the stage. What are the benefits and problems of this approach? Consider these lines by Lupe Fiasco, which Kirsch quotes:
and I’m peer-less, that means I’m eyeless
Which means I’m tearless, which means my iris
Resides where my ears is
Does writing down rap lyrics provide opportunities for new kinds of analysis? Here, for example, we might notice the puns on “peer,” which means both “companion” and “gaze,” and on “eye,” which doubles as “I.” The rush of performed speech might have prevented us from catching such subtleties. On the other hand, perhaps that rush is inherent to rap, and recasting the newer form in the mold of the older has obscured an element of the listening experience.
What happens when you try to do the reverse, to push poetry toward rap? Can you imagine Lynch’s lines being uttered by an energized MC? Where would the pauses and stresses fall? (Perhaps on assonances—“gratitude,” “cousins do,” “tune”—to emphasize Lynch’s sonic effects.) How would such a performance influence the emotional resonance of the verse?
Kirsch observes that “poets have been more interested in what they can learn from rap than vice versa.” Do you agree? At least one rapper freely acknowledges his debt to poetry. In a Poetry Foundation article from 2005, Kanye West says: “I’m actually consulting with poets as I write this album . . . I got a poetry coach.”
Can you think of poems that are indebted to rap? (One example might be David Lehman’s “The Models,” from the January 31, 2011 New Yorker.)
Are there any pitfalls to performing poetry aloud? In this issue, Ange Mlinko offers polyglot poems whose pleasures lie partly in their orthography. “Symphonic Expanse” includes mentions of “Ehden,” “Baalbek,” “Baabda,” and “Zahle.” Reading this poem and noticing the silent “a”s and “h”s, we thought: Aha! If you only heard the poem, on the other hand, you wouldn’t know what you were missing.
Spelling spices up this Mlinko stanza too, though in a distinct way:
We are a long way from the courteous lilac
with sensitive feather tipped as a kayak
is tipped by a coxswain.
These lines conclude with near-rhymes—“lilac” and “kayak,” “waxwing” and “coxswain”—whose spelling is, as Mlinko writes, “a long way” apart. If some of Mlinko’s poetry delights in the unusual spellings of foreign words, this stanza reminds us that English orthography, too, is strange and full of secrets.
Even if some poems yield more riches when read silently, perhaps trying on rap as poetry, and poetry as rap, will enable us to plumb English’s depths in new ways.