A question I often get at readings, not that it surprises me, concerns rap music.
Do I like it?
Is it poetry?
Second question first. A gentleman in Arlington, Vermont, opined that “if it doesn’t rhyme, then it’s not poetry.” I suggested that such a stricture would eliminate some of the greatest poetry in our cultural tradition, namely the Psalms found in the Hebrew Bible. Even so great a poet as John Milton, who believed rhyme to be “the invention of a barbarous age,” likely the 5th century, when Latin hymns began to be composed in rhyme, would– by my Arlingtonian’s standard– be ruled out.
And yet strong opinions about poetry seem to come with the territory. I wonder, for example, if Milton would have considered the scrupulously rhymed verse of Alexander Pope as non-poetry? Would Pope have acknowledged the heavily colloquial work of William Wordsworth as real verse? What would Wordsworth have made of Whitman, Whitman of Ezra Pound, Pound of the “deep image” poets of the seventies, and so on?
In short, the question of what makes poetry reminds me of the history of poetry. And nowadays, when we encounter everything from so-called Language Poetry to neoformalism to computer-generated verse, just to name a few trends, I am afraid that the only “definition” of poetry must be laughably vague: it is that collection of words on which its creator confers the name poem.
So I can’t legitimately claim that rap “isn’t poetry”. I don’t listen to it much, in part because its meters and rhythms seem so profoundly reiterative that I begin to feel the onset of migraine. And as for lyrics, when a young man named Chris Brown won a Grammy for an album last year, I went and Googled some of his: when they weren’t downright offensive in their misogyny and their glorification of violence, they were, in my view, simply lame: the rhymes were banal, or inexact, or both. So I looked up some lyrics by Jay-Z. My personal judgment call? Ditto.
But I’m getting too vehement here. After all, each to his or her own. My own children reprove me mightily when I get vehement in my comments on rap, saying, rightly, that I don’t really know much about rap, although that’s simply because there’s nothing about it that really draws me in. (Of course, any generation’s vernacular music must be aggravating to the preceding generation; that’s partly what it’s for. I remember my mother’s complaints about Ray Charles or Little Richard when I was a kid: Do we have to listen to this?)
Rap may be poetry, all right, but I just don’t see myself as being in a competitive posture toward it. My own poems tend often to be reflective, or contemplative, or, often, elegiac, and although I may be wrong, I find it hard to imagine that rap can provide a vehicle for modes of that sort. It has other fish to fry. It wants a high-energy, even a bodily response, whereas I scarcely expect my readers, on hearing something of mine, to jump up and boogie. (A side note: who can deny the brilliance of much hip-hop dance, which uses rap as its occasion?)
I don’t compete with rap because mass entertainment is not my aim. I can already hear my critics saying, “That’s what’s wrong with so called serious poetry. One Lil Wayne album outsells all that kind of any year put together.”
Right. And more people went to watch bear-baiting than went to see Twelfth Night, too. Britney Spears had greater single-album sales than Louis Armstrong. I could go on.
But I better shut up. One of my daughters is coming home for the weekend.