The Poets

June 30, 2009

The Rhyme Renaissance: A Harvard Poet

Take five minutes of your time to view this video. It’s of Harvard student’s poetry reading. The subject, aside from a history of poetry in five minutes, is what role does rap have in relationship to it … you’ll be surprised (perhaps somewhat swayed) by the conclusion that a young Harvard student proposes.

It’s an honest and innocent question I’ve held many a self dialogue about, and personally think worthy of wonder: to what extent is rap to be considered poetry by definition?

Despite the often brutal nature and violent topics propagated by contemporary rap artists, despite its real-world internal and external conflicts, rapacious diminishment of genders , and its misguided exaltation of money and wealth, rap music still adhere (albeit loosely) to a metrical pattern, a rhyme scheme, and other such poetic attributes. Let me put the question clearly: Is rap poetry?

I would love to hear input form anyone- especially anyone who writes or teaches poetry, or anyone who listens to or produces rap lyrics. Lend me arguments for or against the question; give me an example, post a link, whatever …. my ears are open.

To enlarge video click the small box under 'You' where YouTube is posted


Doug P. Baker said...

What a hilarious video!

I'm afraid I know very little about rap. But I have heard some, and there has never been any doubt in my mind that it is poetry. What little I recall was certaintly a higher form of poetics than the lyrics of most pop music.

But almost by definition song lyrics will be poetry in one way or another. Even the word lyrics points to this fact. And the word "music" comes from the Muses, those old minor deities who guide poets and artists to greater glory. The very language with which we speak about poetry and music has a tough time distinguishing one from the other.

Generally the rhythmic quality of rap music is inherrent in the poetic arrangement of the words themselves. The rap artists work with natural rhythms, just like all poets always have. In the performance, rap just accentuates that naturally occuring and artistically organized rhythm.

Some of the rap I've heard has had intricate rhyme schemes, internal rhyme and rhyme runs that I loved.

I wish I knew enough to tell you what artists and songs I'm thinking of. I've heard at least one rap song that made excellent and prolonged use of alliteration. It really had the Beowulf thing going.

One drawback in the presentation is that the emphatic stress put on every syllable tends to drown out the natural music (the rising and falling tonal quality) of the lyric. But that is a complaint that can be made about much music.

So, yes, I would have no trouble calling the rap I've heard poetry.

John W. May said...

Thanks for the comments, everyone.

Some of the feedback I received (via Facebook and other places) was pretty incredible… Poetry Jam really tackled the topic for me.

I think I believe rap music does depend upon the life and breath of poetry. Hypothetically, if poetry had no existence, music itself would lack prowess (indeed, may lack existence altogether).

Though exceedingly dark and vile at times, I deem rap music (and all music) as inherently poetic. That said, what I still desire to know is if a poem- and I say this reluctantly yet openly- if a poem is ‘made better’ if the moral disposition of its author is good.

I know it might take awhile to thoroughly come to a conclusion on it, but the question still begs my attention every day … it says (and asks): will you be moral with the Muse? And if not, what? Strange, but there it is.

Doug P. Baker said...

Ah, I see what you are asking.

You ask if the moral perspective of a poem makes it better poetry. Because of my own biases, I will alter that into whether the theological perspective of a poem makes it better poetry.

That is a mighty big question! I have wondered the same thing many times. I have noticed that I post generally poems that come from some sort of Christian understanding. And yet my focus has generally been on the poetics, and the theological questions have usually been secondary. (This is not what I intended when I began to blog, but it is what I notice in looking back at the postings.)

Yet I find that some degree of agreement with the sentiment of the poet produces in me a higher degree of enjoyment of the poetic genius of the poet. I prefer the poetics of William Cowper with whom I largely agree to the poetics of Mathew Arnold with whom I often disagree, although I readily see that Arnold's music is much more lively and intricate.

Yet at the same time, I find myself enthralled with the poetry of many who are (in the very broadest sense) Christian poets, but with whom I disagree on fundamental points. F'rinstance, Hopkins' poems in praise of Mary. They are brilliant, gorgeous, yet I disagree with some of their central concepts.

Why then do I love them more than I love the poems of Mathew Arnold? Can it be merely a matter of agreement?

In fact I sometimes find that love of a poem or poet widens my appreciation of God's work in humanity. I read poets with whom I disagree on central issues, yet I hear the same love for the same Christ in them. It seems that (in my experience at least) theological agreement and poetic resonance can each affect the other.

How the enjoyment of the poetics and the sense of agreement work out in practice, I have not yet come to terms with. This is a question that I have dealt with many times, yet I have no pat answer for it. I wrote a series of articles for Christianity And Society Journal on a very related subject. Yet I still am asking the question.

I wish we lived close enough that we could meet for coffee to discuss it at length! You wouldn't ask the question unless you had some notions on the question already. And I'd love to hear them at greater length than a blog makes convenient.

Obiterspeak said...

If rap brings about authentic being (that which the soul aspires to be) then it is true poetry.

The Harvard poet said: "...the only way to free the soul is to free the mind..."

The liberty of the mind and the speaking of the soul is the matter of meter and rhyme. It liberates the text (becoming and coming into being) from the mind's limited intentions. It becomes a way for the something within to speak and to say something unexpected but which rings true.

Really enjoyed the video :-) He might have been a little influenced by Vico's thoughts on how natural verse is to human being.

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