On Poetry: Do I Like Rap?
FILE - In this Sept. 26, 2012 file photo, recording artist Lil Wayne speaks during an interview with The Associated Press in New Orleans. Epic Records is going to "great efforts" to take down a new Future remix leaked over the weekend with a vulgar lyric by Lil Wayne that has offended the family of Emmett Till. (AP Photo/Gerald Herbert, File)
Mike Humphrey of White River Junction reaches out to pour Paula Nulty a glass of champagne between readings during Pinot and a Prompt night at the Writer’s Center. (Valley News - Sarah Priestap)
A question I often get at readings concerns rap music.
Do I like it?
Is it poetry?
Second question first. A gentleman in Arlington, Vt., opined that “if it doesn’t rhyme, then it’s not poetry.” Of course, such a stricture would eliminate some of the greatest poetry in our cultural tradition, perhaps chiefly the Psalms of the Hebrew Bible. My Arlingtonian would likewise rule out 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, precisely, to rhyme.
Strong opinions about poetry, however enlightened or misguided, seem to come with the territory. Would Milton have considered the scrupulously rhymed verse of Alexander Pope to be poetry? Would Pope have so acknowledged the heavily colloquial work of William Wordsworth? What would Wordsworth have made of Whitman, Whitman of Ezra Pound, Pound of the Confessionals, and so on?
In short, controversy about what makes poetry reminds me of the history of poetry. Nowadays, when we encounter everything from so-called Language Poetry to Neoformalism to computer-generated poems, just to name a few trends, I am afraid that the only “definition” of poetry must be laughably indefinite: a poem is a collection of words on which its creator confers that designation.
So I can’t legitimately claim that rap, so relentlessly insistent on rhymes, “isn’t poetry.” I don’t listen to it much, in part because its meters and rhythms seem so profoundly reiterative that I often fear the onset of migraine. And lyrics? Well, when a young man named Chris Brown won a Grammy for an album last year, I went and Googled some of the “songs.” To my mind, when they aren’t downright offensive in their misogyny or violence, they’re just lame. Speaking of rhymes, his seem banal, predictable, inexact, or all of these at once.
She didn’t really really wanna pop me
Just know that you will never flop me
And I know that I can be a little cocky, no
You ain’t never gonna stop me
Unpersuaded, I looked up some lyrics by Jay-Z.
In New York, concrete jungle where dreams are made, oh
There’s nothing you can’t do, now you’re in New York
These streets will make you feel brand new
Big lights will inspire you, let’s hear it for New York
Well, better. But he ain’t no Langston Hughes.
Hold on: I’m getting too vehement here. After all, each to his or her own. My children reprove me mightily when I get too strident about rap, saying, rightly, that I don’t really know much about it (to which I respond, though privately, that there’s nothing I can find that invites much scrutiny).
Of course, any generation’s vernacular music should 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?
But I don’t really need to raise a controversy, simply because I don’t see myself competing with rap at all. My writing tends to be reflective, or contemplative, or, often, elegiac, and although I supposed it’s possible I’m wrong about this too, you’d have to persuade me that rap could provide me a vehicle for such modes. Rap has other fish to fry from mine. 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 so much hip-hop dance?)
I don’t compete with rap because mass entertainment is not my aim. Sure, I already hear the objections: “Yeah, that’s what’s wrong with it.” Critics will point out, say, that one Lil Wayne album outsells all of any year’s “serious” poetry put together.
Right. 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 on her way home for the weekend.
Sydney Lea is the Poet Laureate of Vermont and lives in Newbury.