Pete's Blog

Hip-hop? Poetry?

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An article in a recent issue of the New Yorker argued for the acceptance of rapping as a form of poetry. This is nothing new - people have been making the point for as long as hip-hop's been around - but what was new to me was the author's emphasis on "not the content of hip-hop lyrics but their form." In arguing for the inclusion of rap in the poetic canon various critics were cited who spoke of top-level rappers' use of enjambment, assonance, alliteration, internal rhyme, stressed and unstressed syllables, the whole critical lexicon. Not nearly as much space was given to meaning. This may be all well and good. Black music from the beginning has championed the esthetic of "it ain't what you do it's the way how you do it" and the examples included in the article were impressively sophisticated. But is that what poetry is? I think you could make a good case for hip-hop as a powerful new medium of personal expression, a compelling spoken-word performance, but can anyone deny that its subject matter is extremely narrow? It's "about" a very limited sample of human existence, and none of it, at least none of its content, that I have heard, exalts, uplifts, or takes us out of ourselves. The meaning of the performances, the texts under the performances themselves, boils down to simple-minded bragging, even more simple-minded sexual come-ons, and true-crime narratives. Hip-hop lyrics may use the technical devices of poetry, to startling and bracing effect. But despite being spoken they aren't poetry, because poetry uses its metrical and rhythmic devices in the service of meaning, not the other way around. In "Dover Beach" Matthew Arnold makes the case for love as bulwark against an uncertain world. In "Prufrock" T.S. Eliot paints a portrait of post-war anxiety and anomie. You don't remember how they did it, you remember what they mean, what they're saying. The devices they use make their messages more powerful, but they aren't ends in themselves.

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