The Def of poetry – poetic license
“The first discipline is the realization that there is a discipline–that all art begins and ends with discipline, that any art is first and foremost a craft”–Archibald MacLeish
A colleague of mine says that hip-hop impresario Russell Simmons should stick to Ja Rule and Phat Farm. While I have witnessed Def Poetry Jam on several occasions and understand the argument, I have no interest in hating (at least not this week) on Russell’s seemingly good intentions and commercial efforts to bridge hip hop and poetry and transport spoken word into the mainstream. What interests me more so is our generation’s underlying supposition that there is indeed a cultural intersection of rap music and its literary cousin, and that this line is thinning faster than a Mystikal rhyme (Show me watcha working with).
Which brings me to the question my brother-in-law, also from Louisiana, recently asked me: Do you think rap is poetry? Without hesitation I eagerly gave him the same resounding answer I’d given Tavis Smiley on BET Tonight more than two years ago: No, definitely not! His follow-up question, however, proved to be more of a stunner, forcing me to move beyond the surface of my bookish posturing and deal with the substance of my artistic judgment–Why?
Any discussion of what is and what isn’t poetry must be based upon an agreed upon definition of poetry. And since that will never happen, the remainder of this column will either embrace your opinion on the subject at hand or piss you off.
Let’s start here: Poems are words concisely arranged through the use of imaginative language that suggest something interesting, original and perhaps inspiring rather than state it directly. Surely, the Cristal-laced banal tales of pulling yourself up by the hoodstraps couldn’t be interesting, original, let alone inspiring. Back in the day, no matter how much we jammed to the Sugarhill Gang and Kurtis Blow, we wouldn’t have dared mention them in the same brea(d)th as Nikki Giovanni and Henry Dumas. So why the sudden need to upgrade (that’s right I said upgrade) Nelly, P. Diddy and Cash Money Millionaires just because they make you shake ya’ ass.
As Keorapetse Kgositile comments in his Approaches to Poetry Writing. “They are shallow. They lack depth of feeling and thought. They do not move anyone at any level. Perhaps they do not even have any sentimental value and they are quickly forgotten.” While his context is the development of poets, it can easily be applied to the aforementioned rappers and their spoken-word counterparts.
Too often in neo-literary circles, socially conscious rappers tend to get honorary poetry degrees. If they are saying something that takes us somewhere, makes us feel something magical, moves us–then unquestionably it must be poetry. Sure, we get lucky from time to time with a Common or a Nas, who show us glimpses of the modern day Djali conjuring fluid tales of life, love and the pursuit of hip hop. Unfortunately, while this may sound good on wax, the reality is that no matter how infectious and poetic a Mos Del lyric can be, deep does not a poem make:
Yo I’m tryin to make a dollar out of what makes sense/Add it up, told my
daddy I’d be a rich man/You never know when your fate gon’ switch hand/Get
today’s solid ground out of yesterday’s quicksand/I was a young boy–who
dreamt about being a big man/on small loose-leaf sheets I sketched a big
plan/Gotta handle business properly, boost up my economy/Store it up and
get my mom some waterfront property
Giving this verse a quick poetry acid test, we’ve got cliche (`yo,’ `solid ground’ and `I was a young boy’); verbosity (`You never know when your fate gon’ switch hand’ could easily be `fate switches hand’); and false rhyme (`economy’ and `property’).
Now I hear the argument coming that says, you’re being too literal, Kwame. Well, that my friend is the point, isn’t it? I am not saying that Mos Def is not also a poet, but words rocked on stage must rip on the page before your dope rhymes are christened poetry. To do that, one must learn how to write well, which means having a proper understanding of what makes a poem good: experience, observation, imagery, rhythm, repetition, language, meaningful line breaks and conciseness.
To be fair, rappers are not the only ones who break the rules without knowing them. Spoken-word artists recklessly abandon the practice of their pens in search of performance-honing opportunities. These days, if you have an idea, no matter how unoriginal, a powerful performance can jet you to local fame on the poetry scene. Much in the same way that a DMX, LL or even a Jay-Z concert is dynamic, spoken-word artists could care less about form and technique, instead eyeing acceptance, appreciation and applause. Of course, it’s okay for rappers not to be concerned with my literary acid test, since their art form is strictly oral.
Many of the artists mentioned here are dynamic in that right. But poets, in general, and black poets in particular, have a dual responsibility to the oral and written word. A reader who reads your poetry in the confines of their candlelit bath should experience the same jolt as the reader who hears you read at an open mic. This is the job of the poet not the rapper.
By way of comparison, does Edwidge Danticat become a poet because her writing is so poetic? Is August Wilson a musician because his plays are solidly built on the blues motif? Is Michael Jordan a magician because he defies the possible and a master of illusion on the court? No, definitely not! But they are accurate metaphors for those geniuses. So perhaps it is that some MCs who are lyrical and microphone geniuses like Tupac and Rakim and Biggie are deserving of the poetry metaphor. Maybe not.
What I am certain of is that it has become quite difficult to distinguish a typical open mic or spoken-word event from a freestyle session or a rap cipher. I mean, just the names alone of some of the poets who frequent the former make a case: D.R.I. Fish, The Boogeyman, The Poemcees, Tehut-nine, Queen Sheba, Moonshine and Black Ice. And let’s not forget how every poet wants to get a deal. The tremendous influence of hip hop on literature is obvious and worthy of further examination. Maybe my brother-in-law posed the wrong question, and what he (we) should really be asking is whether poetry is on the fast track to becoming rap? Holla if ya hear me….
–Kwame Alexander is a BIBR associate editor.
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