Is Rap Poetry?
The short answer is “no,” of course. To state the obvious, things can share certain attributes and not be the same sort of thing, and asking whether rap is poetry has always struck me as a useless question. Both rap and poetry use literary devices like assonance and alliteration. Both use words. Both are spoken. But rap is a musical-verbal art and poetry is a verbal-musical-typographical one. So why make the comparison?
Well, as David Caplan points out in his intriguing Rhyme’s Challenge: Hip Hop, Poetry, and Contemporary Rhyming Culture (Oxford, 2014), it can be a way of both elevating (or highlighting, depending on your view) rap’s artistry and defending poetry against its apparent decline.
John McWhorter provides an example of this over at The Daily Beast. In “Americans Have Never Loved Poetry More—But They Call It Rap,” McWhorter argues that rap is poetry because:
It rhymes, often even internally. Its authors work hard on the lyrics. The subject matter is certainly artistically heightened, occasioning long-standing debates over whether the depictions of violence and misogyny in some of it are sincere. And then, that “gangsta” style is just one, and less dominant than it once was. Rap, considered as a literature rather than its top-selling hits, addresses a wide-range of topics, even including science fiction. Rap is now decades old, having evolved over time and being increasingly curated by experts. In what sense is this not a “real” anything?
The only reason it is not considered “real” poetry, McWhorter argues, channeling his inner Derrida, is that Western culture has long valued written language over speech:
The only reason rap may seem to nevertheless not be “real” poetry is a skewed take on language typical of modern, literate societies: that spoken language is merely a sloppy version of written language. “English,” under this analysis, is what’s on a page, with punctuation and fonts and whoms and such. Speech is “just talking.”
Also, rap is often profane and can seem less serious.
David Caplan’s study focuses on detailing the literary elements of hip hop and rap, which is different from claiming that rap is poetry. I don’t want to review the book here, but Caplan does make a similar point to McWhorter in his introduction. Too often, Caplan writes, “critics treat the term ‘poetry’ as if it retains a stable definition across cultures, times periods, and genres. The history of poetics, however, records much more contestation than consensus.” Caplan goes on to cite Wordsworth’s remark that poetry is the “spontaneous overflow of powerful feelings” and discusses poets who have taken issue with this statement as proof that poetry’s definition is unstable.
But while what counts as poetry changes over time and differs across cultures, Caplan is too quick to suggest that poetry has no stable generic characteristics. One important one—and one that distinguishes it from both hip-hop and rap—is that the musicality and typography of poetry reside in the words themselves alone. In both formal and free verse, the musicality of a poem, whether it is created by end-rhymes, assonance, alliteration, repetition or other forms of internal rhyming, does not exist external to the poem.
In hop-hop and rap, while some musicians are more talented than others, and while rap lyrics do possess musicality (repetition, assonance, alliteration), that musicality is incomplete without the beat and notes of the sampled music. Caplan provides a number of examples of rap lyrics, and some are rather good, but even the best don’t stand on their own as pieces of great artistry for the simple reason that they were not written to do so. They were crafted to go with external rhythm and notes. So, it seems to me, the only sense in which rap is poetry is as incomplete poetry, which doesn’t do either rap or poetry any favors.
That said, it is interesting that poetry’s decline has taken place in a culture that is “rhyme-drenched,” as Caplan rightly notes. I am not a connoisseur of rap (I listen to little beyond standard white guy favorites—Rage against the Machine, Beastie Boys, Run DMC), but I have a number of friends who have a high view of rap’s artistry. Caplan, for one, makes a strong case that there is more to hip-hop in terms of artistry than is often granted, even if I think he oversells it. There is no such thing as high or low culture. There is interesting culture and boring culture. There are works of art that show great skill and those that don’t.
So by all means, defend hip-hop or rap or poetry, but let’s avoid defending them by association. Let the songs or poems speak for themselves.