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Misadventures in Poetry

I’d guess that many readers have declared at one time or another a dislike for Rap music. Introduced to us decades ago as “gangsta” music—grungy, angry and full of obscenities—it was music that espoused the shooting of cops, the use of hard drugs and the disrespect of women. The new subgenre, Hip-Hop, is an offspring of Rap, using R&B and “beatboxing,” or vocal percussion. But pure Rap—that staccato poetry—is at the heart of Hip-Hop.

Surely, the initial shock of Rap caused multitudes to reject it outright when its vitriol first appeared on the scene. But over the years Rap has evolved, and what’s most important to fans and detractors alike is that its content has evolved and “grown up.”

The references to cop-killing and demeaning women that we righteously protested in Rap songs of the past are on the decline in Rap lyrics, and the heart of true poetry—love—is emerging.

In my deepest heart, I believe that poetry can’t succeed without love. The poet must see something in the subject matter worth loving. Call it redeeming social value, if you will. Poetry without that essence? Dry. Grim. Non-elevating. Polemical. (Even angry poetry can be good when it decries something in the name of what might be, showing love for what might be.) What has been emerging in Rap music more recently is a street humanism that swells its raw poetry with true insight and important meaning. Many lyrics these days show love for the people toward whom the music is directed, a true sense of caring—they can even be preachy. (See the first example, below.) No longer just the angry, “Screw ’em all” ramblings we cringed at in the earlier days. A form evolving into its fullest potential.

But the great thing about Rap is how it has rejuvenated the love of language that’s the basis of all good poetry. Rap has become poetry’s lifeline, reflecting and choreographing our world of sensory bombardment.

For some, there still exist all those cultural barriers—we just can’t condone a form that seems so low-class. But consider this: If there’s an historical parallel to the emergence of Rap in our time, it’s probably the emergence of the Elizabethan poets—especially Shakespeare—in the 16th century.

English was considered a second-class language at that time. The educated classes read, wrote and often conversed in Latin or Greek. The Elizabethans tried to establish an English poetry that would replace these dead languages and their complex poetic forms. Thus was developed the iambic pentameter that was key to Shakespeare’s plays and poetry.

The courtly poets of Queen Elizabeth’s day were concerned about the patronage of the royal house of England, and their work showed it. Mythical, courtly, elegiac. Nothing common about it. However, the Bard of Avon—while also hoping to impress the nobility—found his best audience among the common man. The “groundlings—poor folk without the funds to sit in the galleries—stood loyally, performance after performance, as the famous plays evolved before them. They were also represented in Shakespeare’s plays. They were workers—gravediggers and the like—and their take on the follies of their “betters” formed the great comedic heart of Shakespeare’s work. The groundlings “got” the simple meter in which Shakespeare wrote, and they laughed raucously at the foibles of the rich as Shakespeare depicted them—those same frowning audience members upstairs in the good seats. The Bard was not loved by the upper classes for being in touch with the raw lives of the commoners. Today, Rap songwriters are getting the same bad…rap.

If there is a single good example of how exquisite the form can be, it’s “Gangsta’s Paradise” written by Coolio, Doug Rasheed, Larry Sanders and Stevie Wonder and performed by Coolio and L.V. The song decries the Gangsta lifestyle while at the same time fatalistically accepting it—an existential cry. A taste of the lyrics:

 

I’m the kinda G

the little homies wanna be like

On my knees in the night,

sayin’ prayers in the street light

 

You can watch a fine performance of this song on YouTube by searching for: “Coolio Featuring L.V. – Gangsta’s Paradise.” The video includes clips from Michelle Pfeiffer’s 1995 film “Dangerous Minds” and weaves heavenly choral music into the rhythms. I promise you’ll be moved, if not love it.

Another rapper named Young MC performs a song called “Bust a Move” that he wrote with Matt Dike and Mike Ross, which is also worth watching on YouTube. The term means dance, man, dance—and if the song doesn’t get you up and dancing, well, there’s not much hope for you. The message is pedestrian—just a guy trying to find a girl. Lots of Rap and Hip-Hop is like that. But what stands out is how the writers use language as meter and how that language itself glows with life. Here’s a taste:

You’re on a mission and you’re wishin’

Someone could cure

your lonely condition

Some while ago, I edited a novel set in the turn of the last century that contained an anonymous poem that begins:

Once a company of beavers, in their engineering fury,

took a notion that their mission was to dam the big Missouri.

Under consecrated leaders they assembled in convention

for the instant prosecution of their notable intention.

They were able hardwood biters, they were noble timber topplers.

They beavered down the willows and felled the heavy poplars.

They laid them on the riffle. They were very, very clever.

They were brilliant—but the river paid them no regard whatever.

The poem is a fable, a story with animals in it—as distant from Rap as an art form can be. But it has a rhythm that is entirely adaptable to a Rap song. So, with the help of UrbanDictionary.com, I changed a few words, did a few other minor tweaks and came up with this:

 

(Rhythmic scratching record sound…)

Once a posse of ol’ beavers in, like, engineerin’ fury

got to trippin’ that their mission was to dam the wide Missouri.

Under very righteous leaders they all chilled out in convention,

they were sprung up on the big plan that the other brothers mentioned.

They were skeezer hardwood biters, they were slammin’ timber topplers

’cause they beavered down the willow trees and laid out all the poplars

They laid down the riff—like a pattern, like a plan,

like a man with a plan—but the river it just ran.

 

Think about it. A few words changed here, a few words changed there. Same message, same energy, different song for a different time.

The point is, poetry has been waiting for Hip-Hop to revive it.

(Word.)

 

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