02/03/2011 07:17 pm ET | Updated May 25, 2011

The Poetry Foundation: Is Rap Poetry?

The Poetry Foundation:

How Ya Like Me Now

Does rap's suspended adolescence keep it from serious consideration?

By Adam Kirsch

The Anthology of Rap, ed. by Adam Bradley and Andrew DuBois.
Yale University Press. $35.00.

One of the best comic subplots in Zadie Smith's novel On Beauty concerns the wary alliance of Carl, a brilliant but unschooled rapper, and Claire Malcolm, the well-meaning poet who enrolls him in her college writing workshop. Claire first hears Carl perform when she takes her class to a spoken word night at a local cafe: the purpose of the trip, Smith writes, is "to show her new students that poetry was a broad church, one that she was not afraid to explore." But even Claire is surprised when Carl takes the microphone and throws out "complicated multisyllabic lines with apparent ease," telling "a witty, articulate tale about the various obstacles in the spiritual and material progress of a young black man." Impressed by his gift, the poet immediately takes it upon herself to educate the rapper, Henry Higgins-style: "Are you interested in refining what you have?" she asks Carl. "We'd like to talk to you. We have an idea for you."

The idea, Claire reveals, is that Carl is a John Clare for the twenty-first century--a proletarian genius who only needs to be taught iambic pentameter in order to write great poetry. ("You're almost thinking in sonnets already," she reassures him.) Smith shows that Carl is both attracted by this kind of attention from the literary-educational establishment and rightfully suspicious of it. He tells the workshop that his writing is "not even a poem. . .It's rap.... They two different things. . .two different art forms. Except rap ain't no art form. It's just rap." Smith captures the comedy of cross purposes: to the poet, turning a rapper into a poet is a cultural promotion; to the rapper, it looks more like a forfeiture of authenticity. And it is hard to imagine why any rapper would want to make such an exchange. If Carl hits it big as an MC, he can look forward to becoming rich and famous, with an audience of millions of passionate fans. If he succeeds as a poet, he can look forward to--tenure.

No wonder that, in the real world, poets have been more interested in what they can learn from rap than vice versa. Ironically, poets who are considered aesthetic conservatives have been most enthusiastic about hip-hop. The premise of "new formalism," to use a term almost as old as the Sugarhill Gang, is that rhyme, meter, and narrative are the defining elements of poetry, and that their absence from most contemporary poetry explains the genre's unpopularity and cultural irrelevance. The huge popularity of rap, which is committed to all those traditional techniques, seems to clinch the case. Dana Gioia, in his 2003 essay "Disappearing Ink," called rap "the new oral poetry," and hoped that it could spark a "renovation from the margins" of literary poetry. "While the revival of form and narrative among young literary poets could be dismissed by critical tastemakers as benighted antiquarianism and intellectual pretension," Gioia writes, "its universal adoption as the prosody-of-choice by disenfranchised urban blacks. . .is] impossible to dismiss in such simplistic ideological terms."

The appearance of the massive new Anthology of Rap marks a new phase in this rapprochement. At first glance, the anthology, published by Yale University Press and edited by two English professors, Adam Bradley and Andrew DuBois, might look like a Claire Malcolm-like act of cultural patronage, assimilating rap to the critical and scholarly ideals of literary poetry. As the editors' introduction declares, "it tells the story of rap as lyric poetry," and is meant to illuminate "its fundamental literary and artistic nature." Bradley is the author of Book of Rhymes: the Poetics of Hip Hop, an intelligent book about the forms and techniques of rap, in which he writes that he and DuBois "both had the privilege of studying poetry with Helen Vendler, a magnificent teacher"; and the notes to the Anthology suggest a Vendler-like interest in genre. Thus Ice-T's "6 'N the Mornin'" is described as not just "a gangsta rap classic" but also "an aubade, as it begins at the crack of dawn, and partakes of the picaresque as it moves through its series of episodes."

This is not really accurate--an aubade is a poem about lovers parting at dawn, whereas "6 'N the Mornin'" begins this way:

6 'n the mornin, police at my door
Fresh Adidas squeak across the bathroom floor
Out my back window I make my escape
Didn't even get a chance to grab my old school tape

But it's clear that the editors' intention is honorific. The poetic terminology, like the whole presentation of the anthology, is meant to encourage skeptical readers to give rap the kind of attention they are used to giving poetry. Bradley and DuBois are well aware that this means doing a kind of violence to rap, by severing lyrics from performance, the MC from the DJ. Ordinarily, you don't read Ice-T, you listen to him, and his voice and affect, as well as the producer's contribution of hooks and beats, are crucial to the overall effect. In fact, the editors write, most of the lyrics they include in the anthology had never been written down. They had to be transcribed, entailing a whole series of choices about lineation, punctuation, and orthography.

Yet while the editors acknowledge that "reading rap will never be the same as listening to it," The Anthology of Rap is meant to be more than a collection of song lyrics. As scholars of poetry, they naturally believe that reading is a more dignified form of apprehension than listening--DuBois is the editor of a book called Close Reading: The Reader--and the premise of this anthology is that MCs are essentially writers: "This is not, after all, a collection of lyrics from rap's greatest hits, but rather a collection of rap's best poetry."