Poetry That Gets A Bad Rap

McWhorter says poetry is more popular than ever, but most people just don’t recognize it:

Rap is indeed “real” poetry. 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 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.”

That means that to us, poetry is written poetry, that which sits between covers and is intended to be read, quietly, alone, with tea, likely chamomile. Never mind that in fact Jay-Z has released a magisterial volume of his lyrics as a book: generally, rap is intended to be heard on the fly, often in a concert arena. Surely there is a key distinction between that and the strophes of John Berryman or Gwendolyn Brooks? But if there is, it’s a matter of style and tone, not basic classification.

On the above music video:

Let’s not get it twisted—the Cam’ron of the forthcoming Federal Reserve isn’t the same person who, earlier this century, became the central mythological figure of Harlem. But, when you put him in the right hands—in this case, the nimble duo of A-Trak and Just Blaze—the resulting product is more than enough to release a flood of pent-up dopamine. Lines like “Mommy backed up and said she see the difference/ “You’re mature, handsome, mixed with a lot of ignance” will do that to you.