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Six features of hip hop poetry

Hip hop has increasingly influenced a new generation of American poets. For instance, the current issue of Poetry excerpts poems and essays from the recently published anthology, The BreakBeat Poets, edited by Kevin Coval, Quraysh Ali Lansana, and Nate Marshall. In the anthology’s introduction, Marshall asserts:

This is the story of how generations of young people reared on hip-hop culture and aesthetics took to the page and poem and microphone to create a movement in American letters in the tradition of the Black Arts, Nuyorican, and Beat generations and add to it and innovate on top.

Even observers who do not particularly like hip hop recognize that it offers contemporary poets an important resource. “I think the Shakespeare of this century would certainly—would certainly—learn from rap, yes,” Geoffrey Hill, the octogenarian Oxford Professor of Poetry, insisted to a television interviewer.

Hip hop’s influence has reached a point where it would be helpful to clarify what poets have learned from this genre of music. To borrow Wittgenstein’s term, what “family resemblance” distinguishes the genre of hip hop poetry? To start the conversation, I propose the following “network of similarities”:

  • The poet as emcee. Published in his 2002 collection, Hip Logic, Terrance Hayes’s widely noticed poem, “emcee,” stylishly established this trope. The poem details a series of opportunities and freedoms that a hip hop aesthetic encourages. “Under your spell I can do anything,” it boasts. The poet, however, recognizes the limits of the resemblance. He is an imagined emcee, not an actual one. Instead, Hayes suggests an affinity between the two artists and their art forms. Both sample and seek to innovate.
  • A hip hop style of allusion. Contemporary poetry increasingly offers a particular kind of allusion, marked by dense punning and hit-or-miss references to various kinds of texts, figures, and products. In this respect, it follows hip hop practice. This kind of allusion strives to appear omnivorous, capable of devouring nearly everything. The website Rap Genius—later renamed Genius—partly arose to help listeners understand musical examples. As in modernist poetry, such allusions favor experts who can identify and appreciate them. The age of Google and other internet tools, however, has changed the experience of allusion, deemphasizing interpretive difficulty and encouraging an even greater velocity.
  • The most conspicuous marker of hip hop’s influence on contemporary poetry has been the use of a particular idiom. A new kind of slang has gained increasing currency as poets employ the nonce words and the particular language hip hop favors.
Dj Turntable Scratching Music Hang Up Disco by phio, CC 1.0 Universal (CC1.0) via Pixabay.
“DJ Turntable Scratching Music” CC0 via Pixabay.
  • Subject matter. In addition to adapting (often critically) the major themes of hip hop music, hip hop poetry takes hip hop music, culture, and personalities as subjects. Writing about her recent collection, West, Sarah Blake observes:

    In 2010, I knew I wanted to write about hip hop. I love how hip hop is rooted in the present. I love its mixed diction, its humor, how it’s political, how much collaboration is involved. When I tried to write about it directly, I couldn’t. So I decided to write about an artist.

    Mr. West examines moments from Kanye West’s life using a perspective distinct from his. The collection foregrounds this difference, presenting the poet as a white, middle-class, pregnant woman. Other poems in this genre include Michael Cirelli’s Lobster with Ol’ Dirty Bastard, which retells anecdotes from the lives of a number of hip hop artists. Adrian Matejka’s “Tyndall Armory” remembers an early Public Enemy concert. Franny Choi’s “Pussy Monster” startlingly varies this approach. The poem takes its content from the words of a Lil’ Wayne song, arranged in order of frequency. The hip hop artist’s word choice is the poem’s story.

  • Hip hop has influenced print-based poetry’s use of form in at least two main ways. First, some poems imitate the form of hip hop lyrics transcribed onto the page. Second, hip hop has encouraged a new interest in virtuoso rhyming. As Major Jackson notes, “I put a premium on rhymes—how could I / Not living in the times of the Supa / Emcees?” While Americans poets previously generally avoided patterned rhyme, a new generation of poets has experimented with its most conspicuous forms, including multi-syllabic, mosaic, and forced rhymes. When a poet rhymes “Sudafed” with “red” or “Sierra Leone” with “home” (as Michael Robbins and Jackson respectively do), one can hear hip hop’s formal influence.
  • Sincerity and swagger. Both celebrated or attacked, “sincerity” has served as a key term in American poetry since the mid-century. Hip hop poetry, on the other hand, proposes a different ideal: swagger. “I think this is where swagger comes from,” Dorothea Lasky observes, explaining Biggie Smalls’ influence on her work. “It is the craft, the skill, the flow, that connects all of us as poets. The ability to take the muck of the everyday and make it beautiful.” Swagger has replaced the tones of muffled regret familiar to much “boomer” poetry. However, it remains to be seen how flexible and persuasive this attitude will be.

Featured Image Credit: “Concert Scene with DJ.” CC0 via Pixabay.

Recent Comments

  1. Jayne Smee

    Love this. Really interesting read

  2. […] that struck a chord with me was the “Post-Modern Poets” pages that dealt with Black artists, hip-hop, and spoken word. My cultural studies sensibilities were ringing as I read about the controversy […]

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