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March 9, 2004

rap + written "art" poetry = ?

I'm wondering what would happen if one tried to combine the rhythm of rap with some of the conventions of written poetry. (This is a naive question; there may be very obvious answers and lots of great examples.) As I understand it, rap lines usually contain four strongly accented syllables. There may also be any number of unaccented syllables, but each line takes an equal amount of time to say. That means that lines with many syllables go very quickly; but the four accented beats occur at a regular rate. Rhyme alerts listeners to the end of each line. Rap is sung/spoken against a digital beat, and the combination of that beat, the changing speed of the words, and the regular occurance of strong accents makes for an interesting form of syncopation. Rap doesn't work especially well on paper, because it's too hard to tell which syllables should be accented, and there's no background beat.

In contrast, it's hard to hear the length of a line in most modern written poetry. Even if rhymes are used, they tend to be subtle (off-rhymes or slant rhymes) and they are often concealed by enjambment. In conventional forms like iambic pentameter, each line has the same number of syllables, but a varying number of accents. In free verse, the number of syllables varies, but the reader still perceives each line as a meaningful unit. Information about line breaks is transmitted best on paper; it may be lost in speech. (Poetry in which line breaks are completely unimportant is simply prose.)

I don't really listen to rap, but I understand that it's a vital cultural phenomenon with tremedous energy and potential. I do read some contemporary "art" poetry, and I deeply admire a portion of what I read. I would probably like even more of it if I understood it better and worked harder at it. Written verse is valuable if only because silent, slow, careful reading of distilled language is good for the mind. Besides, "art" poetry connects to a wonderful heritage of writing as old as Sappho. Yet I suspect that as a whole body of work, current written poetry is not really going anywhere.

So could written verse draw inspiration from rap prosody? If rap performers could be persuaded to write some silent verse, they would contribute their energy and experience to the form. The technical trick would be to signal strong accents and line-speed--two aspects of language that ordinary writing does not automatically convey. I wonder if it would be possible to use subtle typographic clues, like slightly larger print for the accented syllables.

March 9, 2004 7:48 AM | category: fine arts | Comments


If I read your comments correctly, it seems as though spoken word/slam poetry does not follow the rules of rap or traditional poetry, but it is hyped as the juncture between the art forms (there are slam poets who publish chapbooks or more formal books of their work, such as "Final Girl" by Daphne Gottlieb). Where do you see spoken word fitting in, or is it a beast of its own classification?

March 9, 2004 3:11 PM | Comments (5) | posted by Eli

Thanks for the good question. I checked out "Final Girl" online, but I would need to buy a copy to read it. I honestly don't have a good overall sense of what's going on with spoken word poetry and/or poetry slams. As I hinted in my original post, I'm sure that there's lots of sophisticated work out there that draws on rap prosody and themes and also the traditions of written verse. I guess I would personally be most interested if someone--and it could be Daphne Gottlieb--wrote verse that rewarded slow, silent, careful reading, while deriving energy from rap and other modern oral forms.

March 10, 2004 12:27 PM | Comments (5) | posted by Peter Levine

The late rapper, Tupac Shakur had a book of poems published after his death. I do not know if those poems were originally written for his music, but I do know that there was also a spoken word album released in conjunction with the book. I believe the album has the same title as the book, Rose that Grew from Concrete. Much of Tupac's music was "politically aware" but I do not know the nature of his poetry.

March 10, 2004 1:24 PM | Comments (5) | posted by Jake

Tupac Shakur was a great song writer and a wonderful poet. The other side of Tupac is expressed through his poetry. He expresses how he really felt towards the people he loved. No matter if it's through music or poetry he says things how they really are. HIS LEGACY WILL ALWAYS LIVE ON!

July 13, 2004 5:17 PM | Comments (5) | posted by Erica

This could become a very interesting discussion. There is also a more abstract form of poetry that has links to what you're talking about, as well as to the more experimental forms of the Dadaist poets, Kurt Schwitters, Artaud, etc. - the human beat box. If this were to be combined with an exploration of language, sound and the human vocal repertoire, it could be a very interesting area. There are many great figures who are exlporing this right now (though not the beat box - perhaps its usual association with musical accompaniment, and its limits compared with free form sound) - for example Phil Minton, an incredible vocal explorer.

August 29, 2004 8:08 AM | Comments (5) | posted by dispatx

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