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Poetry is no longer something we curl up to with a cup of tea. Instead, we take it in through earbuds. And America has never loved it more.
One hears a certain baleful cry regularly in writerly circles that Americans don’t care about poetry anymore. A widely read Atlantic piece by Dana Gioia in 1992 was a signature statement. Granted, that was a while ago now, but times don’t seem to have changed much: Comments in the wake of Charles Wright’s anointment last week as America’s poet laureate kept the lamentation going.
The drill goes that back in the day, kids recited Longfellow in school, but today poets are a tiny guild writing largely for one another. Americans, anti-intellectual and numb to the artistic as always, have become a people deaf to heightened renditions of their language.
It sounds right. I myself a long time ago even threw my hat in on the subject. But the whole notion is, in fact, nonsense.
To utterly naïve anthropologists sent to document the ways of Americans in 2014, one of the first things that would strike them is that this country is quite poetry mad. No, they would not find well-thumbed volumes of Robert Frost, Marianne Moore, and Billy Collins laying around the typical living room. However, they could not help but notice that a great many people under about 50 regularly go around listening to and yes, reciting poetry—rap, that is.
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?