Eminem vs. Robert Frost: can poetry be hip? - Can hip hop save poetry?

2006-07-17 10:46

By Scott Thill

The votes have been cast and the results are in -- hip-hop is now the preferred entertainment medium for the next generation. Hip-hop sales make up a larger and larger proportion of the pop-music universe every year, and even when it does not thoroughly dominate, its styles are forming the backbone of whatever does, whether it happens to be bubble-pop, electronic music or rap-rock. You need look no further than Eminem's Oscar win for "Lose Yourself" to know that, like it or not, the form has arrived in mainstream culture and isn't going anywhere.

Along the way, it has made capitalist kings out of Russell Simmons, Jay-Z, Rick Rubin, LL Cool J, Ice Cube and countless others. Simmons alone is now a cultural force to be reckoned with, and his "One Mind One Vote" campaign hopes to pull millions of nonvoting young African-Americans into the 2004 election.

Simmons understands a zeitgeist when he sees one, and so it is no surprise that such a progenitor of hip-hop would latch onto the burgeoning poetry movement known as spoken word -- or "slam," depending on the venue -- and take it mainstream. In 2003, Simmons morphed his king-making HBO vehicle known as "Def Comedy Jam" into "Def Poetry Jam," hoping to explode the careers of outstanding poets like Saul Williams, Jimmy Santiago Baca, Ursula Rucker and others as convincingly as he did for comedians Martin Lawrence, Jamie Foxx, Bernie Mac, Steve Harvey and Dave Chappelle. It worked like a charm -- "Def Poetry Jam" garnered stellar reviews and a Peabody Award to boot.

That's because, as Saul Williams -- whose recent epic poem ", Said the Shotgun to the Head" was released by MTV Books last fall -- explains, hip-hop has had as massive an influence on today's spoken word poets as jazz had on the Beats -- and the African oral tradition had on jazz.

"I'm definitely a hip-hop head by nature, by generalization, by generation," says Williams. "I'm there in the mix, so I'm turned on by the same things, nod my head to the same things. Even if I'm writing a piece of prose, there is still an intrinsic rhythm that I'm looking for, even without rhyme, even without beats, even without music and microphones."

But even with the considerable clout of hip-hop -- and Russell Simmons -- behind it, spoken word is sometimes still considered the redheaded stepchild of poetry. It has yet to fully win over the academics, 183 years after Percy Bysshe Shelley argued that "poets are the unacknowledged legislators of the world." Former United States poet laureate Robert Pinsky has publicly praised the spoken-word movement, but the Favorite Poem Project Web site he started in 1997 to celebrate and promote "poetry's role in Americans' lives" includes exactly zero spoken-word or hip-hop artists (although it does contain a spirited reading of Gwendolyn Brooks' canonical "We Real Cool," a poetic hip-hop antecedent if there ever was one). This is curious, considering that the site features so many readings of classic poems by ordinary citizens like you and me.

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Is hip-hop saving poetry -- or trashing it? Beneath the feel-good rhetoric of "Def Poetry Jam" and the "spoken-word revolution" is a battle over the future of literature's oldest form.

"There are only three legitimate things anyone can do with poetry -- write it, read it, or publish it. Writing reviews, or holding seminars, or reading it in public -- even making records of it -- well, this is secondary activity, unimportant at best, meretricious at worst."
-- Philip Larkin

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