Although I was too young to experience the Sixties, I grew up listening to “Classic Rock.” While my best friend became a walking compendium of knowledge about nearly every group of that era, I became entranced by the lyrics of those songs, despite the fact that I was famous among my friends for “mis-hearing” certain lyrics. If any of those guys happens to be reading this blog, need I say more than “Lionel Fire?”
Despite a boatload of evidence that we build our vocabulary better by reading words than hearing them, my love of and interest in poetry have their foundation in the songs I heard. I wrote a paper in a high school poetry class about the poetic status of Lennon and McCartney, and a friend and I presented the poem on the back cover of Jethro Tull’s Aqualung to a Religious Ed class to provide an “alternate” point of view to the Book of Genesis.
So, I can understand the point made by John McWhorter in his Daily Beast column about the contemporary American love affair with poetry. He isn’t talking about Terrance Hayes or Louise Glǖck but Rap music. His point is that Rap is driving a renaissance in American interest in poetry. He’s absolutely right and wrong.
McWhorter challenges the age-old complaint against lyrics-as-poetics by pointing out that “legitimate poetry” is required to be written, not spoken or sung. He challenges that notion, going one step further when he writes, “The real story is that modern technology and social media make us a much more oral society than we once were.”
Poetry has always been oral. Homer wrote the Iliad and Odyssey to be sung. Shakespeare wrote to be recited at court and to lovers. Poe owes his famous rhythms to the “Call and Response” poetry of slaves working in the Southern fields. It wasn’t until academicians kidnapped poetry and imprisoned it between book covers that it became what McWhorter describes as something “we curl up to with a cup of tea.” And I say that as an academician.
However, McWhorter gets caught by his own argument when he pooh-poohs contemporary free verse: “Without rhyme or regular meter, embracing ambiguity and often deeply individualistic, much of it almost willfully transcends the bounds of popular taste.” Those who go so far to declare what is “true” poetry still don’t get the point of poetry. It is a fiercely independent art, not one that kowtows to the popularity of the moment. Because Rap is bringing rhyme and strict meter back into the forefront doesn’t mean all other forms are invalid. Just add David Gray or Warpaint to your Pandora channels and listen to singer-songwriters who are writing deeply individualistic, ambiguous, poetic lyrics that are stunning and popular. To say the oral version is true and the written version is not is the same as arguing that graffiti is truly art and museum pieces are not. Both describe the human experience. Both express the human struggle and glory. Both help bring 3-D meaning to our lives.
American poetry is alive and diverse enough to comfortably encompass both Big Sean and Matthew Zapruder in its modern-day guise.
Over the years I have thought that maybe I owe an apology to my high school English and Religious Ed teachers. It isn’t easy dealing with precocious teens who think they have the answers that have escaped their elders’ doughty minds. But maybe I owe them some thanks also. Maybe by their acceptance (an “A” on the paper) and rejection (thrown out of Religious Ed class), both teachers gave me my first glimpse of poetry as the “whole of the wideness of night / a self that touches all edges.”*
*From “A Rabbit as King of the Ghosts” by Wallace Stevens