By James Siegel
When asked about the biggest influences on my poetry, a few names spring to mind: Hart Crane, Berrymen, Dickinson, Stevens. But that response feels academic, the expected answer rather than the true one. That’s not to say that they did not actually influence my work, because they certainly did. It’s just that they are newer names to me, while the roots of my poetry knowledge comes from quite a different list of names: Kanye, Jadakiss, Lil Wayne, Gucci Mane.
Poetry has a certain reputation among middle school students, and I feel sorry for any middle school teacher trying to get kids to appreciate the classics. I was as disinterested in the subject as any back then, but even though I didn’t care about poetry, that’s also where the roots of my love of poetry began. I didn’t learn about lines, stanza, and verses through the Shakespeare my teachers wanted me to read. No. Instead, I learned about the line, stanza regularity, and of course, rhyme scheme, from 50 Cent, Ludacris, Outkast, and Jay-Z.
Listening to rap, and then trying to rap myself, taught me everything that I later relearned in college. I can think of no better teacher of enjambment, for example, than André 3000. Anyone who has appreciated the way he breaks up his sentences to fit the beat and his rhyme scheme, already understands how to break up lines. Even the basic structure of a poem, with stanza breaks, is evident in rap. The average verse, for example, is 16 bars, or lines. Understanding this form is no different than knowing how many lines are in a sonnet. The masters of rap have the same need for compression in language. While a poet may be trying to make his idea fit into iambic pentameter, the rapper is equally challenged to make his thoughts fit the drum line.
When I started the creative writing program at SUNY Purchase I was intimidated by poetry. I wasn’t that versed in reading poetry, let alone trying to write it. For my portfolio I submitted some of my rap lyrics. I had been writing and recording rap songs for a few years, and my project at the time, The Ice Age, was a work I was very proud. It was the writing I was most confident in, so I submitted it.
Getting accepted on the strength of my rap lyrics was at first surprising. But after taking a couple poetry classes, I realized I knew more about poetry then I initially thought. It was through discussion and study of poetry and poetic techniques that I recognized in my lyrics, elements like consonance and assonance, strong enjambment, even something approaching meter. These all come from rap, a vocal form where those techniques are a subtler part of the performance. With those tools at my disposal I was able to jump headfirst into both reading and writing poetry.
Now that I have spent a lot of time studying the art of poetry, the line between rap music and printed poetry is heavily blurred. I am still a fan of both, and I write both. Looking back at the lyrics I submitted in my portfolio, I still consider them rap, but yet they are the poetry that got me to where I am. Even when I perform these pieces the question of genre remains. I’ve used them for everything from straightforward poetry readings to guitar-based rock performances. So I leave you with a sample of the lyrics from a song from The Ice Age that was in my portfolio, “Pnemonia,” and I wonder, if I hadn’t told you where these lyrics came from, would you think they came from a rap song? Or would you think they were from a poem. Are they neither? Or are they both?
We’re all just characters
Who’s gonna remember you if no one records the story?
I had to be the protagonist
Because I fit in no other man’s background category
I quested and received no grand revelations
Or resolution to the storm scenes
It bothers me not
I needed no glory
Even if I had some it would surely
Fade like that of all those who came before me
Because death closes all doors
And locks them securely