: Reduced to Rhyme :

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an excerpt by David Caplan

Following Pound, many poets report that rhymes “surprise” and “astonish” them, diverting the emerging poem from their original intention. Depending on their temperaments, critics and poets have proposed spiritual metaphors for this process or described it as inscrutable. W.H. Auden drew from philosophy to define the composition process as dialectical:

In the process of composition, as every poet knows, the relation between experience and language is always dialectical, but in the finished product it must always appear to the reader to be a one-way relationship. In serious poetry thought, emotion, event, must always appear to dictate the diction, meter, and rhyme in which they are embodied; vice versa, in comic poetry it is the words, meter, rhyme, which must appear to create the thoughts emotions, and events they require.

Shrewdly Auden distinguishes between the actual process of composition and the appearance the poem gives. A master of the two modes he mentions, Auden realizes that poets cultivate their reader’s confidence. To do so, they establish command of their art, albeit differently. Depending on the kind of verse they compose, they project mastery or feign incompetence. Each mode requires an appropriate appearance.

Hip hop, though, does not respect such sensible distinctions between “international” and “real” doggerel, comic and serious poetry. Instead of renouncing rhyme, hip hop commits fully and openly to it. Again and again the art reveals the technique’s flexibility. A single hip-hop song may contain astonishingly different kinds of rhyme, ranging across a number of genres, including doggerel, satire, religious testimony, sexual boasting, social protest, and seduction. Few songs maintain a consistent tone; many artists boast that they do not. “A thousand styles in one verse,” brags Rakim. An extremely minor form in contemporary poetry, doggerel abounds in hip hop. Doggerel serves it so well because prosodic satire and parody rely on an established sense of metrical and rhyming decorum, which the contemporary print-based poetry notably lacks. To register a “protest against the inadequacy, against the positive faultiness, of the regular prosody of the time,” the poet needs a “regular prosody” to protest.