Poetry, Hip-Hop and the Spoken Word

Are hip-hop lyrics poetry?
Isn't that a pointless question to ask, you say. To ask that question implies the need for categorisation in art forms and reveals our own biases towards a hierarchical ranking of what it is we choose to enjoy, you say. You ask instead: why is it important that hip-hop lyrics might be categorised as poetry? Would hip-hop become more 'important' or 'interesting' if it was considered a poetic form?
Why then the rise of popularity in spoken poetry in the UK and USA in recent years? A genre that professes to bridge the gap between hip hop and poetry and that asks all of the above but doesn't necessarily provide any answers seems to be appealing to fans of both genres.
So, what is poetry?
We should tackle this question first before we can analyse whether hip-hop fits into its categorisation. It’s a question often asked, mainly in English Literature classes, but no one ever seems to have a coherent answer (and I won’t either). The master of definitions, the Oxford English Dictionary, states that poetry is 'imaginative or creative literature in general; fable, fiction'. So, poetry can encompass pretty much all literature, as long as it is 'creative' or vaguely fictitious. This then opens up a while host of other questions, such as 'what is literature?' and 'what makes something creative?'. Literature could be roughly defined as anything written, and creativity, well that’s a matter of subjective opinion. I won’t keep on picking apart word definitions but you’ll be getting the idea by now that poetry could be almost anything that manifests itself in a written form. In fact this article itself might be a prose poem…
If this piece was a poem it wouldn’t necessarily be a good one, but it could still be defined as poetry nonetheless. So, why do we all tend to only associate poetry with the writings of the giants of the literary canon? The obvious answer would be because their works possess some quality that allows for hours of study and appreciation, leading to them being taught and so becoming a metonym for poetry as a whole. One of the negative side effects of this limiting categorisation is, however, that because many of these works require study it makes people feel intimidated by poetry (as they tend to represent the entire art form) and so most of us hardly ever read it, nevermind enjoy it. Perhaps if we broadened our definition of what constitutes poetry we might find different pathways, away from the classroom and lecture theatre, through which to build up our understanding of poetry and poetic conventions, allowing us to see the works of Shakespeare, Eliot, Milton (etc.) as less fearsome and perhaps enjoyable.
One such pathway could be through spoken word. In the last decade or so there has been an explosion of spoken word poetry in the UK. Spoken word takes poetry off the page and out of the classroom and transforms it into a live experience, one that can be watched and (dare I say it) even enjoyed. Most, if not all, poetry is designed to be spoken as well as read and spoken word artists heighten this orality to create a live experience that begins to blur the lines between poetry and thoughtful rap lyricism. Put some music to the spoken word and you’ll start to reach the territory of artists such as the Mercury Music Prize nominated Ghostpoet and Kate Tempest. Tempest herself is 'categorised' as a poet and has previously won the Ted Hughes Award for one of her collections. Perhaps the boundaries between music and poetry aren’t as rigid as we think.
Following on from this then, data scientist Matt Daniels has recently created a concordance of the vocabulary of the most famous artists in hip-hop, placing their word-usage amongst the greats of the literary canon. Using the artists’ first 35000 lyrics he notes each usage of a new word and sets it to a chart. His results can be seen, along with his analysis, on his website.
What makes his findings so interesting, in terms of their relation to literature, is his addition of Shakespeare and Herman Melville’s vocabulary into the data set. Of course, his results are by no means conclusive but it is interesting to note that artists such as Outkast and the Wu Tang Clan members surpass Shakespeare’s score and that chef-cum-rapper Action Bronson and cult figures such as Aesop Rock outweigh Melville (with Aesop using over 1000 more unique words than Melville). Vocabulary is not a definite indicator of talent, but such lyricism in an art form that is not considered poetry begs the question of its redefinition. Yes, hip-hop only works in its relation to its musical backing, but surely such findings are directionally interesting and force us to reconsider how we define art forms?
Placing things into neatly defined boxes is a critics dream but that isn’t always possible and it’s nearly always reductive. Perhaps, then, we shouldn’t be asking whether hip-hop lyrics are poetry at all but enjoying both art forms on an equal footing and removing our assumptions as to whether one is 'better' or more 'high-brow' than the other. Now I know I’ve just led you through an argument responding to a question, to then conclude that the question in itself might be the wrong one, but, to misquote Ralph Emerson, 'the meaning lies in the journey, not the destination'.
So, next time you listen to Outkast or Wu Tang or Nas or even P Diddy, take notice of their lyrics because they might be more poetic than you think and they might help you find a way through to the written word. P Diddy probably won’t help though.
[This piece was originally published in Helicon Magazine on 23/10/14]