Poetry: Death by Definition

Poetry is dead.  A quick Google search of that phrase will deliver a host of articles, websites, and journals that will confirm this.  In terms of book sales, poetry has long been considered by publishers and booksellers to be a marginal genre; the industry standard expected sales for a poetry book is approximately 2,000 copies.  A common argument amongst poetry critics is that contemporary poetry is written primarily for other poets, which has led to the demise of the genre.  Some will argue that poetry was killed by the increasing popularity of spoken word and slam poetry, which, they will also argue, is not actually poetry.  Others might lay the blame on the increasing popularity of Hip Hop, while affirming that rap is merely a cheap substitute for poetry.  The definition of poetry has been argued for centuries; today, it is important to define it properly because the narrow definitions leave the genre fighting for its life.

            As for the formal definition of poetry, I have found that many of the existing formal definitions on the subject are either too vague or too broad to be clear.  For instance, Merriam-Webster defines poetry as “the writings of a poet: poems / something that is very beautiful or graceful”.  According to Encyclopedia Britannica, “Poetry is the way it is because it looks that way, and it looks that way because it sounds that way and vice versa.”  Not only are these definitions entirely too broad, but they are also circular. Further, many poetry critics argue in their working definitions of poetry that it is a literary form that is, and must be, intended for the page.  In truth, poetry predates literacy and began as an oral tradition.  A more accurate definition of poetry will help us all to understand what it is, and will broaden the spectrum of whose voice matters, whose story gets told, and perhaps most importantly, who gets to tell it.

            In a 2013 article in The Independent, author Nathan Thomas laments the rising popularity of performance and slam poetry.  “We cannot allow slam poetry to replace the role poetry plays in our lives. The threat is there.”  While Thomas clearly has a fear and disdain for “slam poetry”, the article fails to distinguish it from “poetry”.   He argues,Poetry has always been words on a page, open to anyone.”  In truth, poetry has been around much longer than the printing press; in fact, it predates literacy.  Homer was blind and likely illiterate, he performed The Iliad in its entirety from memory.  Further,the idea that poetry is “open to anyone” must also be challenged; while the opportunity to read poetry is provided to the masses, inclusion in the American Canon of Poetry has long been a narrow pursuit.

Hip Hop is the third largest-selling genre in the U.S., following Pop and Rock, with people all over the world memorizing and repeating verses.  Adam Bradley’s and Andrew DuBois’ The Anthology of Rap, published by Yale University Press, tells the story of rap as lyric poetry, examining lyrics for their use of literary devices.  Its introduction clarifies, “Though rap is now widely disseminated in American culture, it has yet to attain adequate recognition as poetry even as universities incorporate it into English, African American studies, and music curricula. Only a few poetry anthologies contain rap lyrics. Those that do, like the Norton Anthology of African American Literature and Ishmael Reed’s From Totems to Hip Hop, do so in a representative fashion. Books like Flocabulary’s Shakespeare Is Hip Hop and Alan Sitomer and Michael Cirelli’s Hip Hop Poetry and the Classics offer effective and entertaining tools for using rap to teach canonical poetry to middle school and high school students, but don’t illuminate rap’s distinct poetic tradition.”  If we were to examine a more inclusive definition of poetry as literary work, written or spoken, in language chosen and arranged to evoke a specific emotional response from its audience through the use of figurative or symbolic language, sound, and rhythm, this would allow us to understand the continued relevance of poetry in our lives.

            The comparisons and distinctions between poetry and rap come from both critics in poetry as well as Hip Hop,with the former critiquing the content and its ability to survive without the music, and the latter arguing that the comparison is reductive.  For instance, in his critique of the book,Adam Kirsch writes, “The premise of “new formalism,” to use a term almost as old as the Sugarhill Gang, is that rhyme,meter, and narrative are the defining elements of poetry, and that their absence from most contemporary poetry explains the genre’s unpopularity and cultural irrelevance.”  While I agree that rhyme, meter, and narrative can be aspects of poetry, this definition is far too narrow in its scope to be accurate. Further, Kirsch is writing from the premise that rap is not poetry,which he uses to support his argument that rap is popular and poetry is not.  If we are to define poetry with a more complete understanding of its history and uses, his argument falls apart.

In another critique on The Anthology of Rap published in the Wall St. Journal, Matt Labash writes, “The ambition of this book is to recast hip-hop music, the urban newspaper of today, as the timeless poetry of tomorrow, with the 50 Cents and Lil’ Kims serving as our modern Wordsworths and Dickinsons. And in the authors’ defense, it is hard to think of anyone laboring as intensely these days to keep the poetic tradition, such as it is, alive . . . And the trouble begins when Messrs. Bradley and DuBois delve into the hermeneutics of hip-hop, attempting to inflict the language of the academy onto an art form that resists it.”  While Labash asserts that rap and poetry belong to the same tradition, his argument that the art form resists the language of the academy is based largely on his own resistance to accept the comparisons. His protestations are reflective of his discomfort with the themes in the book, particularly due to his own narrow definition of poetry.

            While it is true that poetry books are not flying off the shelves, it is shortsighted to assume that this is the only measure of the life of poetry. Google searches for “slam poetry” are steadily increasing every year, with new poets emerging in poetry slams everyday.  The audience for the National Poetry Slam is increasing every year, with sold out venues from Boston to Oakland.  On YouTube, slam poetry is more popular than ever – Button Poetry’s channel boasts over 300,000 subscribers and their videos have received millions of views. The narrow definitions of poetry that attempt to exclude its manifestations beyond the page contribute to the myth that poetry is dead.  When poetry is given a more complete definition, it becomes clear that poetry is, in fact,growing in popularity.  Again, if we define poetry as literary work, written or spoken, in language chosen and arranged to evoke a specific emotional response from its audience through the use of figurative or symbolic language, sound, and rhythm,it becomes clear that hip hop, performance, and “slam” poetry are all merely a continuation of the long-standing human tradition of poetry.



Works Cited

Bradley, Adam,Andrew DuBois, Henry Louis Gates, Chuck D, and Common. Introduction. The Anthology of Rap. New Haven: YaleUP, 2010. Print.

Brandt, Mathias.”Infographic: Top 10 Digital Music Genres 2012 in the U.S.” Statista Infographics. 10 Jan. 2013.Web. 28 June 2014.

Goodyear, Dana.”The Literary Life : The Moneyed Muse.” The New Yorker. The New Yorker, 19 Feb. 2007. Web. 28 June 2014.

Hamilton, Ben.”The Millions : Things Done Changed: Hip Hop and Literature.” The Millions. 3 Nov. 2010. Web. 28 June2014.

Kirsch, Adam.”Poetry Magazine.” Poetry Foundation. Poetry Foundation, 1 Feb. 2011. Web. 28 June 2014.

Labash, Matt.”Hip Hop Goes to Harvard.” The Wall Street Journal. Dow Jones & Company, 5 Nov. 2010. Web. 28 June2014.

Nemerov, Howard.”Poetry (literature).” Encyclopedia Britannica Online. Encyclopedia Britannica. Web. 28 June 2014.

“Poetry.” Dictionary.com. Dictionary.com. Web. 28 June2014.

“Poetry.” Merriam-Webster. Merriam-Webster. Web.27 June 2014.

Poetry.org -What Is Poetry.” What Is Poetry.Poetry.org. Web. 28 June 2014.

Thomas, Nathan.”Poetry Slams Do Nothing to Help the Art Form Survive.” The Independent. Independent Digital News and Media, 1 Feb. 2013. Web. 28 June 2014.

“What to Do About Poetry.” Poetry Foundation.Poetry Foundation, 10 Mar. 2007. Web. 28 June 2014.

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