by Dr. Mark H. Shapiro
"Poetry is the deification of reality.".... ....Edith Sitwell.
Commentary of the Day - January 25, 2007: Rap This. Guest commentary by Christina M. Rau.
I never wonder what my students do with the knowledge they gain in class when they leave campus. I assume they absorb my highly interesting lectures and become one with the verse. Right now, I'm actually thinking about it for the first time, and I'm realizing that they probably do not go into the parking lot reciting "Whatever happens with us, your body / will haunt mine" from Adrienne Rich's "Floating Love Poem." If anything, they probably talk about how I'm obsessed with orgasms.
My theme for my English 101 Literature class is sex and death, culminating in Shakespeare's pun that "to die" means to have an orgasm, something all my students appreciate and relate to. I've found that sex and death keep their attention so I use it whenever I can. When we get to poetry, I amaze them with Marlowe: "'Come live with me and be my love' . . . isn't that pretty? See how the shepherd is wooing her?" They don't seem impressed. Sometimes I receive essays that explain how Marlowe liked to swoop his lovers, which were usually sheep, by buying them girdles and satisfying them with multiple orgasms on a pile of rocks.
During the semester, I touch upon the Harlem Renaissance. I discuss how Claude McKay wowed the critics with his sonnets, and how using Shakespeare's sonnet was a form of complete and utter rebellion. Then we talk about Langston Hughes and his short, short poem "Mellow," that means so, so much. As we, meaning I, discuss the importance of the Harlem Renaissance in light of the Civil Rights movement, without fail, I always receive the question, "Ain't rap poetry?" To which I respond, "I don’t know what 'ain't' means." Someone will huff in annoyance and say, "Isn't rap poetry?" To which I respond, "Rap is rap."
"Aw, professuh, you don't know rap." That’s when my dirty little secret comes in quite handy. I do know rap. A whole lot of it: DMX, the Rough Riders posse, Xhibit, Outkast, Tupac, LL, Biggie, and all of Bad Boy. These are the remnants of the years with my ex-boyfriend who, in his words, be down wit da rhymes, i.e. fancied himself a connoisseur of rap music. I know what you're thinking -- I don't look like I would be into rap. And, you're right -- I'm not. I'm more of a Top 40 -- singer/songwriter kind of gal. He also liked to drink Guinness every night, eat Taco Bell five times a day, and, occasionally, go to work when the mood struck him. I, on the other hand, like Capt. Morgans, go to work daily, and usually work out more than I eat at Taco Bell.
Basically, we had nothing in common, which is why we broke up three times in three years. He would email me, tell me it wasn't working out, we wouldn't speak, I would go out on really bad dates, and then, probably because I had nothing to write about momentarily, I would take him back. Finally, we broke up for good. The one thing I took away from our relationship is my knowledge of the Wu-Tang Clan, and my ability to call off their names at the drop of a hat.
When my students start mumbling that I don’t know rap, I spin around from the board and count off on my chalky fingers, "the Rza, the Gza, Old Dirty Bastard, U-God, Ghostface Killah, Inspectah Deck, Rawekwon, Cappadonna, Masta Killah, and M-E-T-H-O-D Man aka the Meffod. Dolla, dolla bill y'all. And what?" They sit in stunned silence. Then we go over why rap is rap.
Ignore the Escalades and the rims that keep spinning when the tires stop. Forget about the Crystal and the gold and diamond teeth. Think of the lyrics. Fifty Cent does use metaphors, I'll give him that much. But rapping "I love you like a fat kid loves cake" isn't necessarily poetic.
Move on to greater lyrics such as those in his most recent Top Ten single, "Just A Lil Bit Now:" Damn baby all I need is a lil bit / A lil bit of this, a lil bit of that / Get it crackin' in the club. . . / Drop it like its hot, get to workin' that back / Go shake that thang, yeah work that thang / . . . / Rotate that thang, I wanna touch that thang. Not that I'm judging, but that's not very poetic at all. First off, "lil" isn’t a word; it's a lazy man's version of "little" and the only time "lil" is acceptable is when we’re talking about Lil' Abner. Secondly, "drop it like its hot" should be "drop it as if it were hot" and what does "it" refer to anyway? And why do I have to drop it? Why can’t I place it down gently? Then come all of these orders to crack, work, shake, and rotate a "thang." That's just too much effort for me.
And why does Fifty Cent refer to himself as "fitty" as if there weren't another "f’" in his name? Since when did f and t switch places And why is the th sound now an f? Take P. Diddy's lyric from his cover of Sting's "Every Breath You Take.' He talks all about the "strenf" he needs. What is strenf and where can I get some?
Speaking of the remix-master, what's with P. Diddy/Puff Daddy/Sean Puffy Combs singing out the D, the I, the D, the D, the Y, the D, the I, the D, it’s Diddy. Well, no, it isn't. That spells Diddydid. He spells his own name wrong. I'm all for making up words; hell, Shakespeare did it all the time. But the Bard did it to fit into a metered line, not because he was too lazy to breathe out one more syllable or check the spelling of a word.
Finally, there's Sisqo whose "Thong Song" has haunted me. To this day, I'm still not sure if I have dumps like a truck, and whether or not having them would be very desirable. Nor do I know if I have thighs like whu because whu is not very descriptive.
My problem is not with the genre itself. I do like some rap songs -- "The Humpty Dance" will always have a special place in my CD collection. My problem concerns musicians who claim to be other than what they are and pretend to have skills that they don't. These complaints are similar to those I have with Alanis Morrisette -- every time she sings, "Isn’t it ironic?," I uncontrollably yell back at the stereo, "No, it’s unfortunate, and you should learn the difference between the two before writing a song!"
My students begin to see my point. Some things are poetry, some are poetic, and some are simply different. Once we arrive at this compromise, they usually ask me why I care so much. I say, “Well, I'm a poet." And they say, "You know, professuh, that's pretty cool." And I say, "Yeah, it is." Then they ask if I write about sex and death, and I admit that I sometimes do talk about orgasms, but then I also talk about God and doing my laundry. Then I'm able to continue on about Langston Hughes, and they go back to staring at their crotches while text messaging each other and nodding off in the back of the room.
And so, we finish English 101 with the clear view of things as they are: Rap ain't poetry, and while I may never rock the bling bling while passing the Courvassier, I will always be a poet.
© 2007, Christina M. Rau
Christina Rau is the founder of Poets In Nassau, a reading circuit on Long Island in New York. Her poems have been published in several magazines, including Chronogram, The Tipton Poetry Journal, and Poetry NZ. She writes a weekly column for RealityShack.com about reality television shows. She also teaches college English, and sometimes manners.
The IP comments: It looks like "sex and death" have replaced "death and taxes" as inevitable -- at least for college freshmen.