My Generation

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“What the hell are you listening to?”

It was late August, and my dad had just brought my car home from the auto repair shop. Apparently, my catalytic converter needed to be replaced before I made the six hour journey from South Carolina to the Shenandoah Valley (I say apparently only because I have no idea what purpose a catalytic converter serves. Sounds fancy though). On his drive home, the poor man was exposed to whatever I had left in my CD player. That particular evening, it was the bombastic lyrics and thundering beats of rapper extraordinaire Kanye West’s first album, College Dropout.

My dad, who reared me on a heavy diet of the Beatles and the Stones, the Doors and the Who, Bobs Marley and Dylan, Hendrix, Clapton, and every other heavy hitter of his own musical generation, was more or less appalled by the hip-hop that had weaseled its way into my CD changer. I was reprimanded for my poor taste in a “thumpity thump” excuse for what masquerades as music. I was reminded of this exchange recently, when I stumbled upon this video of West performing, slam poetry style, the lyrics from one of College Dropout‘s biggest hits, “All Falls Down.” The clip is devoid of a beat or any real vocal punch, and West’s rhythm feels raw and imperfect. And yet, it’s a mesmerizing reminder of why hip-hop has persisted despite its critics.

Marginalized as a lesser form of music by classic rock purists (um, hi Dad) and Grateful Dead loving hippies, rap’s lyrical narrative is often unfairly overlooked. But here, what Kanye does, what he writes is pure poetry, a contemporary reinterpretation of American life in the Ellisonian tradition of continually redefining black identity, of “blues-toned laughter-at-wounds,” of survival through song. According to Ellison’s invisible man, “You curse and you swear to make them recognize you. And alas, it’s seldom successful.” Fifty-nine years later, Kanye, with his bravado, sick beats and slick rhymes, forces the elusive “them” to sit up and pay attention. So much so that he received a Grammy in 2004 for “All Falls Down.”

Carrying over from our discussion of Linda Pastan’s “Ethics” and the value of art, I’d be interested to know how our readers define poetry, and whether or not music can transcend artistic genres.

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4 Responses to My Generation

  1. Jon Salm says:

    You make a great point, and I think it is very telling that you used Kanye as an example. A high school English teacher of mine actually talked about bringing in Kayne’s “High School Dropout” for us to do a literary analysis of. While we never did do that exercise, the fact that he toyed with the idea suggests a lot about my generation’s view on art (I do include my teacher in this generation. When I was a freshman in high shcool, he was 22 and had recently graduated from college).

    A few questions this post made me consider:
    Does the lyrical density of rap merit the same sort of attention we pay to poetry?
    Does the type of rap matter? Does its purpose matter? Are Gil-Scott Heron’s rhymes (yes, he IS a rapper) more important than, say, Soulja Boy’s?
    Do rap lyrics contain more literary merit than those from rock, pop, country, or other genres?
    Will music every be seen as art on the same level as poetry?

  2. Daniel Murray says:

    As the previous two posts (The Value of Art and My Generation) indicate, the word art can be abused, over-exaggerated, and undervalued. From the most traditional Van Gogh to the most controversial shock art piece, some argue “art” is something that renders emotion and makes you question a personal belief. If we embrace this loose definition (which I am not sure I do), then the argument of My Generation is certainly valid. Like all forms of art, poetry has evolved from the structured Shakespearean form, which Jack Burks alluded to in a previous post. Rap music is the modern day’s most accessible and mainstream form of “poetry.” Although Gucci Mane is far from a modern day Picasso of verse, some verses are definitely poetic and at the minimum bordering on even the most strict definition of art.

    “My Generation” pinpoints Kanye West as an artist, who can possibly “transcend artistic genres.” In a surprise visit to Rolling Stone magazine, Kanye discusses how he views his critically acclaimed album, “My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy.” With politically provocative and beautifully placed rhymes, Kanye’s album is the closest a rap album can come to the traditional sense of art.

    Check out this link to Kanye’s visit to Rolling Stone:

  3. Isabella Martin says:

    Some would argue that rap, hip hop, and poetry slam-style undertakings are transforming the world of poetry. Some would say they’re a completely different art form. Who knows? Maybe in a hundred years, that will be considered the only modern form of poetry.

    However artistically transcendent rap and performance poetry may be, it saddens me to think of poetry breaking away from a tradition that is thousands of years old. I think the best verse is produced by those poets who have studied the poets before them, and, with a love for the craft, have attempted to commune with the poets of the past. Even if new poets go in completely different directions from their predecessors, I still think that sense of communion is important. R.T. Smith has said before that, upon asking aspiring poets what poetry they enjoy, they are often speechless, not having actually read very much poetry.

    That said, I certainly think of rap and performance poetry as valid art forms, but I wonder if something can really be called poetry if it does not associate itself with the poetry of the past, the human tradition of oral and written poetry that has existed long before it. Some of it does, of course, but what of that “poetry” which considers itself rootless and separate from conventional poetic tradition? What should it be called? New Poetry? That name is already taken. Regardless, it will be interesting to see how this art form develops and whether or not it will be widely accepted as a literary form.

    • Rod Smith says:

      It’s often been said that “real” poetry differs from song lyrics in that it supplies its own melody, instead of employing instruments. Well, I liked that for quite a spell, but then I began to wonder if many readers outside the literary/academic world are attuned to the ways that Keats’ “Ode to Autumn” is pitched and cadenced differently from Arnold’s “Dover Beach.” If most people can’t hear the music IN the words, does it matter that the rhythm and tone are really there? If so, to whom? And I’ve heard Heaney’s strong voice backed with pipes, with a flute. The ground is getting terribly shaky under my feet, and the cadence less iambic than New Madrid.

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