39 thoughts on “What Is Poetry?”

  1. This is interesting:

    Poetry elicits powers of mind more intense and elevated than quotidian thought, and it does so by forcing us to think of poetic rhythm at a higher level. By contrast, rap imposes an unchanging sing-song rhythm that does nothing to provoke us to think in this way.

    I can see this might be true for Spengler but is it true in general? Is this what Spengler is claiming?

    I’m not a rap or hip-hop fan either but I hesitate to dismiss it outright just because I don’t get it. I have memories of Tony Randall on Carson and Letterman throughout the ’70s and ’80s explaining why modern music is no good. I always thought he was full of it and came across as someone who confused his personal preferences with laws of nature.

    1. Obviously it’s not true in general, or many people aren’t looking for that. But I’ve noticed that there are a lot more rap “artists” than there are Bachs.

      1. But I’ve noticed that there are a lot more rap “artists” than there are Bachs.

        There certainly are now. Three hundred years ago there certainly were not. Three hundred years from now, who knows? Those who are into rap will cite popularity. Classical fans will cite exclusivity.

        1. We have more potential for Bachs today, because we have more people, with more access to able to play and write music. But we are still playing and listening to Bach (and Mozart, and Beethoven, and…)

          How many people three hundred years from now will be listening to [pick your top rap artist]? There’s a reason they call it classical music. I predict that, in the future, Oklahoma and My Fair Lady will be outperforming Hamilton in revivals. Because the music was great, and immemorial, and not just for that (warped) generation, that had been fed crap “music,” where the beat carried the melody.

          1. Speaking of crap musicals, I saw Wicked this summer. I enjoyed “Defying Gravity” before I actually saw how it fits in the musical, which is chopped up like liver with so many onions.

          2. Yeah? I saw “Wicked” over and over again all of last summer (along with millions of other Americans), but it is true, she was indeed badly misunderstood but couldn’t correct that misperception and she lost in the end (bah-doom boom!).

          3. Rand, I don’t think classical music is “classical” simply because it is old and people have nostalgia for the turn of the 19th century, the musical “Hamilton” notwithstanding.

            Classical music, in large part, was background music for very wealthy people, who in the days before iPods, iTunes, and MP3, simply hired musicians to carry out this service. When we talk about chamber music, the chamber referred to a room or rooms within some rich guys house.

            You didn’t have recording technology, so music had to be performed live. You had a wealthy elite, much more insulated from the rest of society owing to the much more limited system of communication and transportation, who had access to live music and original compositions through their paying people for this. You had elites whose beliefs and cultural tastes were influenced by the optimistic intellectual climate resulting from the Renaissance followed by the Reformation (J S Bach) followed by the Enlightenment. (Mozart).

            I agree with you that owing to population that we must have many more persons alive as intellectually gifted as J S Bach, but I don’t think we will ever recreate the conditions under which if not Bach but certainly his musically gifted sons contributed to our cultural heritage.

        2. Les Miserable is the most highly overrated “musical” of all time.

          You got that right! I grew up with the soundtrack, which was fine. The chorus pieces were dramatic, but the solos and duets not so much. Finally, a few years ago; I saw it on West End. Totally unimpressed with everything other than the stage management. They did some cool stuff with a big lazy susan.

    2. For all the carrying on about time in music that Spengler does I would have supposed he’d prefer free jazz to classical.

    3. I can see this might be true for Spengler but is it true in general?

      Some rap is and some isn’t. There certainly is a lyrical flourish that is very poetic for a lot of rap music.

      Just like with other music, it is often hard to hear the words being said. Reading rap music is a way around this and without a doubt, there is a lot of poetry there and much of it is better than free verse.

      1. I wouldn’t claim that some rap artists aren’t poets but, as you point out, it’s impossible to hear the poetry when the “music” is so painful to listen to. So I’m unaware of it.

        Joni Mitchell was an amazing poet (as was Dylan, though his music itself was pretty rough), who also made beautiful music. Which rap artist is doing that kind of thing today? Because you can’t spell “crap” without the rap.

        1. It seems to me that lyrically, Ginsberg’s “Howl” and Dylan’s “Subterranean Homesick Blues” are the ancestors of rap, but I doubt that there are more than a handful of rap “songs” that can stand up to those two masterpieces. Still, I’ll give them a tiny benefit of the doubt, simply because like you, I can’t stand to listen to any of it long enough to form any opinion other than “my head hurts!”

          Of course, what passes for popular “music” these days isn’t much better. AFAICT, no piece of pop music has had a bridge in about 20 years, nor anything that can be called a chord progression. I’ll take the most pedestrian and cliched twelve bar I-IV-V blues over any modern pop “music”.

        2. it’s impossible to hear the poetry when the “music” is so painful to listen to.

          For me it goes beyond painful. More like literally (yes literally) sickening. I have at times in the past been involuntarily exposed to it (a nearby car with non-bulletproof windows) and the result is that I need to pull over and put my head between my knees.

    4. There’s some good rap out there, just not very much.

      Good rap uses various forms of verbal rhythm as a form of rhyme in a manner similar to Celtic poetry, which extensively used alliteration in place of rhyme.

      Alas, Ted Sturgeon’s Law still applies, even in music. Especially contemporary music.

  2. Not a fan of rap myself. Unlike other previous, and great, musical forms that emerged from the black experience, rap is a devolution, not an evolution. It has no melody and its rhythm, “orchestrations” and lyrics are barely present either.

    Black Africa, and its various diasporas, have been the source of more rhythmic musical innovation than anywhere else on Earth. Only the Latin tropics of the New World are an area worthy of any comparison. This rich heritage has been spurned in its entirety by rap “artists.”

    There was some significant variation of rhythm and rhyme scheme in the early days of rap, 40 or so years ago. Early rap was often playful, e.g., “Rapper’s Paradise,” but, to a very good first-order approximation, rap in the last quarter-century seems to embody only minor variations on a single, simple rhythm.

    I read somewhere that said scheme appears to have first been used in the poetry of a medieval European whose name I can longer recall. Initial attempts to find references to this on-line have yielded nothing so I can’t provide particulars. In any event, current rap is almost unrelievedly monotonous, dim and grim.

    I will also freely confess that my low opinion of rap derives from more than technical aesthetic judgements. Many of my current neighbors, for example, are much given to playing rap through car audio systems sufficiently powerful to turn my entire dwelling into an auxiliary resonator.

    But even apart from the tendency of its enthusiasts to commit egregious acoustic assaults, the minimal content of rap seems almost entirely characterizable as vicious and stupid. The subject matter is mainly sexual braggadocio and threats of violence. The “verse” usually fails to rise even to the level of doggerel.

    The one element of so-called “hip-hop culture” that is genuinely artistically innovative is dance. Hip-hop dancing is an increasingly rich ouvre with “schools” and styles numbering in the dozens. Hip-hop’s extensions to the pre-existing corpus of choreographed movement have been fundamental and rich.

    Given that hip-hop dance has developed alongside rap, I tolerate rap when it accompanies hip-hop dancing, but find it almost entirely without merit as a stand-alone “art form.”

  3. The criticism of rap is generally something I can agree with, but I note that people of middle age have been criticizing popular music since the dawn of time. I about died a while back when I was reading Plato’s Timaeus and, in the middle of a long, deep, metaphysical contemplation of the nature of the soul, Plato has Critias pause for a moment to complain about “modern” music! He starts talking about how music is good for the soul and then says something to the effect of, “Of course, I mean good music, not the junk these kids listen to nowadays!” The more things change. Anyway, it is difficult to imagine people still listening to rap long after it has (finally!) gone out of fashion. Which leaves the question, will whatever comes next he something good, or something even worse?

    1. Rock & roll has been with us for at least 60 years, though I think a case can be made that Benny Goodman’s “Sing, Sing, Sing” is actually the Ur-rock song. It is, at the very least, a key transitional form between swing and rock.

      The rock of today is not the rock of Bill Haley and Buddy Holly, to be sure, but there is a continuity there. The same can be said about rap whose roots go back at least 40 years. Rap never became the dominant youth cultural norm as rock did, except among blacks and, to a lesser extent, Latinos, but it has exhibited undeniable staying power.

      More so, certainly, than the dominant “youth culture” music of the mid-30’s to the mid- 40’s, i.e., big band swing. Swing pretty much fizzled out shortly after the end of WW2 with big bands mostly disappearing and the few remaining – e.g., Mantovani, Kostelanetz, Winterhalter, etc. – going in a treacly “elevator music” direction.

      Why this happened is a bit of a mystery. Many of the better-known swing pieces are “slow dance” numbers, but a lot of swing was lively and had a good beat. The Lindy Hop was hardly a slow dance.

      All that said, it is still hard to imagine even black Americans going to a 50th high school reunion and nostalgically tearing up as “Smack My Bitch Up” is played.

      1. One of my college-age sons is very much into swing dancing. It’s not universally popular, but there are still those who love it. He listens to the music as well. On purpose. I suspect that he’s choreographing to it, but there you go. I’m not drawn to it myself, unless it’s providing background for a period movie, but the dancing is great.

      2. Caught a bit of a “Rock around the Clock” cinema-scope as performed by a black swing band watching “Rhythm, Country, and Blues.” A nice cross between original hip-hop, swing, and rockabilly.

  4. Somewhat off-topic, but I was very pleased that Bob Dylan was awarded the Nobel Prize for Literature. He richly deserves it.

    His impact on popular music songwriting is incalculable. There was popular music before Dylan, and there was popular music after Dylan.

    His most successful single, “Like A Rolling Stone”, reached #2 on the American charts in the summer of 1965. The #1 song was the Beatles’ “Help”. That’s a perfect line of demarcation. “Help” was typical pre-Dylan lyric writing.

    Dylan forced everybody to up their game. The Beatles released the album “Rubber Soul” in December 1965, which was much more sophisticated lyrically then anything they had done previously. That’s just one example. Every other contemporary songwriter was compelled to tackle more complex subject matter than teenage love songs, which was the norm beforehand.

    1. With all due respect to Dylan, there is more to music than lyrics as the wasteland that is rap should serve to attest. Melody matters too. Brian Wilson and the Brill Building crew in New York were all contemporaries of Dylan and did damn fine melodies as well as very good lyrics, especially in the angstier numbers. Goffin & King, Mann & Weil, Bachrach & David, Neil Diamond and others wrote quite a few freaking masterpieces.

      Dylan was inimitable but that didn’t stop a veritable army of would-be imitators stepping up and taking shots at being “deep.” I think doing so was likely the furthest thing from Dylan’s mind, but he was indirectly responsible for introducing pomposity and pretension into rock in carload quantities. This has not, on balance, been good for rock.

  5. “As a sometimes musician”

    Out of curiosity, how many here
    A – are an engineer, mathematician, physicist, technician, anything along those lines?
    B – play a musical instrument?
    C – both?

    I count Rand and myself as both in category C, so the score so far stands at 0-0-2.

    1. I played the trombone in school bands from 6th through 9th grades. Haven’t touched one since. Does that still count?

    2. Engineer and guitarist (plus a little bit of keyboards and drums), specializing in blues and classic rock (I was a teenager in the ’70s). I still have a soft spot for some ’80s synth-pop; ’90s grunge can go eff itself; Jack White rules in the last 15 years.

      Oh yeah, Bach and Beethoven are the bomb.

  6. I will argue that rap has been around for a long time. Shakespeare’s iambic pentameter is a form of rap, as is Cockney rhyming slang and Australian stryne. As Dick Eagleson pointed out, the patterns of rap can be found in medieval works. Rap to me is more of a medium than a genre, so when you look at rap, you are looking at say, fiction. There is good literature, and there is Stephen King. The good works will survive. There will be “classical rap” one day.

    As Dick also pointed out, hip hop dance is innovative. Janet Jackson’s videos from the early 90s show some incredible rhythms and patterns. I think the musical Rent also had some great dancing.

    I recently heard Salt-N-Pepa’s “Shoop.” Getting past the terrible lyrics, the rhymes, rhythms and interplay with the music was genius. (You may all laugh at me now.)

    1. There is good literature, and there is Stephen King.

      Yes but Shakespeare is full of puns and jokes about farts and sex. King is prolific and some of his work is very good.

    2. We few, we happy few,
      we band of brothers,
      who have the stomach flu!

      (The English at Agincourt were said to be suffering from dysentery.)

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