"If the presence of these flamboyant rhymes distinguishes hip hop from contemporary poetry, it also suggests what a consideration of hip hop adds to the study of contemporary poetry."
By David Caplan, Ph.D.
The question is often asked, “Is hip hop poetry?” Answers generally follow a certain pattern. To call hip hop “poetry” is to praise it, to commend it as insightful or artful. To reject hip hop as poetry is to condemn it as shallow or poorly written. On both sides of the debate, then, “poetry” often acts as an honorific term.
A closer examination of the issue, however, suggests a third possibility. Literary history shows that definitions of “poetry” vary across cultures and periods. Forms and themes, which certain cultures and periods regard as essential, are rare in others. No one definition of “poetry” holds true.
Relatively few contemporary poets use patterned rhyme; almost all view rhyme as optional, if not unappealing. In contrast, very few hip hop artists do not rhyme. Sharpening the distinction, hip hop artists revel in the most audacious rhymes, the cobbling together of diverse material. They favor the particular kinds of rhymes that most contemporary poets specifically avoid.
If the presence of these flamboyant rhymes distinguishes hip hop from contemporary poetry, it also suggests what a consideration of hip hop adds to the study of contemporary poetry. Hip hop’s difference clarifies what is missing. Judged according to contemporary practice, hip hop may not be poetry, but that is what makes it such a powerful model. Hip hop inspires attentive listeners to reconsider the pleasures and opportunities rhyme offers and it inspires a new generation to reintroduce conspicuous patterned rhyme back into our poetry.
David Caplan is the Charles M. Weis Professor in English and the Associate Director of Creative Writing. He is the author of Rhyme’s Challenge: Poetry, Hip Hop, and Contemporary Rhyming Culture (Oxford University Press, 2014). This essay was first published on The Academic Minute.