Monday, November 23, 2009

The Rhymes of the Ancient Mariner

Everything I know about poetry, I learned from hip-hop.

Without knowing it, I learned the figurative trope of antanaclasis. Same goes for kenning, metonymy and assonance.

Antanaclasis is when a person uses the same word twice, but the word’s meaning changes with each repitition.

For example, Vince Lombardi once said if someone isn’t fired with enthusiasm, they’ll be fired with enthusiasm.

Cam’ron taught me antanaclasis when he rapped, “Get him a Mauri flow, from the Mauri show/[Mess] around, y’all gonna be up on the Maury Show.”

In fact, Cam’ron’s entire style is derived from assonance and antanaclasis. Of course, I didn’t know that as a 17-year-old. I just knew he liked to repeat vowel sounds and words with different denotations. (No man has wrung more meaning from the words “China” and “white.”)

I knew that Pimp C was using “Whitney” and “Bobby” as slang for cocaine and marijuana, respectively. I didn’t know that scholars called that metonymy or that it’s a poetic technique that dates back to Sophocles.

No, I learned that when I read Book of Rhymes: The Poetics of Hip-Hop by Adam Bradley.

Bradley is an assistant professor of literature at Claremont McKenna College who earned his doctorate from Harvard University. He analyzes rap lyrics for their use of poetic techniques.

The associations Bradley makes are stunning but appropriate.

Just in the introduction, Bradley notes that Ice T’s “6 ‘N the Mornin’” uses the same cadence as Langston Hughes’s Sylvester’s Dying Bed.

Not impressed, you say. Everyone knows Hughes has influenced every “black” genre of American music since the blues.

OK, he also associates the tradition of kenning, in which two poets would compare their virtuosity by assuming cumulative titles, to the Smoothe da Hustler and Trigger tha Gambler hit “Broken Language.” Raekwon with James Baldwin. “Rapper’s Delight” and The Rime of the Ancient Mariner.

Bradley does it all in his Book of Rhymes; and, as silly as some of these juxtapositions seem, Bradley makes them work.

Book of Rhymes would best serve someone who loves hip-hop but doesn’t know poetry or vice-versa. Honestly, if someone is well-versed in both, Bradley’s text will be unnecessary.

-Jason Lea,

P.S. Bradley’s hip-hop cred is solid for a Harvard grad. He references artists as diverse as Immortal Technique and Kool Moe Dee. However, he botches at least two facts in his book.

One, it was Big Boi, not Andre 3000, who proclaimed he was “cooler than a polar bear’s toenails.”

Two, Notorious B.I.G. did not end the story rap “N---- Bleed” by crashing his Range Rover. It was his pursuer’s Range that got towed because it was double parked by a hydrant. (That’s a serious detail to someone who memorized almost the entirety of Life After Death in 1997.)

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