From Shakespeare to DAMN: An Essay Regarding the Timeless Appeal of Poetry

To turn on the radio today is to hear rap music. Clicking through station to station brings myriad echoes of the genre; fast-paced, mumble rap, sing song Drake- the musical world is simply full of the stuff. While rap’s popularity is now a fundamental part of pop culture, it hasn’t always been this way. In 1991, for the first time in music history, the top spot in the Billboard Hot 100 was claimed by a group purely focused on rap, N.W. A. Since then, the rhyming of words and rhythm in various contexts has been an integral part of music culture in America, and much of the world.

In viewing this sudden skyrocket in popularity, one has to wonder: what is it that makes rap music so popular? Aside from initial appeal to certain communities wherein the subjects rap focused on were altogether central (think Ice Cube and the streets of Compton, L.A.), what is it about this genre of music that makes it so appealing to the average listener?

Here, many would point to the subject matter in “modern rap”; much of it seems to focus on sex, drugs, and “living rich”. But this simply cannot be the sole reason for the genre’s popularity, as music as a whole has sold sex, drugs, and luxury for hundreds of years. One need only look to the verses of medieval troubadours to verify this. One medieval ballad focusing on women actually goes as follows:

Som be browne, and some be whit,

And some be tender as a tripe,

And some of theym be chiry ripe,

Yet all thei be not soo.

Sume be lewde,

and some be schrewede,

go wher thei goo (Lambeth, MS 306, leaf 135).

With specific types of content aside, one may then look to the form of delivery in rap. Perhaps this is the root of the music’s immense appeal. Since rap’s beginnings, lyricists have used rhyme and metre to frame songs and expressions in a way that is catchy, pleasing to the ear, and evocative in its allusion to other ideas and commentaries. Of course, rap has changed much since 1991, but the true lyricists are still there. Just this year, Kendrick Lamar actually won the Pulitzer prize for literature for his album Damn, where he explores themes of his childhood as they align with the hardships of low income communities in Los Angeles, CA. This album was more than shouting about sex and success; it was poetry, form, and carefully chosen content.

By Kendrick’s winning of the Pulitzer, one may see that rap music’s sway on modern listeners is more than an appeal to humanity’s base desires; rather, it may stem from the same place as the world’s age-old fascination with poetry itself. It is obvious to say that the content of poetry has changed immensely over time. The Ancient Greek poet Homer spoke of quite different things than Kendrick does today, one dealing with heros and sea monsters, the other with politics and inner city neighborhoods. However, both poets appeal to listeners through the power of their medium, a means through which any content may be conveyed and appreciated. According to Ralph Waldo Emerson, an American philosopher of the 20th century, “Man is only half himself; the other half is his expression. (The Poet)” When viewed through a lens of comparative popularity, the value of poetry has remained steady since Homer’s time. Greek kings celebrated “man’s expression” before the birth of Christ. It only takes turning on the radio to see our cultures celebration of poetic expression today.

Now, although poetry has changed much throughout the ages, the lyrical form of expression has held on to certain aspects which, when traced from era to era in the works of prominent poets, may account for the steady place poetry has held in the eyes and ears of humanity. In other words, there is a reason Lamar is winning Pulitzers today, and Shakespeare was the rage in 1600. Both poets, and others in between, hold a similar literary appeal in their use of things like rhyme scheme, diction, and allusion, throughout their poetic works. These same literary devices can be found in the work of poets of the earlier 20th century as well, such as in “The Waste Land” by the British poet T.S. Eliot. Whether it be in rap in 2018, blank verse in the 1920’s, or flowery rhyme in the middle ages, the appeal of certain literary devices in poetry can account for the art’s constant, powerful popularity.

Perhaps the most obvious congruence in different eras of poetry is that of rhyme scheme. While Shakespeare may have rhymed differently than Eliot or Lamar, the device is equally central to the appeal of all three artist’s work. Rhyme, in a poem or verse, has the power to take an otherwise ordinary pair of expressions, and leave them ringing significantly in a listener’s ears. In Shakespeare’s Sonnet #3, the famous poet goes with an ABAB rhyme scheme, which creates an easy, lilting cadence in his words. This type of rhyme also adds a sort of lyrical weight to final sentences, as they echo those that came before. For example, the sonnet ends with, “But if thou live remembered not to be, Die single and thine image dies with thee.” The rhyme here, coupled with intense wording, heightens the already-present sense of finality in the poem. This power of a rhyme scheme is a feature of other poet’s work as well. T. S. Eliot, though of a far later era than Shakespeare, puts rhyme to a similar use in his poem, “The Waste Land”. Instead of an easy-on-the-ear cadence, Eliot’s piece is full of discord, with sentences and lines that most frequently do not rhyme at all. The poem begins with, “April is the cruellest month, breeding Lilacs out of the dead land, mixing…” The rhyme is nonexistent, and rhythm is more prominent. However, this lack of rhyme simply makes Eliot’s few instances of rhyme scheme (often AA, where the end of one line rhymes with the end of the one before it) even more powerful. They stand out to the reader, reminding one caught off guard by the harsh poem that the beauty of words arranged such and such way is still possible, and still effective. At the finish of the first section of “The Waste Land”, Eliot uses a brief moment of rhyme scheme to just such an effect, with,“And each man fixed his eyes before his feet. Flowed up the hill and down King William Street….” Where the rest of the poem has been stilted and harsher on the ear, Eliot’s use of a rhyming couplet at the climax of the poem’s first part is no accident; it adds a sense of remembrance to the powerful piece, leaving choice words ringing in a listener’s head long afterwards. This effect of choice rhyme is not unlike verses in many of Kendrick Lamar’s songs, which bridges the easily imagined gap between literary poetry and popular hip hop. For example, in the second verse of Lamar’s song, “Pride”, the rapper uses a similar rhyming couplet to reinforce his meaning. The verse begins with, “now, in a perfect world, I probably won’t be insensitive, Cold as December, but never remember what winter did…” Here, Lamar makes what could be a forgettable opening to a verse filled with meaning far more likely to stick in a listener’s mind. Imagine if the lines had no rhyme in their final words, or finished with, “what winter had done”; this would not only be awkward, but would lose the cadence and ring which make it poetry, make it memorable. Thus, with the simple use of something like a rhyme, poets like Shakespeare, Eliot, and Lamar are able to force their words to remain hanging about a listener’s ears for far longer than the average message. Rhyme makes the work of the poet a bridge between music and literature, conveying a message in the catchiest way possible.

The similarities in the works of these three poets are not, however, limited to structure and rhyme scheme. Literary devices central to content, such as allusion, prevail in the artists’ pieces as well. Allusion in literature seems quite simple; a writer will make a statement which seems to say one thing, and yet references or comments on something else. It is with allusion that writers achieve things like “underlying commentary”; this is a tool that allows two conversations to be had in one linguic refrain. It is clearly present in all three poet’s work. Beyond period-specific instances, the three poets in question all use allusion in referencing specific times of year. Dropping in a month or season not only roots a piece in real time, but it brings to mind all the connotations that go along with the time discussed, giving depth to the poem or rap at hand. Here, one need only look to Shakespeare’s Sonnet #3, where in speaking of a woman the poet states, “Calls back the lovely April of her prime;” This is clearly more than an appeal to the images of greenery and springtime that come along with April; it is also a reference to the past state of fertility for the woman in question. Through use of allusion, Shakespeare takes a springtime description and ties it to the overall themes of the poem, among which are regret for a lost past, and the wonder of fertile humanity. T. S. Eliot uses allusion in quite a similar way in the very first line of “The Wasteland”. It is in stark juxtaposition to the general feel of the poem that Eliot begins with, “April is the cruellest month….” The fertility of spring does not seem to match up with a wasteland. However, this allusion to spring does create force in the piece, setting the vibrant life of the month referenced alongside harsh imagery of dying land and “the dry stone no sound of water (The Wasteland).” These are two very different images, and this holds a reader’s attention. As the poem goes on, one sees that the reference does indeed fit into the overall themes of life, death, and rebirth (many religious holidays centered around rebirth occur in April, such as Easter). This startling opening line, while initially seeming to come from left field, ends up alluding to the meat and potatoes of the piece. Finally, one looks to Lamar. Though his delivery is quite different, the modern rapper also manages to use allusion to create a more effective artistic piece. In “Pride”, Lamar starts his second verse (the same used to exemplify his rhyme scheme) with, “ Now, in a perfect world, I probably won’t be insensitive, cold as December, but never remember what winter did….” Though the rapper does not reference the spring like Eliot or Shakespeare, he uses “ December” in a very similar way. In what would otherwise be a very plain description of an indifferent character, Kendrick’s mention of the Christmas month alludes to far more than a one dimensional iciness of personality; it also brings up the warmth and joy of the festive month, wherein many cultures have a holiday (Hanukkah, Christmas, Kwanzaa, etc.). This adds to the depth of the character Kendrick is rapping about; this is someone who, like December, appears to be merely cold, but on the inside may be full of love and joy. In other words, and like his poetic predecessors, Lamar uses allusion to full effect.

Another important aspect of any effective poem is diction. While broad, this term applied to poetry is everything. Diction is the poet’s word choice, arrangement, and delivery. All of these aspects are both present and powerful in the works of Shakespeare, Eliot, and Lamar (though of course, given the differences in era, the poets’ styles are entirely unique). To many modern readers, reading Shakespeare is a bit like reading another language. His words often seem archaic, with many a “thee” and “thou” thrown into the mix. Nonetheless, even to modern ears, Shakespeare’s diction is present and effective. One who doubts this need only read a philosophical treatise of the same era; Shakespeare is music to the ears in comparison. Part of the reason for this involves his chosen metre, or the rhythm in which his plays and poems run. This is iambic pentameter (which means there are five feet, or groups of syllables per line; and each of these syllabic groups will be an iamb, where the first syllable is unstressed and the second stressed. An example of this word format would be “between”.). While this may at first seem to be some vague literary device, iambic pentameter is actually a rather close approximation of how people talk in everyday life. Nevertheless, it translates to elegant poetry. Again, the third sonnet exemplifies this perfectly with its opening, “Look in thy glass, and tell the face thou viewest, now is the time that face should form another, whose fresh repair if now thou not renewest….” The diction here, along with metre, makes for an easy read, words which roll off the tongue. Shakespeare’s word choice is also of note regarding the success of his diction, as he uses words starting with the same consonants (a device called alliteration) to make the lines more pleasing to the ear. This is shown in the choosing of the words “face”, “form”, “Now”, and “not”. It is with both metre and other literary devices, then, that the medieval poet creates a diction that has been ringing in humanity’s ears ever since its first utterance.

Eliot, though a master of diction in his own right, is certainly harder to define in this way. The British poet uses iambic pentameter in many of his popular poems, including “The Wasteland”, which makes for palatable, quick-reading pieces. Consider, for example, the following excerpt:

“Unreal City, under the brown fog of a winter dawn, a crowd flowed over London Bridge, so many, I had not thought death had undone so many (The Wasteland).”

While this lacks the clear lilt and rhyme of Shakespeare, it does carry a metre in its own right. Another device, which involves Eliot’s word choice, is repetition. Repeating “so many”is no accident; instead, it leaves certan images, of fog and crowds and an empty, dead city, reverberating in a listener’s ears. The repetition, in short, makes for a more effective piece of art (perhaps in a similar way to many pop songs of today). Another element of Eliot’s diction is his juxtaposition, which was present in his allusion as well. Here, he starts with the premise of an “Unreal” city; then, he realigns his thoughts with the reality that death has indeed “undone so many”. This puts reality in question, and contrasts the poet and listener’s ideas about what is real and what isn’t under scrutiny, at least in the context of the poem. In summation, T.S. Eliot’s use of diction is both hard to lay a finger on, and poignant at the same time. It is perhaps unreal and real.

Kendrick Lamar, a a hip hop artist of 2018, certainly relies on diction in his composition. If his words did not fit his chosen schema, or elicit certain responses in readers, then he would probably not be winning the Pulitzer Prize in his spare time. To be fair, it is often difficult to distinguish the flow created by diction in rap from the flow created by rhythm, as the medium leaves the two intricately tied. However, in looking at Lamar’s lyrics, one may still note the effective, useful presence of poetic diction. For instance, the rapper starts the first verse of “Pride” with, “Hell-raising, wheel chasing, new worldly possessions- flesh making, spirit breaking, which one would you lessen?” The diction here is clearly important, beyond the influence of a hip hop beat. For example, “Hell-raising”, which really just means to cause an uproar, has been carefully chosen to start the verse. What comes to bear in the following line is that the rapper is comparing the values of spiritual and material excellence and gain, and asking the listener which they would choose in his shoes. According to, “Which one would you lessen?”, Kendrick Lamar is stating the either/or nature of spiritual or material success, at least as he sees it. Word choices like “Hell-raising” are clearly central to this line of questioning. Much like Eliot and Shakespeare, the words Lamar chooses, and the way in which his verses are ordered, can be viewed as effective devices to convey specific meanings to listeners. With Lamar, as with the others, diction plays a fundamental role in this poetic process.

It would be foolish to postulate that, because certain aspects of the two mediums align, classical poetry and modern rap are two sides of the same coin. The two are very different, and most modern rap is more dissimilar than alike when it comes to the work of greats like Eliot and Shakespeare. But, isotopes exist, and Kendrick Lamar is very much one of them. His rhyme produces a similar effect to the “ringing in the ears” of Eliot’s famous works; Lamar’s allusions are layered, tying themes of his verses together in a like way to Shakespeare’s brief, memorable sonnets. Finally, the rapper makes use of good diction to further improve his poetry, choosing words which are most associated with very specific images and ideas. T. S. Eliot uses diction to profound effect; and so does Shakespeare, quite clearly. These literary devices, prominent in poetry, are to be found in excess in the various works of these writers, which shows a carrying similarity between the three. Perhaps it is the presence of such devices which has caused all these poets’ work to be so appealing in their various eras; perhaps these devices tell only part of the story. When looking to the huge popularity of rap music, and the genre’s meteoric rise to fame since 1991, titans like Lamar’s use of the same literary devices found in the poetry of such enduring greats as William Shakespeare and T.S. Eliot is certainly indicative. This adept power of rhyme, allusion, and diction may not be present in all modern rap, but it certainly is in the work of pioneers like Lamar. It is present in the rap of the Pulitzer prize winners, the appealers to social justice. Rappers like Lamar, in use of such devices and in their content, align themselves with what drove the genre forward in the first place, in the hard streets of L.A. They align themselves with key aspects of the great poetry of history, works which have remained relevant for decades and centuries. Of course, even if the genre’s huge popularity is still seen as unexplained, this literary exploration of rap’s appeal may enlighten one skimming through radio stations on the way to work.