why rap shouldn't have to grow up, cont'd
If rap is mainly a genre for and by adolescents, it is largely because its notion of artistic self-assertion is an adolescent one—a fight for status in a closed hierarchy. A little of this kind of spiritedness may be healthy for art—contemporary poetry could use a dose of it—but the Anthology of Rap demonstrates that it’s not until this striving is sublimated and turned inward, becoming a struggle for truth and beauty, that an art grows up.
I seriously wrote more than a thousand frustrated words on Adam Kirsch's review of the Yale Anthology of Rap in this month's issue of Poetry. I questioned the existence and necessity of a project like the Anthology, I invoked Michael Chabon's defenses of genre fiction, I called Robert Lowell a "guilt-ridden narcissist" for no particular reason (I might have just wanted to say it), and I searched hard to find a middle ground between Kirsch's rejection of rap for thematic reasons and his antagonists' apologies for thematic monotony with old appeals to social ills.
What might be most frustrating about Kirsch's take is that he's writing for Poetry, and the kind of people who read Poetry and don't pay attention to rap are precisely those for whom the Yale book was written. With this platform--more important for the intended audience, maybe, than the thoughtful reviews by cultural critics in the likes of the NYer or Salon or the Times--Kirsch punts by verbosely repeating the same argument that's been made since before Greg Tate wrote his first book.
Kirsch rightly grants that contemporary poetry, in its impenetrable language games, can learn a lot from the accessibility of rap. He turns immediately around, though, and indicts the antagonistic stance of popular rap, ignoring that the excitement in that antagonism is an indelible part of its appeal for a cross-cultural audience--an audience much bigger and more various than his derisive invocation of "adolescents" would suggest. And maybe most troubling of all, he implicitly suggests that an antagonistic stance can't move an artist toward beauty or truth.
I would hope the absurdity of that last point goes without saying. Beyond Kirsch's tired arguments against rap respectability, though, I feel like this is really a missed opportunity to deepen the conversation between poetry and rap. I think there's a productive dialogue between rap and contemporary poetry in the work of writer like Thomas Sayers Ellis or even late Nikki Giovanni, and I think maybe the dialogue in the work itself is infinitely more productive than any dialogue about the work. Just shut up and do it. And to Kirsch's premature dismissal of rap as worthy of seriousness, I can only say: