Monday, February 28, 2005

Recent Technicalities


Uh, uh, uh, now let's get it all in perspective
For all y'all enjoyment, a song y'all can step wit'
Y'all appointed me to bring rap justice
But I ain't five-O, y'all know it's Nas yo
Grey goose and a whole lotta hydro
Only describe us as soldier survivors
Stay laced in the best, well dressed with finesse
In a white tee lookin for wifie

Nas, “Made You Look”

Does this sound familliar? It should; its rhythmn is timeless.


To be, or not to be: that is the question:
Whether 'tis nobler in the mind to suffer
The slings and arrows of outrageous fortune,
Or to take arms against a sea of troubles,
And by opposing end them? To die: to sleep;
No more; and by a sleep to say we end
The heart-ache and the thousand natural shocks
That flesh is heir to, 'tis a consummation

Shakespeare, Hamlet (III.i.64-74)

Same structure, same rhythmn, read them side-by-side if you don't believe me.

Among the characteristics observable by the untrained ear are the even distribution of syllables and rhymes; together, they make flow: the anticipation of the next series of words and their cadence. Because both of these poems are designed performance pieces, it is far more important for the poem to sound regimented. In observing poetry, the ear expects slight variations on a common pattern; the best patterns make the best sounds. There are no visible line breaks in the spoken word, so poets do not have the comfort of a page to regiment poetry; white space, shape, and placement don't matter.

So, you may ask, how do we know what structures Nas and Shakespeare use? The answer is in the line and the foot. A foot is a regular series of syllables around an accent. A regular line should contain the same number of identical feet, all of which have names.

Iamb: - /
Trochee: / -
Anapest: - - /

Spondee: / /
Pyrrhic: - -
Dactyl: / - -

Poems are rarely written exclusively with minor feet; major feet make up the bulk of English verse. If you've heard of iambic pentameter, you should know how to describe a line. If you haven't, it's really easy. First you state the foot name (such as iambic, trochaic, or anapestic), then the number of feet in a line:

One Foot: monometer
Two Feet: bimeter
Three Feet: trimeter
Four feet: tetrameter
Five feet: pentameter
Six feet: hexameter

As the feet get more numerous, you'll need more wind to use them. Barrel-chested bards and rappers use five and six foot lines frequently. My somewhat more limited mouth is more comfortable with tetrameter and trimeter.

There are even more complicated structures at work in most regimented verse, such as minor foot replacement and cataletic verse. It's ok to replace a major foot with a minor foot with the same number of syllables, or vise-versa. The spondee and pyrrhic both appear in the Nas and Shakepseare examples above as minor replacement feet. The name of a line with two different feet is derived from the most common foot in the line. Cataletic verse consists of lines with either a syllable missing at the end, or an added syllable at the beginning of a line; used together, they make syncopation: a pattern where a normally weak syllable is stressed.

Recitation and Examination combined with scansion tell clearly if the quantified flow that works well with itself and the human ear: it's a method used to test the poem at hand for unseen metrical errors. Scansion is the process of breaking down a poem into lines and feet. It sounds hard, but it's really quite easy; first you count the number of syllables in each line, then decide which syllables are accented and which ones aren't. After that, you can find the feet and count them up to determine the metrical measure.

The heirs to Shakespeare's throne, in my opinion, are not Ezra Pound, William Carlos Williams, or Maya Angelou; the heirs are DMX, Nas, and other rappers who make poetry that people actually observe. Poetry has written itself into such a small corner that the old ways are coming back around in rap. Nas may not know it, but he is using these constructions in his best work. I see them; I hear them; I feel them. To me, there is nothing better than a sonnet, Shakespeare's or Petrarch's (I've read the Petrarch in Italian, it's gorgeous). However, if denied knowlege of classical verse as so many youngsters are, I would turn to its best modern equivalent: the rap poem. Poetry is as important now as it ever was, but I believe people will go elsewhere if its sweetness is unavailable from the usual wordmongers.

Poetry differs from prose because it treats how the words are said with the same importance as what the words mean. In Rap, I find this to be especially true. Rap makes a strange ally to old-style metric poetry, but with all its flaws, it still leads the way for style over substance poetry into the forseeable future. It's a damn shame we've lost Milton and damn near lost Shakespeare, but given the state of contemporary academic poetry, I will listen to Nas before Maya Angelou every time.

I'll get off my soapbox now; perhaps I'll post a poem later.

No comments: