Tag: literary studies

What Is Literature?

John Sutherland’s A Little History of Literature tackles a very big subject: the glorious span of literature from Greek myth to graphic novels, from The Epic of Gilgamesh to Harry Potter. In this excerpt from the book, Sutherland addresses a fundamental question: what exactly is literature?

A Little History of LiteratureMost of us encounter literature, in one form or another, at an early age. Stolen moments reading by torchlight when bedtime has long since passed are a familiar memory to many, and the relationships that are formed with these early books can last a lifetime. Just as we grow up, so our understanding of literature grows as well. In this passage Sutherland pays particular attention to The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe by C. S. Lewis, demonstrating that the “fantasy” world that exists in an author’s imagination might not be so far removed from our own reality.

What, then, is literature? It’s a tricky question. The most satisfactory answer is found by looking at literature itself; most conveniently at the first printed works we come into contact with over the course of our lives – ‘Children’s Literature’ (written, one should note, for children, not by them). Most of us take those first faltering steps into the world of reading in the bedroom. (We learn to write, most of us, in the classroom.) Someone we love reads to us, or with us, in bed. So begins the lifelong journey through all those pages that lie ahead.

As we grow up, the practice of reading for pleasure – which typically means reading literature – stays with us. Many of us will go through life taking a novel to bed with us. (Or we may listen to Book at Bedtime, another long-running BBC radio programme.) How many of us, in our younger days, will have naughtily gone on reading by torchlight under the bedclothes in our pyjamas? In those moments are stored the garments (our ‘armour, in a sense) which we put on to face the outside world – the ‘real world’ – are more often than not tucked away across the bedroom inside a wardrobe.

Thanks to the many TV, film, and stage adaptations many children and adults know the story of four young Pevensies of the book, who find themselves evacuated to a house in the country. It is wartime 1940s Britain. Under the care of kindly Professor Kirke (the word ‘kirk’ means ‘church’ in the Scots language – literature is always bringing in these little symbolic elements), they are safe from the nightly raids of the London Blitz. The real world has become very dangerous for children – mysterious aircraft, for reasons unknown, are trying to kill people. Explaining to young children the politics, or the history, or the point of it all would be difficult. Literature, with its ability to communicate to all ages, can help.

In the story, while exploring the Kirke mansion, one rainy day, the children discover an upstairs room with a large wardrobe. The youngest, Lucy, ventures into the wardrobe by herself. I suspect that everyone knows what she discovers inside, from whatever version of The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe they remember. Lucy finds herself in what could be called an ‘alternative universe’ – a universe of the imagination; but as real, essentially, as the London she left. And quite as violent as that burning city. Narnia is not a safe place, any more than lions or witches are generally safe for human beings to hang out with.

As it’s narrated, Narnia is not Lucy’s dream, something inside her head, a ‘fantasy; it is actually ‘there’, as much a thing outside her wakeful self as the wooden wardrobe or the looking glass through which Alice goes to Wonderland, in Lewis Carroll’s children’s story published eighty-five years earlier. But to understand how Narnia can be both real and imaginary, we need to know how to process literature’s complex machinery. (Children pick up the knowledge as quickly and intuitively as, in their earliest years, they pick up the complex machinery of language.)

The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe is an ‘allegory’ – that is to say, it pictures something in terms of something else; it depicts something very real in terms of something wholly unreal. Even if the universe expands for ever, as astronomers nowadays tell us it might, there will never be a Narnia in it. That world is a fiction; and its inhabitants (even Lucy) are mere figments (fictional inventions, that is) of the creative mind of the author C. S. Lewis. But nonetheless we feel (and Lewis certainly meant his reader to feel) that a solid core of truth is contained in Narnia’s manifest untruths.

Ultimately, then, we could say that the purpose of The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe is theological, a matter of religion. (Lewis was, in fact, a theologian as well as a story-teller.)The story makes sense of the human condition in terms of what the author suggests are larger truths. Every work of literature, however humble, is at some level asking: ‘What’s it all about? Why are we here?’ Philosophers and ministers of religion and scientists answer those questions in their own ways. In literature it is ‘imagination’ that grapples with those basic questions.

That early bedtime reading of The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe transports us through the wardrobe (and the printed page) to a greater awareness of where and what we are. It helps make sense of the infinitely perplexing situations in which we find ourselves as human beings. And, as an added bonus, it does so in ways that please us and make us want to read more. Just as the Narnia stories helped explain the world to us, as children, so our adult reading connects us to other adult lives. Re-reading Emma, or a Dickens novel, in middle age, we are surprised and delighted to find much more in it than when we read it at school. A great work of literature continues giving at whatever point in life you read it.

Excerpted from A Little History of Literature by John SutherlandCopyright © 2013 by John Sutherland. All rights reserved.

For a quick overview of the book, watch this two-minute video in which Sutherland explains how he came to study literature and the importance of it in our lives:

Reading the King James Bible with Harold Bloom

Read an excerpt from The Shadow of a Great Rock

The recent furor over a newly discovered Coptic text in which Jesus appears to refer to his own wife has put the Bible and Biblical interpretation back in the news. Scholars, skeptics, and believers are weighing on how to understand this and the Biblical account of Jesus of Nazareth’s life.

For many however, the Christian Bible, and particularly the King James Version, remains untouched by such controversy, standing primarily as a literary achievement. Harold Bloom takes this approach in The Shadow of a Great Rock: A Literary Appreciation of the King James Bible, where he embarks on the momentous task of looking over King James Bible through a literary lens. On this point, Bloom finds an ally in C.S. Lewis, at least as it pertains to the Psalms, who agrees: “They must be read as poems if they are to be understood; no less than French must be read as French or English as English. Otherwise we shall miss what is in them and think we see what is not.”

Bloom’s belief in the power of aesthetics and the value of literature has striking similarities to the religious faith found in the Biblical text. He will allude to this, using religious metaphors to describe his devotion to the “word.” He describes himself and his cohorts as “secularists of the spirit who believed in the resurrectionist powers of the high arts.” That will be an apt description and a perfect example of how Bloom is interacting with scripture and scriptural ideas at large in his telling use of the word “resurrectionist.” His figurative language relies on the Bible, much like the King James Bible itself relies on a hodge-podge of sources, from earlier English translations by Coverdale and Tyndale to the texts in their original language. In a sly reference to the way in which God refers to himself in Exodus, Bloom concludes, “I too am what I am.” The Biblical language will be a rich well of metaphors for Bloom to describe his experience.

Bloom takes each text on its own accord and lets it speak its own language. Through his eyes we see the text in its singular power to move as a work of art, as we would behold a painting or be touched by poetry. In that way he opens up the King James Bible for every reader. The prophet Jeremiah reminds him of Shakespeare’s Richard II. The gospel writer Mark is akin to Edgar Allan Poe, “a bad stylist who yet fascinates.” Reading with Bloom has the benefit of his immense passion and depth of knowledge, literary and philosophical, allowing him to draw from a vast array of references from fellow literary critics like Northrop Frye to Baruch Spinoza.

He allows himself to be moved by the passages, to have them strike him as beautiful or shameful, and such an invested reading should be model for anyone who loves art or scripture. The book of Ecclesiastes, as it dwells on the withering and vanity of our living hours, will speak deeply to him. “I brood, at eighty and counting, daily on these verses, as my fingers tremble, my legs bow themselves, my teeth cease, my eyes darken, my ears shit, bird-song grows fainter, heights increase my fear of falling and even walking finds fears in the way.” The prophets too, will affect him. “Both prophets are hurtful;” he writes of Jeremiah and Hosea, “that is their power and their authority, though this gift of wounding makes me wince and sometimes serves to drive me away.”

According to T.S. Eliot, “The fact that men of letters now discuss it as ‘literature’ probably indicates the end of its ‘literary’ influence.” If we believe Bloom, Eliot proves to be wrong on that score. Bloom pours layers of analysis into The Shadow of a Great Rock, and will find much to value in King James Bible’s pages.

The Art of Robert Frost

Robert Frost holds a coveted position in the category of Poets that (Almost) Everyone Knows. Many first recited “Stopping by Woods on a Snowy Evening” in grade school. Its use of chain rhyme and simple imagery provide a nice introduction to poetry, even for the youngest readers. And really, no one is morally opposed to woods, snow, horses, or sleigh bells.

In her recent Vulture.com article, Kathryn Shultz addresses the commonly-adopted casting of Frost as a “folksy gentleman farmer with a gift for words.” Yet one is not mistaken if they start questioning the famous poem, perhaps there is something more to his lovely but quietly sad narratives. This is the incredible aspect of Robert Frost explored in Tim Kendall’s The Art of Robert Frost, a hybrid of a 65-poem anthology and analysis. Kendall breaks down each poem, providing insight and background to some of Frost’s most beloved works.

For example, Kendall addresses the ever-quoted work, “The Road Not Taken,” and its famous last stanza:

“I shall be telling this with a sigh

Somewhere ages and ages hence:

Two roads diverged in a wood, and I—

I took the one less traveled by,

And that has made all the difference.”

These lines are recited by high school valedictorians at graduations, by supportive family and friends at weddings, by motivational speakers and encouraging greeting cards. Robert Frost’s “The Road Not Taken” may be the most quoted poem in the English language, and yet it was not intended as an ode to those who go against the grain.

Instead, Frost wrote the poem from the point of view of his friend Edward Thomas, ironically mocking Thomas’ tendency to over think simple decisions. It is clearly stated throughout the poem that both roads were equal, using phrases like “just as fair,” and “really about the same,” and “equally lay,” to express the sameness of the two roads. There is no significance to the road chosen by Thomas, except for the fact that it was arbitrarily chosen. But despite this, Frost is generally considered the speaker, and thus, the champion of those who dance to the beat of their own drum. Clichés abound.

Kendall describes this wild misinterpretation as a “crisis in poetics.” According to his analysis, Frost was endlessly frustrated by this common and sincere reading of his ironic piece, bothered by the reader’s blatant oblivion to his literary cues.

But perhaps this is the power of Frost’s work – everyone can find some meaning in his lines – regardless of the nuance he had intended. But for those interested in exploring the depths of his work, The Art of Robert Frost may prove a helpful guide.

June Theme: Summer Reading

Whether you’re traveling far and wide or relaxing in your favorite patio chair this summer, no one can deny that extra leisure time is wonderfully filled with books.

Here at Yale University Press, we’re boasting an exciting year of literary studies, including Bernard Avishai’s Promiscuous, a biography of Philip Roth’s notorious 1969 novel, Portnoy’s Complaint, from the outrage it sparked to its impact on Roth to its legacy some forty years, written through writings and conversations with Roth himself. Meanwhile, Tim Kendall explores the social, biographical, historical, and literary contexts of America’s twentieth-century poet in The Art of Robert Frost, bringing the relevance of his career and poetry into conversation with contemporary poets and movements. And uncovering the correspondence of the Pulitzer Prize-winning Edith Wharton from letters written to her governess Anna Bahlmann, Irene Goldman-Price has edited over a hundred of these when only three of Wharton’s were previously thought to have survived. My Dear Governess insightfully portrays the central role that Bahlmann held in shaping Wharton’s development as a writer and a person over forty-two years of their correspondence.

Two giants of European literature, Witold Gombrowicz and Norman Manea, find English-language homes in the Margellos World Republic of Letters, with several books from each brought back into print with new material or translated for the first time, including Gombrowicz’s Diary as a single volume and Manea’s acclaimed novel of émigrés in America, The Lair.

In her groundbreaking book, The Woman Reader, Belinda Jack explores the complete history of women’s access and experience with the written word. From Babylon to Australia, censorship to misogyny, and bluestockings to factory workers, Jack covers the world of reading from an untold perspective, with surprising details and conclusions about the distinctions of male and female readers, even as they exist in today’s world.

History buffs will enjoy Edward Berenson’s The Statue of Liberty: A Transatlantic Story, the latest from YUP’s Icons of America series, while the contrast of the 2012 games with the ancient come to life in Neil Faulkner’s Visitor’s Guide to the Ancient Olympics. And new biographies of August Strindberg, Joe DiMaggio, and Carl Van Vechten elucidate the variant life and times of iconic cultural figures; not to mention the grand literary-biographical tradition of Dr. Samuel Johnson continued in John Sutherland’s Lives of the Novelists: A History of Fiction in 294 Lives.

Not all summer reads are about literature and history, as Edward McCord shows in The Value of Species by giving us ways to think about biodiversity and the place of nonhuman species within our humanity. And don’t forget to share your summer vegetable recipes with us after harvesting ideas from “A Rich Spot of Earth”: Thomas Jefferson’s Revolutionary Garden at Monticello.

Don’t start your summer block party without a bag of great reading material!

A True Literary Event: Terry Eagleton on Literature

For Terry Eagleton, writing is “exploratory.” “The act of writing is both a great delight to me in itself,” he explained in a recent interview on London’s Yale Books Blog, but it “also is constitutive of my thought.” As the author of more than forty books, which span the fields of literary theory, politics, and religion, it is clear that Eagleton has done a lot of thinking.

In his latest project, The Event of Literature, Eagleton, who is Distinguished Professor of English Literature at the University of Lancaster and an internationally known theorist and thinker, explores some of the most basic questions surrounding a discipline in which he is already well known.

As Stuart Kelly lays out in his review of The Event of Literature in the Guardian, for Eagleton to be talking about “literature” at all is a shift, since in his 1983 classic Literary Theory: An Introduction, Eagleton argued that there was no way of defining the category of literature. Almost two decades later, Eagleton opts for a common-sense approach, explaining that, just as it makes sense for us to say, “Stand roughly over there,” it makes sense for us to talk about an intuitive “family resemblance” among written texts. Kelly points out that Eagleton appears to have undergone less of a change of mind than a change of purpose: he retains his skepticism about a precise definition of literature while finding a way to talk about the category in a broad sense.

Indeed, in spite of forty and more years in the academic establishment, some aspects of Eagleton’s thinking have been in place since his childhood. Growing up as part of a working-class Irish Catholic family, he says, “taught me not to be afraid of thinking systematically and analytically,” and although he has long since drawn away from the Church, his religious upbringing taught a kind of “communal” thinking that transitioned naturally into the socialism he found as a university student and which, in turn, informs his leftist thinking today.

Eagleton acknowledges that his Cambridge education too has left its mark on The Event of Literature, for although he did receive what was in some capacities very traditional instruction in literary criticism there, the Cambridge school of literature also offered “a capacious understanding of literature and literary culture” that informed the omnivorous sensibilities of Eagleton’s project. While he says that The Event of Literature marks “a return to pure literary theory,” Eagleton draws on both Continental literary theory and Anglo-Saxon philosophy of literature, the latter of which brings in questions of aesthetics and the nature of fiction.

As a thinker who has never shied away from expressing his opinion, Eagleton (who, in recent years, has been particularly vocal in debates with the New Atheists) has a complicated relationship with the academic mainstream. Although he spent many years at Oxford, he is proud to be one of very few individuals to ever leave a chair there, a move he took as “a sign of putting some literal distance between myself and the establishment.” In a similar vein, he describes much of his own writing as “transgressive.”

In The Event of Literature, his transgression is in returning to literary theory, a subject that many of today’s academics regard as old hat. Yet, Eagleton argues, in the movement away from the thinking of the 70s and early 80s, scholars left behind “a number of important questions…were essentially put on the back burner.” Among these, he says, were “questions about narrative, about literature, about fictionality, about literary language” that are still extremely relevant to academic thought, and “that old chestnut” mentioned in the Guardian review: “what is literature?”

The Event of Literature traces some of Eagleton’s thinking on these issues, offering several metrics for how literature may understood that, on the whole speak to the author’s belief that, “students need to learn to respond to the forms and devices of literary texts, not simply to extract their content.” Overall, Eagleton writes, his goal is to “[draw] attention to what literature (at least for the present) actually means,” and to “reassert or reaffirm the centrality of literary analysis” in a world where literature tends to disappear under the shadow of culture more generally.


Watch the London Yale Books Blog’s multi-part video interviews with Eagleton here!

Religious Texts in Our Everyday

Open any form of news media and there are sacred texts everywhere. Republican frontrunners quote Bible verses, pundits debate the role of the Quran in Middle Eastern politics, and in the arts and entertainment section, one book always hovers over the Harry Potters and John Grishams as the number one bestseller of all time even if it’s not printed at the top of the list.

In The Message and the Book: Sacred Texts of the World’s Religions, John Bowker takes a closer look at some of these headline-making texts and their fellows in the canons of the world’s faiths. Clearly laying out the fundamentals of each, Bowker not only explicates the most important passages from the Bible and the Quran, but also delves into the sacred traditions of the Jewish, Buddhist, Sikh, Hindu, Confucian texts and others.

Bowker has written extensively on religion, and gracefully guides the reader through the ancient and complex language of the many texts he features, accompanying each chapter with a timeline that places the material in a historical framework. His work encompasses an enormous body of material: for in addition to looking at words, he highlights the importance of art—from illuminated manuscripts in Hinduism or Buddhism to the highly ornamented Jewish Ark of the Torah. Music and drama, too, are mentioned, and Bowker includes Methodist hymns, the English passion plays, and the Indian performances of sacred stories through dance in his discussion.

In his conclusion, Bowker lays aside these specifics to look at the importance of sacred texts more broadly. He emphasizes their two-sided legacy in modern society, writing of how, “Sacred texts have created holy people and great civilisations, but they have also been used to condemn and persecute others.” Sacred texts, he writes, have been used to divide us, marking differences, and “Those differences can be profoundly serious, competitive and divisive.” This is why, Bowker argues, it is all the more important that we understand the faiths of others, appreciating their complexities and nuances, so that we can “work together effectively to change ourselves and the world in the direction of generosity and peace.” In both starting and preventing wars, in inspiring both hatred and love, the messages and the books of the world’s religions are extremely powerful, and, Bowker writes, we must learn to interpret them together if we are to respect, comprehend, coexist with one another.

There’s Always Time for Gertrude Stein

“Who’s afraid of Gertrude Stein?” Lynne Tillman asked in The New York Times Book Review in January. With two new Yale University Press editions of the author’s work, rich in context and analysis to complement Stein’s text, we need not be, for, working from the expansive archive of Stein’s writing at the Beinecke Rare Book & Manuscript Library here at Yale, four scholars cast new light on Stein’s process as a writer of both poetry and prose.

The poetry in question is Stein’s Stanzas in Meditation: The Corrected Edition, edited by Susannah Hollister and Emily Setina, and with an introduction by Joan Retallack. The volume provides the text of the Stanzas accompanied by the editor’s analysis of its writing and it revision in coordination with Alice B. Toklas, Stein’s long-term editor and lover. The most talked-about of the corrections to which the title refers is the restoration of the word “may,” which Toklas understood as a reference to Stein’s former romantic interest May Bookstaver and insisted on excising from the manuscript entirely. Hollister and Setina carefully trace Toklas’s influence on Stein’s process, providing an appendix of textual variants that gives a full picture of the life of the poem and it place in the author’s oeuvre.

Editor Logan Esdale’s work with Stein’s Ida: A Novel reveals similarly telling complexities. The book contains the full text of the novel along with excerpts from Stein’s letters and other writing along with Esdale’s “excellent” introduction, which provides a sketch of the work’s biographical context. Among the secondary sources, the editor includes contemporary reviews, including both praise of the novel as heralding “the future of American literature” and a parody of Stein’s style that appeared in the Boston Evening Transcript under the headline “What Has Gertrude Stein Done Now?”

There is no question that Esdale has plenty of material: by the time the author’s work on Ida was underway, Stein has already building her archive at Yale, at the encouragement of her friends Thornton Wilder and Carl Van Vechten (the subject of another one of YUP’s recent releases!). Although much of Stein’s previous creative work had been purposely shrouded in mystery, Esdale explains how Stein’s efforts to save Ida’s various drafts constitute an invitation to look into the writing process of one of America’s great modernists.

Mark your calendars now for a Poets House celebration of Stein’s work featuring the editors of both of these comprehensive editions to take place in New York this April, and in the meantime, explore the author’s fascinating life online. A number of pieces from the Stein archive are available on the Beinecke website and blog, including letters to the writer from Pablo Picasso, a postcard from Ernest Hemingway, and a Van Vechten photograph of Stein lying in a lawn chair.

Garry Wills on the Ides of March, Rhetorically Speaking

The Ides of March, George Clooney’s latest directorial turn, stars Ryan Gosling as a campaign manager in a hotly contested Democratic primary that evokes both recent and ancient history. The film, adapted from a 2008 play by the name of Farragut North, plays on memories of the past two presidential elections, mingling Obama-style rhetoric with the events the playwright Beau Willimon witnessed working on the team behind Howard Dean’s 2004 bid for the Democratic nomination. Yet the title, which was notably switched from the Washington, D.C. Metro stop that Willimon used for his play, suggests that one source of the inspiration for the movie lies much farther back.

Pulitzer Prize-winner Garry Wills’s book Rome and Rhetoric: Shakespeare’s Julius Caesar, looks specifically at this classical source of inspiration for Clooney’s adaptation, highlighting the ways in which it is Shakespeare’s portrayal of ancient Rome in particular that sticks with us to this day. While other Elizabethan playwrights may have been more familiar with the historical minutiae surrounding Caesar, Brutus, and their fellow senators, Wills argues, Shakespeare took “an intuitive as opposed to scholarly approach to the classics” that allowed him to captivate his audiences with the drama of the Ides of March and their aftermath. Ben Jonson’s Roman plays were “homework,” bogged down by facts from books, whereas Wills says of Shakespeare that, “The book he read most surely is the human heart.”

In that book, Shakespeare found timeless renderings of honor, friendship, and loyalty, but also the power of oratory to “make or unmake the state,” a concept that rings true in our experience of the highly charged elections of the past decade. Of Julius Caesar, Wills writes, “There are, I repeat, no villains in this play. Though each character has his own self-interest, and a readiness to use or do away with other characters, all think they are doing so for the honor or glory or persistence of Rome.” While some might debate the notion that there are no villains in American politics, it is easy to see why a hint of Shakespeare’s Rome might emerge in the title of a film centered on the lengths the characters on our national stage have gone in pursuit of the honor or glory or persistence of the country. Rome and Rhetoric proves that more than four hundred years after its first performance, Julius Caesar is as relevant as ever.

Harold Bloom’s Brave Appreciation of the King James Bible

There is no doubt that Harold Bloom is a brave man.

Indeed, only a brave man can acknowledge in his most recent book that “disputes concerning the Bible have been murderous,” and then declare in an interview for the San Francisco Chronicle published a few months later that, “There is no God but God, and his name is William Shakespeare.”

“It may sound blasphemous, but it isn’t,” Bloom explains to Susannah Carson in her piece for the Chronicle, which focuses on The Shadow of a Great Rock: A Literary Appreciation of the King James Bible, timed to the 400th anniversary publication of the King James Bible. The book offers its author’s literary reflection on one of the great religious texts, and in his introduction, Bloom asserts once and again that literature and religion should not seem so strange a pairing. Rather, Bloom’s self-declared Bardolatry reveals the way in which, for him, religion and literature are one: Shakespeare, a literary master, is a religious deity, and the King James Bible, a religious text, is a literary masterpiece.

“I’m more a teacher than anything else. But I have a large view of what teaching is,” Bloom tells Carson. More than anything, it seems that Bloom wants to teach us how to appreciate the KJB along with him. According to Carson, “we do need his help: As a reading culture, we increasingly prefer passive distractions to the more satisfying pleasures of engaging with strong literature.” Bloom, too, refers to ours as a “post-literate era,” but he is adamant as to the benefits to be derived from his instruction in the KJB, in particular, and literature more generally.

Accordingly, Bloom writes in his introduction to The Shadow of a Great Rock that “‘Revelation’ ought not to be confined to biblical contexts.” “Literature,” he writes, “in this high sense, is the Blessing: it represents the fullness of life and can give more life,” something we are rarely offered by a YouTube video or a Twitter feed.

Adam Bradley Asks: Is Rap Poetry? Is It Good Poetry?

Adam Bradley—

Last fall saw the publication of The Anthology of Rap, a collection that I co-edited with Andrew DuBois. The book gathers nearly 300 lyrics by dozens of artists from across rap’s four decades. Our purpose was to highlight rap’s development as a literary art form by underscoring the poetics of its song lyrics.

Adam Bradley, Photo Credit: Justin Francis

From Grandmaster Caz, Melle Mel, and Kurtis Blow to Jay-Z, Jean Grae, and Lupe Fiasco, rap’s greatest practitioners are not simply performers but poets, shaping language through rhythm, rhyme, and wordplay. The lyrics included in The Anthology gesture to the range and diversity of styles embodied in this living literary tradition.

Since its emergence in the late 1970s, rap has always sparked controversy. It should come as no surprise that rap’s first anthology should do the same. Since its publication The Anthology of Rap has been valorized and vilified, celebrated and satirized. Some have called it a landmark work that has helped to secure rap’s place in literary history. Others have challenged everything from its methods of transcription to its mode of selection to its very reason for being. Through it all, though, the book has kept people talking about rap as literature. It has inspired conversations that might not otherwise have occurred, in places where such conversations are rare.

Song lyrics and lyric poetry share a common lineage. The connection is in language itself; ‘lyric,’ after all, is the Greek term used to describe verse set to the music of the lyre. Rap simply replaces the lyre with two turntables and a digital sampler. The essence of rap’s poetic identity lies in its artful use of rhythm, rhyme, and wordplay; it lies in its the emphasis on concision and emotive expression.

So why is it still controversial to talk about rap as poetry? And why do some of those who accept it as poetry often question its merits? Reviewing The Anthology of Rap in the journal Poetry, Adam Kirsch argues that rap exists in a suspended adolescence that keeps it from serious consideration as poetry. “If rap is mainly a genre for and by adolescents,” he writes, “it is largely because its notion of artistic self-assertion is an adolescent one—a fight for status in a closed hierarchy.”

If the nearly three hundred lyrics in The Anthology do anything, though, they attest to the range and diversity of rap’s expression. Far from being focused upon “a fight for status in a close hierarchy,” the lyrics within speak to everything from the joys of riding a bicycle on a sunny day (Atmosphere’s “Sunshine”) to the theological question of Good vs. Evil (Ras Kass’ “Interview with the Vampire”) to the simple virtues of an ordinary life (Aesop Rock’s “No Regrets”). Rap is a form and that form has been put to work on as comprehensive a catalog of human experience and emotion as any other artistic medium. The world is in rap’s lyrics, if we only listen past our assumptions.

Still others fear that in calling attention to rap’s poetry we risk sapping it of its vitality as song. The argument goes that if you sever lyrics from music, you rob those lyrics of their force and vitality. Such criticisms seem to presume that the moment song lyrics reach the page the song itself is somehow lost to memory. But no one fears that we will lose a Milton sonnet when someone dares to read it aloud. Why should we fear losing 2Pac’s music when we read his lyrics?

In fact, we lose nothing in studying song lyrics with an eye toward their literary figures and forms. Poetic analysis does not preclude the pleasure of performance. Quite the contrary, understanding the inner workings of the language of the lyrics can cultivate greater appreciation for the aesthetic pleasures embodied in the song as a whole. Rap lyrics richly reward our careful attention to their patterns of rhythm, rhyme, and figurative language.

For all that rap lyrics and lyric poetry share, however, rap is nonetheless governed by a distinct set of formal and aesthetic imperatives. The most important of these is the defining relationship between music and lyric. When embedded in rich soundscapes of harmony, melody, and rhythm, song lyrics derive meaning and emotion from the music that accompanies them. Though rap’s music has traditionally been dominated by rhythm over harmony and melody, it nonetheless has forged a powerful relationship between lyrics and sound, poetry and performance.

Admittedly, some of rap’s lyrics are of limited poetic range—often by design. The hook-driven songs that dominate the Billboard charts are rarely the place that one finds lyrics that reward close analysis. That said, rap has also produced profound poetry. Many factors influence the range and complexity of the rap poetics, including the different imperatives of style, genre, and individual creativity.

The very qualities that leave rap open to criticism as music—heavy reliance on 4/4 beats, limited use of melody and harmony—are precisely what make it such an effective vehicle for poetry. The rhythm-rich, harmony- and melody-poor beats of rap tend to provide a fertile sonic climate for poetically-sophisticated lyrics to flourish. When Jay-Z boasts on his 2009 single “D.O.A. (Death of AutoTune)” that “my raps don’t have melodies,” he is celebrating rap’s difference from most other musical genres and, by implication, its particular capacity for direct expression.

Reviewing The Anthology in Bookforum, the poet Kevin Young observes the following: “Hip-hop’s pleasure is often its Whitmanesque contradictions, embodied in the delicate dance between the beats and the bars that the rappers spit; unlike Whitman, the form and the feeling don’t often fit. It is a music of breaks, after all: A big part of hip-hop’s poetry results from the tensions and changes in these jarring shifts, as well as the jibing between the lyrics and the music.” Many of those tensions and changes are apparent in the lyrics alone; others only reveal themselves when one reads the lyrics along with the song. What is unmistakable, though, is that rap’s “delicate dance between the beats and the bars” has produced a poetry that commands attention and demands response.

In what follows you’ll find a selection of lyrics that testify to rap’s fundamental connection to poetic practice. You’ll also get acquainted with books and music that in different ways make the case for celebrating rap’s poetic identity.


Inside the Lyrics: The Rapper as Poet

Rappers have been referring to themselves as poets since rap began. JDL from the Cold Crush Brothers rhymed these lines back in 1982: “Well, I’m here to be known and I’m known to be / As an electrified prince of poetry.” A few years later, KRS-One performed an entire song called “Poetry,” which included this clear self-identification:

I am a poet, you try to show it yet blow it

It takes concentration for fresh communication

Observation, that is to see without speaking

Take off your coat, take notes, I am teaching

In more recent years, a host of other rappers have rhymed about their identity as poets. For some, it is a reluctant designation. “I’m a poet to some, a regular modern-day Shakespeare,” Eminem says on Jay-Z’s 2001 song “Renegade.” But just last year, Eminem revealed to the New York Times that he can’t remember the last time he read a poem. For all those the profess their ignorance or poetry or reject the label, there are dozens of others who embrace it in rhythm and rhyme. Here are just a few:

It’s self-explanatory, no one’s writing for me

The poetry I’m rattling is really not for battling

Boogie Down Productions, “Poetry”


DJ Scott La Rock has a college degree

Blastmaster KRS writes poetry

BDP, “Criminal Minded”


Poetic education of a high altitude

I’m not a MC, so listen—call me poet or musician

BDP, “Criminal Minded”


Loud and proud, kickin live, next poet supreme

Loop a troop, bazooka, the scheme

Public Enemy, “Rebel Without a Pause”


I’m rated R . . . this is a warning, ya better void

Poets are paranoid, DJs destroyed

Rakim, “Lyrics of Fury”


As I memorize, advertise, like a poet

Keep you goin when I’m flowin, smooth enough, you know it

Rakim, “My Melody”


I’m not a regular competitor, first-rhyme editor

Melody arranger, poet, et cetera

Rakim, “My Melody”


I’m the authentic poet to get lyrical

For you to beat me, it’s gonna take a miracle

Big Daddy Kane, “Ain’t No Half-Steppin”


The creator, conductor of poetry

Et cetera, et cetera, it ain’t easy being me

Big Daddy Kane, “Ain’t No Half-Steppin”


Poetry attacks, paragraphs punch hard

My brain is insane, I’m out to lunch, god

Nas, “Live at the BBQ”


I’m a poet, a preacher, and a pimp with words

Nas, “Popular Thug (Remix)”


Listen close to my poetry, I examine this

Like an analyst to see if you can handle this

The Roots, “The Next Movement”


Who am I? I am the poetical pastor

Slave to a label but I own my masters

Pharoahe Monch, “Desire”


I’m so literary with it you can tell that I write

The boy’s such an author I should smoke a pipe

The Clipse, “Mic Check”


Like a killer with a chrome when I spit another poem

Lupe Fiasco, “Break the Chain”


(1)  Suggested Reading

Adam Kirsch, “How Ya Like Me Now,” Poetry (February 2011)


Kevin Young, “Unwrapping the Message,” Bookforum (Sept/Oct/Nov 2010)


Adam Bradley, Book of Rhymes: The Poetics of Hip Hop (2009)

Paul Edwards, How to Rap: The Art and Science of the Hip-Hop MC (2010)

Jay-Z, Decoded (2010)


(2)  Suggested Listening

MC Lyte, Lyte as a Rock (1988)

Eric B & Rakim, Follow the Leader (1988)

Big Daddy Kane, It’s a Big Daddy Thing (1989)

The Anthology of Rap: Lyrics As Poetry,” All Things Considered, NPR (November 7, 2010)