November’s Poet of the Month Anthony Anaxagorou on rap and the literary establishment.
It was announced on 13th October that Bob Dylan, one of the most fecund and influential living musicians of our time had won the Nobel Prize for Literature – the 113th winner and first musician to be awarded the prize by the Nobel committee. Many revelled in the news expressing their delight in what could be interpreted as a significantly progressive move by the Swedish academy. Others weren’t so keen, taking to social media to make clear their reservations for giving such a notable prize to a musician who exhibits an obvious and artless style of writing, while some offered a more measured reconsideration as to where the boundaries of credible literature lay, and ultimately who gets to define them.
American poet and critic Edward Hirsch noted how ‘Bob Dylan’s work is certainly not ‘literature’ as we usually think about it, but the way his lyrics sing, his poetry in performance, has given us a summary of our times that promises to endure.’ While Irvine Welsh said the decision had been ‘wrenched from the rancid prostates of senile, gibbering hippies.’ One could argue that those averse to Dylan winning the prize have a penchant for a particular style of poetry. Here we could even reflect on the protracted cultural value the West has for the written word over that which is spoken, sung or performed. A scribal predilection that’s been transmitted from days-of-old, one which much of the time regards anything live, theatrical or performative as being pedestrian and less urbane than its written counterpart.
The decision has forced many of us to reassess this somewhat anachronistic notion as to what can qualify as being worthy and impacting literature. Does it have to exist in such an inalienable form or can it be reshaped? The main contention from Dylan’s disapproving camp seemed to be centred around the belief that his writing was more heavily reliant on his words being set to music than it was on the astute usage of space, page and economy. Some of my fellow poets conjectured that if his music had the multivalent attributes we traditionally associate to a poetry that balances sound, image, sentiment and nuance so masterfully, then maybe it would be seen in a more justifiable light.
Some might not be aware that Dylan, like his recently departed contemporary Leonard Cohen, wrote poetry for both the page (Tarantula, Writings and Drawings) and for musical tracks, yet as we know it was his protestations in song that propelled him into a position of iconic prominence. A look on the Nobel Prize website states he was awarded the prize “for having created new poetic expressions within the great American song tradition”. This proclamation certainly qualifies Dylan for the award regardless of whatever our subjective preference or bias might be on his ability to work as a page poet, yet what might be of bigger interest here is if Dylan can be this year’s successful candidate, then what’s to say artists of equal effect and contribution from other musical genres can’t.
Since Dylan’s laureateship I’ve read a number of articles suggesting musicians such as Tom Waits, Nick Cave or Joni Mitchell should at some point be considered for the prize, and why not, they have produced countless records that exhibit a distinct verbal artistry, one that has gone on to inform and help define entire generations. In saying that, there is an entire style of music that arguably stands as poetry’s closest and most loyal sibling, one, which for some reason or another never quite finds itself well-placed in these critical discussions.
If we agree that the Nobel Prize for Literature is awarded to artists for the clear cultural contribution they’ve made in their respective fields or homelands then surely rappers of equal stature should also be eligible. For someone to deny the literary sophistication demonstrated by a select group of technically accomplished rappers is to openly reveal a blemish in that individual’s understanding of the poetic form in its totality. Rap or Hip-Hop might not be everyone’s preferred genre and that’s fine, yet to deny its use of prosody, wordplay and linguistic dexterity is to show that something more insidious is responsible for disfiguring such a judgment.
Here again we stumble upon ones subjective taste in rappers but if we consider the early works of Nas for example, which show a precocious and diligent MC who has the capability to embody the paradoxes and afflictions faced by many young African American men using a versatile poetic register then we may be inclined to see similarities between him and Gill Scott Heron (who I’ve always professed should have been awarded the prize before his death in 2011). Nas, throughout his career has showcased a salubrious aptitude when working around theme, narrative and idiom. As has Tom Waits who we regard as an almost amorphous musician as he fuses blues, rock, jazz and folk to capture the misfortunes of the American underclass in an unconventional voice that hints towards the perennially broken and dispossessed.
Another artist who has made an invaluable contribution to the American song tradition is Lauryn Hill. A musician who has offered us an oral literature steeped in unapologetic and politically charged melopoeia. Her canon is impressively wide and infectious spanning nearly two decades. Her language in places is beleaguered and hurt yet simultaneously redemptive and empowering. However, what I feel is more central to the point is that as a black woman in a male dominated bastion, she has maintained a precedence that few of her contemporaries are able to match.
We could continue arguing the case for rappers to be held in greater esteem by the literary establishment, and I hope when they’ve aged into the corporeal class of living legends they will. But for those of us who enjoy the poetry of Pablo Neruda, or the late Tomas Tranströmer or Wislawa Szymborska while also being impartial to spinning a Wu-Tang or Rakim record, then these tapered parameters set by gatekeepers, academics and critics when attempting to individuate and rank the various categories of poetry, do nothing but expose a deep discrepancy in our spectrum of literature, one that is not only exclusionary but dangerously imperceptive.
Anthony Anaxagorou is an award-winning poet, short story writer, publisher and poetry educator. He has published several volumes of poems and essays, a spoken word EP and a collection of short stories whilst having also written for theatre.
Anthony’s poetry has appeared on national television and radio and he works as writer in residence at several London schools.