A few days ago I picked up second hand an anthology of contemporary African-American poetry published toward the end of the twentieth century titled Catch the Fire!!! It’s interesting and important because it identifies current rap and hip-hop artists as part of the stream of black writers/poets/artists of the U. S.
The book is divided into six segments; each is introduced by a black cultural figure of importance with reflections and encouragements. The overriding theme of the book urges the young poets to be positive and passionate, to catch and spread the fire actively. The editor and many of the younger poets included are wordsmiths, presenters of ideas in the language of their culture and the immediacy of post literary media – black street talk with rap beats, to be performed as spoken word and disseminated as recordings.
The work in this volume lives up to that challenge. It burns with passion. There are poems from some of the well-known and established poets and writers: Amiri Baraka, Nikki Giovanni, Quincy Troupe, and Sonia Sanchez. These establish the immediacy and the tradition. But much of the collection consists of work by younger poets, often rap and slam artists, who try to burn the fire of their performance onto the black and white of the page.
It all shows that there is a tradition of black poetry - revolutionary perhaps, passionate certainly – that flows through American letters. Much of it is, as mentioned before, available only through performances or recordings. And this is where the more established poets come in with advice and direction. They urge the young to write and then look at their work, not simply to consider performance but the writing as literature. To not only listen to their contemporaries but also to read them, study them, find what works and what doesn’t. To delve into the craft of poetry beyond rhyme and rhythm and into simile and metaphor. To read and use everything you can until you’ve worked out something you feel comfortable with, a voice, and a positive attitude you can share. Use poetry to reach outside yourself so it can become part of everyone else.
And with such advice it is easy to see how rap and hip-hop, filtered though the experience of black people’s existence, is real poetry. It may not have the ancient, European forms and cadences but the power and confidence cannot be denied. The fire that exists on the stage is being transferred to the page. And the page will be all the better for it, will not be consumed.