Book Chapter
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Reduced to Rhyme: Contemporary Doggerel

Hip hop suggests that doggerel can achieve a surprising flexibility, ranging from the comic to the serious, from the delicate to the vulgar. It would be a mistake, though, to say the technique determines the result. 

Book Title
Rhyme’s Challenge: Hip Hop, Poetry, and Contemporary Rhyming Culture
Book Author(s)
David Caplan
Press and Year
Oxford University Press, 2014
Medium of Publication
Place of Publication

New York

Number of Pages


In September 2001, the Supreme Court of Pennsylvania ruled that Susan Porreco could not void her prenuptial agreement because she had received a cubic zirconium engagement ring. When she met her future husband, Susan Porreco was a seventeen-year-old high school student living with her parents; he was a forty-five-year-old, previously married millionaire and the owner of a car dealership. After two years of dating, he proposed, presenting her with a ring that she claimed he said was a diamond. Though Louis Porreco later insisted that he did not mislead his fiancée about the stone, he listed the ring’s value as $21,000 on the prenuptial agreement that his lawyer drafted. When the couple separated after ten years of marriage, she hired a jeweler to appraise the ring. Her lawsuit sought to dissolve the prenuptial agreement based on the misrepresentation.[1]

The court found for Louis Porreco, maintaining that his ex-wife should have obtained “an appraisal of the ring” when it was first given to her and faulting her “failure to do this simple investigation.” In a dissenting opinion, Justice Michael Eakin asserted:

A groom must expect matrimonial pandemonium
When his spouse finds he's given her a cubic zirconium
Instead of a diamond in her engagement band,
The one he said was worth twenty-one grand. (PP, 575-576)

Addressing the legal standard of “fraudulent misrepresentation,” which requires “justifiable reliance on the misrepresentation,” Justice Eakin continued in rhyming couplets:

Given their history and Pygmalion relation,
I find her reliance was with justification.
Given his accomplishment and given her youth,
Was it unjustifiable for her to think he told the truth?
Or for every prenuptial, is it now a must
That you treat your betrothed with presumptive mistrust?
Do we mean reliance on your beloved’s representation
Is not justifiable, absent third party verification?
Love, not suspicion, is the underlying foundation
Of parties entering the marital relation. (PP, 576)

Justice Eakin’s opinion distressed his colleagues. In concurring opinions, two of his fellow justices objected specifically to his use of rhyme. Chief Justice Stephen Zappala wrote of his “grave concern that the filing of an opinion that expresses itself in rhyme reflects poorly on the Supreme Court of Pennsylvania” (PP, 572). The Chief Justice protested on two grounds. First, rhyme diverts attention from the court’s true concerns: “[I]t is the substance of our views that should be the focus of our discussion” (572). For this reason, rhyme’s excessive stylization presents a distraction. Second and more disturbingly, its use in a legal document undermines the court’s authority. “The dignity of the Supreme Court of Pennsylvania,” Chief Justice Zappala insisted, “should not be diminished” (572). Rhyme, he fears, trivializes the proceedings. The loss of “dignity” endangers the court as an institution because it reduces its credibility and effectiveness. Rhyme encourages the public to see the court itself as frivolous. Agreeing with the Chief Justice, Justice Ralph Cappy focused on the second line of argument: “My concern...and the point on which I concur completely with the Chief Justice, lies with the perception that litigants and the public at large might form when an opinion of the Court is reduced to rhyme” (572).

Justice Cappy’s phrase, “reduced to rhyme,” nicely captures the technique’s present status. “Rhyme these days is in bad repute,” notes Hugh Kenner.[2] Rhymes abound in contemporary culture yet we devalue the technique’s significance. Outside of certain occasions, rhyme’s persistent claims feel awkward. As First Lady, Hillary Clinton often recalled a favorite quatrain:

As I was standing in the street
As quiet as could be
A great big ugly man came up
And tied his horse to me[3]

As with Clinton, rhymes can enter our thoughts, seemingly of their own volition. Repeated aloud, they sound unsavory, if not embarrassing.

A certain history complicates this situation. Contemporary songs rhyme to a much greater degree than do poems, a tendency that reverses the basic trajectory of English poetry. As the literature developed, poets parted ways with Greek and Latin authors who typically wrote unrhymed verse composed to be sung. Written to be spoken or read on the page, poetry in English broke with classical tradition by rhyming. In Renaissance debates about versification, rhyme represented a modern technique, regardless of whether the participant decried rhyme as a “troublesome and modern bondage” or celebrated it as the “the chief life” of “modern” “versifying.”[4] By the eighteenth century, many observers had declared the argument settled. “[R]hyming is what I have ever accounted the very essential of a good poet,” Jonathan Swift advised a younger poet, adding, “And in that notion I am not singular.” To illustrate this lesson, Swift labored to develop an adequate metaphor for rhyme’s extensive powers. “Verse without rhyme is a body without a soul,” he wrote, “or a bell without a clapper.”[5] Many poets and critics similarly maintained that rhyme defined the language’s poetry. “Rhyme,” Swinburne affirmed in 1867, building to his own comparison, “is the native condition of lyric verse in English: a rhymeless lyric is a maimed thing.”[6] No knowledgeable reader of poetry holds this position today.

A change in translation marks this historical shift. Many Renaissance and eighteenth-century translators cast unrhymed classical verse into rhyming couplets; those who did not protested the dominant mode. “It is commonly said that rhyme is to be abandoned in a translation of Homer,” Matthew Arnold observed.[7] It seems odd to maintain that a translator of Homer who does not use rhyme has “abandoned” the technique, because the original does not rhyme. Instead, Arnold’s point makes sense in a specific context. A translator who does not rhyme has “abandoned” the techniques familiar to the English verse tradition. Though Arnold objects to rhymed translations, his telling verb suggests the technique’s lingering influence at the time. A different assumption characterizes the contemporary era. Many contemporary translators employ the opposite procedures from Dryden, Pope, and Chapman. Instead of adding rhymes to blank verse, they translate rhyming verse without rhymes. They remove the element, instead of adding it. Asked about translating Borges into English, Norman Thomas di Giovanni minces few words: “Rhyme is hardly poetry, and we found it quite expendable.”[8] Pithily, Di Giovanni renounces any regret. With a superlative and an intensifier, he characterizes rhyme as irrelevant to the work’s artistry and unnecessary: “hardly poetry” and “quite expendable.” Other translators cite pragmatic reasons, involving the difficulties that rhyme poses. “This is doing it the easy way,” Robert Hass self-deprecatingly explains, “which has been typical of late twentieth-century translation. I ignored the rhymes.”[9] This decision signals the value that translators place on the technique: it presents a problem they need not address.

Regarding the contemporary scene, many literary critics view patterned rhyme as frivolous and beside the point, a distraction. Referring to “our rhyme-resistant time,” J. Paul Hunter notes how even sophisticated contemporary readers struggle to understand the complexity of rhyming verse: “It hardly seems possible, in our rhyme-resistant time, to take the couplet or its contents seriously except as repression—even to avid historical readers and professional critics.”[10] A scholar of eighteenth-century literature, Hunter recognizes that this prejudice obscures a major historic form. “[C]ouplets,” he notes, “dominated all poetry” “for more than two hundred years, nearly half the recognizable English tradition” (“SB,” 2). As if to confirm Hunter’s fears, Marjorie Perloff returns to the same example, untroubled by the situation that Hunter laments. Perloff claims that “today, the very appearance of heroic couplets” “is a signifier of ‘light verse,’ something fun and parodic, not meant to be taken too seriously.”[11] In her first book, Rhyme and Meaning in the Poetry of Yeats, Perloff explored the variety of effects that rhyme offers a single great poet.[12] Four decades later, Perloff implies that contemporary poets who write noncomic heroic couplets commit a mistake because the form serves as “a signifier of ‘light verse.’” It no longer evokes the wider range of genres, including the heroic, dramatic, and amorous modes that previous masters of the couplet have explored. In such arguments, the heroic couplet, the clearest major rhyme scheme, serves as a metonymy for all rhyming poetry; such assertions reduce endstopped rhyme to an essentially comic technique, not a flexible medium capable of expressing a range of attitudes, ideas, and emotions.

But what about noncomic rhyming verse, poetry “meant to be taken seriously”? Lyn Hejinian explains why the presence of rhyme dooms such efforts:

An English poem in a regular meter and with its lines hammered into position by end-rhymes tends to have a tiresome though sometimes laughable predictability; at best, it suggests only ancient wisdom, age-old truths. It provides familiarity and, through familiarity, consolation. It gives us respite from the hardships of life.[13]

Hejinian believes that end rhymes in English make poetry “laughable,” regardless of the effect the writer wishes to achieve. If the author aims to express moral seriousness, rhyme allows only bombast. The technique decides the result, condemning the poetry to “familiarity and, through familiarity, consolation,” all of which Hejinian sees as undesirable. According to her, all rhyming poems remain essentially the same, whether written in forms as different as the ghazal, the ballad, and villanelle or by poets of varying artistic temperaments.

Such sweeping dismissals ignore the details of actual practice. Justice Eakin, for instance, favors a specific kind of rhyme. “A rhyme must have in it some slight element of surprise if it is to give pleasure,” Ezra Pound asserted. “[I]t need not be bizarre or curious, but it must be well used if used at all.”[14] Pound’s Imagist dictum has achieved the status of a truism, cited in nearly all discussions of the technique. At his most compelling, though, Eakin works from the opposite principle. When his line “A groom must expect matrimonial pandemonium” sets “pandemonium” as the opening element in the rhyme pair, an attentive reader familiar with the case awaits “zirconium.” At least two factors draw the reader to this conclusion. Few rhymes exist for “pandemonium”; Merriam-Websters Rhyming Dictionary, for instance, lists only four.[15] Within such a narrow range of options, “cubic zirconium” remains a conspicuous possibility, especially because the fake jewel represents a memorable symbol of deceit, the one detail all acquainted with the case will remember. Tacky as the ring it describes, the rhyme confirms the reader’s suspicion; it delights as much in its own bad taste as in the bad taste it reports. Instead of building to a surprise, it confirms the reader’s expectations. The rhyme gives the pleasure of an unsuppressed groan.

Another bit of legal verse clarifies Eakin’s method. In her decision in a 1989 case before the United States Supreme Court, Justice Sandra Day O’Connor cited Shakespeare’s lines, “But I’ll amerce you with so strong a fine/That you shall all repent the loss of mine,” in order to document a historical meaning of “fine.”[16] Writing for the majority, Justice Harry Blackmun retorted with his own verse:

Though Shakespeare, of course,
Knew the Law of his time,
He was foremost a poet,
In search of a rhyme. (BF, 266, n. 7)

Justice Blackmun’s rhyme against rhyme embodies the point it makes. It presents rhyme as an easy trick that gives invention the appearance of truth. Rhyme, it suggests, performs two functions. The technique introduces a potential falsification, as words are chosen less for their meaning than for their sounds. The presence of rhyme discredits Shakespeare’s words; it diminishes their evidentiary value, because Shakespeare “was foremost a poet/In search of a rhyme.” The technique also achieves a second, seemingly incompatible effect. Rhyme gives Justice Blackmun’s stanza an air of certitude; “time” and “rhyme” cinch his argument with a certain rhetorical authority. The justice, then, exploits the very technique whose credibility he seeks to undermine.

Blackmun and Eakin write doggerel, the rhyming form that suffers the lowest standing. Often the term doubles as a pejorative, referring to bad or inept poetry. “Tastes shift,” a literary historian states, “and what looks to one generation like ‘major poetry’ often reads like doggerel to the next.”[17] “Major poetry” and “doggerel” represent antonyms, marking literature’s extremes. Like the term’s etymology, the genre itself seems “poor, worthless.”[18] A kind of verse to beshunned, not appreciated, doggerel has enjoyed little critical attention.

In two notable exceptions, George Saintsbury and Northrop Frye attempted to understand its origins and distinguish its types. Both attempt to extricate a genre from its disagreeable manifestations; they explore (in Saintsbury’s analogy) “a subject as inseparably connected with prosody as vice is with virtue”[19] Each, then, splits doggerel into two types: “doggerel which is doggerel, and doggerel which is not.” According to Saintsbury, the former is “merely bad verse verse which attempts a certain form or norm, and fails” (HEP, 392). When discussing the “good” kind, Saintsbury stresses its rarity and the enormous demands it places on the poet. “[I]t would require,” he writes, “a Dantean ingenuity and an ultra-Dantean good-nature to niche it in Paradise” (HEP, 393). The “doggerel which is not” features a recognizable verse form and poetic language “with a wilful licentiousness which is excused by the felicitous result” (393). Such poetry violates decorum by employing verse’s conventional markers. It registers “a direct though perhaps unconscious protest against the inadequacy, against the positive faultiness, of the regular prosody of the time” (394). Saintsbury italicizes “protest” as if to disguise the two words that modify it. Only two paragraphs before, Saintsbury stresses that the good kind of doggerel requires conscious effort: “The poet is not trying to do what he cannot do; he is trying to do something exceptional, outrageous, shockingand does it to admiration” (393). As the sentence moves from a negative to a positive assertion, Saintsbury insists that the poet achieves his goal; he accomplishes what he “is trying to do.” This success distinguishes good doggerel from bad, which simply fails the “form” or “norm” it attempts. The hedging phrase, “perhaps unconscious protest,” introduces the suggestion that the protest it registers might not be wholly deliberate. The modifier leaves open the possibility that “perhaps” the poem’s force derives from other sources.

Frye more confidently returns to this issue, although he does not cite Saintsbury’s work. As the terms Frye introduces make clear, “intention” distinguishes real doggerel from intentional doggerel. For Frye, the versions share two similarities; they retain an underlying prose rhythm and “the features of rhyme and meter become grotesque.”[20] Doggerel does not fully develop from prose into poetry; it perversely uses the visible features of verse. What distinguishes “intentional” doggerel from “real” doggerel is that a greater self-consciousness inspires the better kind, as its author knowingly utilizes the devices that naïve writers automatically use. For this reason, the writers of “intentional” “doggerel” oppose the writers of “real” “doggerel.” The more sophisticated doggerel poets turn against the others, making them objects of ridicule. “What makes intentional doggerel funny,” Frye observes,

is its implied parody of real doggerel, or incompetent attempts at verse: the struggle for rhymes, even to the mispronouncing of words, the dragging in of ideas for the sake of a rhyme, the distorting of syntax in squeezing words into meter. (WTC, 70)

“Intentional doggerel” feasts on its unaccomplished twin, recasting the same grotesque techniques. In particular, shrewder doggerel poets such as Byron and Browning exploit a generic quirk. In parody and in satire, doggerel’s vices turn into virtues, an effect Frye celebrates, declaring, “[D]oggerel in satire is a sign of wit rather than incompetence.”[21]

In Frye’s terms, both Justice O’Connor and Justice Blackmun write “intentional doggerel.” An example of antipoetry, Blackmun’s quatrain mocks poetry as a means of knowledge. Instead of parodying “incompetent attempts at verse,” he addresses Shakespeare, the language’s most celebrated poet. As if to invoke his predecessor, Blackmun uses the same rhyme group centuries later, turning Shakespeare’s sounds against him. To discredit O’Connor’s evidence, Blackmun places the law above poetry, presenting a judge’s words as truer than the poet’s. Eakin’s verse rhymes legal terminology (“representation,” “third party verification,” “underlying foundation,” and “marital relation”) as well as some of the case’s more salacious details. The verse juxtaposes the law’s august abstractions and the case’s seedier reality. In a reversal of Frye’s aesthetic standard, this “intentional doggerel” strikes me as more objectionable in a legal context. The verse techniques register a certain attitude toward the litigants and their plight; it casts them as the subjects of light comedy. In a sense, the poetry’s departure from artistic decorum parallels its departure from legal decorum. In blunt terms, Eakin writes his opinion in doggerel because he finds the case funny.[22]

The two poems provide fairly clear examples of a murky genre in which “intentional” and “real” doggerel are not so easily distinguished. As Saintsbury’s hedge suggests, a rhyme precariously marks what the author “is trying to do.” Composition blurs the accidental and the intentional; a rhyme introduces unexpected opportunities based in sonic coincidences. “[T]he chain reaction of a rhyme,” relates Seamus Heaney, “can proceed happily and as it were autistically, in an area of mental operations cordoned off by and from the critical sense.”[23] Following Pound, many poets report that rhymes “surprise” and “astonish” them, diverting the emerging poems from their original intentions.[24] Depending on their temperaments, critics and poets have proposed spiritual metaphors for this process or described it as inscrutable.[25] W. H. Auden drew from philosophy to define the composition process as dialectical:

In the process of composition, as every poet knows, the relation between experience and language is always dialectical, but in the finished product it must always appear to the reader to be a one-way relationship. In serious poetry thought, emotion, event, must always appear to dictate the diction, meter, and rhyme in which they are embodied; vice versa, in comic poetry it is the words, meter, rhyme, which must appear to create the thoughts emotions, and events they require.[26]

Shrewdly Auden distinguishes between the actual process of composition and the appearance the poem gives. A master of the two modes he mentions, Auden realizes that poets cultivate their readers’ confidence. To do so, they establish command of their art, albeit in different ways. Depending on the kind of verse they compose, they project mastery or feign incompetence. Each mode requires an appropriate appearance.

Hip hop, though, does not respect such sensible distinctions between “intentional” and “real” doggerel, or comic and serious poetry. Instead of renouncing rhyme, hip hop commits fully and openly to it. Again and again, the art reveals the technique’s flexibility. A single hip-hop song may contain astonishingly different kinds of rhyme, ranging across a number of genres, including doggerel, satire, religious testimony, sexual boasting, social protest, and seduction. Few songs maintain a consistent tone; many artists boast that they do not. “A thousand styles in one verse,” brags Rakim.[27] An extremely minor form in contemporary poetry, doggerel abounds in hip hop. Doggerel serves it so well because prosodic satire and parody rely on an established sense of metrical and rhyming decorum, which the contemporary print-based poetry notably lacks. To register a “protest against the inadequacy, against the positive faultiness, of the regular prosody of the time” (HEP, 394), the poet needs a “regular prosody” to protest.

Lupe Fiasco’s “Hip Hop Saved My Life,” for instance, depends on the listener’s identifying the hip-hop conventions it evokes. As the title suggests, the song describes a familiar hip-hop figure, introduced as “my homie with the dream”: an aspiring artist who wants to raise his family out of poverty. The song’s opening describes his goal:

He said I write what I see
Write to make it right, don't like where I be.
I like to make it like the sights on TV
Quite the great life, so nice and easy.[28]

Asked to describe his style, Fiasco mentions a “simple complexity.” “I always want it to seem simple on the surface,” he notes, “but if you listen or try to listen—which most cats don't do—but if you really listen, you'll see.”[29] In “Hip Hop Saved My Life,” deceptively simple rhymes and a pinched vocabulary describe a complex situation. The song plays with its monosyllabic language, squeezing thirty-three words into thirty-seven syllables. “He said I write what I see,” the unnamed figure advises, as if hip hop requires only the unmediated witness. However, the pun “write”/“right” suggests that writing might offer a form of transformation and redress, not merely reportage. The second pun, “I like to make it like/The sights on TV” (my italics), recovers the longing buried within the trope. Any poetry student can define a simile as the comparison of two unlike things, but in practice readers tend to overlook the unlikeness for the shared property. In other words, we focus on how the two things are similar, neglecting their essential difference. With its understated punning wordplay, Fiasco’s simile recalls what similes generally smooth over: how the tenor differs from the vehicle and, in the song’s case, how the speaker’s reality remains unlike the “sights” that inspire him.

To succeed, satiric doggerel must perform a contradictory task, mocking techniques both current and outmoded. Later in the stanza, Fiasco describes the song that the aspiring artist records:

A bass heavy medley with a sample from the 70s
With a screwed up hook that went
Somethin’ somethin’ somethin’

Faced with this apparently unpromising material, Fiasco repeats it, adding some filler:

Mother sister cousin
He couldnt think of nothin

Like many hip-hop songs, the song within “Hip Hop Saved My Life” presents a hook, a catchy refrain of street slang: in this case, “stack that cheese,” meaning to make money. Introducing his hook for the final time in “Jesus Walks,” Kanye West boasts, “Next time I'm in the club everybody screaming out” “Jesus walks.”[30] In West’s song, the crowd’s recognition validates his ambition; he crafts a line that fans shout back wherever he goes. In “Hip Hop Saved My Life,” Fiasco shows this aspiration’s smallness. He criticizes coolness as a goal, detailing the song’s success in less glamorous venues: “Eleven hundred friends on his Myspace page/Stack That Cheese got seven hundred plays” (“HH”). Such listeners mistake bad music for good, admiring what they should ignore. To protest against this prevalent bad taste, “Hip Hop Saved My Life” uses a doggerel structure, a song stripped to its most basic, crowd-pleasing element, “a screwed [up] hook”: “Somethin’ somethin’ somethin’/STACK THAT CHEESE.” In an evocative rhyme, “somethin’” turns into “nothin’,” a lack of artistic invention, because the entire song within the song exists for its hook.

As another song on the same album more bluntly asserts, Fiasco associates the technique of the hook with commercial pandering. In the chorus of “Dumb It Down,” the hip-hop artist repeatedly receives the following advice:

You putting me to sleep, nigga. (Dumb it down.)
That’s why you ain’t popping in the streets nigga. (Dumb it down.)
You ain’t winning no awards, nigga. (Dumb it down.)[31]

Resisting these pressures, Fiasco declares, “I flatly refuse” (“DD”). “Hip Hop Saved My Life” works more slyly. Instead of directly stating its artistic principles, the song achieves a simple complexity. The two hooks resemble each other grammatically; each consists of a three-syllable, three-word command. One hook answers the other. “Stack that cheese” satisfies those who demand he “dumb it down” but does so with a wink and a nod to those who “really listen.”

In his doggerel, Fiasco fights bad taste. More commonly, though, doggerel exploits bad taste’s powerful appeals. Much doggerel entertains the suspicion that its critics might be right, though for the wrong reasons: the lurid pleasures that the rhymes offer might prove unhealthy, if not destructive. In “Ignorant Shit,” Jay-Z rhymes his critics’ censure with impressively vulgar street insults from two languages, English and Spanish:

This is that ignorant shit you like:
nigga fuck shit ass bitch trick precise.
I got that ignorant shit you love:
nigga fuck shit maricón puta and drugs.

Addressing his critics, Jay-Z taunts them for their admonishments:

I got that ignorant shit you need:
nigga fuck shit ass bitch trick plus weed.
I’m only trying to give you what you want:
nigga fuck shit ass bitch you like it don’t front![32]

The even lines apparently confirm the most common charges leveled against hip hop: that it presents nothing more than mindless obscenity, namely, base expressions of misogyny, homophobia, and violent aggressionor, in Jay-Z’s terms, “ignorant shit.” Entire lines list the roughest vulgarity. As if English lacked the resources necessary to curse with sufficient force, Jay-Z turns to street Spanish, insulting both male and female sexuality. While Fiasco presents hip hop as an alternative to drug dealing, Jay-Z presents a more traditional figure: the artist as drug dealer. While some songs praise music for its healing force, “when it hits, you feel no pain,”[33] Jay-Z describes it as an illicit drug that turns listeners into addicts: “crack music,” as Kanye West similarly calls it.[34] In “Ignorant Shit,” rhyme recasts criticism into celebration. It focuses furious vulgarity, the nightmare of conventional decorum, into a shapely form. In the song’s metaphor, the words resemble a well-cut drug: “precise.” To achieve this effect, the rhymes pair desire and fulfillment—“like,” “love,” “need,” and “want”—with what the listener seeks: “precise,” “drugs” “weed” and “front.” In the anomalous final rhyme, “want”/“front,” Jay-Z taunts his critics for their hypocrisy: “you like it, don’t front.” In a more representative gesture, Jay-Z faces the challenge of finding a rhyme for “love,” a notoriously difficult task. Bending pronunciation, he rhymes “love” with “drugs.” As in this example, the rhymes seek to thrill. Comic and serious, they render intentional doggerel indistinguishable from real.

In Nas’s phrase, both Jay-Z and Lupe Fiasco “carry on tradition”;[35] they claim an artistic lineage, complete with characteristic techniques, canonical figures, and distinctive motifs, a situation in which doggerel thrives. Each performer borrows and transforms. Within the last few decades, hip hop has achieved a great sophistication, growing into the early twenty-first century’s defining culture: “an international phenomenon of imitation, reaction, and general influence that in its most common form is obvious to the point of parody.”[36] As in this characterization of Renaissance Petrarchism, hip hop provides a distinctive period style, including identifiable modes of expression. The ubiquity of hip-hop parodies reinforces the music’s influence, able to accommodate Ali G’s mock interviews and The Roots’ video for “What They Do,” a deft parody of hip-hop video conventions. Mockingly reproducing techniques from what it calls “Rap Video Manual,” the band members sip ginger ale disguised as champagne and watch bikini-clad dancers grind beside the pool of a rented mansion. Knowledge of the genre’s traditions establishes an artist’s credentials; ignorance discredits performer and listener alike. “I got an exam, let’s see if y’all pass it,” raps Nas. “Let’s see who can quote a Daddy Kane line the fastest” (“COT”). In this musical “exam,” allusion combines challenge and homage. If the listener cannot swiftly quote a Daddy Kane line, he fails, not Daddy Kane, whose excellence remains undisputed. “I kick it with the OG’s/And listen to the oldies,” a young rapper boasts on his debut album, recognizing that hip-hip mastery requires historical knowledge.[37] To “carry on tradition,” an artist must learn it. His apprenticeship, though, involves a certain irony: the “oldies” he studies date back only a few decades, recorded in what is commonly called hip hop’s “golden age,” most commonly defined as the mid-1980s and early 1990s.[38] A young art, hip hop has achieved a startlingly quick maturity, aided by new recording and distribution technologies. Backed by these advances, hip hop’s techniques have grown pyrotechnic and allusive. Following the genre’s dazzling development, the current moment offers the richest resources and inspires the greatest accomplishment. We are living in hip hop’s golden age.

Two examples clarify the advantages that hip hop currently enjoys. In Cosmopolis, Don DeLillo eulogizes Brutha Fez, a fictional rapper “born Raymond Gathers in the Bronx.”[39] Six times in six pages, DeLillo quotes Fez’s songs, “his own vocal adaptations of ancient Sufi music, rapping in Punjabi and Urdu and in the black-swagger English of the street.” The first example consists of a quatrain with three-stress lines and a terminal rhyme:

Gettin’ shot is easy
Tried it seven times
Now I’m just a solo poet
Workin’ on my rhymes (C, 133)

The lyrics deeply impress Eric Packer, a billionaire asset manager, as he watches Fez’s funeral procession from inside his limousine. Humbled by the experience, Packer notes, “Here was a spectacle he could clearly not command” (C, 136). Fez’s music dispirits Packer until he weeps uncontrollably. His sorrow arises from an obscure source. Packer weighs his area of expertise, international capital, against Fez’s rhymes, judging them to be more vital, expressive, and complex.

The funeral scene evokes two kinds of envy: a character’s and a novelist’s. While Packer jealously views the “spectacle” Fez can “command,” DeLillo, depicting a financier married to a poet, wonders whether hip hop might be the superior art, more capable of addressing the culture’s possibilities than the novel, poetry, or financial “data.” Yet DeLillo also thinks of hip hop as a kind of artless art, one easily faked. Hip-hop artists typically stress the training they undergo to develop their rhyming skills and the effort each song takes. “I’d be lying if I said it was easy,” Eminem admits. “Sometimes I’ll spend hours on a single rhyme, or days, or I’ll give up and come back to it later. Anyone who says they write a verse in less than 20 minutes is full of shit.”[40] Brutha Fez raps about a similar determination to develop his talent. Setting aside his character’s insight, DeLillo writes the rhymes that Fez performs, instead of simply describing them or quoting a song. This strategy is not unique. In Tom Wolfe’s I Am Charlotte Simmons, college basketball players listen to the music of “Doctor Dis.” The novel includes a dozen lines from what it calls “the most rebellious, offensive, vile, obnoxious rap available on CDs,” lyrics so extreme that one character wonders if “Doctor Dis himself was a cynic who created this stuff as a parody of the genre.”[41] Raising this possibility, Wolfe struts for his readers, pleased to show that he, an elderly, white dandy, can write lyrics as awful as those the teenagers admire. Wolfe’s cynical parody differs from DeLillo’s anxious homage; it conveys condescension, not ambivalence. A keen observer of contemporary culture, DeLillo wishes to show his mastery of hip-hop technique, to reassert his art against it and reclaim the novel’s status. The lyrics, though, lack any animating quality, let alone the trilingual energy that their introduction promises. Their “black-swagger English” sounds more studied than street, more whiny than assertive, casting Fez as a lesser 50 Cent down to the number of wounds he suffered: seven, not nine. They closely resemble Justice Blackmun’s verse, using the plural form of the same rhymes, but without the judge’s wit. Presenting hip hop as easy, DeLillo, a prose stylist, writes charmless, unintentional doggerel.

Of course, some highly skilled poets employ patterned rhyme, but they typically do so shyly. They favor enjambment, a technique to diminish the rhyme’s prominence. A means of concealment, enjambment addresses a potential embarrassment, allowing the rhymes to pass without too much fuss: seen, perhaps, but only faintly heard. Doggerel, though, requires a flamboyance that strains contemporary poetry’s resources. When researching Practical Criticism, I. A. Richards famously provided his students with poems that lacked a title, author, or date. To consider the predicament that a poet who writes doggerel faces, briefly I will borrow Richards’s method. Consider the following poem, which denounces a proposal to expand faith-based education, without the help of the poem’s author or title:

Oh for the pure Intellectual Fever
Of Halal Madresseh and Kosher Yeshiva

Where every last pupil’s exactly like you
And with only one Answer it has to be true

Oh for the play of Disinterested Mind
The impartial inquiry you’re certain to find

Where a Catholic Priest can tell you what’s what
And ensure that you can never encounter a Prot

Where a Protestant Elder can call you to order
And assure you the Pope should be swimming in ordure

Oh for the stirring sanguinary stories
That admonish us all with Our Martyrs’ past glories

Oh for the splendors of Faith-Based Education
That spread Fear and Hatred throughout the whole Nation.[42]

It is safe to say that Richards’s students would heartily condemn this poem. The students, Richards noticed, disliked off-rhyme, denouncing any examples as “poor rhymes.”[43] Richards offered two main reasons for this tendency. Because the students never learned how to rhyme competently, they admired poets who accomplish what they could not and treated with “great severity” (PC, 34) those whose verse at least superficially resembled their own efforts. “Success or failure for the neophyte is very largely a question of the control of rhymes,” Richards realized: “An exaggerated respect for rhyming ability is the result” (34). Second, the students criticized off-rhyme because of their “desire for something tangible by which to judge poetic merit” (34):

Normal sensibilities can decide with considerable certainty whether two sounds rhyme perfectly or not. The task is nearly as simple as that of a carpenter measuring planks. It is a grateful relief to pass from the nebulous world of intellectual and emotional accordances to definite questions of sensory fact. By assuming that the poet intended to rhyme perfectly, we get a clear unambiguous test for his success or failure. (34)

Contemporary literary criticism does not offer “a clear unambiguous test” for “success or failure.” The poem’s author, Dick Davis, a distinguished translator and writer of metrical verse, safeguards his lines with an excessive scrupulousness, emphasizing the techniques that Richards removed and I briefly set aside. The extensive title, “William MacGonagall Welcomes the Initiative for a Greater Role for Faith-Based Education,” sets the genre. As it indicates, Davis openly borrows from “the King of Doggerel,” who, as Davis reports, “has the dubious reputation of being ‘the writer of the worst poetry in English’” (TS, 53). In the title and the endnote, Davis twice identifies the poem’s inspiration as if to protect himself against the accusation that he writes “real” doggerel. Yet the poem lacks the “outrageous, shocking” force that intentional doggerel conveys. Davis borrows the style of a poet dead for more than a century. Addressing current political realities, he longs for a literary culture that would recognize his “rhymes” as “bad.” A sense of loss infuses the verse. For the purposes of intentional doggerel such as Davis’s, a simple method of appreciating rhyme is better than no method at all.

A peculiar incident clarifies why Davis took such care. In 2007 Billy Collins published “Paradelle for Susan” in the American Scholar, the magazine of the Phi Beta Kappa Society. The poem opens:

I remember the quick, nervous bird of your love.
I remember the quick, nervous bird of your love.
Always perched on the thinnest, highest branch.
Always perched on the thinnest, highest branch.
Thinnest love, remember the quick branch.
Always nervous, I perched on your highest bird the.[44]

An author’s note explains the form:

The paradelle is one of the more demanding French fixed forms, first appearing in the langue doc love poetry of the eleventh century. It is a poem of four six-line stanzas in which the first and second lines, as well as the third and fourth lines of the first three stanzas, must be identical. The fifth and sixth lines, which traditionally resolve these stanzas, must use all the words from the preceding lines and only those words. Similarly, the final stanza must use every word from all the preceding stanzas and only those words. (TP, 9)

Inspired by the paradelle, Theresa M. Welford, a professor of creative writing, composed a number of her own poems in the form. She also asked Collins if he would like to coedit an anthology of new poems in the form. When he agreed, she invited over 150 poets to participate in the project, and many started to compose their own paradelles.

Of course, the poem was a hoax, as Collins eventually confessed. “I was confident,” he explains, “that enough readers would see the poem for what it was: an ironic display of poetic ineptitude, and more broadly, a parody of formal poetry itself, at least the inflexibly strict kind. Boy, was I wrong” (TP, 10). Several markers underscore the author’s intention: most prominently, the grotesque inversion that ends the opening stanza’s final line, “Always nervous, I perched on your highest bird the.” More interesting than the poets who failed to discern this “poetic ineptitude” were the readers who recognized it but could not grasp its implications. Before the hoax was revealed, several subscribers wrote to the journal to complain. One noted that the poem did not follow the form’s requirements. Cataloging its “apparent violations of the formula,” he concluded, “Unless I badly missed the point, I don’t find ‘Paradelle for Susan’ to be a very impressive example of the tour-de-force that a paradelle purports to be.”[45] “How could you allow such a shoddy poem to appear in the journal of the Phi Beta Kappa Society of all places?” another charged, clearly aggrieved (TP, 10). In Frye’s terms, both mistook “intentional” doggerel for “real.” They heard the mistakes but could not detect the parody, at least partly because no standard exists to judge contemporary metrical verse. Such conditions discourage doggerel, except perhaps for the most surreptitious kind: where the poet takes revenge on his readers, revealing their ignorance, but only to himself.

With a strong sense of their art form’s traditions, hip-hop artists of various skill levels proceed with greater confidence. Committed to rhyme, they emphasize the technique so deeply that doggerel almost inevitably results. Just as hip hop prizes both collaboration and competition, rhyme establishes connections even as an artist asserts his uniqueness. A rhyme echoes and expands; it recalls neighboring sounds and previous uses, and calls for responses. Demonstrating this dynamic, Kanye West’s “Gold Digger” starts with a gesture familiar to hip hop: a nostalgic allusion. Jamie Foxx imitates Ray Charles while revising lines from “I Got a Woman.” “She take my money when I’m in need/Yeah, she’s a trifling friend indeed,” Foxx sings, borrowing Charles’s rhyme but reversing the meaning.[46] Charles sang, “She give me money when I’m in need/Yeah, she’s a kind of friend indeed.”[47] This allusion marks an affinity based in a contrast; Foxx longs for the subservient loyalty that Charles celebrates. “Never runnin’ in the streets and leavin’ me alone,” Charles praises his lover, “She knows a woman’s place is right there now in her home.” Yet the song’s light tone presents sexual politics as a farce, not a battle, as the unchanged rhyme marks the song’s true desire. To borrow Charles’s rhyme is to try on his style.

Midway through “Gold Digger,” West introduces a cautionary example, a star pro football player exploited by a “gold digger”: “You will see him on TV any given Sunday,/ Win the Super Bowl and drive off in a Hyundai.” Instead of enjoying his earnings, the pro football player watches the “gold digger” spend it:

She was supposed to buy ya shorty Tyco with ya money.
She went to the doctor got lipo with ya money.
She walkin’ around lookin’ like Michael with ya money.
Shoulda got that insured, GEICO for ya money.

In this highly effective doggerel, each rhyme strains to outdo its predecessor. The opening antonym-rhyme, “Sunday” and “Hyundai,” ironically counterpoints symbols of professional success and financial failure. The football star drives “a Hyundai,” not one of the luxury cars ubiquitous in hip-hop songs and videos, though he plays on “Sunday,” when the National Football League holds its games. The next rhyme group contains four instances—two more than the first—though the rhymes remain trochaic, blurring this division. The second group’s opening rhyme connects childhood and adult realms: toys and elective surgery, “Tyco” and “lipo.” The next rhyme illustrates this comparison, invoking “Michael” Jackson, a figure bizarrely caught between childhood and adulthood, as well as gender and race. Like the passage’s other primarily visual rhyme, “Hyundai,” “Michael” evokes both the image and its contrast: in the case of Jackson, the difference between his peculiarly refashioned body and earlier versions. The rhymes sketch a comic equation: “Tyco” + “lipo” = “Michael.” Instead of employing rhyme to maintain distance from contemporary culture, West, like many hip-hop artists, characteristically uses it to evoke the era’s distinctive features, including its celebrities, products, surgical procedures, and companies. The rhymes couple new inflections and objects of desire, as well as updated grotesqueries and threats. They mark a sophisticated worldliness, an insider’s knowledge of contemporary mores.

The style’s availability allows artists to create with breathtaking speed, exploiting the latest technologies. On September 2, 2005, Kanye West appeared on a fundraiser for the victims of Hurricane Katrina, broadcast live. Ignoring the prepared script, he criticized the Bush administration’s response to the disaster and the media’s portrayal of it. Appearing beside West, Mike Myers looked increasingly helpless: a comedian fated to be the butt of many jokes. Just after West exclaimed, “George Bush doesn’t care about black people!” the cameras cut away.[48] Four days after the benefit, a previously uncelebrated Houston hip-hop duo, the Legendary K.O., posted on their Web site, “George Bush Doesn’t Care about Black People,” their reworking of “Gold Digger” recorded on home computers and composed through emails and instant messaging. “Within the first 24 hours, it was downloaded 10,000 times,” Legendary K.O. member Damien Randle remembered. “It crashed our server.”[49] Within days, a freelance video producer in New Brunswick, New Jersey, composed an arresting video and circulated it on the Internet, attracting more attention.

“George Bush Doesn’t Care about Black People” recasts the chorus of “Gold Digger,” decrying Bush, not a potential lover: “I ain’t saying he a gold digger,/but he ain’t messing with no broke niggas.” Borrowing the “Gold Digger” instrumental, the chorus repeats a more cutting version of West’s criticism, asserting again and again, “George Bush don’t like black people.” “The suggestion that I was a racist because of the response to Katrina represented an all-time low,” George W. Bush later recalled. “I told Laura at the time that it was the worst moment of my presidency.”[50] The song expands West’s charge. In “Gold Digger,” West’s rhymes display his linguistic and comic inventiveness; they delight in the connections that sound-coincidences allow. Setting the words to West’s tune, the Legendary K.O. crafts the same device into a gesture of outrage. The first quatrain announces this strategy in suitably forceful language:

Hurricane came through, fucked us up round here.
Government acting like it’s bad luck down here.
All I know is that you better bring some trucks round here.
Wonder why I got my middle finger up round here.[51]

The stanza moves from skepticism to defiance. The first end-rhyme pair suggests that more than “bad luck” “fucked us up,” that is, caused the speaker’s misery. Building on this point, the third line cites logistical needs quite separate from misfortune: “trucks” filled with supplies, ready to transport New Orleans residents from the city. In the fourth line, the rhyme changes both in function and in construction, playing with the listener’s expectations. Given the rising anger that the lines express, the listener anticipates that the curse “fuck” will return. Instead, the fourth line repeats the preposition “up” that the first line downplays, raising it to a position of prominence. The rhyme pattern also changes, introducing an approximate vowel-rhyme different from the previous full rhymes. Both maneuvers recall the anticipated word’s absence. It may seem odd to call a doggerel description of an obscene gesture tactful, but the final line draws significant force from the decision not to repeat the swear. Instead, the rhyme itself strikes the formal equivalent of the depicted gesture: “Wonder why I got my middle finger up round here.” A balance of desperation and dignity, the rhyme surprises with its defiant refusal.

As this example suggests, doggerel listens hard to rhyme, trusting it to direct the song’s energies. Rhyme openly generates the possibilities that the song pursues. To many, the result may seem uncontrolled or, rather, controlled by the wrong forces. Yet hip hop suggests that doggerel can achieve a surprising flexibility, ranging from the comic to the serious, from the delicate to the vulgar. It would be a mistake, though, to say the technique determines the result. Rather, hip hop hungers for rhymes; it feeds on nearly whatever it can find. Such doggerel lays bare the machinery of its making, amplifying the process that poetry typically conceals: how an environment of rhyme turns into art.



[1] I take the details of the case from the court opinion, Porreco v. Porreco, 811 A.2d 566 (Pa. 2002); hereafter cited in the text as PP.

[2] Hugh Kenner, Historical Fictions: Essays (Athens: University of Georgia Press, 1995), 283.

[3] Hillary Rodham Clinton, It Takes a Village: And Other Lessons Children Teach Us (New York: Simon and Schuster, 2006), 137. Clinton recalls the title poem of Wallace Tripps A Great Big Ugly Man Came Up and Tied His Horse to Me: A Book of Nonsense Verse (New York: Little, Brown, 1973).

[4] John Milton, Complete Poems and Major Prose (Indianapolis, IN: Hackett, 2003), 210; Philip Sidney, Sidneys “The Defence of Poesy” and Selected Renaissance Literary Criticism, ed. Gavin Alexander (New York: Penguin, 2004), 52.

[5] Jonathan Swift, The Works of the Rev. Jonathan Swift, D.D....: With Notes, Historical and Critical, vol. 8, ed. John Nichols (New York: William Durell, 1812), 68.

[6] Hugh A. C. Swinburne, review in Fortnightly Review, October 1867, rpt. in Matthew Arnold: Prose Writings, Volume 2: The Poetry, ed. Carl Dawson and John Pfordresher (London: Routledge, 1995), 182. Writing about the nineteenth century, Peter McDonald similarly notes, [R]hyme was a shared idiom, without which the lyric was all but unthinkable.” See Sound Intentions: The Workings of Rhyme in Nineteenth-Century Poetry (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2012), 7.

[7] Matthew Arnold, On Translating Homer (London: Smith, Elder, 1896), 15.

[8] Jorge Luis Borges, Borges on Writing, ed. Norman Thomas di Giovanni, Daniel Halpern, and Frank MacShane (New York: Ecco, 1973), 141.

[9] Robert Hass, Now and Then: The Poets Choice Columns, 1997-2000 (New York: Counterpoint, 2007), 256. In The Art of Translating Poetry, Burton Raffel similarly comments on one of his translations that "In an attempt to convey all the poetry the original has to offer, this version does not rhyme.” The implication is fairly clear: rhyme is not classified as part of “all the poetry.” See The Art of Translating Poetry (University Park: Pennsylvania University Press, 1988), 20.

[10] J. Paul Hunter, “Sleeping Beauties: Are Historical Aesthetics Worth Recovering?” Eighteenth-Century Studies 34, no. 1 (2000): 2; hereafter cited as “SB.”

[11] Marjorie Perloff and Robert von Hallberg, “Dialogue on Evaluation in Poetry,” Professions: Conversations on the Future of Literary and Cultural Studies, ed. Donald Hall (Urbana: University of Illinois Press, 2001), 95.

[12] Marjorie Perloff, “Rhyme and Meaning in the Poetry of Yeats,” De Proprietatibus litterarum, series practica, no. 5 (The Hague: Mouton & Co., 1970).

[13] Lyn Hejinian, The Language of Inquiry (Berkeley: University of California Press, 2000), 307.

[14] Ezra Pound, Literary Essays, ed. Thomas Stearns Eliot (London: Faber and Faber, 1954), 7.

[15] Merriam-Websters Rhyming Dictionary: A Guide to Creating Lyrical Expressions (New York: Merriam-Webster, 2001), 263.

[16] Browning-Ferris Industries of Vermont, Inc. v. Kelco Disposal, Inc., 492 US 257 (1989) 290; hereafter cited in the text as BE.

[17] Jay Parini, “Introduction,” The Columbia History of American Poetry: Lustra to Mauberley, ed. Jay Parini and Brett Candlish Millier (New York: Columbia University Press, 1993), xxv.

[18] The American Heritage Dictionary of the English Language, 4th ed. (Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 2000).

[19] See George Saintsbury, “Appendix III: The Nature and Phenomena of Doggerel,” A History of English Prosody from the Twelfth Century to the Present Day, vol. 1, From the Origins to Spenser (New York: Macmillan, 1906), 413-416, 392; hereafter cited in the text as HEP. For a sensitive consideration of the challenges that contemporary doggerel faces, see David Rothman, “Ars Doggerel,” Expansive Poetry & Music Online, available at

[20] Northrop Frye, The Well-Tempered Critic (Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 1963), 69; hereafter cited in the text as WTC.

[21] Northrop Frye, Fables of Identity: Studies in Poetic Mythology (New York: Harcourt, Brace, and World, 1963), 183.

[22] Eakin admitted as much when he told a reporter, I would never do it in a serious criminal case. The subject of the case has to call for a little grin here or there.” Adam Liptak, “Justices Call on Bench’s Bard to Limit His Lyricism,” New York Times, December 15, 2002, 41.

[23] Quoted in Peter McDonald, Serious Poetry: Form and Authority from Yeats to Hill (New York: Oxford University Press, 2007), 87.

[24] For instance, X. J. Kennedy observes: When you write in rhyme, its as if you’re walking across a series of stepping stones into the darkness, and you can’t really see what’s at the far end of the stepping stones. So you’re led onward, often to say things that surprise and astonish you. “X. J. Kennedy,” Fourteen on Form: Conversations with Poets, ed. William Baer (Jackson: University Press of Mississippi, 2004) , 246-247. For similar reasons, Donald Davie wrote of rhyme: “Rhyme, of all the tricks that are / In the Muse’s repertoire / The most irrational” (CP, 224).

[25] For instance, in How Poets See the World: The Art of Description in Contemporary Poetry (New York: Oxford University Press, 2005), 46, Willard Spiegelman observes, “Rhyme may be either discovery or creation, depending on whether it arrives mysteriously and suddenly or striven for and plotted (and who can ever tell?).”

[26] Quoted in Anthony Hecht, Melodies Unheard: Essays on the Mysteries of Poetry (Baltimore, MD: Johns Hopkins University Press, 2003), 49-50. Hecht calls Auden’s point “almost indisputable.”

[27] Rakim, “R.A.K.I.M.,” 8 Mile Soundtrack (Interscope Records, 2002).

[28] Lupe Fiasco, “Hip Hop Saved My Life,” The Cool (Atlantic, 2007); hereafter cited in the text as “HH.”

[29] Lupe Fiasco, “Almost Famous,” interview with Kenny Rodriguez. [Editor's note: this interview is no longer available at the website link that was given by the author, and it does not appear to have migrated to other sites at this time.]

[30] Kanye West, “Jesus Walks,” The College Dropout (Roc-A-Fella, 2004).

[31] Lupe Fiasco, “Dumb It Down,” The Cool; hereafter cited as “DD.”

[32] Jay-Z, “Ignorant Shit,” American Gangster (Roc-A-Fella, 2007).

[33] Bob Marley, “Trenchtown Rock,” Trenchtown Rock (Phantom Sound & Vision, 2004).

[34] Kanye West, “Crack Music,” Late Registration (Roc-A-Fella, 2005).

[35] Nas, “Carry on Tradition,” Hip Hop Is Dead (Def Jam, 2006); hereafter cited as “COT.”

[36] Gordon Braden, Petrarchan Love and the Continental Renaissance (New Haven, CT: Yale University Press, 1999), 63.

[37] Yung Ralph, “I Work Hard,” Most Unexpected (Money Maker, 2008).

[38] See, for instance, Michael Eric Dyson, Know What I Mean? Reflections on Hip Hop (New York: Basic Books, 2007), 64, who dates “the golden age of hip hop” as “from 1987 to 1993.”

[39] Don DeLillo, Cosmopolis (New York: Scribner, 2003), 133; hereafter cited in the text as C.

[40] Zadie Smith, “The Zen of Eminem,” Vibe, January 28, 2005. [Editor's note: this story is no longer available on Vibe, but it has been stored in a few other web locations (for the moment), including this one:]

[41] Tom Wolfe, I Am Charlotte Simmons (New York: Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2004), 44-45.

[42] Dick Davis, A Trick of Sunlight (Athens: Swallow Press/Ohio University Press, 2006), 43; hereafter cited in the text as TS.

[43] I. A. Richards, Practical Criticism: A Study of Literary Judgment (New York: Harcourt, Brace and World, 1929), 33; hereafter cited in the text as PC.

[44] Billy Collins, “A Brief History of the Paradelle,” The Paradelle, ed. Theresa M. Welford (Los Angeles: Red Hen, 2005), 9; hereafter cited in the text as TP.

[45] Roger Ide, “The Reader Replies,” American Scholar, Fall 1997, 173-174.

[46] Kanye West, “Gold Digger,” Late Registration (Roc-A-Fella, 2005).

[47] Ray Charles, "I've Got a Woman,” The Very Best of Ray Charles (Rhino, 2000). Since the song is more commonly referred to as “I Got a Woman,” I follow that convention to minimize confusion.

[48] Lisa de Moraes, “Kanye Wests Torrent of Criticism, Live on NBC,” Washington Post, September 3, 2005, C01.

[49] See John Lenand, “Art Born of Outrage in the Internet Age,” New York Times, September 25, 2005, sec. 4, p. 1; and “Legendary K.O. Press Release.”

[50] George W. Bush, Decision Points (New York: Crown Publisher, 2010), 326.

[51] The Legendary K.O., “George Bush Don’t Like Black People.”

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Prosody: Alternative Histories

What are the historical stakes of prosody, and why should we ask? ‘Prosody’ refers both to the patterning of language in poetry and to the formal study of that patterning.


In both senses, it is roughly synonymous with ‘versification.’ Like many terms in the modern study of poetics, ‘prosody’ derives from a Greek word of much wider application (prosōdía, ‘song; tone’). In Modern English, ‘prosody’ additionally designates a branch of linguistics concerned with the intonational and rhythmical patterning of speech.

The multiple meanings of ‘prosody’ hint at the historical perplexities of the term. One major difficulty is the qualitative difference between prosodic theory and practice—often itself a historical difference. In English literature, for example, the practice of meter predates metrical theory by 900 years. Between the composition of the Old English poem Cædmon’s Hymn (late seventh century) and the publication of George Gascoigne’s Certayne Notes of Instruction Concerning the Making of Verse or Ryme in English (1575), poets practiced but evidently did not theorize English prosody. (Modern poets’ continuous proselytizing letters, essays, and talks promulgating their prosodic theories has now more than made up for this gap!) Nonetheless, the medieval centuries are notable for metrical experimentation, from twelfth-century forays into syllabic verse to Geoffrey Chaucer’s invention of the French- and Italian-inspired iambic pentameter in the fourteenth century. This experimentation is incomprehensible without situating English in a cross-linguistic context, one that includes, at minimum, French, Italian, Latin, Norse, and Welsh, each with its own complex history.

The study of prosody in the centuries since Gascoigne has presented any number of historical complications, and the present era is no exception. Even as it enjoys a resurgence of interest, spurred by concurrent discoveries in sound studies, cognition, performance, psycholinguistics, and new technologies, verse prosody remains a problematic field. The linguistic turn of the twentieth century, for example, has meant that many prosodists have focused on developing, and refining, metrical theories, i.e., descriptive systems that account for the match or ‘fit’ between the phonological structure of the language and the aesthetic structure of the verse. This approach, originally sponsored not by a linguist but by a literary critic—that “every language has the prosody which it deserves”[1]—has certainly advanced a fundamental understanding of technique, but it has done so at significant cost: the assumption of verse’s artificiality as a transparent stylization of natural language, with an attendant, and surprising, lack of curiosity about the historical factors conditioning these outcomes.

Following the linguistic turn, literary scholars have endeavored to describe metrical traditions and to coordinate metrical histories and historical prosodic theories with cultural, intellectual, material, and social histories. Yet what is the status of such description and coordination, given the gap between practice and theory, or between cultural production and cultural analysis? Do early theories of prosody, from Pāṇini to Snorri Sturluson to Gascoigne, clarify the nature of verse or entail new epistemological problems? Do later approaches, from generative metrics to cognitive poetics to historical poetics, represent research progress or just add terminological complication? Can the historical practice of prosody be disentangled from the history of prosodic study—and if not, whence prosody?

Contemporary poets at all levels face an analogous gap between practice and theory: to what extent can the researches of prosodists influence or be of use to poets? What utility could there possibly be, given the outright inaccuracies of meters in most poetics handbooks (here, a reverse historical dilemma: practice may continue to outstrip theory, but theory outstrips primers). Does the textbooks’ persistence in oversimplifying and misrepresenting metrical study only prove the point that the academic pursuit of verse prosody is immaterial to practice?

Prosody thus traverses a set of vexing historical oppositions—between structuralist and poststructuralist, or formalist and historicist, or empirical and theoretical, methodologies; between departments in the twenty-first-century university—especially the languages, linguistics, cognitive sciences, and comparative literature; not to mention between poets and critics, the producers and analysts of prosody. Hoping to move past these artificial divides, this Colloquy brings together work in multiple media across disciplines, all considering reciprocal relationships between prosody and history, variously defined. The goal of the discussion is to inspire the kinds of productive disagreements that can move prosody closer to Donald Wesling’s vision of a unified field: “When literary criticism can complete linguistic metrics, and when it can in turn be completed by being deepened with a cognitive psychology of the reader, and when it can be fully historicized, then we shall have a prosody adequate to the greatness and range of poetry in English.”[2] This Colloquy shows that verse rhythm and aesthetic pleasure always exist in a dialectic relationship with many histories.

[1] George Saintsbury, A History of English Prosody (3 vols.) (London: Macmillan, 1906-10), vol. 1, 371.

[2] Donald Wesling, The Scissors of Meter: Grammetrics and Reading (Ann Arbor: Univ. of Michigan Press, 1996), 22.

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