You could barely escape poetry back in the day. Newspapers commissioned bits of doggerel to print between columns. The N.A.A.C.P.’s doughty house organ and beacon to Black America, “The Crisis,” edited by W.E.B. Du Bois, included poetry of varying degrees of quality between its articles. A cultivated person often at least pretended to like poetry and had a volume or two on her bookshelf. (My mother did like it, and retained a copy of one of Louis Untermeyer’s grand old anthologies from her early adulthood.)
But fast-forward to what Gioia was referring to. As a kid in the 1970s, even one attending private schools, I was directed to drive by poetry slowly now and then, but rarely to actually stop and take it in deeply. Many Russians can recite some Pushkin by heart; I have never known a single poem by heart. As I put it in a book once, poetry is the marjoram on my spice rack: It’s nice to know it’s there, but I use it for only one dish, lamb chops. And I am hardly alone in this among educated Americans of Generation X and beyond.
A decade after his 1991 essay, Gioia saw signs of a poetry revival. But I suspect it only felt that way to poets. He wrote that he was hearing more poetry on the radio and seeing more of it online. Apparently, there were more poetry festivals than before. But as a literate person who had always wished poetry might grab him somehow, someday, I felt no new incursion, no sense that to skip it would be like missing the films “Oppenheimer” and “Barbie” this summer. I submit that in 2002, poetry was still literary marjoram for most people.
But that depended on what you called poetry.
Gioia’s essay was justly a classic of its era. But it was also based on a white perspective that would be less likely to pass muster now. Today, while vanishingly few people are up for reciting poems such as Joyce Kilmer’s “Trees” or Tennyson’s “The Charge of the Light Brigade,” vast numbers can eagerly and effortlessly recite hip-hop lyrics. They stock their brains with reams of language set carefully to rhyme and rhythm with an aim to summon essence, limn themes and delve into the real.
Of course, all songs’ lyrics are a form of poetry, and at no point did Americans lack affection for them. But true verse of the kind featured in hip-hop — poetry that does not rely on melody or harmony — centers the word alone. Melody tends to go by more slowly than speech, and thus verse tends to pack in more words. It can be difficult to process a line of pitches mated to a long, dense sequence of words; the words alone, however, present no problem. In contrast to the synergy of song and word, verse is an especially heightened form of language alone. Rap is verse poetry, in all of its verbal richness and rhythmic variety, a deft stylization of speech into art. (I am referring to rap — i.e., rapping — as a subset of the broader cultural phenomenon of hip-hop, encompassing M.C.ing style, graffiti and dance, as well as the rapping itself.)