Today, English teachers try to engage their students with poetry by saying “it’s like rap” even though there are a lot of differences in the way that rap and poetry function. Poetry and rap are different because while rap has a beat or rhythm that it’s set to, poetry often creates a beat through word choice and meter. Also, rap is more prone to rhyming, or requiring rhyming than poetry. Lastly, rap and poetry differ widely when it comes to stylistic developments. The first one, and most obvious, is that rap has a beat pounded with it, and while that’s not always the case out loud, it usually is with motion.
Rap has developed over the time almost like a cousin to beat poetry, or the movement in poetry when it was more important to hit the spoken word aspect of sounds rather than presenting a story, or a clean reading. There’s a lot of interaction with both of them. With rap, there is dancing, singing along, and even rap battles. With beat poetry, they also have battles and audience jeering. This is the primary similarity between poetry and rap.
However, not all poetry is beat or spoken word, and while you could debate that all rap is poetry, you could also debate all songs are poetry, or all music in general, even instrumental, is poetry. To start kids off in poetry, this is great, but once you want to get into the more complex explorations of poetry, once you start developing an understanding of different forms, different eras, rap and poetry stop being similar.
Not all poetry relies heavily on the spoken word’s beat, or tonality. A lot of it has been morphed into something that can be read silently to yourself, although it always sounds more visceral out loud. Also rap tends to be a lot longer than most poems today. With the waning attention spans due to the wide variety of entertainment, it’s hard to keep someone around for a 5 minute read, so poems tend to be one page.
If you look at the length of a typical rap song, such as Eminem’s “Rap God” you can easily see it’s much longer than one page. [Warning: explicit language in Rap God]
If you look at a recent poem published by The Poetry Foundation, like “A French Piano Tuner & a One-Eyed Glassblower Walk into a Bar” you will see that not only are the lines much shorter, but the poem in general is small. [Warning: explicit language in A French Piano Tuner & a One-Eyed Glassblower Walk into a Bar]
In many ways that’s because rap is made to almost be a verbal plethora of language, to speak quick and combine tricky sounds. Poetry in general, is a slower sport. This helps build the next difference between the two.
Rap is more prone to rhyming than poetry. That is because rap tends to ride through the rhythm and rhyme of the words to speak faster and keep your tongue from twisting, while poetry is relying more heavily on meaning and inferred messages. It becomes necessary to remain slower so people can catch all of the words clearly.
This isn’t to say that rappers don’t speak clearly, they do. It’s just that their goal is sometimes to best the others in their field by pure eloquence of phrase and speed, whereas Poetry aims to obtain the most visceral, or emotional response. Both of them also have classes within their groupings. Some are more popular than others, some are easier to follow than others.
While I talk about Eminem, there are some audiences who are widely familiar with the more popular rappers of today’s generation which have different styles of rapping, just as I know of many styles unlike the poem I used as an example. For instance, this particular song “XO Tour Llif3” produced by JW Lucas and TM88 on the most popular songs on SoundCloud, a music listening website, is different from “Rap God” but still considered rap.
Lastly, or at least the last one I want to talk about, is that rap is stylistically different. As you can see from the examples, rap and poetry can have the same subject matter, or similarly explicit language, but be very different in how they approach a situation.
For poetry, conservation is the name of the game. Fit as much as you can in the tightest space possible, and then cut half of it. In rap, it’s more about the flow of the style. Fit whatever you need to in the song, but make sure you’re entertaining and giving people they can use to follow along.
All in all, the primary difference falls down to the audience’s expectations. Poems used to be more like songs or rap, but the more we expect from either class, the less similar they become. As we expect people to avoid repeating themselves, the styles change to conform, and as we expect them to read less, again, the style changes. It becomes a game of knowing your audience and writing for them.
The last thing I’d like to leave you with is a question. What differences or similarities do you see between different songs? Can you pick out a writer from the lyrics alone, or does it take the voice?