Poetry has always maintained a tendency to lend itself to music. In the same manner, music also lends itself to the poetic construction of lyrics. Each of these, poetry and lyrics, find a shared space in which to describe, analyze and enjoy. This space utilizes a commonality of terms with which to examine and define both a poem and the lyrics to a song such as rhythm, tone, context, etc. With these basic similarities in mind it seems problematic for one to make the claim that the two are somehow mutually exclusive. Yet Simon Frith, in his book Performing Rites, makes just such a claim. But what this argument fails to account for is the space that both poetry and lyrics share and the inherent musicality within each that allow both to traverse this space.
Rap music, for instance, creates further complications for Frith’s argument by way of utilizing this inherent musicality and bringing it to the forefront of lyrical ability. Moreover, the way in which rap music follows so closely alongside the construction of a poem has arguably led to a kind of transitive nature between what is a poem and what is a lyric. That is to say, in the case of rap lyrics versus poetry, there is a kind of cross-pollination involved in terms of being able to distinguish one from the other insofar as there is a necessity to do so. In fact, this need to categorically distinguish one from the other in order to maintain the integrity of what a poem is denies the rap lyric its proper place in the realm of what can be considered “good poetry.” In addition, it also overlooks the potential for collaborative efforts in creating new and more interesting ways of approaching the poetic form and its construction by utilizing the inherent musicality found in each. What I hope to show in this essay is that even a seemingly untouchable poem maintains this potential for calling out its musicality and transposing it with a different type of poetics, in this case rap music, and how it inversely brings out the same relation with the lyric. Yet in order to critically examine this potential, it is first necessary to delve briefly into the bodies of work of each artist that will be discussed and how their poetic abilities have come to define the two of them as uniquely valuable examples.
To this day, Charles Bukowski’s poetry remains a force to be reckoned with. Even after his death in 1994, Bukowski’s work maintains a prominent and recognizable voice. Translated into dozens of languages and distributed in over 25 countries around the world, his poetry continues to find new audiences. Bukowski’s work, by his own intent, is incredibly resistant to many if not all traditional forms of poetry. In utilizing the voice of the everyday man within his poems, he has been able to shrug off these forms in order to speak to those who would normally not expose themselves to poetry itself. This being said, it becomes not a question as to whether or not he can be considered a good poet, rather, it is a question of how one deals with his poetry.
On the other hand Daniel Dumile, best known as the rap artist DOOM, has created a body of work that is not a far cry from the particular appeal of Bukowski’s poetry. With over six full length albums and an endless slew of collaborative works, DOOM’s discography is a testament to his talent just as Bukowski’s publications are in poetry. Similar to Bukowski, DOOM’s lyrical ability, along with constructing most of his own beats, also lends itself to a certain resistance. His multilayered contextualities and rhyme sequences are continuously stacked one on top of the other and the poetics of each line become so complex within the rhyme scheme that the meaning of the lyrics are transposed with the musicality of the beats. By describing both these artists in such a way is not to champion their work, but to point to the fact that these are, indeed, talented artists that have produced good lyrics and good poems. Moreover, in calling their work resistant, I am merely suggesting that both Bukowski and DOOM have produced a poetic art that demands rigorously close readings in order to be able to unpack the complexities of each artist’s work.
In any case, what remains to be seen between both Bukowski and DOOM is the musicality of their poetics. That is to say, the relation that their work has to each other in terms of being able to interchange lyrics with spoken words and vice versa. As a matter of fact, the reason these two artists should find common ground on a topic such as this is thanks to DOOM himself and his song entitled, “Cellz.” In this particular track DOOM utilizes Bukowski’s own voice reading from his poem, “Dinosauria, We.” By reading his poem aloud, Bukowski unwittingly relinquishes his words to the matter of the collaborative effort. In short, he has made the poem into a sample. As a result, not only is DOOM able to create a new side-by-side work with Bukowski, but he also opens up a space in which the question of the relationship between good lyrics and good poems presents itself in a more revealing light.
For instance, the beat that DOOM creates behind Bukowski’s voice follows the particular nuances and emphases that lend themselves to the essence of the words spoken. The syncopation of the rhythm matches the fluctuating tempo of words, creating its own meter with the beat. Moreover, the beat itself is ominous and looming which resonates with the tone of Bukowski’s poem. Thus, one could easily argue that this melding of rhythm and poetry causes the poem to lurk within the music. If the poem does, in fact, harbor this ability to layer itself within the music and not simply alongside or in front of it, then this should speak to the inherent musicality of the poem. For DOOM to successfully draw out this musicality from Bukowski’s poem is no easy task in light of the resistance of his poetry. In spite of this resistance, not only does DOOM demonstrate the inherent musicality of the poem, he also shows that the integration of spoken word into a rhythmic arrangement does not necessarily cause the integrity of the poem to suffer.
As the song continues, if one follows the intensity of Bukowski’s words and also pays specific attention to the intensity of the samples and the syncopated rhythm of the beats, there is a slight yet detectable crescendo as Bukowski’s poem reaches its end and trades off with DOOM’s lyrics. This crescendo is important for two reasons. First, it creates a transitional flow between one artist and the next. Second, it sets up a more steadily rhythmic beat that DOOM will rap to. The transitional flow that is created between Bukowski and DOOM finds itself within a few seconds of the exact middle of the song. By placing the transition from Bukowski’s spoken word to DOOM’s lyrics at roughly the midway point, it essentially makes the climax of the piece as the focal point of where poetry becomes lyric. Or, rather, a better way to describe this move would be as the transitive musicality between the two. Not only does this become apparent as the poetics intertwine by way of the music and alteration in beats, but also the seeming division of these two parts announce their interchangeability, thereby transposing the contextualities of each as well.
This leads into why the steadiness of DOOM’s beat, which replaces the nuance-filled syncopation of Bukowski’s is important. By placing an alternating style of poetics side by side with another, in this case Bukowski’s spoken word, it demonstrates that even though two different spaces can be opened up for each, the work must be approached as a whole regardless of style or critical examination. In fact, DOOM’s own lyrical ability flies in the face of someone, such as Frith, who would attempt to separate the two artists in order to distinguish between one poet’s lyrics and the other’s written verse. Ultimately, the pairing of the two into distinct halves, with a transposing crescendo in the middle, shows how the inherent musicality of each piece allows the syncing up and eventual transitive properties between what can be argued as good poetry and good lyrics. It does not suffice to say that because lyrics come prepackaged with musical intention that they somehow lose the integrity of their poetic ability. It is also similarly flawed to assume that the written verse of a poem does not carry with it an inherent musicality that finds its own particular manifestation of form and style with each performance.
At this point it no longer becomes a question as to whether or not a song lyric requires the necessities of a poem nor does the inclusion of musical instruction “over-determine its performance.” Also, the way in which the words of a poem dictate its reading, the meter, the rhythm, the tone, etc., can indeed merit the inherent musicality of a poem, rendering its interpretation to the same classifications of that of the lyric. Thus, there is a relationship between the two in which by sharing these similar qualities allows interaction and transposition. Frith appears to overlook these qualities with his critique by placing a strict demarcation on how either a poem or a lyric is scored. He neglects the fact that both poetry and song lyrics are that which harbor the act of performance. Through this performance they both utilize transitive properties and opportunities and Frith is unable to reconcile the relationship between the two. DOOM’s sampling of Bukowski’s poem and placing a beat with it rather than behind it demonstrates that it is not a matter of attempted over-determination in terms of his creativity. Instead, it is a matter of capability in locating the resonating inherent musicalities and transposing them in such a way that a mixture of poetry and lyric richly become one in the same. The creation of the rap song “Cellz” is definitely proof that the door that Frith tries to slam shut, indeed swings both ways.
Bukowski, Charles, perf. Bukowski: Born Into This. Dir. John Dullaghan. Magnolia, 2003.
Dumile, Daniel. Born Like This. London: Lex Records, 2009.
Frith, Simon. Performing Rites: On the Value of Popular Music. Cambridge (Massachusetts): Harvard UP, 1996.