If you ask a modern poet about rhyme, she will most likely tell you that it is dead. Or that it only exists as an archaic curiosity. The consensus seems to be that rhyme has no place in modern poetry. But if rhyme truly distances a work from contemporaneity, how is it so common in that most contemporary of genres, hip hop? How do hip hop artists make their work relevant while using such an “archaic” technique? And, perhaps most crucially, why do they rhyme? David Caplan, author of previous works on poetic form including the books Questions of Possibility and Poetic Form: An Introduction, addresses these questions in Rhyme’s Challenge.
Caplan sets down his goals in a clear and captivating introduction. Rhyme, he tells us, is ubiquitous in contemporary culture, despite the scholarly consensus that it is nearly dead. Hip hop is his focus because its artists are “[t]he most daring, innovative, and conspicuous contemporary rhymers” (3). In order to set the foundation for future research, he examines hip hop’s use of rhyme in three different contexts: doggerel, insult, and seduction. While doing so, he discusses the history of rhyming in those contexts to show how the trends have developed over time. Parallel to the discussion of rhyme in hip hop, he shows how this intersects with the history of rhyme in English poetry: going from a sine qua non to something to be avoided. So he shows how hip hop “usefully challenges a host of entrenched positions in contemporary poetry, poetry criticism, and poetics” (23) and why contemporary print-based poets ought to re-embrace this still-vital technique.
Doggerel, comically bad verse, is the topic of “Reduced to Rhyme,” the first chapter of Rhyme’s Challenge. In the tradition of English poetry, a distinction is usually made between “real” and “intentional” doggerel. The first is composed in poetic incompetence, the second uses poor versification as a tool for parody. Now that rhyme is uncommon in English poetry, its use has been seen to lower any poetry to the level of doggerel. This is not the case in hip hop, where the use of rhyme is essential to the genre. As he discusses in chapter three, wrenched rhyme, a sign of incompetence in traditional verse, is considered, in hip hop, to display performative talent. The distinction, then, between the types of doggerel becomes less clear. Instead, hip hop doggerel can become meta-commentary, criticising trends in the genre by performing them parodically.
In the second chapter, “The Art of the Rhymed Insult”, Caplan discusses insult poetry. In Augustan poetry, when heroic couplets were the form of choice, insult poetry was hugely popular. As rhyme declined in popularity, so did insult verse. It has, lately seen a resurgence in popularity in hip hop. Unlike hip hop doggerel, which develops and innovates the earlier genre, insult verse in hip hop is fairly consistent in form and function with its literary predecessors. Strong end rhymes create memorable associations between the insulted and the rhyming insult, and imply other associations with epithets left unstated, protecting the speaker’s deniability while leaving no question about what they meant to say.
Love poetry is the topic of chapter three, “Making Love in Mirrors”. Rhyming talent has been an important part of seductive versification since time immemorial. Caplan discusses how the search for a suitable rhyme was an integral part of courtship. Hip hop does not approach rhyme-seeking in the same way. Unlike the Renaissance love poetry, which relied on both form and sentiment to seduce, hip hop presents rhyming skill as seductive in and of itself. Changing a word’s pronunciation to fit a rhyme is a sign of mastery of the language, rather than technical incompetence.
The contemporary poets who are the subject of the final chapter, “The Inheritors of Hip Hop”, grew up in a time in which print-based poets had, for the most part, eschewed rhyme as anything other than an archaism, its only use being to distance a poem from the present. The way that contemporary poets use rhyme has been influenced more by the hip hop that they heard growing up, than by their poetic predecessors.
In the conclusion, Caplan distills his argument. Rhyming culture changes over time: the innovative becomes cliché, the gauche and incompetent become mainstream. Although critics may decry what they term the low standard in contemporary rhyming, hip hop, with its polysyllabic forced rhymes, is not weakening rhyme but redefining it. Nor are forced rhymes its only contribution. With words entering the English language at an approximate rate of 8,500 a year, there are always new rhymes to be found. Currently, hip hop artists are the only ones taking advantage of the rhyming possibilities presented by the constant lexical additions. These rhymes make their poetry memorable, as a quote from the poetry editor of Paris Review illustrates (137-8). The new conventions in rhyme and the possibilities presented by our growing language need now to be embraced by print-based poets.
Caplan presents his argument well. As he moves through the chapters on the different uses of rhyme, he gradually builds up the case for the changes in standards of rhyme, and how hip hop represents the next step in a long history of changing trends in the use of rhyme. The illustrative verses that he quotes are excellently chosen.
This book’s greatest weakness is its treatment of slam poetry. Apart from a brief mention in the introduction, in which he dismisses its relevance despite the influences and era that it shares with hip hop, citing its differences in cultural context, origin, and use of rhyme, Caplan avoids any mention of slam poetry. While his claims about its different context are correct, his dismissal ignores the slam poets who have had success in hip hop like Saul Williams and Guante. Even if their use of rhyme does not differ from the mainstream, their place as “inheritors of hip hop” ought not to be dismissed.
Through his examination of mainstream hip hop artists, Caplan does an excellent job of describing trends in the use of rhyme in the genre. His work provides a clear and concise foundation on which future work on the topic can be based.
Rhyme’s Challenge confronts the consensus about the morbidity of rhyme. Throughout the book Caplan shows how it is still a vital technique, worthy of examination. He emphasizes the utility of rhyme – it allows poets to embrace a rich historical tradition, and it makes their poetry memorable. Caplan’s analysis of how hip hop uses rhyme ultimately serves as an argument for why rhyme should be reconsidered by both poets and scholars.
Rhyme’s Challenge: Hip Hop, Poetry, and Contemporary Rhyming Culture. David Caplan. Oxford and New York: Oxford University Press, 2014. Pp. Viii + 178. $19.95 (Paper).