So, why do I think that rap is the new home of contemporary poetry? The famous 20th-century poet Wystan Hugh Auden memorably defined poetry as “memorable speech”. I think that is a good definition for a number of reasons. Firstly, the tendency towards so-called “free verse” (lines on a page that have neither metre nor rhyme) means that there is no longer a hard and fast distinction between poetry and prose other than that the latter appears in the form of sentences and paragraphs, while the former appears in the form of lines and stanzas that may or may not also conform to a sentence or paragraph structure. But what if the poetry is not written down? What if it is primarily experienced in its spoken – or declaimed – form? Aren’t the best (most memorable) political speeches, for example, more akin to poetry than prose?
Let’s take the spoken (oral) form of poetry as primary and worry about how to represent it in written form later. I think that this is the right way to think of it. I don’t find much “free verse” to be particularly memorable. Perhaps it looks good on a page. But turn the page and, unless you have a photographic memory, you will most likely have already forgotten what you just read. If you try to reproduce it from memory after a significant passage of time, you may find that you can recall the gist of what was said, but that the words themselves, their organisation into phrases and the exact order in which they appear, elude you. Well, that’s how my mind works anyway.
To me, that’s the essential nature of prose. You don’t expect to be able to recall it word-for-word, but you will be able to paraphrase your impression of the author’s story or argument. And here’s the catch. Your impression of the story or argument is just that: anything that the author may have wished to keep intact has been lost. In order to go back to it, you will have to turn to the appropriate page (or click on the URL). Human memory is like that. It is essentially frail.
Let’s imagine that we want to be able to establish something in human linguistic memory that won’t be paraphrased, but that will form a lasting impression that has a fixed relationship to its original utterance, like the Mona Lisa’s face on da Vinci’s canvas or David’s form revealed by Michelangelo’s chisel. For this, we will need to turn to the timeless craft of poetry in which two formal elements are combined: rhythm and rhyme.