Rhyme vs. Rhyme, Rythm vs. Time: Freestyle vs. Traditional Poetry

traditional poetry vs. non-traditional poetry or written words vs. freestyle.

While the information I absorbed on the varied poetic techniques seems oppositional in nature, there is overlap. These overlaps stem from history, by way of regional evolvement, tension, by way of content and sound, by way of rhythms.

The three traditional forms discussed in this piece are the sonnet, the blank verse and the Ghazal.  Upon reading about these forms, I noticed detailed discussions on origin and cultural history. The sonnet was born out of Europe, beginning in Italy (Petrarchan) and then eventually arriving and settling in England (Shakespearean) (Strand and Boland 56). The blank sonnet tells a similar story of foundation (Strand and Boland 102). The Ghazal dates back to Arabia, but maintains influences from many other cultures (Urbu, Turkish, Pashto, Spanish, Hindi), the main cultural model: Persian (Finch and Varnes 210).

Converstions on Freestyle echo obsession with origin.  DJ Organic’s documentary, Freestyle: the Art of Rhyme (2000), illustrates this preoccupation with regional ancestry. The meccas of freestyle cultures, such as the Bronx and LA, compare to the rearing of the sonnet, born in Tuscany, Italy. The roots of the freestyle custom, however, stems not from European heritage, but from Caribbean heritage. Specifically, freestyle emerged from the Jamaican art of toasting at ceremony/celebration.

Within city and region, DJ Organic’s documentary meticulously zooms into urban hubs of freestyle such as The Good Life Café, Lyricist Lounge and Washington Square Park. It is in these types of venues that the freestyle fire was fueled; the form’s practitioners found refuge and comradeship. One organizer affirms that the Good Life café offered camaraderie and a place to “push each other.” I imagine Chaucer and Boccaccio pushed each other through the thickets of sonnets in some private garden or Tuscan street café. One astute comment from a prolific freestyler evokes the type of “push” a locale like the Good Life Café provokes, “You couldn’t cuss, but that tested the creativity of the brothers.” This statement illumes the ingenuity that can be kindled by the boundaries of setting and community.

Sonnet, ghazal and freestyle converge on the point where sound meets tension. The sonnet as described by Strand and Boland ignites “tension between lyric and narrative…to suggest narrative progress through its sequence structure, while, in single units, it is capable of the essential lyric qualities of being musical, brief, and memorable” (58). They explain with further detail, “Its imagistic compression of argument remains a major influence on the course of the stanza” (58-59). Throughout this particular examination of sonnet, anticipation from the unraveling of content (narrative or argument) and the eagerness for sound (rhythmical or musical) fortify this poetic form. A similar anticipation emerges from the audience/reader of a ghazal. Shahid Ali describes, “In the real ghazal, the audience (for the ghazal is recited a lot) waits to see what the poet will do with the scheme established in the opening couplet” (209). He explains further, “That is, once the poet establishes a scheme—with total freedom, I might add—s/he becomes its slave. What results in the rest of the poem is the alluring tension of a slave trying to master the master.” Ali’s description of the ghazal’s tension parallels the tension of the sonnet. Though the ghazal has no narrative inclinations, tension still branches from content (what will emerge from the content founded by the first couplet). In addition to eagerness for content, the eagerness for sound parallels the sonnet’s reader/listener’s response. The rhyme scheme of the traditional ghazal corresponds strictly to its first couplet. Also, in accordance with the sonnet, musicality can emit tension. Ali states, “I should mention the ghazal is often sung…and then set in a melodic phase” (209). I should note (though it is a more obvious similarity between the sonnet and the ghazal), both these two traditional forms push tension onto the listener/reader with the expectation of rhyme scheme.

Freestyle’s link to both the sonnet and ghazal is the strongest out of all three convergences in the junction. Freestyle emits tension from content, like the sonnet, by way of argument. As one freestyler terms, “confrontation via rap with humor, but the humor gets strong.” Many times, a freestyle session can evolve from competing freestylers. Words of freestyle have been describes as “razor sharp lyrics, slicing everybody they could.” The tension of content in a ghazal is also noticeable in freestyle with its element of improvisation and “ebb and flow.” Unlike the sonnet, this is not narrative or argument based tension, it is anticipation from the listener which is based on curiosity and slavery to unpredictable momentum. Regarding sound, tension is built, like the sonnet, by way of musicality. Throughout DJ Organic’s documentary, the term “freestyle” becomes synonymous to the term “lyrics.” “Lyrics” implies musicality and poetry (both elements of the sonnet). Like the ghazal, which is commonly/traditionally sung, freestyle can also be overtly harmonious, by way of beats and accompanying DJs (many DJs are interviewed in the documentary). Freestyle, in accordance to both the sonnet and traditional ghazal, is strictly loyal to rhyme, or as one freestyler phrases, “nonconceptual rhyme.”

A point of divergence between the traditional forms (sonnet and ghazal, and in this case blank verse as well) and freestyle is the notion of revision and process. Freestyle opposes the sonnet, ghazal and blank verse with its ad-libbing. Loyalists to customary freestyle compete with the writers of rhyme. One freestylist criticizes the movement of the written word, “written is a metronome.” Freestyle should (as suggested by those interviewed in the documentary) fulfill a certain criteria: “a respond to impulse,” “my best moves I never thought of before and I’ll never repeat ‘em again,” “healing,” “zoning out,” “comin’ off the head.”

I admire freestylists.  While freestylists have the benefit of camaraderie and cultural immersion into the form, they also have cojones. The words/poetry/lyrics come not only off the head/heart, but from the face. Identity is directly connected to the origin/originator of any freestyle piece. Also confidence in performance is necessary, especially in any type of confrontational piece. Speaking of cojones, I noticed that the extreme majority of freestylists were male. I’m no scientist or sociologist for that matter, but I wonder if masculinity (in the frame of Western gender role) behooves the form. This thought crosses my mind because in the cultural centers of freestyle (in the USA), confrontation between males appears to be more acceptable (and perhaps encouraged) than confrontation between females or between males and females.  This cultural trait may stem from the logics of survival in urban societies (females are more at risk for being victimized by an agressor). So, while I’m sure I could compose a freestyle poem with proper training and therapy (to peel off mental inhibitions), however I instinctually avoid freestyling.  But then again, I instinctually wanted to remain close to shore when I started surfing.  Now, I paddle focused on the horizen, racing to the line-up.


My Heroic Couplet (a tough little bugger): Open Form on the Closed Couplet

So, I read about the form and then I implemented it, and what they say is true.

[My Example of an Open Form Essay– examined by my students in search of guidance regarding: Academic Open Form]

Regardless of my chosen subject matter, my poems seem to elicit a kind of preachy tone. This persistent rhythm of the Heroic Couplet is stubborn like my mother’s miniature schnauzer. The dog, which I pet-sat this past weekend, bossed me around on walks and barked at my dog in my own home. Regardless of this little dog’s miniature status, she managed to direct our strolls and Ice Cream, my dog, submitted to her orders. This is like the heroic couplet. I agree with Strand and Boland’s verdicts on the form: “The sharp, end-stop rhymes, the regular stresses, and the pause that happened in the middle of the line all made it perfect for moralizing, warning, satirizing and poking fun at another’s expense” (122).

The heroic couplet depicts the authority of rigid structure, particularly in the matter of closed couplets. Finch and Varnes elaborate, “Because of its concentration, the closed couplet is capable of both epigrammatic brilliance,…and forceful moral analysis” (109). This astute notion is overtly an innocent description, yet it carries with it a profound recognition of power tactic and ethical imposition. This can evolve into a metaphor for the dominance produced by structure. While this is merely a discussion of poetry, I can’t help but notice my feathers ruffle. As a person that survives with an atypical lifestyle, I perhaps shudder at extreme organization. I fear the influence of the closed couplet’s contriving sounds. Once, in class, you mentioned how the concept of truism accompanies catchy phrases (regardless of actual truth). This is partly why dread the closed couplet’s mechanical, memorable components. The closed couplet does exactly as it’s called: it closes. It closes the mind with each movement to seal itself up, to stop the flow of progression or advancement. Finch and Varnes admit, “However, the limitations of the closed couplet are nearly as great as its strengths. Its modulatory range is fairly narrow, and in it the part sometimes undermines the whole. So far as each couplet stands on its own, argument slows, and logical narrative progression flags” (110).

To steer away from my closed couplet fears, I utilized Browning as my prototype. Upon reading his poem, “My Last Duchess,” I found relation to the heroic couplet. I read the poem aloud and noted that the rhyme scheme did not sound as automated as in other heroic couplet formed poems. This stems from the various enjambments in the poem. Finch and Varnes describe, “Though Browning’s enjambments may initially appear haphazard, he carefully correlates them with meaning” (111). This example of the heroic couplet appears to embody the form triumphantly; so much so, that Strand and Boland bother to use the poem for their section entitled, Close-Up of the Heroic Couplet (135). In addition to the poem’s sounds, I found the content surprisingly and pleasingly disobedient. Strand and Boland explain:

In an age when Romanticism was still the dominant poetic influence, he soon struck out on his own and began exploring the distinctive tones of estrangement and rebellion… “My Last Duchess” is this sort of monologue. It canvasses the odd tone and misfit emotional address of a nobleman, thinking aloud about possession, art, power, and marriage— and plainly unable to distinguish one from another. (135)

As an experienced master of unruly behavior and language, it’s no wonder I would consider Browning’s techniques applicable to my own work.

Enforced to operate the heroic couplet this week, I felt inept and awkward, undoubtedly from my lack of heroic couplet experience. I attempted to remain loyal to Browning, but at times and to my disliking, a few closed couplets surfaced. In addition to my clumsy word play and word choice, my rhymes feel/sound so overt! I am enthused by the process of mastering such a classic poetic system, but I am also dismayed by the products I attained. “What is this monster?” I think. My heroic couplets emerge from my poetic depths as Frankensteins of traditional form and untraditional graphic content. Eek.

Academics can Augment Authenticity

“We get to choose our own film, our own character?  We can write what we want?!”

This response is typical in my Composition classrooms.  As a writing professor, this reaction alarms and worries me.  These young adults learn to construct effective arguments, while simultaneously, they untidily sprinkle their personal opinions and passions all over the internet.  Here is the gap.

My students appear disturbingly detached from themselves.  If I synthesize my own process of identity construction with what I witness in my students and my own goings-on online, I fathom that the path toward a crystallized version of selfhood, has multiplied.  One path runs online, and the other runs in “reality.”

Structured, effective, persuasive argument writing is powerful and elite.  Students perform as if trained to suppress their selves in academic/professional writing, while they express their selves freely online.  If students continue to practice writing in a divided and contained way, their professional more ‘impressive” writing will exclude their irreplaceable, innovative selves. This carries the potential to oppress authenticity in leadership roles, colleague communiqué as well as in the work force— the power source behind society and social progress.

Authenticity like literacy can be encouraged in Writing and Literature classrooms by including the following elements in writing assignments:

choice of content, choice of genre, tone, development of the writer’s voice, opinion coated in effective argument, personal anecdote as example, student conducted surveys and interviews as research  etc.

Please comment if you have any more ideas for how to encourage authentic academic writing!

Facebook and Education

Thoughts on Facebook as a Tool in Education

 A class blog, like a classroom, must remain suitable and safe.

 The conception of virtual space in the classroom (aka virtual space as an annex to the actual room) is hardly new, but is seemingly always controversial.

Slowly, with trepidation, I have built this annex in some of my class’ blueprints.  I find that assigning a creative, youthful blog entry every week perpetuates community and joyfulness in the actual classroom.  Not only do the students write with less fear, but also they offer each other feedback in the form of chronicled written support, in some cases, emotional comfort by way of blog commenting.  There are, of course, an exquisite number of typos and slang, but they ally with analysis. 

The blogs also encourage the students to capture the attention of peers in the classroom.  In other words, they exercise and practice the art of “engaging your readers.”  Effective use of details is also a beneficial byproduct. 

One student recently inquired on why I still hadn’t commented on his blog; he said, “I miss the comments this week,” demonstrating his desire for helpful feedback.  In addition, the students can access the blog on their phones and i-pads, enabling implementation of critical thinking in the realm of social media.

However, part of the instructor’s agenda is to instill the development of social maturity.  The benefits of appropriateness and privacy should continuously appear in the design of the class.  The choice of rhetoric modifies according to network.  For example, what a person chooses to post on Facebook can vary greatly from what the person chooses to post on Instagram or the professional network, Linked-In. 

This ability to customize rhetorical choices according to the culture of each social network ought to appear in the class landscape.  Facebook, unlike an institutionally supervised class blog, for instance on Blackboard, carries the potential for overly personalized, casual and perhaps ill-fitted interactions between not only the students, but also between the instructor and the students.  The cultural rhetoric of Facebook does not align with the professional aims of an educational establishment.  In addition, a blog on Blackboard is not spackled with unmonitored advertisements.  A class blog, like a classroom, must remain suitable and safe.

By: Nicole Hospital-Medina, MFA