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.