Monday, April 14, 2008

poem or New Yorker poem?

Last year I read a New Yorker article about the troubled public schools of Boston (the Oct 18, 2004 issue). One of the students profiled also wrote poetry and lines were included in the article. (I quote them myself here.)

Katherine Boo, the same person who wrote that troubled schools article, has written another, this time about Denver for the January 15, 2007 issue of The New Yorker, and, whattayano, she found another high schooler poet.

Go home be ashamed
foodstamps to medicaid
poor slang hustlas
we are all each other customers
boys go from apple jacks to weed sacks

The lines are by Julissa Torrez. Whether one might say this is hip hop without the beat box – lyrics, in other words – the piece certainly strongly suggests rap. Occasionally I’ve come across rap lyrics and these are tighter than most. Interesting that not one of the couplets is a natural rhyme. ashamed/medicaid, hustlas/customers, sacks/fast – all are slant rhymes. If “rapped” (rather than read) the voice will typically force the rhyme – you’ll really hear that A in the final syllable of ashamed/medicaid. It’s also interesting to me that Torrez chose such varying line lengths – 5 sylllables, 6, 4, 9, 9, 1. This is no metronome, the sort of formalist poem that puts one to sleep with its tedious regularity, its drowsy pulse. Yet it’s obviously crafted for sound, and for that end rhyme, however balky (one could make an argument for it being intentionally balky – this is not a song about harmony). It’s adventurous writing. I can see why it caught Boo’s eye. It might be interesting to see this sort of thing featured in The New Yorker as a poem rather than a piece of testimony.

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