Monday, 27 June 2011

Byron to Eminem: Passing the Torch

I’m a big fan of sentences.  I don’t mean words or books, although those can be amazing, but actual sentences.  A well-written sentence is a thing of beauty, threaded between commas and structured around the regular beat of its words.  It can balance around a semi-colon, both sides weighted like a pool cue; it can stretch out a single idea for ages – then dive past a dash into the final clause. 
I mentioned the rhythm of words, and a major reason why the English language is so dear to me is inflection: the natural division of words into strong, emphasized syllables and weak syllables that are passed over.  For a long time rhythm was the definition of English poetry and plays: sentences that fit a consistent beat.  The most common beat was iambic, cut up into two-beat sections with the first beat weak and the second beat strong.  “To be or not to be” is iambic. “Deliver us from evil” is iambic. “Shall I compare thee to a summer’s day?” is – you get the point. Iambic sentences have a natural cadence, a backing drumbeat. 
In fact, any series of words that was written with attention to the rhythm of the language is going to have a natural cadence.  Unfortunately, most modern poetry has abandoned consistent rhythm.  Fortunately, English is a tenacious language, and the torch has passed from respectable poets to a much more popular arena.  Let’s take a look at Eminem’s The Way I Am:
I sit back
with this pack
of Zig Zags
and this bag
of this weed…
The natural rhythm of those first four lines is weak-weak-strong – I sit back with this pack of Zig Zags and this weed – and that’s exactly how Eminem raps it.  This three-beat rhythm is called anapaestic, and we can read it almost two hundred years earlier in Lord Byron’s poem The Destruction of Sennacherib.
           The Assyrian came down like a wolf on the fold
           with his cohorts all gleaming in purple and gold
           and the gleam of his spears was like stars on the sea
           when the blue wave rolls nightly on deep Galilee.
“With his cohorts all gleaming in purple and gold” is written in textbook anapaests – just like Eminem’s.
The Way I Am is unusual, it’s true.  Most hip-hop tracks don’t adhere to a strict metre.  The usual strategy is to mix iambs and anapaests with other rhythms; it’s possible to find trochees, dactyls and spondees in today’s music.  Perhaps most rappers have fallen back on an older verse structure: the hemistiches of Old English poetry, where each line has a set number of stressed syllables but a varying number of stressed syllables, compressed or stretched to fit. 
One thing’s certain, though: anyone interested in the rhythm of the English language, in sentences with a compelling cadence, will find much to admire in hip-hop.

1 comment:

  1. I started doing research on "The Destruction of Sennacherib", specifically to draw the correlation between Lord Byron and Mathers, and you did. Like just weeks ago. Amazing. Great post. I'm subscribing now.