The Art of Rhymed Insult

By Caplan, David | The Virginia Quarterly Review, Spring 2012 | Go to article overview

The Art of Rhymed Insult


Caplan, David, The Virginia Quarterly Review


In 1991, Elvis Mitchell, National Public Radios Weekend entertainment reporter, interviewed Spike Lee for Playboy magazine. "Lee," Mitchell informed his readers, "has made my life miserable for the past couple of months":

[Ijnvariably, in phone-tag intramurals preceding our meetings, every message Lee left on my answering machine began with those deathless words, followed by his trademark cackle.

The "deathless words" that unnerved Mitchell were not Lee's own. Gleefully the filmmaker quoted a canonical hip-hop insult, the opening lines of Public Enemy's celebrated stanza from "Fight the Power," rapped by Chuck D and made internationally famous by Lee's film, "Do the Right Thing":

Elvis was a hero to most,

but he never meant shit to me, you see.

Straight out racist, that sucker was, simple and plain.

Clinching the rhyme, Flavor Flav adds, "Mother fuck him and John Wayne." "Fight the Power" employs a sledgehammer rhyme, blunt and heavy, but does so with surprising delicacy. The monosyllabic rhymes, "me" / "see," and "plain" / "Wayne," are linguistically uncomplicated, as if simply revealing a hard truth, a "simple and plain" fact. The lines, though, powerfully develop a rather intricate pattern, as the epithets build in vehemence, until sealed with the final insult, one of the very coarsest that English offers. Chuck Ds lines move from the opening honorific "hero," mentioned twice, to a series of denigrations that assault Elvis as "shit," "racist," and "sucker." Each lowers Elvis's status until Flavor Flav's line obliterates it. The final rhyme adds vehemence to these harsh dismissals. It embodies the anger that the words express.

"Poetry of bad personal feeling, insult, revenge," observes Robert Pinsky, "It's central to the art." It is marginal, though, to the art of contemporary poetry. Insult flourishes in rhyming cultures, whether in nonliterary venues such as Turkish boys' rhyming duels and American playgrounds, or particular literary eras. In Augustan satire, a literary historian notes, "abuse is made art: a hyperbole of insult is wedded to a malicious realism," while another scholar describes the Restoration's "idiom of insult and injury," "the verbal, even physical, violence that often defined the life of letters in late seventeenth-century London." Such strategies revise a longer practice. In the early modern "culture of slander," for instance, rhymed verse so frequently served as a vehicle for slander that "defamation" was "increasingly associated with poetry." In such eras, insult verse represents a major genre in English-language poetry as well as a challenge to many high-minded justifications of the art. Few contemporary print-based poets, though, write insult verse. In a historical moment when a certain mode dominates poetry, namely, lyric characterized by meditative sensitivity, it is easy to forget how many of the language's canonical authors - including Chaucer, Shakespeare, Ben Jonson, Pope, Dryden, and Yeats - wrote scabrous, mean-spirited verse. If "[p]oetry of bad personal feeling, insult, revenge" is "central to the art," hip-hop artists, not contemporary poets, claim the center.

Committed to rhyme, hip -hop artists explore how the technique's structures and properties serve insult verse's combative ambitions. "Rhyme," Roman Jakobson observed in a classic formulation, "is only a particular, condensed case of a much more general, we may even say the fundamental, problem of poetry, namely parallelism." Insult verse employs parallelism in order to sharpen an opposition. One element discredits the other as the rhyme insists on the essential difference of two similar elements. "Fight the Power," for instance, sets in opposition "most" and "me," those who celebrate Elvis as a "hero" and the figure of Chuck D who condemns him. Finishing the rhyme, Flavor Flav seals the distinction as the rhyme marks a shared value against a morally skewed world. "People, people we are the same," Chuck D raps, only to turn against this tolerant view, "No, we're not the same / Cause we don't know the game. …

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