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I finally got a round to checking out Straight Outta Compton and it got me thinking seriously about metric feet in English poetry, and English poetry in general.

It's long been my suspicion that one of the reasons rap is the dominant form of contemporary poetry is that it expands the form in meaningful ways, distinct in the modern lyric medium. (Here I use "modern lyric" as originating from "light verse" in jazz, which itself derives from the blues, and introduces the concept of syncopation, which transforms music.)

I haven't had a chance to break down extended passages from the lyrics utilized in the film, which features some highly sophisticated meter, but I'll use a single lyric line (also the title of the film) to try and demonstrate the supposition that led to this question.

The line is properly delivered as:

straight out of / Compton

which can be broken down as a tribrach followed by a trochee. I've tried different ways of delivering this line, but I can't do it without long and short syllables, even when I try to deliver it as robotically as possible.

(For those who don't think a "robotic" approach to music can't be “funky” or involve syncopation, I refer you to Devo classics such as Working in a Coalmine, Satisfaction, and Through Being Cool. Mark Mothersbaugh reportedly forced their first drummer to play with only one hand because he didn't sound robotic enough.)

But even when I deliver the line poorly, getting cataletic with a single syllable in the first foot, followed by a spondee and trochee:

Straight / out of / Compton

I can't do it without using long and short syllables.

The only way I can do it without long and short is by removing syncopation:

Straight out / of Comp/ton

in this case using as iambs to establish the meter, and which brings me back to stressed/unstressed metrical feet. Only problem is, in this context, the delivery is archaic and wildly incorrect.

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    Not too sure about the rap tag. Consensus is that book genres (e.g. science fiction) shouldn't be tags. By consensus, this question should have a song lyrics tag. However, this question is a good example of why the name of the song lyrics tag can be off putting. – user111 Aug 21 '17 at 21:17
  • @Hamlet I have no strong opinion either way, but do think rap constitutes a distinct, literary form. Thanks for elucidating the issue! (PS- thanks also for those challenging, earlier questions on meter--they got my mind working and led to this question.) – DukeZhou Aug 21 '17 at 21:36
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Yes, rap lyrics require feet with long and short syllables. However, this isn't true just for rap; many other song lyrics require long and short syllables as well. Consider Yesterday, by the Beatles.

If you read it and keep all the syllables the same length, it loses a lot:

Yesterday all my troubles seemed so far away. Now it seems as though they're here to stay. Oh, I believe in yesterday.

In fact, there are even some poems that need to be read with long and short syllables as well. Consider John Masefield's Sea Fever:

I must go down to the seas again, to the lonely sea and the sky,
And all I ask is a tall ship and a star to steer her by,
And the wheel's kick and the wind's song and the white sail's shaking,
And a grey mist on the sea's face, and a grey dawn breaking.

Here is the poet reading it. Note how, for example, white, sail's, grey, dawn are much longer than most of the other syllables. Again, if you try to read it and keep all the syllables the same length, it doesn't sound anywhere near as good.

Having said that, many songs are essentially poems set to music, and sound perfectly fine if all syllables are the same length.

Furthermore, rap has some of the most complicated syncopations in English song lyrics and poetry, so I suspect that rap songs are quite a bit more likely to require long and short syllables than any other kind of English verse.

  • Great answer!!! (I'm surprised this was down-voted :( – DukeZhou Nov 9 '17 at 18:29
  • @DukeZhou Indeed, it's a great answer. Got my up vote. I think sometimes people flip a coin on down voting / up voting, hehe, or they roll a die and see whether it's odd or even. – ktm5124 Jan 6 '18 at 1:23
  • @kim5124: it actually wasn't anywhere near as good an answer before I revised it. – Peter Shor Jan 6 '18 at 1:23
  • @PeterShor I just now looked at your initial answer and it's pretty good, certainly not meriting any down votes in my opinion. – ktm5124 Jan 6 '18 at 1:24
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    And this book says that the folk music of Kashubia (in Northern Poland) doesn't have the syncopation that is found in music from Central Poland. So my memory was correct. – Peter Shor Jan 10 '18 at 16:56

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