Wednesday, April 3, 2013

Gwendolyn Brooks, Langston Hughes & RapGenius

At the moment, 7 of Gwendolyn Brooks's poems and over 90 pieces by Langston Hughes appear on RapGenius--the popular, crowd-sourced annotation site known primarily for the decoding of rap lyrics by online participants. The publication of poems online by fans has been going on for decades, so in that sense, the appearance of works by these two popular poets is hardly unusual. Poems by Brooks and Hughes are widely available on the internet.

What is unique in this instance, however, is the popularity of the site where those African American poems appear and the ease at which audiences might offer and read general annotations and interpretations of the pieces. Not all of the Hughes poems are annotated yet, but there are comments on some of his more popular poems such as "The Negro Speaks of Rivers," "Harlem," "Song for a Dark Girl," and "Cross."  The site contains at least some interpretations of all the Brooks poems, including "We Real Cool," "A Song in the Front Yard," "kitchnette building."  

The appearance and interpretation of works by Brooks and Hughes represent the possibility of a notable shift in the reception of the writers. For one, although the poets have always been quite popular, I'm not sure they have received the kind of extensive and widely accessible decoding made possible by a popular site like RapGenius. Brooks and Hughes have likely not been examined line-by-line in a hip hop context, that is, beyond the mention of how their works anticipate rap by literary and cultural scholars, whose writings tend to appear in academic contexts.

The rising popularity of RapGenius could offer a new destination for internet users to go for information about canonical African American poems. At the moment, you might go to the Modern American Poetry website to view excerpts from articles and books by scholars such as Arnold Rampersad, George Hutchinson, Joyce A. Joyce, and R. Baxter Miller, offering insight on Hughes's "The Negro Speaks of Rivers." However, for readers curious about specific lines, RapGenius might provide more accessible and to-the-point annotations.

I'm aware, of course, that the accessibility, brevity, and to-the-point nature of RapGenius are representative of what some scholars and others view as "the problem with this generation." I'll try to address that in a future entry. For now, it's worth mentioning that whereas we have long discussed the influence of poetry on the development of rap, new media and technologies like RapGenius are going to push some of us to consider the influences of hip hop and crowd-sourced annotation on the study of African American poetry.

A Notebook on RapGenius

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