Hip Poems Pulse to Old World Beat

words // Lin Stone

SunRidge Poetry, a new imprint from WindRidge Books of Vermont, has just released Vermont poet and University of Vermont English professor Stephen Cramer’s third collection of poems, From the Hip ~ A Concise History of Hip Hop (in sonnets). Students shout out online “Cramer’s the Man!” and fellow poets and colleagues decant that his love for the musicality of words is palpable.

Cramer recounts a favorite story about former poet laureate Stanley Kunitz: “When he was a kid in Worcester, Mass. he would read the dictionary, find a word such as ‘fantasmagoric’ and go outside to the woods and shout it out just to hear the sound. I think if you’re going to be a writer you have to love the material you’re using. Just as painters must love the smell of paint and sculptors love the wet clay in their hands, a writer has to love the way words sound. For thousands of years before words were written they were spoken – the air is their natural medium. In fact, Kunitz once said, ‘The page is a cold, cold bed.’ These words want to be spoken.”

Hip Hop and Sonnets?

“My first two books, Shiva’s Drum and Tongue & Groove, revolve around jazz. Hip hop is a new vein. I wanted to give this music, the music I grew up with, a literary presence. I hope the sonnets appeal to one crowd, hip hop appeals to another, and that the two traditions bleed into each other and [the book] offers introductions.

“The sonnet is an 800-year-old form that fits the English language so well. Right? Just like the minimalist haiku fits the eastern culture and mentality well. Sonnets fit the English. But every art needs the avant guard to keep it supple; just as Jack Kerouac wrote American haikus, some refer to these poems as ‘American sonnets’ because I played with the traditional form a bit. They are blank verse sonnets – fourteen lines and seven sets of rhymes – but I play with the lines, and the rhyme schemes vary.”

“This book is not the greatest hits of hip hop; the poems are just the ones I found an entrance to when I came to write a sonnet. I started with Run DMC and the Beastie Boys and eventually, I discovered I had a relatively complete history. It proved to be an interesting narrative arc; for example, the Beastie Boys have seven pages in the book. It’s not that they are my favorite, it’s that they lasted three decades and have a specific and incredibly unique arc. When they began, all of their songs were about sex, guns, booze, and drugs. Later MCA, the lead singer, became a Buddhist and wrote songs about the environment, Free Tibet, Bush, and Middle East policies. There was a growing spiritual, global, and political consciousness. It shows how they and their music evolved through the decades from their more base animal nature and the lowest of chakras to see the world through a spiritual nature and the higher, more enlightened chakras.”

Stephen Cramer would likely define his book as most successful if readers took their copy out-of-doors and sang poems to the trees until leaves are swept from the limbs. Don’t be shy; it’s the way words are meant to be.