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Beastie Boys Meet W.B. Yeats

Poet explores hip hop via sonnets

Stephen Cramer
In addition to his three books of poetry, English lecturer Stephen Cramer's work has appeared in The American Poetry Review, African American Review, The Yale Review and Harvard Review, among other journals. (Photo: Hilary Hess)

It’s all about sound, says Stephen Cramer, discussing what drives his own poetry and initially drew him to the art form. Age 12, home watching television in Westtown, N.Y., Cramer saw a show about the poet Stanley Kunitz which included a reading of his poem “The Round.” Decades later, the lecturer in UVM’s English Department describes the impact: “I’d never heard language spoken that way. I couldn’t quite get my mind around what this was, but it felt like the poetry really entered my musculature.”

As a poet today, Cramer’s creative process is as much about sounds in air as words on paper. “I say my poems aloud. I say them more than I write them. So when they sound right to the air, then I know that they’re getting close.” He continues, “I think that makes a lot of sense. Poems were spoken and passed down for thousands of years before they were ever put down in print. It’s an oral art form; so paying attention to the way it sounds is just a natural link to that past.”

That said, it’s not too lengthy of an imaginative leap from Pindar’s odes to Snoop Dogg “gettin’ funky on the mic like an old batch of collard greens.” Cramer brings long-lost-cousin art forms together with the recent publication of From the Hip: A Concise History of Hip Hop (in sonnets), his third volume of poems.

The urban landscape and music have long been at the center of Cramer’s poems, dating back to his first book, Shiva’s Drum, published in 2004. After growing up in a town with “more cows than people” and going to college in rural Pennsylvania, Cramer plunged into city life for graduate school, living at 133rd Street and Convent Avenue in Harlem while he wrote and earned his master’s in poetry from City College of New York. “My neighborhood was at the heart of that first book. A lot of the poems have to do with the music I heard on Sundays. The churches were alive with drumsets. It was an amazing experience to walk down the street through a landscape infused with music,” he says.

After ten years in N.Y.C., Cramer and his wife, Joanna, moved to Burlington in 2006, drawn by the country/city balance. Not long after, he joined the faculty in the English Department as a lecturer teaching writing and literature courses.

The new 56-poem collection takes songs (and often music videos) from “Rapper’s Delight” to “Nuthin But a G-Thang” to “99 Problems” as starting points and then explores them via the vehicle of the sonnet form, somewhat loosely defined. The project is rooted in a poem Cramer wrote based on the Beastie Boys’ song “So What’cha Want.” Through the process of writing it, he found an unlikely connection to a line of verse from W.B. Yeats’ “Sailing to Byzantium.”

“I thought, ‘That’s very strange and, somehow, interesting,’” he recalls. Cramer gave himself an assignment: Take one song from each of the Beastie Boys’ seven studio albums and attempt to find a poem from Yeats that deepened the theme. Seven poems later, the idea had deepened into something of an addiction. Cramer wanted to keep going: “I thought, ‘Well, I’ve got all of hip hop before me, let’s see what I can do.”

There’s intrigue, and humor, in channeling hip hop’s swagger through the gentility of a sonnet. Cramer says working with that poetic form, its pacing and rhyme scheme a natural fit within the English language, is central to his creative process. “I’m writing for the element of surprise,” he says. “Of course you want to surprise the reader, but I’m interested in being surprised myself as the writer. Writing a sonnet makes me say things that I didn’t expect to say. The structure forces me out of my personal agenda and into something completely new.”

From the Hip hasn’t found its way into Cramer’s course syllabi; he’s not one to teach his own work. But he opens students in his poetry classes more broadly to the sonnet form. “They think they’re going to hate them, but they don’t,” he says. “There’s a pleasure in getting people to enjoy the sonnet in a way that they didn’t think they would.”

The poet might achieve a similar pleasure with his own “crossover” collection. The readers who enter through the hip hop door will finish the book with a greater appreciation for poetry, in general, and sonnets, in particular. And for the confirmed poetry readers with little interest in hip hop, maybe they’ll leave the car radio station set right where it is the next time Jay Z comes on.

From the Hip is published by Sun Ridge Poetry of Vermont. The following work is shared with the author’s permission.

 

The Apache Loop (DJ Kool Herc, 1975)

 

While twilight settles in the trees, Herc sets

     up two turntables & shoves the amp’s

plug directly into the city’s current

     as it bolts through the base of a lamp-

 

post. The crowd gathers, & he unsheathes his vinyl—

     two copies of Bongo Rock—& starts cutting back

& forth so quickly between the two tables

     & their continuous circuit of breaks

 

that the b-boys gasp for breath & his fingers

     blur. He drains so much juice that the lamp’s gleam

stutters, strobing the night as it flickers

     & dims to the beat. But not even Herc dreamed

 

that whole cities in the days to come

would black out to this endless loop of drums.