When I met the soundtrack of Hamilton, the massively popular Broadway musical that has taken the world by storm, I was astonished. I listened to borrowed CD’s on my commute to work at Messiah College where I teach academic writing, poetry, and creative writing. Never mind what the day held, I hungrily attended to these songs about the life of founding father Alexander Hamilton, waiting to hear what would happen next in the story and often having to force myself out of the car after the quarter hour. Some days I felt ready to enter my committee meetings with a drawn pistol, other days I wept and felt the sorrows of my own life reverberating through my ribcage.
I waited on the edge of my car’s seat to find out not only what creator and producer Lin-Manuel Miranda was going to tell me next about a founding father with whom I was not familiar but how he was going to tell me. Out of his mixtape of musical styles what would he use? Would he use rap, hip-hop, jazz, spoken word poetry, rhythm and blues, pop, folk, choral harmonies, or lullaby-style aria? Miranda employs each form based on the content—the content that uses rap is rebellious and ambitious its tone speaks to me in a way that rap never has before now. The arias break my heart and make me ready to believe that each person I meet is carrying profound loss. The hip-hop reintroduces me to my own overweening desire for achievement. The spoken word poetry makes for terrific argumentation.
I learned with great pleasure about this immigrant turned statesman who was a “bastard, orphan, son of a whore and a / Scotsman, dropped in the middle of a forgotten / Spot in the Caribbean by providence, impoverished, in squalor, / Grow up to be a hero and a scholar?” (Please note there are times when the language and concepts are appropriately graphic). But I was also hearing some of the most ingenious rhymes and staccato rhythms that delighted and infused me with that “high” that I get when my students recite poetry for an entire class.
Despite being a poet and a teacher of poetry, I am not a person who has spent much time studying rap, R&B, or hip-hop. Regardless of the achievement that might have been present in these forms, the content typically didn’t interest me. I am only slightly more acquainted with spoken word poetry which, like rap, is often formally ingenious but crafted primarily for the ear and not the page.
For many years, however, I have been studying the craft of the English poetic tradition as it has been revisited and revised in America—first by Emily Dickson and Walt Whitman, both of whom made their formal poetic decisions out of the soil from which they were born. Dickinson’s poems were written in hymn form. She violated the form and refitted it to suit her remarkable mind and the current of her thought, but the bones of what she was making were hymn-bones. Whitman crafted his work in psalm form and used all of the conventions of that structure to body-forth his meanings (to learn more about what these were see chapters 12 and 14 of The Art of Poetry).
It turns out that, even in 21st century America, poetry can matter to many.
In Hamilton, Miranda employs the forms native to him as a 21st century New Yorker who came of age in the late 1990’s. And in so doing he makes me care about rap and hip-hop. Now I see what I’ve been missing by not studying these forms more closely.
It turns out that I’m not the only one who feels included by Hamilton. Daveed Diggs, who plays Lafayette and Jefferson in the musical, told The New Yorker’s Rebecca Mead that the play’s use of rap “feels important, because it allows us to see ourselves as part of history that we always thought we were excluded from…Rap is the voice of the people of our generation, and of people of color, and just the fact that it exists in this piece, and is not commented upon, gives us a sense of ownership.”
At the same time that it uses musical forms that have emerged largely out of African American youth and political protest culture, it quotes (musically) other mainstream musicals, such as Les Miserable and Sweeny Todd, heavily. One commentator uses the metaphor of tree grafting to describe how Miranda has found a way to conjoin contemporary musical forms with traditional Broadway music—rare bedfellows.
While this harmony is operating at the level of form, it also occurs within the musical’s content. Did any of us remember that Hamilton was from the Caribbean? (John Adams called him a “Creole bastard,” though his race is uncertain.) Did you know his remarkable outsider-story—that of an immigrant who achieves great position and influence in a society full of anti-humanistic and degraded laws and prejudice? Diggs says the telling of the story entirely by people of color (the cast is all non-white) creates a sense of permission “to lay claim to it”, referring to our nation’s history.
Apart from being delighted, charmed, and instructed by this near-epic poem, I’m fascinated that Hamilton has caused a populace, deeply divided by age and race, to take some new interest in each other’s forms. It’s a nation’s story told in verse. Its emphasis on the elements of poetry and the elements of narrative are equal. Thus, in this masterwork, verse and narrative, immigrant and citizen, European and African-American, insider and outsider, tradition and experiment, past and present find extraordinary synthesis.
And for the first time in forever America is listening to—and loving—poetry. 20,000 New York City public school students from low-income neighborhoods are taking turns watching the musical on Broadway and performing their own historically informed pieces. Miranda has discovered a lost cultural center through the vernacular, as poets whom we revere have always done. It turns out that, even in 21st century America, poetry can matter to many.
This is no small thing, given the context of this achievement. In his 1991 article “Can Poetry Matter,” poet Dana Gioia asks what kind of miracle is required for poetry to rise like a phoenix from its ashes. Poetry, he explains, once mattered to a broader culture and had venues and readers far outside a hermetic audience of specialist admirers. He lists examples of times and places where it did matter—such as when “The Courtship of Miles Standish” sold 15,000 copies on the first day of its publication. Gioia claims that the poet and the reader are no longer aware of each other, which leads the poet to stop speaking as if anyone unlike herself is listening and the listener to stop engaging words and thoughts that do not include her. Gioia argues eloquently for the crushing loss that this represents—chiefly to the pleasure of being alive.
But why should anyone but a poet care about the problems of American poetry? What possible relevance does this archaic art form have to contemporary society? In a better world, poetry would need no justification beyond the sheer splendor of its own existence. As Wallace Stevens once observed, “The purpose of poetry is to contribute to man’s happiness.” Children know this essential truth when they ask to hear their favorite nursery rhymes again and again. Aesthetic pleasure needs no justification, because a life without such pleasure is one not worth living.
Richard Wilbur, a poet and authority in contemporary poetry, makes similar claims in a landmark 1969 essay called “Poetry and Happiness.”
Wilbur concludes that the achieved poem is one that finds congruence between the self and the world, both by naming the outer world and clarifying and embodying the inner psychic world of the poet. He further argues that the truly happy poem has a culture to which it can speak, a culture that is listening, a culture that shares knowledge and experience among its members.
He quotes Albert Moravia who describes our country as “a minor, degraded and anti-humanistic culture.” From such cultures, Moravia suggests the artist becomes increasingly alienated. Wilbur uses Dante as the contrasting example, describing Dante’s world as one which “appeared as one vast society, or as a number of intelligibly related societies, actual and spiritual; his Commedia was the embodiment and criticism of a comprehensive notion of things that he shared with his age.” He artfully describes why Frost was the last American poet to fabricate “a common and inclusive language in which all things are connected.”
To put it differently, he argues that Frost’s poems found correspondence between “thought and thing, inside and outside, self and world” (Wilbur). Frost’s poems were the last “happy poems” that found congruence between these bifurcations and that had a culture to receive them, a culture to which he spoke confidently from within. Frost, in other words, was the last poet with whom we as a culture had a collective experience.
I have been, over time, deeply moved and convinced by these arguments and, while I might qualify each of them, they are responding to a genuine loss of shared community and common interest in some of the human things that matter most.
William Carlos Williams summarizes the urgency of our need this way: “It is difficult / to get the news/ from poems/ yet men die miserably every day/ for lack / of what is found there.” We need poetry and we need to share it. We need it to have a common culture and to remember what matters to us.
I am encouraged that tickets for Hamilton are selling hand over fist, that it has won a Pulitzer, a Grammy, and eleven Tony awards in 2016. At some level a culture for poetry may be emerging; let’s get to work knowing and making poetry that talks to people in a language they will hear.
Resources for further reading
- Can Poetry Matter, Dana Gioia
- Poetry and Happiness, Richard Wilbur
- All About the Hamiltons, Rebecca Mead
- How Broadway sensation “Hamilton” is inspiring NYC students, Mike Regan
- How Hamilton is Revolutionizing the Broadway Musical, Alisa Solomon
- The Wall Street Journal created an algorithm to analyze Hamilton lyrics, Caroline Siede