You may not hear the words "rap" and "poetry" in the same sentence on a regular basis, but rap is, in a sense, poetry set to a beat. Unfortunately, carefully chosen words set to a specific rhythm can be difficult to decipher, whether they're in the form of a poem, a work of fiction, or a rap song. That's why, in October 2009, Yale graduates Mahbod Moghadam, Tom Lehman, and Ilan Zechory created Rap Genius, a website that allows users to analyze and annotate rap as one would poetry, and to educate the masses on the often misheard and misunderstood lyrics of rap songs.
In June, the site expanded to include three new sections, each of which allows users to scrutinize and mark up entries: Rock Genius, News Genius, and, of course, Poetry Genius. According to Austin Allen, a recent Johns Hopkins University Master of Fine Arts graduate and the new editor of Poetry Genius, "Critiquing rap as poetic language is not actually too difficult to reconcile" especially because, "the site is a great way of drawing connections between texts." While, according to Allen, "poetry had always been on the site," the revamped literary section has created a hub for writers and readers alike. Despite its name, Poetry Genius provides insight into everything literary, from poems, to short stories, to novels.
If you've spent any time in a classroom in the past decade, you've probably heard of SparkNotes, which publishes literature and test preparation guides, and hosts a website that provides chapter summaries and descriptions of motifs and themes. The great thing about Poetry Genius is that, unlike SparkNotes, it allows its users to share their thoughts and tease apart texts with others, rather than telling them what to think. "The power of the platform is the close reading," Allen explains. "The ability to break things down line by line … accommodates a range of different voices." He adds that Poetry Genius does not try to, "impose a single editorial voice on people," preferring a "patchwork effect of different users" that provides a well-rounded, multifaceted view of each literary work.
In addition to providing a forum for everyone, Poetry Genius highlights annotations by verified artists, including authors and the people and institutions that the site deems literary experts. Writers such as Junot Diaz, and literary authorities like the United Kingdom's T.S. Eliot Society, have already made use of this feature, adding to the discussion.
The ability to use video and multimedia in annotations also sets Poetry Genius apart from similar sites. Citing one recent annotation that linked a line of William Carlos Williams' poem "Danse Russe" to a video of Billy Idol's "Dancing With Myself," Allen says, "It was just this perfect connection, probably no one had ever gotten the chance to annotate that poem quite that way."
Unsurprisingly, Poetry Genius is already being used in schools. Jeremy Dean, a former secondary school teacher, used Rap Genius in his curriculum in Texas, and has since become the site's education tsar. He is currently working with both secondary schools and universities to see how they can implement the annotation platform "in whichever way it works best for their particular subject matter," according to Allen. MIT's literature department had success using the site for a class on Romantic poetry: students read and annotated assigned texts on Poetry Genius, and then faculty members, who were awarded high-level account privileges, approved and critiqued the student annotations.
Between the ability to share thoughts, receive critiques, and see authors' annotations of their own texts, Poetry Genius heightens literary discussions in the classroom, and disseminates knowledge around the world. "People have only just scratched the surface of what this tool can be used for," says Allen, noting that the site is even being used to "break down scientific texts." That shouldn't be surprising; in addition to using Rap Genius to annotate poetry, inspiring Poetry Genius, people have used the site to analyze everything from Pat Robertson's response to 9/11, to Duck Dynasty, to Russian President Vladimir Putin's op-ed about Syria. By providing global access to a wide variety of opinions, Poetry Genius and Rap Genius have taken a major step toward educating humankind.