What “Hamilton” Can Teach Us About Poetry

“Drake rhymes, Mom. So does Lil Wayne.”

That was my son’s response when I told him most of my poetry doesn’t rhyme. My kids—who both listen to hip-hop—have played enough of it for me that I can appreciate its complicated rhymes. I can’t play at that level.

But hip-hop uses another poetic technique that I can use and so can you. It’s as old as the Psalms and as new as Lin-Manuel Miranda’s hit musical “Hamilton,” about Founding Father Alexander Hamilton.

Repetition.

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Miranda’s raps and rhymes and R&B are phenomenal, but what strikes me as I obsessively listen to the cast album is his use of repetition.

Often the word or phrase is introduced as a song title—“My Shot,” “Wait For It,” “History Has Its Eyes,” “Stay Alive,” “Blow Us All Away” or just “Satisfied.” The words reappear at different times, sung in different voices, but the repetition comments on the action or the character. The ending songs in both Act I and Act II combine several of these phrases as a summary of Where We Are Now.

Repetition also allows Miranda to play with words that have multiple meanings, like “shot.” It can mean a shot from a gun (there are three duels in the show). It can also mean a chance, an opportunity, as in the refrain, “I am not throwin’ away my shot.” He does the same thing the word “boom”—might be coming from a cannon in the Revolutionary War, might be a heart falling in love, might be a bright idea.

Seriously, just count all the times and all the different people who sing the phrase “look around.” It’s always the same three notes, never the same twice.

Miranda also uses the inherent repetition in counting, from the song “Ten Duel Commandments” (which is repeated in “The World Was Wide Enough”) to counting in French (“Take a Break” and “Stay Alive (reprise)”). Warning: If you don’t get to 10, something bad happens.

Perhaps my favorite repetition is a chunk of lines that Eliza first sings to Alexander in “That Would Be Enough” in Act I, as they’re awaiting the birth of their son. Later in Act II, he sings the same words back to her in “It’s Quiet Uptown.” Their lives have been unimaginably changed. The words have a totally different resonance.

Now for all of you who do love the rhymes of hip-hop (especially those involving multisyllabic words), Miranda’s got ’em. This is from “Cabinet Battle #1” when Hamilton is challenging Jefferson about the issue of the federal government assuming state debts:

If we assume the debts, the union gets a new line of credit

a financial diuretic

How do you not get it?

If we’re aggressive

and competitive

the union gets a boost. You’d rather give it a sedative?

I can’t write like that. But I can repeat. Miranda showed me how to do it better. And he gets me singing along.

 

Comments

  1. Who knew? You’re a hip-hop aficionado!! Very cool stuff, Megan. Thank you.

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