February 21, 2013
Rap Genius has poetry on the brain
by Kevin Murphy
Lots of people consider annotation one of the more exciting opportunities for the digital reading community. Annotation is nothing new, of course, but in terms of putting it to use as an interactive reading experience, it’s still kind of radical, a notion under construction.
Baratunde Thurston wrote last month in a Wired article:
I loved that the original Kindle let me annotate a book. Being able to add and search for my own thoughts amid the previously locked words of others without physically damaging the original opened up a world of possibilities. What if you could download books that had been pre-annotated? I would pay extra to read Freakonomics with commentary by Paul Krugman,The New Jim Crow with notes from editors at The Nation, or the Bible annotated by the creators of South Park. A book could always inspire new layers of meaning, but now it can host that inspiration and a slew of associated conversations.
Valid point — one that no doubt is fast becoming a reality. So fast that it was only hours after finishing the article that I heard about Rap Genius’ latest project, Poetry Brain …
Rap Genius is a site that annotates rap lyrics with explanations, the same way one might explicate a poem. It’s a popular hangout for rap aficionados, and recently received a hefty investment of $15 million from Andreessen Horowitz, a Menlo Park, CA capital venture firm (and one of the early backers of Facebook). Using these funds, the company is growing, shifting shape and clearing new fields, literature included.
Approaching literature the same way Rap Genius approaches lyrics, Poetry Brain encourages authors and readers to interact with text on the web, to comment upon and explain not only song lyrics but poems, novellas, and stories as well.
An example from William Faulkner’s As I Lay Dying:
In a strange room you must empty yourself for sleep. And before you are emptied for sleep, what are you. And when you are emptied for sleep, what are you. And when you are emptied for sleep you are not. And when you are filled with sleep, you never were. I don’t know what I am. I don’t know if I am or not. Jewel knows he is, because he does not know that he does not know where he is or not. He cannot empty himself for sleep because he is not what he is and he is what he is not. Beyond the unlamped wall I can hear the rain shaping the wagon that is ours, the load that is no longer theirs that felled and sawed it nor yet theirs that bought it and which is not ours either, lie on our wagon though it does, since only the wind and the rain shape it only to Jewel and me, that are not asleep. And Jewel is, so Addie Bundren must be. And then I must be, or I could not empty myself for sleep in a strange room. And so if I am not emptied yet, I am is. How often have I lain beneath rain on a strange roof, thinking of home.
Annotated Text (annotated text italicized):
In a strange room you must empty yourself for sleep. And before you are emptied for sleep, what are you. [In order to understand what you are, you must throw away what you think you know about yourself. In this scene Jewel is taking in the fact that his mother is dead. Instead of crying like Vardaman, or outwardly showing emotion like his sister or his father, or accepting death at face value like Darl, he holds it in; “stays in control.” Jewel wants everything to be simple, he wants to be in control, but this is something he can’t understand, and so he is unable or unwilling to “empty” himself.]
And when you are emptied for sleep you are not. And when you are filled with sleep, you never were. [So probably what the first sentence is saying is that when a person is asleep, you do not exist basically, because in a deep slumber, you are “dead”. You cannot respond to anyone because you are idle-inactive. You are in your own world, with your eyes closed. No one can disturb you.But when you are asleep, you are not “dead”, because you dream-you see things. You are not necessarily awake, but if something happens (like someone pokes you, etc.), you will awaken (and not awaken if you are truly dead).]
And when you are filled with sleep, you never were. I don’t know what I am. I don’t know if I am or not. [Here Darl is referring to the ambiguous nature of consciousness when sleep takes over. When sleep comes, the sense of the physical body relative to the world becomes miniscule and unimportant. The state of being Darl experiences when he is full asleep can be called something like a loss of identity. He feels like he exists but has never existed when caught in the embrace of sleep.]
The excerpt goes on in this vein, dissected by readers — some with interesting points, others with uninteresting points — and in turn spawns a back and forth, a conversation about what each reader thinks Faulkner’s work means. In this example, the annotated text has not been reviewed by Poetry Brain editors, nor by an authority on Faulkner, so it is much like a line by line reading group, online.
But there’s another branch of Poetry Brain wherein “verified” writers annotate their own work as well as the work of others. Michael Bible, who is employed by the company, is one of these writers. Bible submitted his own story, The Devil’s Condominium, and then annotated it, offering readers unique insights into its creation.
There once was a little devil who did not want to be a devil anymore. He googled his symptoms. Abdominal discomfort, voices, excessive longings. His diagnosis was always the same. He was tired of making pianos drop on people’s heads. He wanted a condo in the mountains.
There once was a little devil who did not want to be a devil anymore. [I used to know a girl from the Czech Republic. She lived in Mississippi for years and was book smart but never quite mastered plain English. Many times she would say things that had an honest poetry to them. A friend installed a hook in his house to hang his bikes. She said, “Those bikes hang like they are dead.” I asked her to tell me a story when I was drunk on a couch, a fable from the Czech Republic to put me to sleep. It started, “There once was a little devil who did not want to be a devil anymore.” I don’t remember the rest of it.]
He googled his symptoms. [Years of intense hypochondria — googling symptoms becomes a daily activity. Even after going to doctors you still google symptoms. Illness can become an identity. A way to deny the reality that you are fine now but will not be forever. If you have xyz disease then you can get treatment and delay the inevitable. “At least I know what’s wrong with me. What’s the worst is not knowing,” said someone somewhere. The deeper malady is always existential.]
In this example, the added value of an author explaining the thinking behind his writing has an obvious appeal: it piques a reader’s curiosity and presents the author with new ways of engaging with his audience.
Bible says that “Not only does the site seek to explain writing, the hope is that writers will use the technology as a tool to create new work.”
Part of Poetry Brain is devoted to scholarship, with MIT already using it in their freshman classes. What’s more, a downloadable annotated Moby-Dick ebook is in the works, as are other classic works of literature. But, Bible points out, the site is designed to balance writers popular and unknown, old and new, with “the best writers big and small popping up.”
If you need additional proof of Poetry Brain’s potential, have a look at Bible’s annotations of Faulkner’s Nobel Prize speech. You’ve never read it like this before.
Kevin Murphy is the digital media marketing manager of Melville House.