Eminem has been compared to Robert Browning, The Streets to Dostoevsky, and Pete Doherty to Robert Burns. It's hard not to raise an eyebrow, if not laugh, and yet these parallels are thought-provoking. Many people consider writing rap lyrics a similar dis-cipline to writing rock lyrics, the only difference being the vocabulary.
Viewed as poetry, however, the two could not be more different. The rhyme schemes, respect for metre, alliteration and repetition in rap music all set the genre apart. But rap perhaps differs most starkly from rock in its love affair with the simile. Rappers use similes like . . . well, you get the idea.
Pulp's "Wickerman" may contain the best simile in a modern pop lyric - "pensioners gathering dust like bowls of plastic tulips" - but for a genre bursting at the seams with similes, you need look no further than hip-hop.
From the comically stoopid ("I love you like a fat kid loves cake" - 50 Cent) to the bewilderingly tenuous ("now terminal, like Grand Central Station" - Wu-Tang Clan) to the genuinely inspired ("deep, like submarine tragedy" - Anti-pop Consortium), the simile is so popular because it is a neat formula into which all sorts of imagery can be squeezed. It's not a device for the lazy per se; it is more often a template for self-aggrandise- ment: "lyrics fast like Ramadan" (Fugees); "I will become like Lenny Henry" (Roll Deep Crew); "we rock like Kilimanjaro" (Antipop Consortium).
For the aspiring poet, the classical verse of 14 lines has always been a similarly accessible form for lyrical expression. As T W H Crosland acknowledged in The English Sonnet (1917): "The sonnet, whether English or alien, has never figured in the critical eye otherwise than as a form: a pattern, or mould, or set shape con-venient for the expression of 'intense but inexpansive' poetical emotion."
In the 18th and 19th centuries, the likes of Keats and Shelley indulged and sustained the notion that writing poetry was where it was at for fashionable young men. Today, adolescents show off in the playground by performing their rhymes, or looking deep in thought with a notebook and pen, striking an Eminem (in his 8 Mile) pose.
The website www.sonnets.org has even adopted the procedures of the rap battle, pitching the sonnets of prominent poets against each other for a public vote. In a recent contest - between their sonnets on "the grasshopper and cricket", written by Leigh Hunt and Keats in competition with each other in 1816 - Hunt won by 612 to 201 votes.
There has long been help available for those lacking lyrical inspiration: the first publication of Brewer's Phrase and Fable, in 1870, gave aspiring poets an instant almanac of imagery and individuals drawn from sources such as folklore, idioms and history. Now, thanks to the whims of bored computer programmers, there exists a piece of software that works as a proxy for rap-writing talent: the Rhymerator 1.0.
Produced by Rockstar Games, and free to use at www.rhymerator.com, it has a persuasive pitch: "Word isn't going to help you write the next magnum opus multi-platinum rap recording. A pen and pad aren't gonna give you next-level rhyme suggestions. What are you gonna do when you run out of ideas for clever similes?" With screen guidance from the cartoon underground MC Yeshua ("guaranteed to be more helpful than that smiling paper clip f***er"), you can ask the Rhymerator to suggest rhymes or similes for the lines you type in, and if all else fails, ask Yeshua for help.
Deciding to begin by cementing the bond between the sonneteers and the rappers, I type in my first line: "I'm gonna get Petrarchan on yo' ass." I am relatively happy with this, so I decide to explore the metaphor function. Placing the cursor next to "ass"or "Petrarchan" does me no good, but lining it up next to "on" results in a bevy of them: "on like light switches", "on the case like detectives", "on and on like popcorn".
None of these exactly dazzles me - I doubt very much the infinite qualities of popcorn - so I decide to try out the rhyme function instead.
It is here that the Rhymerator truly excels, pitching good hip-hop words such as "grass" and "outclass", and some others that you would not immediately associate with the genre, such as "demitasse" (a small cup of espresso) and, even better, "isinglass", which the Oxford English Dictionary informs me is a transparent gelatin prepared from the air bladder of the sturgeon and used as an adhesive. I defy anyone to work that into a rap lyric - or a sonnet, for that matter.
Seven minutes into my rap career, I am already stuck, so I decide to reflect this by picking "impasse" from the list:
I'm gonna get Petrarchan on yo' ass
Though my rhymes have reached an impasse
Spitting quatrains like a slow train . . .
All I need now is to complete my four-line A-A-B-B rhyme. I manage to eke out the intriguing simile "slow like confetti" from the Rhymerator, but otherwise it's not playing ball, just giving me more eso-terica such as "grosgrain", "moraine" and "chatelaine".
"My flow's just inane" is my final line, I eventually concede. Even with the Rhymerator's custom-chosen beats, extensive glossary and stylish design, it seems that you can't programme lyrical talent where there isn't any to begin with: art defeats science again. "You can't just turn on creativity like a faucet. You have to be in the right mood," says Calvin in Bill Watterson's comic book Calvin and Hobbes. "What mood is that?" Hobbes inquires, and Calvin's answer says it all: "Last-minute panic."