A former U.S. poet laureate once said that one quality that makes a great poem is specificity. As an example, he cited a poem about the culling of chickens and how the event was meticulously, even lavishly, described.
I really agree with his statement. If you look at great poems, one common denominator that they often have is that the objects and images described within them have been described accurately and with great specificity.
For example, just think about how well Wordsworth describes the abundance of daffodils in his poem “I Wandered Lonely as a Cloud”:
Continuous as the stars that shine
And twinkle on the milky way
They stretch in never ending line
Along the margin of a bay
Or how about how ominously Edgar Allen Poe depicts the raven:
And his eyes have all the seeming of a
demon’s that is dreaming,
And the lamp-light o’er him streaming
throws his shadow on the floor
There is certainly something about specificity that makes it an undisputed ingredient of good writing.
Enter Kevin Gates, a rapper from Baton Rouge, Louisiana. Kevin Gates is a badass, tattooed-covered dude who wears diamond studded fronts – or, a “mouth full of ice” – in many of his music videos. He had been or still is very involved in street life and has served time in prison on several occasions.
At first blush, he’s not the kind of guy one would think would have something in common with Wordsworth or Edgar Allen Poe.
But he does. It’s the writing. Yes, Gates lives in a totally different era from the other two writers and has quite the different lifestyle, but he too has written something that transcends the mundane, or even the good, thanks to specificity.
On his 2014 mixtape “By Any Means,” Gates has a song called “Arm and Hammer.” Yes, that’s the Arm & Hammer that your mom used to put in the refrigerator to absorb odors. However, drug dealers also use Arm & Hammer, which is really sodium bicarbonate, to turn cocaine into crack. Gates’ song of course refers to the latter usage. The main idea of the song is that the narrator is so successful as a drug dealer that he keeps running out of Arm & Hammer.
Now, of course I don’t condone drug dealing and drug use. But by zeroing in on this one object, Arm & Hammer, and its importance in the world of a drug dealer, Gates has written something that surpasses good and rises to the level of exceptional. By focusing on this one object – an object one would never think to write a song about or to make art about -- he really brings us vividly into his world.