The Living Language of Spoken Word
In “The Shrinking Space of Poetry”, Betsy Warland claims that “Spoken word has grown in leaps and bounds; to my ear, however, the majority of writing performed is not deeply rooted in poetry.” I take exception to this backhanded compliment.
Warland is not the first page poet to disparage Spoken Word in this way. George Bowering declared that the poetry slam—which continues to be the grassroots engine of Spoken Word in Canada—was “crude and extremely revolting.” Paul Vermeersch wrote a long rant about how Spoken Word performances at slams contain no actual poetry. Such attacks from the literary establishment are widespread, and Warland’s comment is right in line with the rank and file of Canadian page poets.
Warland offers no reasons why Spoken Word should be excluded from the realm of poetry, other than her ears, her aural impression. Why should we trust her ears? Is it because they have heard more “true poetry” than ours? Perhaps because they are refined ears, sophisticated ears, ears that can detect verse better than your average layperson. In deference, should we shelve our own impressions and accept the verdict of her superior ears?
The point here is that page poets, subtly or brazenly, champion their education as the tool which allows them to write and understand “true poetry” while Spoken Word, filled as it is with ordinary folks, is not deeply rooted in the study of literature (which is what I assume Warland means when she writes "not deeply rooted in poetry"). The claim is made that Spoken Word does not deserve to be included in the same art form as the work of educated page poets. It is crucial for their survival at the centre of the literary establishment to declare that Spoken Word isn’t poetry at all.
I doubt their ruse will succeed for much longer.
Each old guard tries to expel the work of the avant-garde before inevitably embracing it. Ginsberg was castigated as a madman, and then canonized a few decades later with the rest of his bohemian friends. Robert Frost dismissed free verse as playing tennis with the net down; now it is the dominant form. Look farther back and the same story repeats itself over and over again. Even Keats and his Romantic cadre were at first written off as being little more than uncouth “Cockney School” youth whose lush whinings could not be considered proper poetry.
William Carlos Williams identified this pattern in his day and railed against it:
Times change and forms and their meanings alter. Thus new poems are necessary. Their forms must be discovered in the living language of their day, or old forms, embodying exploded concepts, will tyrannize over the imagination.
The great irony here is that although Williams warned that poetic forms must change with the times it is his modernist poetry (along with Wallace Stevens’ and T.S. Eliot’s) that has become the most mimicked by academic poets as a quick and easy route to publication. Donald Hall gave a name to the results of this academic mimicry in his wonderful essay “Poetry and Ambition”; he called them “McPoems.” He was right to point out that McPoems impress no one except other McPoets. They are inside jokes whispered in the back stairwells of the ivory tower, out of touch with today’s society. Yet they flood our literary market, tyrannizing our imagination with their outdated, exploded concepts.
Warland laments the loss of the place of privilege that page poetry had in the 1970s—in bookstores, and in the wider social consciousness—without providing any theory explaining why this has happened. The answer is that the work of poets entangled in academia and its publish-or-perish credo has become so insular and cryptic, so divorced from broader society, that they have alienated a generation from their brand of poetry.
Thank goodness for the poetry slam! Poetry slams let writers know that droning a series of oblique literary allusions in a monotone voice does not make you a refined poet—it makes you an insufferable bore. Art does not have to be painful and difficult. That impulse is just the toxic residue of puritanism at work again. Poetry should be enjoyable. Once poets embrace this, they will earn back that privileged placement in the bookstores and in the wider public sphere.
Spoken Word accepts any influence that ignites an audience and makes an impression: Stand-up comedy, music, clowning, hip hop. Anything goes! That doesn’t mean it all works; much of it fails. But because it has connection to a live audience as its guiding principle the work continues to be urgent and relevant. Art is about communication. Showing the urge to communicate with an audience, however flawed the execution, is often enough to make that connection possible. Spoken Word searches out and adapts to the living language of the day.
This is why Spoken Word audiences continue to grow. The 2009 Canadian Festival of Spoken Word featured 12 poetry slam teams—the most ever. For a week, the Victoria Events Centre was sold out every evening, 200 people inside, with a long line-up of people waiting to be let in—for the chance to listen to poetry! The finals were held in front of a crowd of 500 yelling and cheering fans. Contrast this with your average page poetry reading, where the poet will be lucky to convince a dozen of their friends to show up and sit in miserable silence.
I hate to think how disappointed those hundreds of Spoken Word fans will be when we have to break it to them that the Betsy Warlands of the world have declared that what they witnessed was not actually poetry! Still, and call it a hunch, I have a feeling they won’t care, and that the growing audiences who attend Spoken Word events will continue to call themselves poetry enthusiasts.
Is Spoken Word poetry? Of course it is, and it is rooted in the oldest of poetic forms: The oral tradition, the tradition that produced Beowulf and the epics of Homer. Many Spoken Word poets have studied these poems (three of the four of us on the Vancouver Poetry Slam Team have gone through the English Literature program at UBC, the fourth is a voracious reader), but we do not limit ourselves to the study of literature—we use it as just one more source of inspiration.
The baby boomers of the 1960s and 1970s must wake up and realize there is a new movement afoot. One with all the passion and intelligence—and just as many visionary poets—as the one they experienced.
Poetry is not dying, page poets. It’s passing you by. Join us, or get out of the way.
This story appears in Poetry Is Dead issue 1. If you like it online, you'll love it in print. Subscribe Now »