In a world of seven billion-plus souls, one of our deepest human needs often goes unfulfilled – the need to be heard. That may be one reason why the Spoken Word movement, once a subculture on the fringes of the mainstream, is gaining widespread acceptance around the world.
THE RISE OF SPOKEN WORD
“Spoken word poetry” was born in Chicago in 1984, when a construction worker, Marc Smith, started reading poetry at a popular club and encouraged others to join him in sharing their work. Smith was looking to “democratize” poetry and “bring it to the masses.”
He was following an old road with an ancient lineage that meanders through the underground and fringes of Society among the dispossessed and disenfranchised and the ones who choose to stand different.
The trailhead for this road began before there was writing and paper. The college theses expounding about the “long-held traditions” of the ancient art of wordsmithing (and all the other hoo-hah that made playing with words seem like it is a probable cause for dyspepsia) were not even a glimmer on any horizon.
Smith was going back to that most ancient of traditions, Word-of-Mouth — just like the tribal storytellers and assorted con artists and bull-shitters sitting around campfires and hearth-fires of the world from ancient times, weaving a yarn for their friends and companions. And he was inviting everybody else to join him.
Smith remembered: Poetry was, first and foremost, an oral art. It was an art with a performer and an audience. The people around him liked that reminder.
Two years after he first got up to tell his poems out loud, Smith approached the owner of a jazz club. Those readings happened every week and evolved into a competition.
The format gained popularity, but it was the Internet that blew it up big. A lot of people liked being reminded that poetry is an oral art.
Poetry was originally produced by a human voice, propelled out of a human body with the breath. It was one person talking to a bunch of other people.
Audiences liked the presentations by the most avid performers that showed that poetry, at its most effective, contains the rhythm and movements of a human heart.
They liked that the beginning and end of a poetic line is often a unit of phrasing and sense-making that is based on the human breath. You need to breathe when you’re speaking your poem. It is your breath and your voice that animates it.
PAGE POETRY VS STAGE POETRY
Poetry Its-Own-Self has always been a means of often-powerful self-expression. It grew out of song and prayer and storytelling traditions that continue to this day. It has been with us forever and because of that it can be difficult to pin down and define.
One cute breakdown, “What Is Poetry? #Poetry Defined” was published in 2015 by Advocate of Wordz. Here’s the YouTube video:
In my own experience, poetry has been a life-saver. It continues to be a way for me to find my own clarity in the confusion of everyday life. Rearranging words on a page helps me to rearrange the thoughts in my head. It works very well for that.
But, let’s face it. Over the centuries, page poetry has become stigmatized by many folks as indulgences of the rich-and-snooty. Books of poetry tended to gather dust on bookshelves.
Page poetry (especially as was taught in schools when I was growing up) could be a yawn-inducing experience. Poetry – at least the kind pedagogues seemed to favor — had the most gawd-awful and esoteric rules formulated by various poetry-makers in times past, all gathered together by the intelligentsia and assorted acolytes of High Culture.
If your teacher was into it, as mine often were, it was a grand thing; otherwise, not so much. Teachers who got stuck on guiding their charges through parsing and analyzing some “Great Poem” or other, killed more poets a-borning than any other thing, probably.
Like calculus and philosophical debate, it was stuff for the Big-Brains (or folks who wanted to look like they had some.)
Page poetry was a good thing to inflict on children. Like regular doses of cod-liver oil or whatever, it was supposed to keep them growing and make them strong. By the time the children hit adulthood, it was often not a thing remembered fondly.
“Dull” was page poetry’s other name.
Committing poetry to a page (if you were not an academic sort), was a weird sort of hobby at best. Solitary you could string the words from your heart across assorted pages and realize all kinds of gains. Rigorous mental exercise, mastery of an art form, personal catharsis, and insights are possibilities that come to mind.
A common fate for these homemade page poems was to be stuck in a drawer where they moldered until the poet’s death, after which, they were probably tossed by the poet’s heirs.
If you were particularly proud of the page poems you constructed, you submitted them to magazines in exchange for magazine issues, sold them to greeting card makers for pennies, or spent money on producing self-published chapbooks to give to all of your family and friends.
If you got good at producing poems, you might even consider spending time creating them “on demand” as a busker.
When the Internet revved up, you could also post them on websites or on social networks and then wonder whether they ever reached anybody. (The page poem launch very often hits a wall of dead silence.)
The problem with even the best page poetry is that it is only one-half of a dialogue. The maker makes, but doesn’t know whether anybody is out there listening, doesn’t feel like he or she is being heard. It gets to feel like you’re talking to yourself.
Stage poetry (as spoken word has been called) is something else. When it’s done well and the audience is lively, it flies. Performers and audiences can get caught up in a group hug-fest.
- Some poets are raucous; they rant and rave, yell and shout. Others are calm and relaxed.
- There are poets who make you laugh and poets who make you cry. Many of them bare their deepest secrets and rock your heart.
- Some weave intricate verbal patterns that enthrall you in a web of sound.
- Others parse out a problem using simple words that drill down into the core of it, reframing and rearranging your mind.
Stage poetry can be inspiring. A spoken word poem can be stimulating and entertaining when it’s good.
When several good poets get together it can turn into a jazz jam, a live performance never to be repeated in exactly the same way. It can be a feast.
More importantly, even when the poetry or the performance is not so good, stage poetry is about connection. The poet speaks. The audience listens. Good performers take their listeners flying; bad performers get a lot of points for trying.
A TASTE OF SPOKEN WORD
To give you a taste, here’s one of my favorite slam poems, “Legacy,” presented in this YouTube Video published by Button Poetry. It features poet Tui Scanlon performing for Hawaii during the prelims at the 2014 National Poetry Slam.
Button Poetry was founded in 2011 by poets Sam Cook and Sierra DeMulder. Since then it’s become the largest digital distributor of spoken word in the world. The Button Poetry videos are shared on websites like Huffington Post, Buzzfeed and NPR. Their YouTube channel has over 900,000 subscribers. Click here to check them out:
SPOKEN WORD INTERNATIONAL
These days, commentators note that spoken word has “gone mainstream.” Poetry meant to be performed – performance poetry – is winning accolades from audiences of regular people. Some of those people get up on stage and do their own spoken word pieces before sometimes massive crowds.
All over the world, wherever people gather, there are open mic nights, where folks get up in front of a crowd and share their words – angry poetry, love poems, poems of protest and politics, stand-up poetry, punk poetry, jazz poetry, nonsense rhymes, and rap and hip-hop fusion poetry.
There are regular organized gatherings of amateur and casual poets.
There are poetry slams where the competition and audience participation can get intense.
There are shows by professional poets. At festivals, you’ll find performing poets sharing the stage with musicians, actors, dancers and other performing artists.
On the Internet, the variety (and the sheer number) of posted poetry videos boggles the mind.
There are even spoken word workshops you can attend to become a better performing poet.
And, in the schools, performance poetry and spoken word has opened a door to the impact and the power of words for children of all ages.
Smith’s plan to bring poetry back to the masses worked. Words were spoken…and more and more and more words keep being spoken, mostly because people are definitely listening.
The quality of the works vary, of course, and that seems to be a part of the whole scene.
THE BEST POEM
My benchmark “best poem” has no words. It was an exchange between my friend Wide Garcia, who chairs the meeting of the Maui Live Poets that meets in the Makawao Library on the third Wednesday night of each month, and a young man with Aspergers Syndrome.
During one of our regular meetings, we were doing a round-robin, where all of the poets in attendance took a turn to present a poem to the crowd. A young man came in midway through the first session and sat down in an empty chair. He sat quietly and watched as the poets read or spoke their work, watched as the audience responded.
It’s Wide’s practice to ask everyone who comes to the gatherings if they would like to present a poem. After the first round was done and the poets were mingling and talking story, he approached the young man, who was sitting there, seemingly detached from the hubbub around him, and asked whether the boy had work he would like to share.
The young man did not answer, so Wide asked again, looking deeply into the teenager’s eyes.
There was a pause. Then the boy lifted his right hand with all of his fingertips held together like a spear-point and touched the middle of his chest, fingers pointed right at his heart. He gestured, moving his arm outward towards Wide and opened his hand, palm-up, as if he were offering his heart.
Wide made the same gesture back to the boy and grinned at him. The boy just looked back at him out of his own world.
And, for me, that became my benchmark “good poem” – the one I remember every time I start constructing another one. A good poem offers up your heart to another person. It’s even better when that other person offers up his or her heart back.
Here’s a poem….
ALWAYS THERE ARE POEMS
Always there are poems.
Not all of them use words.
Sometimes your body builds them.
Sometimes hearts must be heard.
The hand that reaches out,
The smile that glows and shines,
The eyes that sparkle in delight,
The hug that says, “We’re fine.”
Always there are poems.
All you need to do is see
The wonders of the universe
And the worlds in you and me.