A Spoken Word Artist response:Are poetry slams killing the art of poetry? By Kassandra Gordon
I read an article by Nathan Thompson in the Independent at the beginning of month. It really bothered me. I smell a bit of classism here.
I feel that he has contradicted himself saying that there is no ivory tower or elitism between page and stage poetry, but it just seems that he has raised the elitism bar even higher by discrediting poetry slams, well in fact the whole spoken word scene. In a roundabout way he has said poets who participate in poetry slams are lazy and lack the skill of page poets:
The only division in poetry is between those people willing to take the time to read it and those who will not. When Emily Dickinson said only “the fairest” may enter her house of “possibility”, she wasn’t being elitist –she was putting up a barrier against the lazy.
According to Thompson to be a ‘worthy poet’ you would have to be published by poetry journals.Talking to many performance poets, they find it hard and frustrating to be published or taken seriously by these ivory tower ‘poetry journals’, because their poetry does not conform to the traditional forms of poetry that Thompson is so desperately trying to protect. Thompson has to get with the changing times and has to respect other forms of expressing poetry. In the real world, where can the normal layperson access these ‘poetry journals’ and attend high brow literary events?
I feel it takes a certain skill and talent to devise and perform poetry to have an affect on a diverse audience in 3 minutes (average slam time for a poet to perform a poem), which I suspect is more wide in range than Thompson caters to. Where else can you see lots of performers who have the ability to make you laugh, cry, think and feel disgust in the same poem?
I really find it extremely difficult to digest what Thompson is adhering to, that poetry slam performers lack the skills and are a lesser quality than published page poets. I am questioning whether Thompson has actually listened properly at any poetry slam? When you listen to poets at poetry slams, you hear the same poetic devices (e.g. rhyme , imagery, rhythm etc) used in by poets published in poetry journals. The skills that I witness in poetry slams and find admirable are:
1. First of all writing the poem. It had to go on a page somewhere for the poet to learn vigorously.
2. Learning the poem (a lot of poets who take part in poetry slams recite their poem off-by-heart - no hiding behind a published book or magazine).
3. Being concise and explicit with your message and the tone of the poem in three minutes.
4. Engaging and entertaining the audience for three minutes. To some this might sound easy, but it’s not. Remember that poet’s poem has to stand out to win over other poems heard (dozens). It is important how the poet engages the audience from the start to the end, without the audience getting bored.
I totally dismiss what Thompson said about the audience being half drunk whilst listening to poetry slams and the poems are ‘pitched low’. I have never attended to poetry slam where people are drunk, there is a certain unspoken etiquette at spoken word events; ‘to listen carefully and be respectful’. Generally people who attend spoken word events or poetry slams know that it takes bravery for a poet to perform their poem to a group of people they don’t know. They are also aware that it could be the poet’s first time performing. In spoken word events, the audience is normally very supportive and respectful of the poets. I don’t think many audience members can sit through 2 and a half hours of poetry being drunk. I think Thompson is tarnishing the art of poetry slams and clumping the poetry slams event together with a comedy club night, which I find offensive.
Interestingly in his article Thompson squeezes in:
I have taught poetry to hundreds of children aged seven to 14 and not one of them could name me a poet beyond Shakespeare.
I’m really not surprised that young people do not know more poets. Due to the fact that young people are forced to learn mainly only Shakespeare (or probably Chaucer) written donkeys years ago. Also, I imagine that learning poetry has not changed much and students are not introduced to a wide selection of poets. I was supporting my brother not long ago with his English GCSE and saw his poetry anthology book (poems you have to annotate and learn for examination). I left school ten years ago and it had the same poems/poets in my poetry anthology book. It just goes to show the fact that the teaching of poetry has to be updated, needs to be engaging and relevant to the youth today. Funnily enough, I hated poetry at school because I thought it was boring and only started to like poetry when I attended my first spoken word event at the age of 22. A poet at a poetry slam had the skill to convert me from a hater of poetry, had the ability to change my mind about what poetry means and had engaged me with poetry I could relate to as a young person.
The spoken word scene and poetry slams events have made poetry accessible to a wide range of people. Poetry has become more democratic, giving more people the chance to get their poetic voice heard. Not only in a poetry journal. People that maybe Thompson would not normally listen to or acknowledge in his conventional strict criteria of a ‘poet’. Poetry slams allow poetry to be seen differently and to be entertaining. Let the people decide what real poetry is. It seems due to the rise of poetry slam events and the spoken word scene in the 21st century, it seems that the general public have already spoken.