Visceral, in your face, in your ears, in your snapping fingers, and tapping feet, spoken word poetry sprang loosely from the expressive energies of the blues, the Harlem Renaissance, and hip-hop music which had each permeated black communities throughout America over the course of the century. Mimicking the 1960s beat poets of coffee houses and oral, interactive, live art, spoken word and slam poetry emerged in the 1990s, more diverse and less agenda-driven. Similarly, it came from the margins of cities like Chicago and New York. Spoken word poetry is rhythmic and unstructured. It is composed of medleys of slang and ordinary language. There are no rules, nor etiquette. It comes out of young people, activists, artists. In 1986, a construction worker in Chicago organized the very first event in the style of a poetry slam at a local jazz club. Ever since, poets have been performing and competing, both alone and with groups, in poetry slams where they are judged on flow, rhythm, style, and enthusiasm. The fundamental lack of pretension in this oral form of poetry is what has given spoken word its charm, its power, and its resonance over the last twenty or so years.
With a love of language and rhythm, I myself am a spoken word poet. I believe in the art form strongly because of its personal, informal nature and its history. There is a certain sincerity and a sometimes crudeness of language and content, which make it relatable. But like with many art forms, there is always a threat of losing its sincerity and being dried out with romanticization.
Rugby Ralph Lauren (Expensive Preppy Clothes Catered Toward the Young, Beautiful, and “Clean Cut”) Presents ‘Poet’s Club.’ Joshua Bennett is a great poet. But in a way, his success and recognition make him less and less representative of the typical spoken word artist, who doesn’t shop at RL. Bennett was featured in HBO documentary Brave New Voices, has worked with former U.S. poet laureates, performed at Sundance Film Festival, and at the White House for President Obama. Having studied at UPenn, University of Warwick, and now Princeton, he represents a new performance artist. I’m always hesitant to commend what can be classified as “refined” and something I have indulged in with spoken poetry is its celebration of the unrefined. However, I praise Bennett for his work because he has brought spoken word poetry, and it is spoken word poetry, into a world of literary canons, rigid disciplines, and strict grammar usage. Spoken word poetry is not about breaking boundaries or pushing leftward. It is about dissolving and diffusing boundaries. It is poetry for the most diverse and broad range of people to which it can appeal.
My stance gets a little blurry when I glance at the bottom corner of the video of Bennett’s piece because.. Well, Rugby RL.. Really? This is an art form used amongst a diverse array of people who conform to a diverse array of institutions, but I think among those people (especially those with an Ivy League BA in Africana Studies) there must remain a consciousness of the demographic history. Typically, spoken word poets, slam poets, rappers, Chicago Public Schools teens who write poems, the demographics which define performance poetry in my eyes, don’t shop at Rugby Ralph Lauren. Its a nice, romantic marketing strategy, making an aesthetically pleasing video with a nice story using poetry. I just don’t want to see an art form which emerged from the underground and exists in coffee shops and scribbled on the backs of Mead notebooks to become a pulse of hip, loftiness thrown into pop culture.