Poetry is dying. Actually, it’s pretty dead already for all intents and purposes and the rise of performance poetry slams is doing nothing to help matters. I know, I used to be a performance poet.
Poetry slams make me want to kill poetry with fire.
Poetry slams are gangsta rap for white liberals.
Poetry is dying? Ha! *nudges mrsshandy* (a regularly published poet, amongst many other things) and girlonabridge (Also published).
Poetry Slams work for a certain type of poem that are particularly accessible, in the UK at any rate, to people with every day lived experience of what it is like to be in dead end jobs, or even jobs they love, but with the government making things worse at every turn, with people looking down on them. They work for people for whom “normal” poetry is not as accessible. Those for whom the education system may have failed, those for whom a University degree is not possible. Those for whom the opportunity to sit and savour words on a page like a glass of fine wine is not an option, because their lives are too busy, because they can’t afford wine, because they weren’t taught how to read further than the basics. And yes, that does still happen here in the UK, a lot. (I have a sneaking suspicion the fault may be partly with teachers like the one who wrote this article.)
Politicisation of poetry is not a new thing – Shakespeare wrote plays for the uncultured masses, and poetry for the elite (who could actually read…) to prove he was a “real” writer. Irish and Welsh were both banned by the English Government of that time as a method to stop the people of those countries taking refuge in their rich oral and written poetic history. The image of someone sitting reading poetry under a tree is always of someone well dressed, wealthy – someone who can afford to lounge around reading Dickinson or Blake. Slam poetry speaks to the experiences of people who do not have the money to buy fancy clothes, or the time to sit under a tree revisiting Whitman. It speaks to people because it reflects, often in a heart rending way, on their own experiences of life. Not the experiences of an elite poet who died of consumption two hundred years ago.
And that is fine!
(They also work for those of us with tertiary education, by the by, and – newsflash – it is possible to hold a love of both conventional poetry and slam poetry, without having to choose one form as ‘better’.)
Slam Poetry is an artform in itself. There are many conventional poets who cannot write and perform slam poetry and who recognise the skill and the passion and the sheer talent to work with words that slam poets have running out of their fingers.
If by white, you mean Pages Matam, Holly Bass, Lenelle Moïse or even Benjamin Zephaniah, I suggest you take your sunglasses off. And if by liberal, you mean people who talk about teaching, about the pressures and expectations of body image, about the experience of rape culture… And what it is to live in this beautiful, chaotic, messed up world of ours… then yeah, Slam Poetry is liberal, and you think that’s a bad thing? That people… normal, everyday people, have an art form that they can relate to? That pertains to their experiences, their lives? You think that’s a bad thing? Please never bring your lack of compassion and refusal to understand the pressures of life into working with other human beings, because if you won’t understand that everyone needs an accessible art form to express their experience of life, then you probably lack the fundamental respect for the unique dignity inherent to each human being.
Poetry is dead…. tell that to the hugely talented young girl who performed slam poetry at a youth pilgrimage I led on last year. She had a room of 150 teens and adults in tears, because she so accurately put into her artform what it is to be a teen girl at the moment. She made even the 80 year olds feel like they were 16.
Poetry is dead… tell that to Taylor Mali, Jess Green, Saul Williams or Rutgers University Slam Team. (or any other of the fabulously incisive slam poets who get You tubed and Tumbled with hundreds of thousands of notes.) Tell that to the Foyle Young Poets Award.
Poetry is dead… tell that to the millions who mourned Seamus Heaney, Kofi Awoonor, Mary Stewart and Jose Montoya in the last 2 years. Tell that to the millions who still mourn Maya Angelou.
Poetry is dead… tell that to Benjamin Zephaniah, Carol Ann Duffy, Sinead Morrissey, Frieda Hughes, Alice Oswald, Ciaran Carson, Maedbh McGuckian, Andrew Motion, Simon Armitage… and yes I could go on. Tell that to Margaret Atwood.
Poetry is dead… tell that to the people who tear up at Wilfred Owen, Siegfried Sassoon, W.H Auden. Tell that to the people who choose poems, over readings, to be read as their coffin is lowered into the grave. Tell that to the couple whose Wedding Mass I was just at, who had poetry on the front and the back of their Mass Booklet.
Poetry is dead… tell that to the faithful who read Song of Songs, St John of The Cross, or even Gibran’s The Prophet. Tell that to those who pray the Liturgy of the Hours.
Poetry is dead… tell that to the new generation of fans being introduced to Tolkien’s poetry via The Hobbit, and Lord of the Rings. Just because A Wallking Song is set to music doesn’t stop it being poetry.
Poetry is dead… tell that to Ani Di Franco, Passenger, Mary Lambert and all the other singer songwriters who use (slam) poetry in their music creation. Tell that to Leonard Cohen.
Poetry is dead… tell that to the twenty somethings I know who list anyone from George Herbert to Anna Akhmatova as their favourite poets and writers. Tell that to the teens just discovering Philip Larkin or Emily Dickinson and feeling like these poets speak just to their heart alone. Tell that to my once upon a time seventeen year old self, who hoarded Plath and Heaney and Duffy, as they helped explain my soul.
Poetry is dead… tell that to the millions of people who can quote lines and verse and entire full length poems, even if they don’t know exactly where it comes from originally. Tell that to the people who cannot hear “shall I compare thee…”, “How do I love thee…” or “they fuck you up, your mum and dad…” without responding with the second part of the line.
Poetry is dead… tell that to the 85,000 who visit Hay On Wye Festival every year. To the thousands who attend Stoke on Avon, Rotterdam, Cheltenham, Winchester and Massachusetts Poetry Festivals. Tell that to the University Writers’ Guilds. Tell that to my sailing friends, big, brawny, rough men, who hold an annual “poems and pints” night, and can recite more poetry than you can shake your head at.
Poetry is dead… tell that to my Sister A, who at 89 went visiting the nursing home and started up a recital, with all the performers over 75 and all diagnosed with Alzheimer’s. Tell that to my adopted Granddad, 84 and after two brain haemorrhages, still reciting poetry he learnt in school.
Poetry is dead… for you, maybe – but let me tell you a thing: poetry will never die as long as hearts beat. Poetry will never die as long as lovers grieve and wars are sparked over greed. Poetry will never die as long as the sun sets, and rises again in the east.
Poetry is not dead unless you want it to be.
In which case, I feel sorry for you.