On a week-day morning last fall I welcomed a group of well-dressed adults into my ninth grade classroom. It was Grandparents Day at the school where I teach English, and the development office had asked me to offer a mini-course on a topic of my choosing. I announced that we would be addressing a question that occupies my students for the entire school year: whether spoken word poetry, with its emphasis on vocal expressiveness, body language, and even the poet’s appearance, enhances or diminishes the value of its words. I attribute the ninth graders’ enthusiasm for videotaped spoken word performances in part to these extra-literary effects. What fourteen-year-old accustomed to traditional poetry anthologies wouldn’t prefer to watch a poet, often close to his or her own age, declaiming in colloquial language while dressed in a way that conveys street credibility? I was eager to try out this art form on an older generation, one that presumably associated poetry with printed words, and poetry out loud with authors reading those words from lecterns in university auditoriums.
I had begun planning for the mini-course over summer vacation, a time that I usually spend screening dozens of spoken word videos for possible use in class. Of these, a handful joins a group of existing favorites to comprise the twenty that I will show during the school year. Poems get rejected for several reasons—some on the grounds of profanity, inappropriate subject matter, or poor video or audio quality, others for consisting of strung-together clichés, treating familiar subjects such as racism, politics, or love in trite ways, or for being performed with such over-the-top theatrically that my students would mock them. A few combine all of these flaws and sound like Saturday Night Live parodies of hipster poetry happenings, providing easy ammunition for the genre’s detractors. Spoken word tends to polarize audiences—YouTube comments on the videos range from ecstatic approval (“I felt this with every ounce of my heart!”) to caustic put-downs (“Third grade level crap about hookers, crackheads and welfare checks”).
Most of the grandparents loved the two poems that I showed—Joshua Bennett’s “Tamara’s Opus,” about his deaf sister, and Shane Koyczan’s “This is My Voice,” a poem about the importance of speaking out that invokes Helen Keller, Martin Luther King, and Joan of Arc. Bennett performs at the White House before an audience that includes the President and First Lady. The background clamor on the Koyczan video suggests an outdoor poetry festival, though the camera remains fixed on the poet from the neck up, his pendulous double-chin covered by a patchy beard. Bennett’s voice wavers when he confesses to putting off learning sign language, then raises a hand to sign the poem’s last lines: “I know that there is no poem/that can make up for all the time we have lost, so please,/if you can, just listen.” Koyczan begins softly, increasing in volume toward the end: “You, me, this city, this country,/we will always have a choice./When you stand up to be counted,/tell the world, “This is my voice./There are many like it, but this one is mine.”
In the discussion that followed the videos, my audience of grandparents weighed the effect of each poet’s appearance and performance on his words. One woman who introduced herself as a retired English teacher appreciated the performance aspects, which she felt complemented the poems’ earnest, personal messages. Another viewer complained that Bennett’s emotion made him speak too fast, rendering his words partly unintelligible, while a third found the close-up of Koyczan’s fleshy face off-putting. Still others defended these imperfections as humanizing. The only full dissent came from a grandfather who claimed to be distracted by Bennett’s formal attire and Koyczan’s corpulence, and by both poets’ overwrought deliveries. He said he would have preferred to read both poems on the page, though even then the writing struck him as superficial.
Hearing this last comment, I realized how much my view of spoken word has changed over the years thanks to the number of performances I have watched and to hearing my students’ reactions. Like that disapproving grandfather, I used to cringe at the poets’ emotings and knew that no spoken word poem approached the musicality or subtlety of a lyric by Yeats or Elizabeth Bishop. I haven’t exactly overcome this attitude, but no longer consider these to be conclusive criticisms. I wanted to tell the man that if he could set his print-centric definition of poetry aside and approach the poems on their own terms—an open-mindedness that comes naturally to my students—he might find unexpected rewards. My own epiphany came when I stopped trying to hold this poetry to the standards of the literature I had studied as an English major in college. Listening to it now, I keep in mind its debt to respected rhetorical forms such as oratory, preaching, rap, and even traditional poetry readings as practiced by Robert Frost, Allen Ginsberg, Joseph Brodsky, Seamus Heaney, Billy Collins and other charismatic declaimers.
The first spoken word poem I used in class was Taylor Mali’s “What Teachers Make,” which has since gone viral on YouTube through word-of-mouth and e-mail forwardings (though often without credit to Mali). I had been teaching contemporary poetry to my middle and high school English classes, scouring anthologies for poems that would excite them as much as their favorite rock and rap songs. A friend mentioned “Def Poetry Jam,” a new program on HBO in which poets perform before an audience in a New York City theater. I recorded Mali’s segment on my VCR and showed it to my ninth graders. In contrast to their polite but tentative responses to printed poems, their discussion of “What Teachers Make” overflowed the class period, touching on Mali’s vocal embellishments and whether he looked like the former seventh grade teacher that his poem identified him as. A few years later, I showed the poem to an equally appreciative group of colleagues on Professional Development day. I was as surprised by their comfort in discussing performed poetry as I had been by the students’ enthusiasm for a poem that glorified teachers.
I make kids work harder than they ever thought they could.
I can make a C+ feel like a Congressional Medal of Honor
and an A- feel like a slap in the face.
I followed up my initial success with the Mali poem by showing several others from that first season of Def Poetry, including Rives’s “Sign Language,” about his work teaching poetry to deaf students, Georgia Me’s “Full-Figure Potential,” Steve Colman’s “I Wanna Hear a Poem,” and Black Ice’s poem about single parenthood, “Lone Soldier.” (It would be a few years before videos proliferated to the point where I had to do the kind of mass screening that now occupies my summers.) Ten years later, I continue to teach these poems, and have augmented my repertoire with clips from shows such as “Brave New Voices” (also on HBO), and the movies “Louder Than a Bomb” and “To Be Heard,” all of which follow teams of high school students through state and national poetry slam competitions. I no longer teach many traditional poems in my ninth grade class—fortunately, my colleagues in eighth and tenth grade do a thorough job of grounding students in that canon, and love doing so as much as I love teaching spoken word.
Anticipating criticism from parents who think that their children should be exposed to the works of Dickinson, Whitman, Tennyson, Yeats, and Auden rather than those of Black Ice and Georgia Me, I’m always ready to argue that spoken word whets my students’ interest in poetry in general, leading them to seek out more traditional poems in print. But I actually haven’t seen much evidence that this is true. My former students are more likely to report that they have continued to enjoy spoken word poems, both on video and in person at poetry slams (as spoken word competitions are called), and confirm this by sending me YouTube links to aid my summer research.
The New York Times recently said of slam poetry that “it combines aspects of a live reading, a rap battle and stand-up comedy, as performers try to win over the audience with wit, braggadocio and, occasionally, nuance.” For my purposes in the classroom, the primary appeal of these poems is their straightforwardness. None of my students has ever complained that a spoken word poem is too obscure—there are no John Ashberys in this genre. Granted, this leaves the form open to the charge of superficiality. Unlike the work of Yeats, Stevens, or Bishop, spoken word poems rarely yield new layers of meaning with each encounter—what you see and hear is what you get, at least when it comes to the words. Which brings me to the second virtue of these poems as teaching tools: the availability of the poet’s looks, voice, and body language as provocative fodder for discussion. A literary purist would no doubt scoff to hear of a poem or English class influenced by these factors. Could a poet’s dreadlocks possibly matter to his writing? My students would say yes.
Over the years I have taught the novels To Kill a Mockingbird and Huckleberry Finn, with their racial subjects and language, and the memoirs Manchild in the Promised Land and Warriors Don’t Cry, about a 1950s Harlem childhood and the school integration battle in Little Rock, Arkansas, respectively. None of these books ever provoked discussions on race as blunt as those involving spoken word poetry, a genre conspicuous in its racial, ethnic, and gender diversity. My students love debating whether a poet needs to be of a certain race to write authentically about a certain landscape or experience. “They have to be black,” both black and white students have insisted about the identical twins who perform “Dreams Are Illegal in the Ghetto,” to which other black and white students in the class have responded “Why?” No one disputes that Oscar Brown Jr. has to be black to pull off his scathing poem “I Apologize,” but students do disagree about whether his age (seventy-seven at the time of the performance) should affect one’s reception of it.
For being black
For all I am
Plus all I lack
Please sir, please ma’am
Give me some slack
‘Cause I apologize
Inevitably, lines like these lead to some intense exchanges among my (predominantly white) students, but so far the spoken word classes have produced more healthy debate than acrimony.
My own high school years (1971-1975) pre-dated the spoken word movement, though I attended readings by Allen Ginsberg and Robert Bly that showcased the poets’ personalities as much as their writing. On recordings in my college library, Amiri Baraka and Jack Kerouac could be heard reciting their poetry over free jazz. Kerouac’s novel On the Road electrified me as a student—like the best spoken word poems, it possesses a raw exuberance that appeals to young people, particularly those who might lack the patience for Henry James and Wallace Stevens. Though this kind of writing may appear to rely more on brio than literary craft, the role of craft in a good spoken word poem becomes apparent as soon as one hears a mediocre one—the poet must combine skill at performing and at writing for performance in a way that has as much to do with Bob Dylan and Bruce Springsteen as with Elizabeth Bishop. It’s as hard to do justice to these poems by quoting them as to convey Springsteen’s effect solely through the lyrics of “Thunder Road.”
Spoken word poems don’t have to be written expressly for the stage in order for a performance to succeed. I first appreciated Sekou Sundiata’s “A Dream for Amman, My Grandson,” in print, but its rhythm makes it pleasing to hear aloud in the poet’s mellifluous voice on a Def Poetry recording, and one can easily follow it without a script.
When he falls asleep in the stroller,
I will put headphones over his ears
and play Monk while he dozes, hoping he will dream
in ascending intervals and practice his first steps
walking unfettered in the space of slumber.
Audiences that flock to conventional poetry readings might disagree, but I find many print-based contemporary poems too oblique to enjoy in a single hearing, especially when the poet reads from a book with little—or worse, exaggerated—inflection. During my twenties I worked in a university poetry library, hosting several readings a month. I can think of few of those occasions when I wasn’t distracted from the poems by my own intrusive thoughts. In those days before spoken word, I needed to read poems in order to appreciate them, though performed plays and monologues held my attention. This suggests that both the writing style and performance aspect of spoken word poetry distinguish it from printed poetry, making it unproductive to compare the two. Some overlap exists—the artful informality of Billy Collins’s poems works equally well on the page and on stage, and my students praise the words of “What Teachers Make” with or without the video.
Writing for an audience demands a different approach than writing for a reader, and some spoken word poets use this difference as an excuse for self-indulgence. They scorn revision (even Kerouac, who espoused the Beat mantra of “First Thought Best Thought,” was revealed to have been a meticulous reviser) or boast about having written their poems moments before walking onstage. Fancying themselves heirs to poetry’s oral tradition, they come across instead as dilettantes. Because most of the YouTube videos come unaccompanied by written lyrics, I transcribe these for my students. The line breaks that I include are arbitrary, which reminds me that this defining aspect of poetic craft doesn’t matter in this genre. (Many spoken word poets indicate enjambed line breaks with their voices, which sounds ridiculous.) In short, there’s plenty to disrespect about spoken word poetry. So why do I, who aspire to write poems in the tradition of Yeats and Bishop, find this hybrid genre so effective?
To answer that question honestly I have to go further than distinguishing between spoken and printed poetry, and ask whether the former has much to do with poetry at all. The artistry of one of my favorite spoken word poems, Shane Koyczan’s “Remember How We Forgot,” has more in common with that of a Richard Pryor monologue or David Mamet play than a Yeats poem. Koyczan’s poem begins:
Remember how we forgot?
Remember how no one ever really died in the wars we fought?
‘Cause each gunshot came from our fingertips
and we never really kept them loaded, just in case,
‘cause each enemy was a friend
and none of it was about oil, religion, or land,
it was all just pretend.
Remember how we used to bend reality like we were circus strongmen,
like our imaginations were in shape then,
like we were all ninjas trained in the deadly art of did not,
like “I TOTALLY GOT YOU”
Remember how we forgot?
Koyczan’s writing reflects his awareness that people will hear this poem rather than read it. The repeated colloquial words “’cause” and “like” give it a diction and headlong momentum characteristic of speech; the rhymes and half rhymes—forgot/fought/did not; friend/land/pretend strongmen/then—make it easy to follow and enjoyable to listen to; the refrain “Remember how…” creates the kind of verse/chorus/verse structure familiar from popular songs; and the image-by-image rather than line-by-line form suits the ear more than the eye. Each image below creates a natural pause in the poet’s recital, in contrast to printed poems with their visual cues of line breaks and stanza lengths.
Remember how we used to bend reality like we were circus strongmen,
like our imaginations were in shape then,
like we were all ninjas trained in the deadly art of did not
In contrast to the many shrill spoken word performers, Koyczan speaks in a soft, measured voice, abruptly amplifying certain lines like “I TOTALLY GOT YOU,” or building to a crescendo of exhortation or indignation as in his poem “This is My Voice.” Accompanied by a violinist in “Remember How We Forgot,” he synchronizes his voice to her bowing. This musical component would probably annoy the grandfather who disparaged “This is My Voice,” but I find nothing pretentious about it—the violin doesn’t mask any shortcoming in Koyczan’s words or delivery, and it complements the poem’s musicality. Thirty years ago I heard Stanley Kunitz read his poems accompanied by a cello and wondered why more print-based poets didn’t enlist this resource.
When Koyczan performs “To This Day,” his poem about childhood bullying, it’s easy to assume that this unprepossessing man speaks from experience. Compared to some spoken word poets whose personal appearances affect their words because of their race, gender, age, or dress, Koyczan’s matter mainly for his looks—the heaviness, the expressive eyes, the clean-shaven upper lip above the beard covering the double chin. In a Facebook post explaining the latter, Koyczan writes:
Beneath this neckbeard is a layer of subcutaneous fat that takes the word unflattering to its maximum potential. If you wanted to experience true nastiness and savage cruelty we need go no further than the nearest barber. I’ll happily take neckbeard over the host of other things I’ve been called in my life without it.
If I had read “To This Day” in print before seeing its author perform it, I would have imagined him looking a lot like Shane Koyczan.
For all the poignancy of Koyczan’s words in this poem, in recommending it to a friend I would emphasize that its full effect comes through only on video. The same goes for the poems of Rives, of whom one YouTube commenter says, “His stage presence is to die for.” Rives is already a few lines into “The Boy Who Could Levitate” before the listener realizes that he is not only narrating the poem as the boy’s neighbor, but performing the voices of the boy and his camp counselor as well. He also acts out an older brother’s teasing by pretending to use the boy’s arm to make him repeatedly whack himself in the head:
The boy who could levitate lives down the street from me.
He’s got a mother named “Mom” and a stepdad named…”Lawnmower.”
He’s got an older brother named “Why are you hitting yourself?
Why are you hitting yourself? Why do you keep hitting yourself?
With his boyish physique and supple facial expressions, Rives makes himself alternately look like the neighbor, the boy, the counselor, and the brother, reminding me of Richard Pryor turning himself into his repertoire of characters by simply furrowing his brow, lowering his head, or darting his eyes back and forth.
The more I describe Rives’s physical and Koyczan’s vocal expressiveness, the more it sounds as if performance takes precedence over poetry in this genre. In his New York Times review of “Def Poetry Jam on Broadway,” which ran for six months in 2002-2003, Ben Brantley wrote, “This is poetry for the stage, not the page, and it exists completely only in the moment it is being performed.” But my students insist on the primacy of the words. Their perennial favorite video is an outtake from the Brave New Voices series in which Joshua Bennett rehearses his poem “Carbon Copy” (about his similarities to his father) in front of his family in their living room. Dressed in an untucked shirt and jeans, Bennett reads from a notebook, stumbling over his words and choking up when he gets to emotional parts.
how many miles I put between us
the undeniable truth remains
that I’m a carbon copy of my father
exactly 5 foot 10
170 pounds with not a muscle in sight
love to pretend
that we’re really good at basketball
and have this amazing ability
to emotionally damage
the people we care about most.
There’s nothing practiced about the performance, which my students find more moving than the polished rendition of “Tamara’s Opus” that Bennett recorded at the White House a year later. On the same day that they see “Carbon Copy,” I also show Def Poetry appearances by Kanye West and Alicia Keys. As much as the students like the novelty of watching these celebrities recite without musical accompaniment, they prefer “Carbon Copy,” proving that there is more to spoken word than visual appeal.
Whenever I’m bored at a conventional poetry reading where the author reads aloud from a book or manuscript, I know not to let that feeling determine my opinion of the poems; I can’t imagine being inspired by my first hearing of any literature presented in this way. Unless I already know the work well—a rarity given that most poets feature their newer poems at readings—I have to concentrate on following along rather than on subtleties of language. Perhaps if more print poets shared Koyczan’s and Rives’s willingness to craft their performances, memorizing their poems and pacing and modulating their voices, their writing would prove as immediately engaging as “The Boy Who Could Levitate.” Poets who write for the page might even do well to keep the stage in mind as they compose.
This isn’t as heretical as it sounds. I first encountered W.D. Snodgrass’s poetry on a recording in the library archive, and attribute my instant attentiveness to Snodgrass’s delivery. Between poems, he explained that he had studied public speaking in order to improve his readings, and mentions in an interview that he writes for a listening as well as a reading audience.
What affected me about the Beats was that it was all oral, out loud, and that made a great big difference. I found that I wanted to let that influence occur. I wanted to make poems to read out loud.
My favorite Snodgrass poems—those in his first two books, Heart’s Needle and After Experience—are composed of syllabic lines in intricate stanzas, meaning that much of his literary craft is invisible to a listening audience. When I think of those poems, it’s in their printed forms, but my pleasure is enhanced by my memory of having heard Snodgrass say them, and of being introduced to them in his speaking voice. This makes me wonder how many of the poems I have daydreamed through in auditoriums or hurried through in books might have caught my attention if spoken effectively.
Some print poets’ speaking voices suit their writing so well that I hear them even when re-reading the poems on the page. The voice “brands” the poetry with a tone or inflection that becomes impossible to separate from the language. Philip Larkin’s and Wallace Stevens’s lugubrious basses on recordings of “Dockery and Son” and “The Auroras of Autumn,” respectively; T.S. Eliot’s reedy timbre reciting “The Waste Land”; Robert Lowell’s Southern-tinged voice adding spookiness to a 1946 studio reading of “The Quaker Graveyard in Nantucket.” In these cases, the writing and the saying are as complementary as on any spoken word video, which makes me think that rather than adding an extraneous effect, the performance aspect of spoken word deepens the poems’ literary personality. Encouraging someone to watch Koyczan perform “Remember What We Forgot” doesn’t slight the words any more than acknowledging the importance of Eliot’s vocal interpretation to an understanding of The Waste Land.
For me, these older audio recordings form the legitimate bridge between print and spoken word poetry, more so than the theatrical readings by Allen Ginsberg and Gil Scott Heron from the 1960s and 1970s that are often credited as forerunners of the genre. As much as I admire these pioneers of Beat and rap culture, they bequeathed spoken word poetry its worst fault, one that afflicts traditional readings as well, namely the ability of a charismatic performer to send an audience home feeling so entertained that it assumes it has heard something of literary quality. I fell prey to this a few years ago when I showed my class a video of Anis Mojgani performing his poem “Shake the Dust.” Watching the poem over the summer I had thought it a lyrical tableau enhanced by Mojgani’s pacing and voice. Its refrain, “shake the dust,” gave it an incantatory power similar to that of Koyczan’s “This is My Voice.”
Shake the dust.
This is for the two-year-olds who cannot be understood
because they speak half-English and half-God.
Shake the dust.
For the girls with the brothers who are going crazy,
for those gym class wallflowers and the twelve-year-olds afraid of taking
for the kid who's always late to class because he forgets the combination
to his locker,
for the girl who loves somebody else.
Shake the dust.
As my class discussed the poem, a literal-minded student kept asking what the phrase “shake the dust” meant, to which his classmates shrugged and said, “It means move around; shake things up.” For lack of a better explanation, I agreed, realizing that the pithy-sounding line didn’t stand up to scrutiny. Mojgani’s earnest delivery gave it an illusion of profundity, exposing the kind of linguistic laziness that mars much spoken word poetry. Compare the artful way that Shane Koyczan integrates his refrain into the sound and message of “This is My Voice”:
This is for the someone who stood up today and said, “No!”.
For Edward R. Murrow who shut down McCarthy.
For Salmon Rushdie, Mahatma Gandhi,
you, me, this city, this country.
We will always have a choice.
When you stand up to be counted, tell the world,
“This is my voice. There are many like it, but this one is mine”.
At its weakest, spoken word poetry deserves the criticism that it attracts. On the Amazon website, most reviews of the Def Poetry DVDs are positive, but some deplore the poets’ stridency (“This is just angry people venting with vulgarity”), their lack of linguistic refinement (“poetry that feels like it got a B- in Freshman Poetry Analysis”), and the poems’ narrow racial and socio-economic range (“a few well-worn ideas, most of them delivered in the same high-key and indistinctly enraged tone”). As early as 1972, at the height of Gil Scott Heron’s influence, Richard Wilbur complained, “I can’t adjust to the kind of black poetry that simply cusses and hollers artlessly.” I understand these objections, but the compliments ring true to me, too, as when Brantley praises “the incandescent mix of exuberance, arrogance and exhibitionism with which each performer is invested.” Held to the standards of print poetry, spoken word will always seem less crafted, less decorous, less literary. Conversely, the poems published by Taylor Mali in journals strike me as less compelling than his work on YouTube. It’s not that Mali is ungifted at writing for print, but that his greatest gifts are for performing and writing for performance, a point supported by the nearly five million hits that the original video of “What Teachers Make” has received so far.
With numbers like this, spoken word poetry hardly needs defending. Yet each time I have quoted from a poem in this essay I have winced to imagine a reader dismissing it as inferior to the work of, say, Louise Gluck or Anne Carson. Looking at the lines solely in this context, I’d agree, but still stand by my admiration for the performances I have cited. Maybe my students’ enthusiasm helps me to overlook spoken word’s unsophisticated prosody and lack of nuance, or maybe there’s a quality to it that I find wanting in much contemporary print poetry. Brantley writes of the Def Poetry show,
It's the sound of youth expressing itself, at its most intense and anxious and self-conscious and self-delighted. Older folks may find it all a little intimidating and even irritating. But how nice to smell springtime in the land of mothballs.
Would I watch these videos if I wasn’t teaching them? It’s hard to say—I wouldn’t have discovered spoken word and mined it so eagerly if I hadn’t been on the lookout for ways to enliven my classes, and I can’t see and hear the poems without anticipating the ninth graders’ reactions. But just as these fourteen-year-olds are capable of pointing out new facets of novels and memoirs that I thought I knew intimately, so do I find myself moved by poems that I originally selected to appeal to their teenage tastes and sensibilities. I don’t mind if part of my enjoyment is vicarious. As any schoolteacher who has hit upon a popular vein of curriculum will understand, the thrill of finding poems that my students love, not just the occasional poem, but poem after poem year after year, is equaled only by the experience of reading or writing a transformative poem myself.