by Paul Vermeersch
Call it whatever you want – spoken word, performance poetry, slam poetry – but you know what I’m talking about. Who hasn’t experienced something like the following scenario at a reading? Someone is spouting a string of tired clichés and bargain basement poeticisms into a microphone. But that’s okay; he’s “performing.” His speech isn’t just exaggerated, it’s over-exaggerated; the metre is a contrived hodgepodge of forced iambics and something that is trying desperately to resemble hip-hop, but isn’t. The idea, I suppose, is that the flailing, stylized vocals will be interesting enough on their own that no one will notice how bad the actual writing is. The oral traditions of poetry are in trouble, and a performers like this are to blame, performers who believe that as long as words are being performed, they don’t have to be well written.
This performance style, and attendant lack of concern for written craft, seems almost to self-propagate. Newbies are quick to copy the mannerisms, and literary quality, of the performers they see. Soon, a homogeneous and predictable performance style develops. If this kind of performer is a serious practitioner of this ‘art form,’ he has to constantly move his hands about, for example, mostly to count the syllables of his speech. Essentially, this gives the impression that the syllables, with their forced rhythm, have been arranged this way on purpose, and that he must carefully ‘conduct’ the words coming out of his mouth, perhaps as Leonard Bernstein would conduct the New York Philharmonic. Occasionally, his hand movements change from syllable counting into a kind of illustrative mime, some clever action to help demonstrate a particular word’s significance to the audience. Usually the important word that requires this kind of illustration is a first-person singular pronoun, and the clever performer mimes this by pointing to himself, or perhaps by thumping his chest, or (my personal favourite) by tugging on his shirt like he’s ready to rumble, yo.
Now, when I say, “tired clichés and bargain basement poeticisms,” I mean the writing is unoriginal, old-hat, and boring, something that generally indicates that the author of the work in question hasn’t read very much poetry (the work of his friends doesn’t count), and this causes the author to mistake hackneyed truisms and platitudes for insight and cleverness. So banal, so bromidic, is this doggerel that the “performer” must jazz it up with all kinds of forced rhythms and hand signals to make it “entertaining” enough for an audience. In my experience, the audience members (at least the enthusiastic ones) are largely the performer’s friends, and the shittier his “poem” is, the louder they will clap. And the more familiar the clichés are, the louder they clap still. They like the familiar, and they are in luck. This genre is quickly developing it’s own cheap short-cuts and recycled conventions. Before long, I suspect all of this kind of spoken word artists will be performing the same composition, likely the very same way, and no one in their audience will bother to notice.
Now, when I say the meters and rhythms are forced and contrived, I mean that if you could see the words written out on a page, and if you applied the most basic principles of English scansion to the composition (I’m loathe to call it a poem), you would find that almost all of the stresses in the delivery of the composition are not naturally there in the writing. In short, the rhythm of the piece as performed is quite different to the rhythm of the piece as written, thus, the rhythms, while over-exaggerated, are also forced and contrived, probably because the author lacks the skills required to get the meter of his own writing the way he wants it.
Sadly, many of the compositions in this genre carry with them a message of social or civic outrage. This is kind of noble, I know, but the delivery is usually intended to scold the audience for their implied complacency in, or culpability for, some on-going social injustice. When the message isn’t born of social consciousness, it’s generally born of self-aggrandizement and cocky posturing. Either way, it’s fucking horrible to watch, even worse to listen to, and does it a disservice to actual poetry by calling itself “poetry”.
My message to any aspiring poets out there is this: if you want to read your poem to an audience, read your poem the way it is written. If it is well written, it will sound just fine, and if it has something to say, it will be said. And if it isn’t well written, then I recommend you keep working on your writing. “Performing” a poorly written poem, no matter how well you “perform” it, isn’t going to make the poem less poorly written.