Spoken word poetry might simply be described as a poem written with the intention of being performed for an audience. It involves a range of processes designed to move a poem from written text to oral and visual performance. Traditional poetic devices are enhanced through the voice and body at the intersection of literature, performance art, and oral history.
Yet this description fails to account for the deeply reflexive nature embedded with style of spoken word poetry. The art form becomes a space to explore identity, culture, social issues, and history. Spoken word artists and their poems are frequently employed for their engagement with politics, education, therapy, and entertainment – often times simultaneously.
As educators, spoken word poetry offers a rich source of material for engaging dynamic discussions and critical analysis. Through Michel Foucault’s concept of problematization, spoken word poetry can be seen as a “set of discursive and non-discursive practices that makes something enter into the play of the true and false, and constitutes it as an object for thought.” 1
These poets regularly confront sets of assumptions and behaviors of both extraordinary situations and normative behavior. Through poetry, social problems, socialization, and culture are explored by critically interrogating cultural norms, ideologies, and the representations which construct our realities.
For sociologists, such problematization exemplifies the engagement of the sociological imagination. Whether directly or indirectly, spoken word poetry frequently relates the subject of poetry within the context of society at large. These performance therefore create paths linking personal troubles with public issues. As C. Wright Mills urges, spoken word poetry allows audiences to explore not only what is the case, but the potentiality of such case to shape our social world.
While colleges across the country cultivate learning environments in their classrooms aimed at informing their students of various sociological issues, they do so with only a small population of individuals who are explicitly looking to understand these issues through an academic lens. Spoken word, however, appeals to a much larger audience which primarily comes looking to be entertained but leave having been informed on these issues in a more direct and personal level.