Poetry requires contemplation,
not instant praise or instant damnation
I’ve never been to a poetry slam. I was invited to participate in one by my university students. They liked my work and wanted me to take part in a “slam” to bring the words to a wider public. I appreciated their admiration, and I understood their purpose, but as I told them at the time: “It’s not a proper forum for poetry.” Why? Because a poetry slam is a type of competition. It takes place before a vociferous audience that wants to see a knockout, like in a boxing match. They are not there to contemplate, ruminate on the words, savor the syllables and let the visions play within their own brains to evoke new pictures, pictures they have perhaps never thought they could see in that particular way.
Under the greenwood tree
Who loves to lie with me,
And turn his merry note
Unto the sweet bird’s throat,
Come hither, come hither, come hither:
Here shall he see
But winter and rough weather.
Who doth ambition shun
And loves to live i’ the sun,
Seeking the food he eats,
And pleased with what he gets,
Come hither, come hither, come hither:
Here shall he see
But winter and rough weather.
William Shakespeare, Song: Under The Greenwood Tree (from As You Like It)
I’ve seen bits and pieces of poetry slams on video or in films and each time I’ve been disgusted by the atmosphere surrounding the performance. And that’s what a slam poet is engaging in, a performance. I can understand that some people would like to hear the poet read, to hear the poet’s voice. But not all poets are great performers, and though their material may be good, it gets punched and kicked by less skilled and yet better performing people who enter the fray in a slam so that they may wear the mantle of “poet.” Slams are not about the material per se, they are about how the material is presented, how the performer uses the time and place and the predilections of the audience to make the stage a focal point for gestures, for screams and whispers, for the same kind of display that a clown makes in order to constantly grab the (decreasing) attention span of the audience, which has come to see a spectacle, not to sit quietly and contemplate the words.
That is, however, not my greatest argument against poetry slams. The worst thing about poetry slams is the fact that they play directly into the capitalist need to make everything a competition. You are either a winner or a loser. The loser retreats shamefully into the shadows, the winner is crowned with glory or, if available, money! Competition at every level justifies the obviously murderous qualities of capitalism, its constant and never-ending obsession with “more.” More of this, more of that, and especially more profit. So, in order to feed this need, competition is seen as the Social Darwinist method best suited to instill the greedy itch of capitalism at every level of society. No more quiet contemplation of what the words might signify, and at how many different levels they may resonate (7 Types of Ambiguity), just loud rowdy crowds and blood on the floor so that a winner may emerge and wear the crown. If the crown can be worn by the performers at these spectacles (similar to the last gladiator standing in the Colosseum), then the captains of industry and the politicians at the top can wear crowns as well and they will be accepted as winners in society. After all, Britain and some of the European countries still have actual kings and queens wearing crowns.
The chasm of inequality that is a trademark of neo-liberal capitalism today is what made feudalism so great for the few who murdered their way to the top to become feudal lords and monarchs. And yet, in those societies poets were able to somehow woo and subdue the gentry. Among the poorer people, poets wrote lyrics that became popular songs that the underclass could sing when in their cups or in gatherings that would eventually turn political and cause the fall of the feudal system. There was no copyright on the words, no large companies gathering the profits, no distribution network owned from top to bottom by a corporation that had worldwide tentacles that gathered pennies from anyone wanting to sing the song or recite the ditty.
As an artist, I’m a member of GEMA and of VG WORT, two non-profits that collect royalties for me. Once upon a time I wrote for bands and artists who were under the control of corporate music firms. OK. I have worked inside the system. I’m not special. If I write a song or the lyrics of a song, the corporate publisher takes 50% of my earnings. If I am clever and powerful enough to make an administration deal, they get only 10%, like an agent, for enabling the distribution of my work. But hell, the big corporations own the distribution channels from top to bottom. It’s not like they have to ask somebody to “please play the song” or “please publish the words”. And we all know that if you play a song often enough, people will get used to it and think they like it. They may even like it. It may even be a good song or a nice piece of writing. But that doesn’t justify the 50% take. And I’m talking now about the percentage taken here in Germany. In other countries, you can actually sell the song and never have any of the profits from its distribution. A little like the predicament that painters are suffering from. Sell the paining once and it’s gone. You see nothing further, even if it sells for $100 million two years later.
Poetry slams prop up rapacious capitalism at the infrastructure level of culture, at the level where people should be encouraging each other to grow as artists, to get better at their word construction, at their images, at their tone, and at providing each piece of work with the ambiguity that enables it to resonate through time. Poetry slams are like the happenings of the 60s, a one-off performance moment that may or may not have some artistic value.
Slamming slams probably also has something to do with my dislike of rap music. Don’t get me wrong, I love the work of The Last Poets. Jason Ankeny wrote: “With their politically charged raps, taut rhythms, and dedication to raising African-American consciousness, The Last Poets almost single-handedly laid the groundwork for the emergence of hip-hop.” And the early hip hop artists managed to maintain some interesting imagery and a decent cadence to their rap. For me, the final epic performance of rap was Straight Outta Compton from NWA. It was a masterful and electric performance which brought to an explosive end the politically active generation which started with The Last Poets in 1969 and finished with NWA in 1988. After that, rap just comes across like diarrhea of the mouth, a spewing of as many words as possible while following the monotonous beat of a drum machine. Maybe something is being said in there, but from what I can gather from the bits and pieces I’ve heard, it’s mostly just boasting about sex, violence and drugs. Who cares? I certainly don’t.
The celebration of wealth and fame that passes for rap poetry today is disappointing. The fact that you can have “influencers” taking up space in the media world makes it obvious to what a degree of degenerated culture we have descended. It reminds me of that scene that was edited out of Roma by Fellini. Alberto Sordi is in a restaurant, enjoying a meal with other upper middle class patrons, and a wedding party, while out in the piazza a demonstration turns into a riot, with the police whacking anybody within reach of their truncheons. A blind man stands in front of the little fence behind which the restaurant is located and blocks Sordi’s view of the riot, and so Sordi yells at him: “Get out of the way blind man! Let me see! Go!” [My translation from the original Italian.] The fact is that all those privileged patrons in the restaurant can’t really see what is going on. Not the real politically charged trouble behind the demonstration and the obvious police brutality. And so it is with rap after Compton. People seem to be blind to the true political nature of oppression. There may be a little shining light here and there, and once in a while the word “freedom” crops up, but mostly it is a celebration of capitalism at its very worst, placed on a stage covered in gyrating bodies pierced by rings and studs and draped in tons of bling. These are the glittering rewards of rapacious capitalism that we should all strive to possess.
You may have some good and relevant arguments about the evolution of poetry through the ages. And you may have earned a Masters or a PhD explaining these arguments to the academic world. Please continue to do so, and if you like, send me links to your sound and logical arguments. Maybe they will enlighten me. I’m not interested in disputing these claims. During my studies I read all sorts of analysis and comment on poetry. In the end, I went to the poem and let it work its magic (or not magic) on me. For example, I fell in love with The Rime of the Ancient Mariner (1798). Paradise Lost (1667) bored me to tears. Except the parts with Satan, who is the only real character in the story. All I can go from is my personal experience and my visceral reaction. As regards a poetry slam, it just makes me nauseous to contemplate it as a forum for poetry. “Slam” and “Poem” are contradictions in terms. You can slam a door. You have to open a poem.
I’m not going to be pontifical about this. Perhaps from time to time something good emerges from these performances, but if the root is poisoned then I’m afraid the fruit may be poisoned as well.
Poetry is not a competition.