Jun '03 [Home]


The Spoken Word Revolution
Eds. Mark Eleveld and Marc Smith
(Source Books, 242 pp. $24.95
ISBN 1-4022-0037-4)

Getting It Right

by Robert Klein Engler

. . .

What are the qualities of a gentleman? After much debate of this question, wit prevailed:  "A gentleman is someone who can play the accordion, but doesn't." Today, what is a poet? I say she is someone who can perform her poems, but doesn't. This new book reinforces my conviction.

The Spoken Word Revolution is more about politics than poetics. It comes with a CD attached, like those speech balloons beside the heads of comic strip characters. This packaging signals to me that performance poetry is content to serve as the propaganda arm of moribund liberalism. This book convinces me that performance and slam poets believe that, unless you have the right politics, you cannot have the right poetry—or the microphone. Happily, ideology will lose out in the long run.

Few connected with this book show interest in getting things right. Little mistakes—and big ones—mark it as more propaganda than poetry. They aid the book in demonstrating a failed politics rather than a future poetics. Spoken word poetry is not a poetry for a new generation, but rather, the desperation of the old one come home to roost.

Like many who hold moribund liberal political beliefs, these editors and most of their contributors want to rewrite history. Failures at that mission, they end up emotional vampires who live off the suffering of the unfortunate. They are imposing a wish on reality, not wresting new art from it.

The Sound of Serious

Now, some subjects are more serious than they sound. Billy Collins has written the introduction here and his work is a good example of what I mean. Certainly, his poetry sounds more serious than his name. Likewise, with some words.

I can remember a time when poets, black and white, were offended by the 'N' word. And when the word was shouted from the crowd at an open air reading in Chicago just last summer, most present—especially C. J. Laity, editor of Letter eX—found it provocative and insulting. Yet many of these same people are unfazed when the word is used and even printed in a spoken word poem. "White folks and nigger in da great court house" is all right for Jerry Quickley to say and print. Marc Smith has no problem using it in his poem, "Cat on a Coffin." Are things so different for hip-hop artists in L. A. than for working-class bigots in Chicago? This double standard suggests that spoken word all-about-me poetry is not about art, but rather, about personality.

I have often complained in print that spoken word poets are careless composers, a fact as evident in what they say as in what they publish. The "Shema" (Hear, O' Israel, the Lord your God—the Lord is One) is easy enough to quote correctly in its generally accepted anglicized version: "Shema Israel Adonai Eloheinu, Adoni Echad." In his poem, "Hear O' Israel," Kevin Coval writes, "Shema israel addonai elchainu addonai echad." Editors should not let such mistakes stand. They reflect the disinterest in getting things right that I see in the entire spoken word movement. Certainly, such carelessness manifests the lack of respect, even the contempt, that many spoken word poets have for revealed religion. Many of them just hate to admit that there may be a revealed text that is true. If there is, then writing and reading wins hands down over performing, and they know it.

A Third Way, Anyway

In his essay here, "Crossing Boundaries, Crossing Cultures," Luis J. Rodriguez quotes from my essay, "Poetry and the End of the World:  A Reply to Mark Ingebretson":

[German sociologist Max] Weber, who died shortly after the First World War, also attempted a prediction for the future. Some say he could see into the future so well he predicted the rise of German Nazism. Others took as their cue Weber's statement that near the end of capitalist economic development two types of groups would dominate. . . . In Talcott Parsonšs English translation of Weber's German original, the two groups that dominate the cultural landscape in the West are the "specialists without spirit" and the "sensualists without heart." What better terms are there then these for the two kinds of poetry popular at the end of the century? The performance poets are the sensualists without heart, and the academic poets are the specialists without spirit.

Rodriguez mistakes my position on performance poetry versus academic poetry. These two forms are a sign that we are reaching the end of a course of development. I do not side with one or the other, but rather, argue for a third way.

In my essay, "Performance Poetry and the Silence of the Page," and other work reprinted in my collection of that title, I am looking as a critic for a third way to talk about contemporary poetry, one that is neither academic nor performance-oriented. I have consistently maintained that academic and performance are the extremes of a continuum, and that a third way could consider them in a synthesis which resists use as propaganda for moribund liberalism. Marc Smith correctly located the pivot point for working-class poetry, but he spun the wrong way. His ideas became grist for moribund liberals and he the spoutpiece for their gruel of tolerance and multiculturalism.

Less Endowed Like Minds

In "Poetry as Gift and Mystery," I ask why there is such an emphasis on the dichotomy between performance poetry (or West Coast NeoPop) and academic poetry. The producers of performance poetry clearly encourage the dichotomy. But at the place poetry transcends the thesis and antithesis of this dichotomy is where we can see poetry as a gift and as a mystery. Because poetry is best seen as a gift and a mystery, it is patent nonsense to say that any- and everyone can write a poem.

The oldest poems we have record of are first and foremost texts, not performances. Luis J. Rodriguez, like many of his fellows, argues otherwise—another reason why I disbelieve their so-called 'art.' He writes, "It has long been proven by much more endowed minds than mine that the capability of creating poetry is within everyone, and should be everyone's property." It is nonsense like this that makes me doubt the integrity of their assertions. Whose are the "much more endowed minds" and where is their proof deposited? Nobody with broad experience of the world's poetry makes such a claim. That spoken word is preliterate as a practical matter is incontestable, but in art, writing trumps speech. One has a talent for baking, another for fire-fighting or soldiering. That it takes talent and education to write poetry is a common sense point that proves itself on a daily basis.

Slam poets rely, not on talent, but on their network of like-minded participants to get attention. In his review of the book considered here, C. J. Laity, editor of Letter eX, writes:

Anyone on the outskirts of it can see that the slam scene has become even more elitist than the academic scene, its accepted styles even more strict and formulated than those of postmodernists, and its artists ten times as self absorbed as the beat poets were.

Laity then argues convincingly that this book gives the wrong impression to the young poets it seems designed to attract. All things attractive are not also beautiful, nor even good and true. The Heaven's Gate cult pulled the wool over many eyes. Let us hope spoken word poetry does not do the same by pulling verbs over the eyes of the unsuspecting young.

Yet, if the young are honestly in search of an image to represent what they believe poetry is, don't they deserve to be told that a poem is, say, like a rose? In cartoons, roses may dance in line kicking their leaves high and sporting black, mesh stockings instead of thorns, but in the real world, we accept and adore the rose because it does not perform. We accept and adore the rose because its tragic beauty is genuine and transitory and, yes, even dangerous. (Believe Rilke about that danger, if you don't believe me.) The rose represents the objective correlative of an honest, human emotion, not an ironic, deconstructed or outlandish one. It is this humanity that literature is called to record in words.

In the Eye vs. In the Face

Why should anyone care about these debates? After all, it's only poetry we argue about. If it is only poetry, then why all the moral indignation, the corrupted politics, the vulgarity and even hate? Why all the books and web sites, all this busy, buzzing confusion? Truly, there may be no explaining it. This poetry stuff is divine madness sent. Obviously, more is at stake here than meets the eye or ear. My friend wants me to go shopping with her, but when I ask her what she is looking for, she says, "I don't know. I will know when I see it."

Young and old, people persist in looking for poetry. Many have no clue about slams or sonnets, but they know a poem when they find one. They know that some words heal the soul. And they know who is a charlatan and a fraud, too. You see it on city streets all the time:  the madness that draws you like love and the craziness that makes you recoil. Some poems skip like a child through rain puddles while others wear too many coats on a hot day. This is what we argue about.

I agree with E. A. Stallings when he says, "Of course a lot of performance poetry is bad. But I fail to see how that differentiates it from published poetry." What Stallings misses is that with The Spoken Word Revolution we have come to the end of the line. The Imagist movement that Ezra Pound and Amy Lowell started in 1915 has seen its last child grow old. How else can one understand a work like Ritah Parrish's "Pucker," about a fart gone wrong, except to see it as a triumph of vulgarity? (Glazner, ed., Poetry Slam, pp. 144-146) A poem like this is proof positive that all the rules of Imagism have worn themselves out.

Horny Feet Protrude

The border between performance poetry and stand-up comedy has dissolved and that between performance poetry and academic poetry is dissolving as well (though slams are to literature what the Special Olympics are to the real Olympics). What's more, most of this nonsense, regardless of its designation, will soon be co-opted compleatly as propaganda for the moribund liberal state.

If we come to our senses before that happens, and act like gentlemen, then maybe poetry as an art will survive. Publication of The Spoken Word Revolution is pivotal, the spot many of us have long since located. The appearance of this book is the last gasp from a poor, terminally ill creature that's pulled its own plug, this collection the sure sign that performance poetry is finally and thankfully defunct. Yo! That's spelled D-E-A-D, dude!

(Robert Klein Engler lives and teaches in Chicago. His books, including American Shadow and several others, are available from amazon.com. Headwaters/Hudson Press has scheduled the release of his multipart poem, "The Accomplishment of Metaphor and the Necessity of Suffering (In the Modernist Style)," in chapbook form for later this year.)