As a self-proclaimed "professional vagrant," what the kinder people might call an "aspiring poet," I’ve always been drawn to the performance of poetry. In Toronto there’s no shortage of poetry readings, book launches, and literary events to peak my interest. On weeknights they’re creeping up in every available bar and café that isn’t hosting your local no-name DJ or drunken karaoke. Late night literary events have even gotten as far as Barrie, a city renowned for having less culture than yogurt (insert shameless plug for “The Society of the Spoken Word” here). In speaking with a fellow literary-enthusiast at one such occasion I’ve found that slam poetry is on the rise again.
Of course, slam poetry is nothing new. The style officially came to light in the 1980s, but the beatniks were performing poetry long before Marc Smith took up the microphone in a Chicago jazz club. Rap and hip hop have been around for just as long, doing the exact same thing with a catchy beat in the background, and stand up comedians have long made a career of blithe comments and witty anecdotes, so what does slam poetry bring to the table?
The sad fact is it’s all about entertainment. A poetry slam consists of participants standing on stage spewing neatly phrased one-liners into a microphone for up to three minutes. Each contestant is judged on their performance (they’re awarded points like divers or figure skaters), and they move on to the next round accordingly. And while “the points are not the point, the poetry is the point,” it seems counter-intuitive to judge art in such a stringent manner. When did poetry become a sport? If the points aren’t the point, then why award them at all? Slam poetry is apparently about “challenging literary authority over poetry,” but what does that even mean? If you remove the literary element in poetry, what do you have left? Ranting? An awkwardly timed speech?
I’m cringing at the thought that this whole anti-intellectualism campaign has seeped its way into literature. Maybe it is the triumph of digital over print culture that has sparked this movement. Maybe it’s because the three minute limit of slam poetry caters to the shorter attention span of the modern age. What happened to art that’s supposed to make you think? Art that is meant to provoke you and not just because it’s racy, but because it force you to think. Slam poetry is the ice cream sundae of poetics. It looks great: it’s got all the fancy toppings. It tastes great: it’s pleasing to the ear. but there is very little substance to it.
I’m not hating on (yes, I just used the phrase “hating on”) all slam poets. I may be a stickler for traditional styles of poetry, but like any art form, when slam is done well its simply impressive. I am a little bit in love with Shane Koyczan, and Tomy Bewyck is a touching poet. But these men are not the majority.
I’m all for making art accessible, but where do we draw the line? Is slam poetry more engaging because it brings the words to life, or is it more engaging simply because the audience does not need to pick up a book? Is easier really better? I’m all for giving voices to the youth, to the oppressed, to the blue collar world, to whoever wants to actually be heard- but don’t ramble at me (with awkward pauses) and tell me it’s poetry.