In the past week there have been quite a few “spoken word” videos on Facebook, Twitter and other social media outlets, all of them with millions of views and all of them with a message that resonated clearly with the massive audiences they reached around the world. These videos were of people performing spoken word poetry. A cross between rap, poetry and political statement, this type of poetry is fast becoming the go-to form of expression for many people who cannot connect with the traditional concept of poetry and has recently taken social media by storm. It is also increasingly a means of social protest against all manner of issues affecting all manner of people, but seems especially suited to young people who feel that their voices are often overlooked or dismissed by others in society, and particularly in the realm of government. The fact that spoken word pieces appeal to so many people can probably be explained through the wide variety and diversity of the performers. It is one of the few art forms which regularly includes those from ethnic and religious minorities, a relatively equal gender representation, and people in their early teens through to those claiming their pensions. The content they choose to perform is therefore equally as diverse.
In the past week, two of the most popular videos have been about completely different topics, but both, in their own way, are equally important and effective at conveying their point. The first piece, “21”, by Patrick Roche, is about the pain and consequences of a childhood played out in the shadow of addiction. The emotional and incredibly sad words are delivered without any unnecessary flourishes, yet still maintain a literary integrity with the use of conventional techniques. It has struck a chord with many due to the brave, personal nature of the poem as well as the impressive performance style he exhibits throughout. Posted by Button Poetry on YouTube, the clip is taken from a College Unions Poetry Slam Invitational in Boulder, Colorado, earlier this year. The roar of applause at the end of his piece is indicative of the appreciation and admiration which has greeted his spoken word all over the internet.
The second video, which has made a lasting impression on the internet this week, is by Gary Turk, and ironically highlights the social obsession with technology and social media, often at the expense of living physically in the moment and enjoying life outside of the internet. Gary Turk, the author and performer of the piece, Look Up, claims in the beginning that despite having over 400 friends online, he still feels lonely. The video urges people to “look up” from their phones and other devices which they are so often glued to as they go about their daily lives. It illustrates that so many opportunities and experiences are often overlooked or missed out on, because people are so preoccupied with their online presence instead of the world around them. It was uploaded just over a month ago and has had over 12 million hits in that time.
Spoken word was first made popular in Chicago in the 1960s as a means of voicing frustrations with the political attitudes of the time – it was often used by those involved in the civil rights movement to great effect. Despite this, the roots of performing poetry go back to the times of Ancient Greece where it was assumed that all literature was made to be read aloud and performed in front of an audience. In a way then, spoken word poetry can be seen as merely returning poetry to its original roots in drama, rather than a modern invention. In recent years it has gained much more popularity and acclaim as many accomplished writers and poets acknowledge the impact it has had on the genre. Unlike conventional poetry, the performance element to these spoken word poems is important and can often be accompanied by a relevant video or illustration. The other major difference between the traditional version of poetry and this more modern take on the art form, is the competitive element which has emerged in the form of poetry slams. Often structured in the form of rounds where poets have from two to five minutes to read or perform as many poems as they can or would like to, they are judged not only on the quality of literary content, but also on performance style and ability as well as the reaction of the audience. These sorts of competitions have helped to boost the profile and popularity of spoken word, and are now held all over the world, taking not just social media by storm but also many previous skeptics of the art form.
As the popularity and awareness surrounding performance poetry has risen, so too have the applications of the practice increased. There are now many organizations and projects which are dedicated to promoting the educational benefits of spoken word as well as using it as a means to engage with and help the younger generations. Project Voice, run by prominent performance poet, Sarah Kay, is just one of a few initiatives which aims to do exactly this sort of thing – touring American schools and encouraging children to express themselves and their views through performance poetry. Apples and Snakes in the UK aims to promote spoken word poets and runs workshops with many of the country’s most established and successful performers, as well as having an extensive list of events and poetry slams which they coordinate. Poetry Slams have also gained world-wide prominence.
As a result, it has now become much more mainstream with well-known music stars embracing it as well. Kanye West is apparently planning to release an album of spoken word, three hours in length – regardless of how unappealing this might be, it does demonstrate that notable musicians and rap artists are not only aware of this poetic phenomenon but are actively engaging with it. This might also explain how the popularity of spoken word has increased so dramatically in recent times, and why certain videos of people performing have gone viral, creating a storm on social media as so many respond to the sentiments they express.
Commentary by Rhona Scullion