Return of the Slam?


Public interest in contemporary poetry, particularly among millennials, is soaring. Never before have the young generations been so insatiable in their hunt for poetry; for many, first comes a snippet tweeted by a celebrity, or a digestible stanza posted on Instagram, later a quick trip to Waterstones to peruse the new releases. But it isn’t just reading poetry that is satisfying our collective literary appetite…

The (re)-emergence of spoken word poetry is rising through the literary ranks. For instance, my Instagram feed is becoming increasingly peppered with posters advertising the next month’s poetry event, slams, prepared recitals: a true celebration of modern verse. The frequency with which these events are now taking place, particularly in the North West where Aurelia is based, is astonishing, as well as the surging number of participants and audience members.

Spoken word poetry is something that not everyone has a vast knowledge of. The term can include basically any kind of poetry that is spoken aloud, including poetry readings, jazz poetry, poetry slams, and can decidedly include monologues or comedy routines. This kind of verse is written with the notion in mind that it is primarily oral; it doesn’t really matter about its form, how it looks on the page, rather how it is to be heard and the aesthetics of its sound. For instance, a spoken word poet, although not confined to this field, would think carefully about intonation and structure, would likely include onomatopoeic words and a specific structure of words.

A poetry slam takes this one step further. A competition between spoken word poets, a slam is essentially a space in which poets take the stage, one at a time (poets still have manners), and recite their poetry, to essentially be critiqued by either a panel of judges or the audience itself. Giving the audience the agency to critique your work is very brave, especially considering that slams usually take place in bars… where there’s beer… and the potential for heckling. Nevertheless, slam poets go through this process of exposure, simultaneously encouraging others to enjoy poetry whilst challenging their own creative boundaries.

Ultimately, it reminds me of an observation made by T.S. Eliot, “poetry remains, all the same, one person talking to another”. Really this is what it is. And it isn’t anything completely revolutionary. The poetry slam was born in Chicago, 1984. I love the way that the first slam competition was designed to take poetry out of the stuffy, highbrow academic discourse and into the lives of a popular audience (something Eliot would have likely hated...) It satisfies my romantic ideals that the poetry slam was invented for the ‘greater literary good’ and to enrich the lives of ordinary people just like you and I.

Even in ‘80’s Chicago, you could argue that this genre was not new. Orally recited poetry pre-dates print publications by centuries; my historical knowledge is not University Challenge standard, but I’m guessing that the transmission of poetry, art, culture, folklore has been a vital part of human interaction since time began. In this way we are simply adapting previous poetic traditions to the contemporary age. Now that we have the technological capabilities to record voice and video images, recitals can be posted online, providing a different way for our young people to experience poetry.

Some of the main ‘hints and tips’ for a slam poet is to be rhythmic, passionate and direct. We see this in the words of written poetry that we love, that in their simplicity, pull on our heart strings and make us think of every feeling we’ve ever experienced with a new fondness. 

This is just as easily expressed in spoken form, and maybe more so, depending on how you respond to auditive or visual stimuli. Spoken word poets such as Sarah Kay, Kate Tempest, Jesse Oliver, Safia Elhillo and Aja Monet present themselves to us in an entirely different, multifaceted form. By some, the rhythm of a poem is its most salient feature, for others the language. Both are expressed with such originality in a recital that I defy anyone to leave one unimpressed. I’m not saying there cannot be a bad spoken word poet, but I think the respect that you feel when a writer pours their heart out so vulnerably on a stage, a microphone their only shield, and sometimes reciting purely from memory, more than makes up for any pithy-sounding verse.

Now, we have yet another platform available to exhibit or just enjoy contemporary poetry. Why not just give it a chance?