poetry, n. writing that formulates a concentrated imaginative awareness of experience in language chosen and arranged to create a specific emotional response through meaning, sound, and rhythm – Merriam-Webster
When I started writing spoken word poetry, it came to me as words I was speaking to myself. A major part of the essence of the poetry was in its performance, even though during the writing of it that performance was only to myself.
Since I was younger, I have always assumed this: Poetry is a thought condensed. Prose is the opposite: a thought elaborated. Spoken word seems to straddle both of these definitions and to step outside of them.
Originally I thought that ‘traditional’ poetry was passed on in print. But this misconception comes from years in school, studying Blake and Wordsworth and Owen and then at university Akhmatova, Blok, Pushkin. Even though sometimes we’d be asked to read it out to the class, we studied it mainly by looking at the words on the page.
Reading written words was not the ‘original’ method of passing on poetry. Poetry began with Chinese folk songs and oral epics such as The Iliad. From the Middle Ages, think of the Catalan troubadours, whose oral verse occasioned the codification of the Catalan language. Writing it down was merely a way to ensure that it wasn’t forgotten.
Poetry was a way to connect, instantly, with one’s audience. I would argue that spoken word poetry is the closest art form to that today. In spoken word, the words come forth like a stream of consciousness: as I speak the words, my audience understands what I am saying. There is no break or study period needed in order for them to connect.
When ‘traditional’ or ‘establishment’ poetry is read out loud, on the other hand, the words may sound beautiful, but it would take several readings for me to begin to really connect with the meaning of the words. Realistically, one needs to study the words visually and allow them to seep into one’s mind over time in order to decipher the real meanings behind them.
The very concept of a ‘poetry reading’ is alien to the spoken word scene, because spoken word poets feel that the performance of their work is absolutely integral to its existence; it is a part of the very essence of the work. The pace, tone, timbre, beat, rhyme, possible musical backing, amplification, acoustics, the general atmosphere, and the audience themselves are part of the poem. The work cannot exist outside of its being performed.
This makes spoken word – often seen as a less high-brow genre – in fact a sub-genre that brings us closer to poetry in its original form. Poetry is not always a thought ‘condensed’: it can be condensed, elaborated, tossed about, stretched, mocked, ripped apart and put together again; in any combination of visual and auditory elements.