Sunday, 26 June 2011

In defence of the spoken word

I love poetry. I really do. I like reading it, writing it, studying it, hearing it. But, in common with most people I know, I’m still more likely to curl up with a novel than a poetry collection.
So I was interested to read an article in the Guardian last month addressing this issue. While fiction has never really had to struggle, says poet John Fuller, poetry has seen its audience drop ‘like plague victims’ in the last century.
So far, so much nodding in agreement from me. But Fuller’s next sentence had me doing a double take – or the modern equivalent. You could almost hear my thumb screech to a halt, before hastily scrolling back up the screen of my phone.
What was the offending phrase? No more than a throw-away comment, actually in parentheses, but it was this very offhandedness that surprised me: ‘There are occasionally revivals that don’t seem to matter very much (stand-up poetry perhaps)…’ With that, Fuller moved swiftly on to outline his idea of focusing on ‘poetry puzzles’, leaving me puzzling over the casualness with which he could dismiss ‘stand-up poetry’ as unimportant.
Fuller doesn’t offer an explanation, and as Niall O’Sullivan (who runs the Poetry Society’s weekly Poetry Unplugged) argues, it’s probably not worth taking his comments too seriously: ‘Fuller has a book to sell and is therefore trying to drum up a response… I’m not even sure what he means by “stand-up poetry”. Live poetry in general? Spoken word? Slam poetry? Comic poetry or poetry by stand-up comedians?’
Nonetheless, this dismissal of ‘stand-up poetry’ got me thinking. What is stand-up poetry? Is it different to written (or sitting-down) poetry? Why does it ‘matter’?
While Fuller doesn’t explain his comment, it seems stand-up poetry simply doesn’t fit in with his own ideas about the proper route to poetic enjoyment. Based on the belief that poetry ‘requires thinking’, he paints a picture of a reader off on an academic adventure, teasing out each allusion and ‘puzzle’ through hours of arduous but ultimately rewarding research.
Again, I’m all for this kind of pleasure. I love sitting in libraries surrounded by books, the thrill of coming up with a new interpretation or theory. But I’m not convinced this is the best way to broaden poetry’s appeal, or indeed the only way to enjoy a poem.
Performance poet Raymond Antrobus is keen to dispel the myth that poetry belongs only in the classroom, or that only Oxford dons have the right to pronounce on what it is or what it should be. He is appalled to find himself approached after shows by university students who say they had no idea poetry could ‘live in the voice of today’.
‘There is a definite demand for more interaction with quality and accessible poetry,’ Antrobus says, ‘and accessible shouldn’t mean simplistic… but it helps if it’s simple and therefore relatable.’ He recalls sitting in a pub with friend Simon Mole after the latter had completed his sell-out spoken word show last year. ‘It was just brilliant… afterwards all these locals, students, regular folk with day jobs were all singing and laughing and talking about the show. Simon tapped me on the shoulder, pointed at them and said “now these are the people I’m trying to reach with my work.” That was a truly inspiring moment for me.’
O’Sullivan takes a similar view: ‘Live poetry is often the first point of contact with the general public. From hip-hop inspired spoken word events to boozy, bawdy Soho literary salons, live poetry meets its audience at the genuine cultural meeting points – pubs, cafes, theatres, galleries, festivals, music venues…’
As well as being an access point for wider audiences, he says, stand-up is also a much more accessible route for budding poets. ‘Poets that come from cultures that seem invisible to the poetical establishment will often converge at spoken word or live poetry gatherings. Booking a venue and putting on a show is a much more immediate outlet than starting your own publisher and seeking mainstream distribution.’
Russell Thompson, London coordinator for Apples and Snakes, agrees that performance can make poetry seem more accessible and relevant: ‘It touches a lot of people, makes them consider things differently – by which I mean it can promote quirky, askance views – not necessarily revolutionising an entire worldview.’ And, he adds, there’s certainly no requirement that all stand-up poems be about iPhones and trainers.
Indeed, in my experience the main feature of ‘stand-up poetry’ is diversity – of subject matter, form and presentation. The website for Bang Said the Gun, one of London’s regular spoken word nights, advertises itself as ‘stand-up poetry for those who don’t like poetry, especially the stuff about thwarted love and daffodils’. This is a snappy way of attracting people who are turned off by poetry’s reputation as a highbrow, airy-fairy, pretentious kind of art form. But in fact, there is room for ‘thwarted love and daffodils’ – as well as for political tirades, rambling narratives, comedy sketches, lyrical refrains, poetry films… There is overlap with drama, stand-up comedy, story-telling, cinema, hip hop and other music genres.
And surely this eclecticism is positive. If poetry is to compete with fiction, or any other art form, it needs to be available in just as many different varieties and packagings. After all, what everyone – including Fuller – seems to agree on is that poetry is essentially entertainment, and can only really ‘matter’ insofar as it achieves this. Pleasure is a matter of personal preference. So where you get your kicks is purely individual choice, whether it’s from the nether regions of an annotated edition of the collected works of T. S. Eliot, or from a YouTube film of Luke Wright rhyming about growing up in Colchester (‘where very little culture-stirs’).
And this page/stage dichotomy is largely tongue-in-cheek. In fact, it’s difficult to make such a neat distinction. To do so, Antrobus says, is ‘unhealthy, unnecessary and egotistical’, generally driven by an attempt to prove one’s own superiority. Thompson suggests that in broad terms, spoken word poetry may include more rhyme and ‘in-your-face rhythm’ while poetry for the page may have more layers of meaning, able to withstand repeated readings but he warns that the distinction is a nebulous one. Meanwhile, O’Sullivan points to the many published poets who started out as performers – including Forward Prize nominees Tim Turnbull and Tim Wells – and those from a more traditionally academic background who are also incredible entertainers, such as Luke KennardDaljit Nagra and Hugo Williams.
So it’s tempting to ignore Fuller’s casual dismissal of stand-up poetry as meaningless, not really referring to a distinct entity separable from poetry in general. On the other hand, it represents the kind of dictatorially restrictive approach that leaves university students shocked to discover poetry living in ‘the voice of today’.
This is particularly important because poetry provides an especially powerful, authoritative voice, surrounded by a tradition that sees it as an elevated, almost revered form of communication. In the words of former US poet laureate Rita Dove, ‘poetry is language at its most distilled and most powerful’. According to Salman Rushdie, ‘a poet’s work is to name the unnameable, to point at frauds, to take sides, start arguments, shape the world, and stop it going to sleep,’ while William Hazlitt called poetry ‘all that is worth remembering in life.’
A quick Google search brings up scores of such quotes. Whether or not you agree with them all, it’s clear that exclusion from poetry, as producer or consumer, is hugely disempowering. Or to put it another way, a few hours at a spoken word night such as Jawdance leave no room for doubt about how empowering and powerful participation in poetic expression can be. ‘Stand-up’ equates to opening up this participation. It definitely matters.
You can also read this at Middlebrow Magazine, if you like.