Last night I was loitering outside our local open mike poetry café during the reading, listening to the poets going at it inside. It was standing room only, which is why I was not seated in at a table having a beer. Behind me, there was a conversation going on, really a monologue presented by a local young woman explaining her views on slam poetry to a neophyte who was trying to discover whether he had what it took to be a poet himself.
“Don’t worry about that,” she said, “just say what you want about whatever you want in whatever way you like.” She made several such remarks during her discourse, the gist of which was that she had been writing for less than a year but was already, in her view, quite the success, primarily because she was headed for a national slam competition in a few weeks.
Of course, this got me thinking about the nature of slam poetry and how it compares to poetry itself. The way I look at it, slam poetry bears the same relationship to poetry that a Denny’s Grand Slam breakfast bears to a real breakfast. Denny’s offers up something cheap, fast and easy, and of course, popular, but it is also nutritionally deficient if not outright unhealthy, packed with fat, sodium, refined flour and sugar, and not the sort of good, well-thought-out nutritious breakfast one can easily make at home for less than it costs to have it slammed on your table in the vinyl booth.
Slam poetry, also, is cheap, easy and of little nutritional value. Too often, if not always, it is written by near-illiterates who may be able to read, but choose not to as it would interfere with their so-called thought process and impulse to express themselves without hindrance, cultural, aesthetic, or otherwise.
Poetry, as an art form, is known to have existed in the oldest recorded civilizations on earth, both in ancient Sumer and equally ancient China. We know this because it was written down, using language to evoke feelings and thoughts as well as the more universal as well as in some cases personal aspects of individual writers’ personalities. We also know that strictly oral forms of expression, such as the Finnish Kalevala, the Epic of Gilgamesh and other such pre-literate transmissions of cultural knowledge, full of proverbs and folk wisdom, as well as an often ribald humor which made no apologies about the behaviors discussed in the works, have been around probably as long as language itself has been around.
But slam poetry, to the great dismay of many purists, has proven to be much more popular than the poetry one finds in learned journals, which is too often tedious, obscure and full of a snobbish aestheticism which makes it all but inaccessible to the average reader, or even to the reader who is trying to make the effort to become culturally aware.
So I’ll make the concession that slam poetry serves a purpose, perhaps even a valuable purpose, but, by turning what is, at its best, a sublime art form into something easily consumed, and adding the element of competition, it perverts poetry in much the same way that Denny’s perverts breakfast.
If slam poets took the time to read, not just poetry but history, fiction, biography, science, anthropology and the many other ologies we regularly use to help define what it means to be a human as well as the place of humanity in the grand scheme of things, they would almost certainly turn out work that would be, at the least, readable, and possibly actually worth reading. But they don’t. As the young woman insisted, it’s about turning out two and a half minutes’ worth of unexamined self-expression, and doing so in a way that will impress the equally unlettered judges chosen at random from the slam audience. It’s not, then, a case of casting pearls before swine, but attempting to feed swine on the very grains of sand that might, one day, become pearls.
This may seem a harsh judgment on the performers and their audiences, who are by all accounts happy enough with what they have, but, as careful readers will have noted, it’s an equally harsh appraisal of the academic poets who have stultified and fossilized the art form until slamming seems an attractive option.
The slam poet’s auditor seemed dubious. He knew, somehow, that there were things, mysterious and possibly important things, that he needed to know before he could call himself a poet. But no, she said, you don’t need to know anything other than what it feels like to be yourself.
Of course, this is practically a definition of pathological narcissism. And, given the national obsession with superficial values and the contemporary celebratory nature of self-discovery, rather than education, it fits right in. Thus the crowds, and the fact that someone who has probably never cracked the cover on a full-length collection of poetry, to say nothing of Norton’s Anthology, can, in all seriousness, proclaim herself a successful poet without ever publishing so much as a tawdry little chap of her verse.
She was practically demanding that her listener remain as innocent and ignorant as she was, though he was striving to discover something better, because, as he said, he had things he wanted to say.
Needless to say, she was paying no attention whatsoever to the proceedings inside, because to do so would only fill her head with needless ideas, and they have no place in slam poetry. What is needed there is quick, shallow jokes, broad references to figures from pop culture, whining about one’s parents, jobs or romantic encounters, or other such easily-consumed but ultimately unfulfilling fare.
In a perfect world, the academics would learn from the slammers-the poetry in the learned journals would be alive, as slam poetry definitely is, but the slammers would learn also from the academics, or, more to the point, from the proven, time-honored masters of the genre, those who have helped us define culture since the days people first sowed grain and built stone temples.
Frankly, I don’t see that happening.