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The Art Form of Spoken Word Poetry

Updated on August 25, 2012

Brave New Voices Emotional "Corner Boys" Poem

Spoken Word Poet Tanya Davis


Spoken word poetry gained popularity in America in the post war 1990’s era and sprang from the beat movement. Several famous beatniks such as William Burroughs, Allen Ginsburg and Jack Kerouac re-introduced the art of spoken poetry in the U.S during the 1960’s. Ginsburg had a spoken word video featured on MTV and Kerouac had a tribute album in which famous actors and musicians read his poems aloud.

During the 1990’s poetic expression reemerged in pop culture and the spoken word poetry movement of the 90’s is often directly correlated with the beat movement of the 60’s in their striking similarities like improvisational style, the coffee house atmosphere of performances and a disdain for the traditional academic community. Yet the emergence of spoken word can be dated back to Homer reading “The Odyssey” before the invention of the printing press, at a time when oral storytelling was the only way for stories, poems and prose to reach audiences.

Most spoken word poets have no intentions of getting their poetry published as they are more concerned with being heard and conveying the messages held in their poems in an immediate and intense way. The Nelson Atkins Museum of Art defines spoken word as,

"Poetry that is written on a page but performed for an audience. Because it is performed, this poetry tends to demonstrate a heavy use of rhythm, improvisation,free association, rhymes, rich poetic phrases, word play and slang. It is more aggressive and “in your face” than more traditional forms of poetry (North)”.

Spoken word differs from poetry readings and slam poetry in that it doesn’t translate well to paper and is solely intended to be performed for audiences with its cadenced rhythmic beat and the personification of raw emotion on behalf of the speaker. Some readers argue that any type of poetry that can be read out loud is spoken word depending on the delivery. Either way this type of poetry is especially appealing to younger generations because it is oftentimes written by young people, for young people and delivers content that explores worldly issues relevant in today’s society.

The popularity of spoken word on Yale campus directly correlates to the popularity of slam poetry on a national level. Several Yale students credit spoken word with its likeness to hip hop music, associating the poetry with rap mastermind, Andre 3000’s lyrics. Not only do the contemporary topics explored by this type of poetry intrigue students, the world of spoken poetry has enticed professors at some of the most prestigious ivy league universities to use the rhythmic prose as an innovative teaching method in the classroom.

Tyler Hoffman, an English professor and Dean of Arts and Sciences at Rutgers-Camden published a book titled “American Poetry in Performance: From Walt Whitman to Hip Hop”. Throughout the book the 45 year old professor fiercely advocates his belief that hip hop is indeed poetry saying “That is the poetry that is most alive today, the poetry that most influences our own culture—without question”.

Hoffman isn’t the only educator who acknowledges the importance of spoken word as a favored means of self-expression in this generation, Sarah Kay a graduate at Brown University and internationally known spoken word poetry teacher, founded Project V.O.I.C.E, a national movement aimed at inspiring educators nationwide to find ways of incorporating spoken word poetry into lesson plans. She argues that by using spoken word poetry as an instrument that encourages young people to recognize their views as valid and significant we are inspiring younger generations to engage and partake in the future of our society.

Spoken word has not only found its way into universities but entertainment media as well with the creation of new shows that focus on young adults all over the U.S. essentially performing their poetry in front of live audiences in an effort to showcase the emotionally charged prose as the captivating art form it truly is. The HBO hit television show “Brave New Voices” which showcases the raw talent of young, spoken word poets across the U.S. is based on teaching workshops offered in New York and San Francisco that advocate the use of spoken poetry in classroom settings as a part of the organization Youth Speaks, similar to Sarah Kay’s national movement, Project V.O.I.C.E.

The founders of Youth Speaks, Jen Weiss and Scott Herndon familiarize educators with spoken word poetry through suggested classroom exercises and thorough descriptions of hip-hop culture and its strong ties to spoken poetry. The duo told Harvard Educational Review that their goal is to introduce innovative learning approaches to the traditional classroom setting in an effort to hook students and compel them to let their voices be heard.

By acknowledging that spoken word poetry is the artistic expression of this generation for its contemporary and societal content as well as its close association in structure with hip-hop music a genre that especially appeals to young adults, educators are paving the way for a literary revolution that appears to be in its prime. The only truly accurate description of spoken word poetry is the inner voice spoken aloud, it’s a literary movement you have to hear to believe.


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