A brand of performance that has developed in the last thirty-plus years, Slam has equally excited and angered the artistic community. “Slam poetry” refers to any sort of spoken poem (known as “spoken word”) enacted at a public gathering (known as a poetry slam) that is scored by a panel of judges, usually characterized by passionate performance and rhythmic rhyming.
Though an obvious departure from conventional poetry, here are three reasons why Slam can be considered an acceptable form of poetry and three reasons why it’s a much lesser art form.
Slam is not poetry; it’s little more than angry yelling
Not everyone buys it
Unlike conventional forms of poetry, such as sonnets, limericks, haikus, or the more modern free verse, or essays or monologues, Slam is consistently attacked for lacking actual depth. For example, in the movie 22 Jump Street, Jonah Hill’s character enacts a famous scene in which he improvises a spoken word poem, emphasizing that he’s “waving my hands a lot” with a “specific point of view on things.” At the end of the performance, the crowd is impressed with the “depth” of a poem that Hill made up on the spot. This scene exemplifies that where poetry is pretty much accepted across the board as an established art form, Slam has yet to join the ranks of legitimacy in some of the public eye, because it’s an art form that doesn’t necessarily require talent or creativity.
Slam is limited in what it can express
Like with other artistic traditions, Slam has features that may limit its use, in that it might only be able to convey a specific set of emotions. For example, there is the phenomenon of “slam voice” that is well known among artists and their supporters, which is a uniform sound common to the pieces performed at slams. The inflection of this voice is used to provoke an audience and tends to restrict topics addressed in Slam pieces to those that are largely political or sorrowful in nature. Slam voice is used with the intention of conveying anger or distress. Standard poetry, on the other hand, can be about anything it wants, and it can cover a range of emotions and experiences.
Slam isn’t a unique art form
While undeniably some sort of art form, Slam seems to be closer to other modes of artistic expression than to poetry. For example, the only element that separates rap from spoken word is the addition of background music to rap, which is sometimes even present in Slam as well. Also, the performance aspects that are necessary for Slam pieces to make an impact are more similar to acting and practically non-existent within poetry. People attend poetry slams like they would a show at the theater, and the audience who shows up doesn’t need to have any understanding of poetry to enjoy themselves. With this in mind, Slam doesn’t seem to add anything substantial specifically to the world of poetry.
Slam has merit as a legitimate and innovative form of poetry
Get with the times; poetry rhymes
A distinctive quality of Slam poetry is its clever use of rhyme and wordplay. With this in mind, one could argue that Slam is actually a step back into more traditional kinds of formal poetry, as opposed to the rhyme-less free verse that is commonly used today. Poet and critic Dana Gioia cites the “denial of a musical texture” as one of the main problems with contemporary poetry; Slam, by contrast, embraces musical texture, and arguably even enhances it.
The tradition was established by esteemed poets
One only has to look at an art form’s evolution to know for what it was intended; in Slam’s case, going back to the source leads us directly to the feet of the infamous, post-World War II Beat Poets. It was they – Allen Ginsberg, Jack Kerouac, and other household names – who focused on the vocal and performed aspects of their work, which ultimately led to the birth of poetry slams around America. While the modern poetry slam has changed somewhat and adapted over time, its roots are firmly entrenched in the works created by some of the most famous poets in recent history.
Slam provides an outlet of communication, as does poetry
From finally telling your parents what you really feel or think of them to communicating your delicate feelings about politics, slam poems supply the same outlet to unleash your inner convictions and random musings as does written poetry. For example, Grand Slam Poetry Champion Harry Baker performs a powerful and amusing piece about prime numbers, while sticking to all the elements of spoken word. Yet, there are many written poems expressing a fascination for prime numbers as well; both modes of expression are able to convey similar ideas, albeit by using different tools. The human voice captures emotion as well as the written word; rather than assessing the nature of Slam as “other” than poetry, it makes more sense when viewed as an enhancement of what written poetry already does, i.e., each are art forms that provide a way to effectively communicate emotions.
The Bottom Line: Some feel that Slam is a wonderful form of art as it is an offshoot of poetry, while others believe it lacks depth. What about you? Do you think slam poetry is an art form worth exploring?