Insight 2017: The rise of spoken-word poetry should continue for good

Cometh the hour, cometh the verse. Not for no reason does poetry appear in the most magnanimous of moments on television or in film. It is the visual then that often borrows from the stimulus of the written word. The relationship between the two has been doled over by any number of academicians and writers. But what remains chastising for the written word in particular, is that that street does not go both ways. Consider the fact that what word does for the image, the image and the moving image never do for the word. The visual element only acts as a surrogate, often deviating for that purpose for comedy or relief from its own authenticity. Poetry has suffered most in this case. For the simple reason that fiction and films go hand in hand. Poetry appears, only in those stock moments when it is required to hold the water bag or is our reference to the people being portrayed – think Dead Poets’ Society, On the Road or the upcoming Paterson.

 The Airplane Poetry movement’s Slam Poetry. Image courtesy: Facebook page

The Airplane Poetry movement’s Slam Poetry. Image courtesy: Facebook page

Since nobody is going to offer help or suggestions, it is the verse that has to reinvent itself. And that is probably, exactly what is happening. In 2016 Poetry hit a number of high notes with the return of Eunice De Souza, Hoshang Merchant’s collected poems and a stellar debut by young poet Rohan Chhetri. While these are significant events and merit their own focused consideration, it has been something else that has raised a few important points, in the given context, if not provided any new answers to old questions. Spoken-word poetry was innately a western thing and hit India’s shores in full only in 2016. The Airplane Poetry movement’s Slam Poetry contest in Bangalore was a rousing success, and compared to traditional formats, also enjoyable.

Poetry readings have existed for centuries, and although it is debatable what they accomplish, it is possible that spoken-word poetry has come into being by extension of that very concept. But given the evidence, there is something critical that this form is accomplishing. Firstly, it makes the interaction easier, which also explains the newfound love in youngsters for the form. Secondly, merging performance with the written word gives a writer/performer additional apparatus to express. For those severely limited by the lexicon and vocabulary, this is a godsend. Because it isn’t merely your knowledge of words that poetry channels. It is also emotion and imagination.

Third, and perhaps the most critical of all, spoken-word poetry gives verse a stage. It thereby also gives audience, an audience ready to interact and if impressed, also ready to applause. Compared to the lonely existence of the written word poet whose audience either does not exist or is invisible this is an interesting change. To be able to interact with your audience directly, and observe the way they react to whatever you do, is a format that belongs distinctly to the stage – theatre, stand-up comedy and now spoken-word poetry. And it is this unique immediacy and intimacy, the in-moment experience of art, rather than analytic scrambling in the aftermath that has given spoken-word poetry it's following.


That said, there is a point here to be made against this format as well. Once art is liable to be evaluated at the scene of its creation, it tends to bend to the format itself. Stand-up comedy is an example, and probably for that reason won’t be considered art. It is born out of the premises given to it. ‘Slam Poetry’ as it is called by some, also in a way threatens to dumb down the discourse that has been built around the form over the years. It is important to understand that while being able to interact with the audience is a clear strength it can also become a weakness should appeasement become the only inspiration. There, then, is the risk of trivialising something that has always remained uniquely complex, personal and historically relevant.

With Facebook lives, video packages, live streaming and other formats of digital content, it is undeniably clear where the world will consume its culture. And while written-word poems are trying, with the audio-visual at least to support their original forms, they face a challenge in itself to stay relevant. It can’t be said that they are out of place in the modern world, just like the book has never felt mortally endangered – not really. It still holds a certain antiquarian value. And it is that same value that written word poetry will be holding on to. And therefore in 2017, the rise of spoken-word poetry should continue for good. And it would be ideal if the two formats borrow from each other, in some way, so as to keep the sanity and the space. Cutting across lines would be ill-advised. But what is presciently clear is that Poetry is returning, not only to our books, but street-corners, chowrahas, parks and most crucially, the stage.

Published Date: Jan 01, 2017 08:55 AM | Updated Date: Jan 01, 2017 08:55 AM

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