Spoken word poetry is a new poetry form that became popular in the early 20th-century. It is one of the most important modern art forms. There are several spoken artists across the world who have chosen this form in order to share their views, takes, and stands on crucial social issues, orthodox cultural values, and prejudices. The genre finds its roots in ancient oral traditions and performances.
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Spoken Word Poetry Definition
Spoken word poetry is a broad designation for the poetic works which are intended for performance.
This spoken-word performance art mainly involves a poetic text meant for reading out loud and a performer. Both are inseparable as the words are written for performance rather than to be read as it is, directly from the book or paper, without emotions and intonation. As an art form, it has a history that dates back as early as the classical era. Specifically, the genre gained traction in the latter half of the 20th-century. The term “spoken word” or “spoken word poetry” includes all the modern poems that are spoken aloud. It contains a number of features of rap, hip-hop, jazz, rock, blues, spirituals, and folk songs.
History of Spoken Word Poetry
The oral poetry tradition has existed in society for several years, through a cycle of listening, practice, and memorization. In ancient Greece, the lyrics were similar to modern-day spoken word poetry. Performance poetry has existed in Africa from prehistoric times. The genre developed in the United States in the early 20th-century. According to scholars, the poetry of the Harlem Renaissance, Beat Generation, and Last Poets played an important role in the development of the spoken word in the US.
The Civil Rights Movement also influenced this performative poetry form. The speeches delivered by civil rights activists such as Martin Luther King Jr.’s ‘I Have a Dream’ contained the elements of oral tradition and helped the development of the spoken word movement.
In 1973, the Nuyorican Poets Café was founded. It is one of the oldest venues of the spoken word. American poet Marc Smith started the poetry slam, designed to move poetry from the intellectual sphere to that of the masses, in Chicago in November 1984. In 1990, the first National Poetry Slam (a nationwide performance poetry competition) took place in San Francisco.
Elements of Spoken Word Poetry
The subject is what the poem is about. It includes the topics that in one way or the other have an impact on the performer or the writer. The main purpose of the spoken word is to give a message to society. Some of the recurring topics in spoken word poetry are racism, inequality, social justice, corruption, gender, and LGBTQ issues. Explore some of the best-known LGBTQ poems.
The gateway line is the combination of the first few lines of a spoken word that are meant for introducing the subject to the audience. It could be the first line or a group of lines that tells the audience where the story or narrative is heading. This element contains hooks in order to entice the audience.
A motif is a recurring idea across a literary text. Spoken word poetry includes the repetition of one word, line, or idea several times during the performance. There can be one or more motifs that help the performer enhance the work’s larger meaning. For instance, In ‘Black Privilege,’ Crystal Valentine uses the line “Black privilege is the hung elephant swinging in the room” as a motif as well as the gateway line.
Wordplay is one of the important elements of spoken word poetry. It means to use a particular word in different contexts to create a punning effect. Wordplay also means the amalgamation of different images, emotions, and sounds in order to make the performance more lively.
Spoken-word artists use several sound devices to create euphony. Those devices help the speaker to enhance their message, motif, and subject. The important poetic devices found in a spoken-word piece include:
- Alliteration: is the repetition of the same sound at the beginning of adjacent words.
- Assonance: is the recurrence of the vowel sound in successive words.
- Consonance: is the reuse of consonant sounds in nearby words.
- Rhyme: is the recurrence of identical sounds in consecutive lines.
- Repetition: is the use of one word or idea several times across a text.
- Onomatopoeia: occurs when a word imitates a natural sound.
The power line is usually the last line of a spoken-word poem that contains a hard-hitting message or one idea that stays longer with the audience. It emphasizes the main idea or the message of the piece. Artists use such lines in order to make their audience think even if the performance has ended. For instance, the last line of Nora Cooper’s ‘I Won’t Write Your Obituary’ leaves the audience awe-struck.
Best Spoken Word Poetry Examples
When the Fat Girl Gets Skinny by Blythe Baird
If you develop an eating disorder when you are already thin to begin with, you go to the hospital.
If you develop an eating disorder when you are not thin to begin with, you are a success story.
So when I evaporated, of course everyone congratulated me on getting healthy.
Girls at school who never spoke to me before stopped me in the hallway to ask how I did it.
I say, “I am sick.”
They say, “No, you’re an inspiration.”
How could I not fall in love with my illness?
With becoming the kind of silhouette people are supposed to fall in love with?
Why would I ever want to stop being hungry when anorexia was the most interesting thing about me?
This poem is about a speaker’s struggle with her obesity, her body, and her mind. The preconceived notions of staying thin and eating lean have not only made her fed up with her own body but also made her give up hope in herself. This piece contains the use of wordplay, poetic devices, and straightforward diction.
Hair by Elizabeth Acevedo
Momma that tells me to fix my hair, and so many words remain unspoken.
Because all I can reply is, “You can’t fix what was never broken.”
‘Hair’ by Elizabeth Acevedo touches upon the themes of identity, black consciousness, cultural assimilation, and pride. This poem is about a girl, who refuses to “whiten” her hair which is as beautiful as the way it is. She does not want to forget the history of blacks drawn by chains as slaves. Her strangled, curly hair is the symbol of their identity that she bears with pride. Explore these incredible Black Lives Matter poems.
ask not what your country can do for you
ask if your country is your country
ask if your country belongs to your country folk
ask if your country was built of stolen land
and stolen breath, if democracy is a chain
tight as skin around your neck
ask if your comfort means elsewhere
someone is burying a daughter
ask if your comfort means round
the corner a man is dead cause a cop
mistook his body for a gun
ask if your comfort means broke schools
& food deserts on the other side of town
ask if your new apartment used to belong
to someone who couldn’t afford to look
like you, ask yourself if all the things
you are scared to admit …
Smith’s ‘Principles’ is a long poem consisting of five sections. This piece begins with a powerful repetition of the phrase “ask if,” interrogating the audience to look within and ponder upon the issues largely ignored. Through this piece, Smith wants to question what should be our principles to create a better society.
If I Should Have a Daughter by Sarah Kay
And you’re the girl with small hands and big eyes who never stops asking for more.
Remember that good things come in threes and so do bad things and
always apologize when you’ve done something wrong
but don’t you ever apologize for the way your eyes refuse to stop shining,
your voice is small but don’t ever stop singing.
And when they finally hand you a heartache,
when they slip war and hatred under your door and offer you handouts on street corners
of cynicism and defeat, you tell them that
really ought to meet your mother.
Spoken-word poet Sarah Kay performed this poem at TED 2011. In this poem, she describes a conversation between a mother and daughter on the issues that trouble the wide-eyed girl the most. This poem is also known as ‘B’.
Cuz He’s Black by Javon Johnson
Still, we both know it’s not about whether or not the shooter is racist, it’s about how poor black boys are treated as problems well before we are treated as people. Black boys in this country cannot afford to play cops and robbers if we’re always considered the latter, don’t have the luxury of playing war when we’re already in one.
This poem was performed at the 2013 National Poetry Slam semi-finals in Boston. In this personal and impassioned piece, spoken-word poet Javon Jonhson raises the issues of racism, inequality, and injustice through the conversation of an uncle and his four-year-old nephew. Read the best African-American poetry.
Spoken Word Poetry vs. Traditional Poetry
Spoken word poetry is an oral performance art form and traditional poetry is a written form of art. Traditional poems include a set structure, form, rhyme scheme, and meter. In the case of the spoken word, there are no set rules concerning how to structure the text. Most of the spoken-word poetry is in free-verse with varying line lengths and contains wordplay, repetition, and sound devices. Alongside that, it is performed in a dramatic fashion where the artist acts, modulates their voice, and assumes different personas in order to invoke life into their words.
The spoken word is a performative art form that finds its roots in classical Greek oral poetry. American spoken word poetry first originated during the Harlem Renaissance of the early 20th-century. This form is influenced by the poetry of the Harlem Renaissance, Beat Generation, and Last Poets.
A spoken word example is any piece of poetry meant for performance. Danez Smith’s long free-verse poem ‘Principles’ is an example of the spoken word.
The main difference between the two is that spoken word takes its quality less from the visual aesthetics on a page, but depends more on euphony, or the aesthetics of sound.
Some of the important characteristics of spoken word poetry include the use of wordplay, humor, intonation, gestures, and euphony. The most important feature of the spoken word is that it is meant for reading out loud in front of an audience.
Related Poetry Forms
- Slam Poetry: is a type of spoken word poetry that is performed at poetry slams.
- Free Verse: is a form of poetry with unrhymed and unmetered lines.
- Ballad: is a kind of verse that is narrative in nature and is often set to music.
- Ghazal: is a form of poetry that is constructed with couplets and rhyming words.
- Narrative Poetry: contains all the elements of a story and is normally longer than average.
- Alba: is a genre of lyric poetry from the Old Occitan period.
- Confessional Poetry: is a style of poetry that is personal and written from the perspective of a first-person narrator.
- Watch: How To Write Spoken Word Poetry
- Learn: About Harlem Renaissance
- Read: ‘The 17-Year-Old & the Gay Bar’ by Danez Smith
- Explore: An Eight-Step Guide to Write a Poem