Writing Mini-Lessons: Spoken Word Poetry

Although often spoken word poetry is considered a modern form, often associated with hip hop culture, in truth, all poetry began as spoken word poetry. It was part of the oral tradition during a time before written language was commonplace. So in a sense, spoken word poetry is an ancient form. However, the term "spoken word" wasn’t popularized until the late twentieth century, the form has its roots in ancient times, when poets such as Homer—and somewhat later, Shakespeare—created poems specifically as pieces for performance.

Over the centuries, spoken word poetry evolved to include a variety of forms and styles, but despite the popularity of performance poetry—stage poetry—the growing presence of printed text and increased literacy allowed for the rise of poetry in print—page poetry. Where spoken word poetry emphasizes elements such as sound and performance aspects, page poetry emphasizes the visual aspect of the written form, including the white space on the page.

A page poet, Thomas Lux, once asked Taylor Mali, a premier stage poet, "What the heck’s the difference (between page and stage)?" Mali replied, "Only one, and it’s not even a rule: spoken word poets tend to memorize their poems." All poets have to write first, whether on a page or on a screen. Page poets share their work with audiences, but tend to call those "readings," while stage poets tend to call the sharing of their work "performances."

All this is to say that a spoken word poem must do everything every poem does well, but rather than focusing on line breaks, stanzas, white space, and the poem’s shape on a page, the poet must focus on elements of performance, such as gesture, facial expression, pacing, projection, pattern/repetition, enunciation, and the like.

According to T’ai Freedom Ford, a New York City slam poet, spoken word "fuses creative wordplay with shiny performance." 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.

Below are some components of strong spoken word poems:

Below are some key elements of performance:

To assist you in your writing and performance or spoken word poetry, observe and analyze the performances of spoken word poets. Here are a few performances as a starting point:






Two different performances of the same piece: