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:
- Concrete Language – Use words and phrases that will elicit vivid images, sounds, actions and other sensations. If your poem is rich with imagery, your listeners will see, smell, and taste what you’re describing. Concrete language brings the piece to life for your audience.
- Repetition – Include effective repetition. As you know, effective repetition is a simple, yet powerful poetic device. The repetition of a phrase or image will help to extend that particular thought or image beyond its original meaning. This allows the poet to convey an idea or exaggerate a point that they want to make.
- Rhyme – Consider enhancing your poem with rhyme. If incorporated with skill, surprise, and moderation, rhyming can enrich your poems and performance.
- Attitude – Fill the poem with your passion. Emotions and opinions are the heart of spoken word poetry. Be courageous and allow your piece to embody your own unique perspective.
- Persona – Explore writing through a mask, seeing through someone/something else’s eyes and speaking throught that voice. Persona isn’t a must, but may allow you to understand your topic in a new way.
- Performance – Practice performing your poem, and revise as needed. Then practice some more, working on strong stage presence.
Below are some key elements of performance:
- Posture – Stand up straight, with your feet planted firmly and with your shoulders back, chin up, and head high. Look confident and assertive.
- Eye Contact – Make eye contact with your audience, and do not stare at the floor, your paper, or in one particular spot the entire time. From time to time, look into the eyes of the different people in the audience to hold their attention.
- Projection – Speak loudly and clearly so that your voice can be heard from a distance.
- Enunciation – Don’t mumble. Speak clearly and distinctly so that the audience can understand what you are saying.
- Facial Expressions – Use facial expressions to convey the emotional content of your poem. Smile when the content is light or happy; don’t smile if the content is serious or sad.
- Gestures – Use hand motions and body movements to emphasize different elements of your performance. However, don’t rock back and forth or wave your hands about needlessly, as these movements may distract your audience.
- Memorization – Try to memorize your poem so you can focus more on its performance of the poem. However, so far as performance is concerned, it is more important to “learn your poems by heart.” If you are really in touch with the meaning and the emotional content of your poem, even if you forget a word or a line, you can keep going. Learning by heart allows you to incorporate improvisation into your poem, which is another elements of spoken word poetry.
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: