The Art Of Storytelling In Rhythm: Spoken Word Poetry Through Ages

Posted on July 28, 2014 in Culture-Vulture

By Veda Nadendla:

We live in a world of dreamers and artists, all of us- teachers and students with a story of our own. A story through music, a story through rhythm, the one in colours and in brush strokes, one story in movement, the one in speech, and then, those stories in the eyes; a million stories waiting to be told and to be heard. This is a story of the poets of the spoken word.

Spoken word poetry is the type of poetry that is written on a piece of paper, but performed for an audience. A performance unlike a theatrical monologue, the spoken word is an ecstatic rendition of a personal experience using word play, free association, alliteration and slang.

Zeal and attitude are the key ingredients. Spoken word relies on the poet’s own experiences and his or her own narrative style. It is almost like a chic rant of aggression waiting to be unleashed. Since it is performed poetry, spoken word gives the writer the freedom of slang and uncontained rhythm in expressing their piece.

It is believed the Spoken Word is the oldest form of poetry. Found deep in history when people gathered in underground tunnels and moonlight bars to voice their vehemence against war and discrimination. From the times of Shakespeare to the Beatniks, till the time of hip-hop and slam poetry; the spoken word has successfully revolutionized poetry to give it a commercial, yet essential flavour. Spoken word has brought poetry to life; it is the art of storytelling in rhythm.

The Harlem Renaissance’ (1917-1935) was the Mecca for Spoken Word Poetry. Set in the post-war conundrum of death, destruction, discrimination and loss, there was a social, cultural and artistic explosion of Black writers, poets, musicians and scholars trying to find a space to voice their angst. It was more than just a literary movement; it involved a revolution demanding civil and political rights for the Black people in America. The Renaissance lured white people to the Harlem speakeasies, flouting jazz and blues music, where inter-racial couples danced, giving free reign to verse and poetry.

Carrying the legacy of The Harlem Renaissance was the most momentous occurrence in the history of poetry, The Beat Movement. The Beat Movement or The Beat Generation Of the 1950’s was a social and literary movement centred on the Bohemian artist communities in America. The ‘Beat Poets’ or ‘Beatniks’ as they called themselves were artists of ‘beatific spirituality’, adherents of the Beat Generation, who advocated purification, release and enlightenment. The Beat poets desired to liberate poetry from elitist and academic influences and return it to its rightful place, the streets. Theirs was an unstructured, vigorous and chaotic form of poetry which was often read in accompaniment of jazz music or percussion beats; ruggedly unrevised to preserve the immediate nature of the author’s experience.

Bookshops, cafes, open air theatres, restaurants, record shops, bars and pubs, auditoriums and theatres are the places where the spoken word is performed today. Yet, you need not a formal stage, you need not a definitive purpose, all you need is eager eyes and ears lending their attention to what you have to say. I have watched spoken word poetry on experiences like love, war, tragedy, loss, patriarchy, religion, politics, gender, sex, environment, crime, social evil, lust and anger; I’ve also heard a poet talk about toothbrushes and tyres. There is just this fire with which she spoke about that toothbrush, that I actually imagined my toothbrush talking to me. Since then, I say good morning to it every day. Picture that!

I used to think of myself as a poet, trying to rhyme alternate paragraphs, adding archaic English words to the sentences, breaking after every four lines and then being disappointed that it didn’t sound like the poems of Robert Frost and Samuel Taylor Coleridge. That’s when I discovered spoken word poetry, with no rules or etiquettes telling you what not to do, but welcoming experiences in their raw form, accommodating colloquial influences and the author’s indigenous nature to form a truly enthralling performance.

One of my favourite Spoken Word Poets is Sarah Kay; she is a woman of words that pierce the heart. Every time I watch her perform, I feel like she should be a rapper; and then I realize how hip hop, rap and spoken word are not really different at all. They are all artistes, aggressively reliving their stories in verse, on stage, through a beat and some music, compelling you to listen. Have you heard of Eminem? His stage performances are no less than verbal massacre, but what’s interesting is that there is so much truth to some of his writing, take ‘Stan’ for instance; even if he read it without a beat, just modulations and his face, there would be a world of feelings in there.

Spoken Word poetry has gained much popularity in the past few decades with poets taking to commercial places and performing in front of dedicated fans and audiences. Today, spoken word poetry is largely practiced and performed in literary forums and studied by students of literature. But you don’t have to study to be a spoken word poet. The art form has gained momentum through TED Talks and TED x around the world, where speakers deliver awe-inspiring pieces about their lives, giving me goose bumps and leaving me speechless.

India too has caught onto the momentum. Spoken word poets Sarah Kay and Philip Kaye were invited to perform at the Blue Frog in Mumbai. India has also seen a few performances coupled with Spoken word Classes in Pune and Bangalore. It is a catching art and one that will soon be as popular as stand up comedy in India; it is only fair that we encourage it more.

I have been an ardent believer of the expressive arts and their therapeutic value. Spoken Word is one such expressive art which needs no expertise, all it needs is passion put on paper and words that can be memorized and expressed with the raw emotion. It is an aggressive and powerful form of expression, pushing age old literary boundaries and telling us that we too can be poets. So don’t wait for a stage or an occasion to show up, write your mind and go enthral the next person you see. Be it a presentation at work or a research paper at college, take the next thing you want to say and why don’t we try it the spoken word way?