the foundations of oppression can't be plucked up without the anger of a multitude

Why slams and what makes good slam poetry?

with 5 comments

With a week to go to the Hammer & Tongue national poetry slam final, I thought I’d put some thoughts together about why we have slams and what I think makes good poetry.The snob-prot-poet, T.S.Eliot

The job of the critic, said T. S. Eliot, is “the elucidation of texts and the correction of tastes.” You might not like the sound of the latter phrase, but let’s follow its implications more carefully; elucidate it, if you will. Now, if you believe that all experience of art is subjective (i.e. there is no such thing as good and bad art, just what different people like) then ‘correcting tastes’ might seem a pointless, even elitist task. And so it is if only a predestined elect get the job of taste-correction. Indeed this may be what snobbish, protestant Eliot would have wanted.

Beauty De Quincey - sideburns and laudanumis, as they say, in the eye of the beholder and thus subjective. Yet the experience of something beautiful is not just a gut reaction, it is also a rational one. So says famous smack-addict, Thomas De Quincey in his argument for listening to music while on opium: “The mistake of most people is to suppose that it is by the ear they communicate with music, and, therefore, that they are purely passive to its effects. But this is not so: it is by the reaction of the mind upon the notices of the ear that … we are able to construct out of the raw material of organic sound an elaborate intellectual pleasure.”

We may all find beauty in different things but when we do find the thing that we call beautiful we experience it iSaw - all good in its own kinetic wayn much the same way. ‘Beautiful’ is a precise adjective and a common experience. As James Joyce points out via his young-self avatar, Stephen Dedalus in his elucidation of Aristotle, porn or rollercoasters or Saw movies excite only kinetic emotions – the urge to possess (and thus move towards) or the feeling of revulsion, and thus the urge to go away from something. He doesn’t use exactly those examples, but the point is the same: “our flesh shrinks from what it dreads and responds to the stimulus of what it desires by a purely reflex action of the nervous system.” All good in its own way. However, “The instant wherein that supreme quality of beauty, the clear radiance of the aesthetic image, is apprehended luminously by the mind which has been arrested by its wholeness and fascinated by its harmony is the luminous silent stasis of aesthetic pleasure.”

And here we come to the point. If beauty is an “elaborate intellectual pleasure” as well as an instinctive reaction then we can change people’s minds about what they are seeing, hearing, tasting etc. All of us have at some point had our eyes opened to something we had previously dismissed and we have come to understand a particular artist, an artistic genre or even a whole art form because a friend managed to explain why and how we should experience it. I remember the combination of Shostakovitch’s 5th symphony, some good intoxicants and my friend’s elucidation removing some of my prejudices and ignorance about orchestral music.

And if our different subjectivities find common appreciation of the “luminous silent stasis” of different beauties then, when it comes to slams, we can engage in debate about which poem is better than which other one. Assuming we are all allowed to be critics, we can ‘correct’ each other’s tastes in an endless but not futile discussion. Especially, if we all consider ourselves and each other as critics.

Slam, H&T Dec 11Slam poetry is a gimmick, there’s no doubt about it. But it mirrors Eliot’s idea in its own crude way. People are given a scorecard and told that their understanding of the aesthetic is absolutely good enough to correct the tastes of their peers. And some other judges say something different and then we have a debate about it in the bar afterwards. Slam poetry as well as improving the standards of poets, is also about educating audiences. We educate ourselves by becoming critics. When I first saw live poetry, I was so swept up in the emotion of it all, the shared intimacy of the space and the professionalism of the performance, that I was blown away by stuff that Steve Larkin still laughs at me for ever thinking was good poetry. I have learned a certain amount of discernment. It makes slams less fun (I confess that I find some poems very difficult to sit through) but when I hear good writing my connection with it is much, much deeper.

So what is good slam poetry? Having been attending live poetry events for 10 years, I’ll attempt to elucidate an answer, in the form of everybody’s favourite style of journalism: the 5-point list.

1. “Entertaining but not entertainment”, so said Christopher Logue, the godfather of UK performance poetry. Keep this mantra in mind. I don’t want to hear poems that rhyme different food stuffs, celebrities or amusing animals that leave me feeling like KRS One when he asks, “But what you really saying? You sound like a bitch-ass rapper when you say it.”krs-one

2. Poetry is public. You are not writing a diary. Of course there is an element of vanity to performance, probably all poets have in some way been deprived of attention as a child and are looking for validation through applause. Blah blah psychobabble blah. But limit your ego. The personal, if it is to be used, must be made general and political. Years ago, I saw a Brighton hippy-poet introduce a poem about his friend who had told him about her struggles with a heroin addiction “and the way that I was listening was so beautiful.” Keep your vanity out of it.

3. Imagery is good, but must be, to quote Logue again, “part of the movement of the poem”. Sometimes you hear wordplay, punning or seemingly pointless visual moments that have no relevance to the whole. It works to some extent in hiphop, because the lyrics are one part of a musical structure, but stripped of beats and production your imagery should be taking me somewhere. Otherwise it just sounds like you’re showing off.

4. Heavy subject, light touch. Light subject, heavy touch. If you are going to write a poem about rape or racist murder (and this is a legitimate thing to do), don’t lay on the emotion for me. It makes it sound like you are sensationalising a traumatic topic in order to win a slam. Conversely, if you want to make something funny: exaggerate, overplay, go in for ludicrous close-ups.

5. Political subjects are best approached with a slight squint or odd perspective. Poetry is not rhyming essay. Sometimes you have a political point you want to make but you need to find a frame in which to make that point. If there is one useful thing poets can do it is probably to engage with and work to change public discourse, to give voice to commonly held but under-represented opinion or feeling, but (and here I have probably been guilty a few times myself) political message is more powerful when told in memorable, sharable narrative or humour or situation. Straight-up ranting will only reach the already-converted.

6. Read everything. Work hard. Edit. (That means changing things. This list is now a 6 point one, for example).

If you want to be part of one the biggest and most comprehensive slams in the U.K this year, this is still a week left to buy a ticket. Become a critic of poetry!

Written by angrysampoetry

June 2, 2013 at 10:59 am

5 Responses

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  1. Very interesting article about the perception of art forms. It is all subjective because we respond emotionally to what we see and hear, and each emotional response is individual. Poetry at least from the Romantic period has been used to capture hearts and minds. However I do not entirely agree with your slam guide apart from point six which you interestingly left off your official list. Poetry is about individual voice and that includes the personal. The list is a bit proscriptive and patronising and underlying implies that the best way to use rhyme is in a hip hop form. If a poet has a genuine authentic voice and something to share it is irrelevant if it is humourous, personal or political. Shelley wrote political pamphlets in Ireland because he was passionate about promoting change and connecting with people, if a little misguided considering his background. Elizabeth Barrett Browning wrote poetry to change people’s views about the slave trade. Spike Milligan challenged us with humour, eccentricity and political comment both in and out of rhyme and in a surreal way. If these poets followed your list how dull their poetry would have been. Poetry is a form of writing that comes from emotion and when it is intellectualised it is lifeless. Your list is telling people the rational way to win over an audience to win a slam. A bit of a flat approach for me, sorry. Implying that hip hop but not in an extreme way is the way to win the day is limiting people’s engagement with spoken word. Each of us is a wealth of experience and inspirations that are not limited to one form of beat or voice, that needs to be sanitised so as not to offend or challenge. I agree that opening the wounds in public is not always the best way to go, mainly because if a performer gushes everything then the person they harm the most is themselves and it is painful for the audience to watch. I have seen this happen before and if I am honest it has happened to me. I came back because I understood the process and reinvented the poem concerned. For me I am sharing through my poetry what I would share in a conversation and I want to make people think and to look at life differently. If I followed your list I would literally down the pen. Thanks for sharing and educating me. And before you ask, no I have never entered a slam but maybe one day, and in the words of ‘old blue eyes’, I will do it my way.

    Songul Bekir

    June 2, 2013 at 1:30 pm

    • Hey Songul,
      Thanks for the comment. I was really hoping to stimulate debate on this topic and I’m sorry it’s taken me nearly two months to respond. Having read what you said, I think we may agree more than you think and I apologise for not being clearer in what I wrote. However, I will attempt to answer some specific criticisms, sometimes disagreeing and sometimes agreeing. Hopefully, we are following T.S.Eliot and by debating, going someway towards the never-reachable goal of the ‘correction of tastes’!

      “It is all subjective because we respond emotionally to what we see and hear, and each emotional response is individual.” – I do agree but I think you may overplay our differences. A good poem is a good poem and there are some things like common experiences.

      “Poetry at least from the Romantic period has been used to capture hearts and minds” – I’m not sure what that phrase means outside of military propaganda to justify invasions! However, if it means what I think it means, it is not entirely true of the Romantics. Keats (whose music I love) said, ‘I feel assured I should write from the mere yearning and fondness I have for the Beautiful even if my night’s labours should be burnt every morning, and no eye ever shine upon them.’ (Letter to Woodhouse, October 1818). This is a statement of the pure Romantic (even Keats goes on to say that he may be adopting a character when he wrote it) and in the hands of later generations it really disrupted the development of poetry. We write because of the yearning for the beautiful perhaps, but we also write to communicate that experience to others. Those who are just wondering lonely as a cloud and reaching inside their soul miss out on an essential part of the art.

      The list is a bit proscriptive and patronising and underlying implies that the best way to use rhyme is in a hip hop form.” You’re absolutely right, it is proscriptive. How can it not be? The form of the list dictates it to be so! But I am trying to keep it open and I am not intentionally implying that hiphop rhyme schemes are the way forward, I assure you. I may have used a picture of KRS One, but where I twice mentioned hiphop I was firstly arguing for real content in poetry, regardless of form (“entertaining not entertaining” – “but what you really saying?”) and then secondly, to say that what may work in hiphop (wordplay, punning, imagery that is not part of the whole) does NOT work in poetry. So I don’t think I’m encouraging an exclusively hiphop form of poetry.

      “If a poet has a genuine authentic voice and something to share it is irrelevant if it is humourous, personal or political.” – I think we agree here, you know. In fact, the form of the list, or the poor quality of my writing, seems to have misled you as to my intentions. I’m not saying you have to be political, just that if you are, avoid ranting. I’m not saying it’s wrong to be humourous, just that if you are doing so, make sure that there is real content as well as humour. I’m not saying it’s wrong to be personal, just avoid self-obsession, egotism and vanity.

      So, I am, I hope, more open-minded than you give me credit for! And I hope to see you in a slam someday soon.


      July 29, 2013 at 1:35 pm

  2. I enjoyed reading this post.


    July 6, 2013 at 9:00 am

  3. Here is my much belated contribution to this not very active debate.

    I am very much in favour of treating poetry, or any art form, as something that can be both judged and critically discussed. it is Hume, I think, who claimed that “there is no disputing about taste”. There is a sense in which he is right. If you like the work of Steve Larkin, you are certainly in an authoritative position to know that you like the work of Steve Larkin, and any claim I make to the contrary is going to look bloody stupid. My memory of Hume’s essay is this a sense in which he makes the claim. I think an important principle follows from this, which is: you enjoy what you enjoy, and good luck to you.

    There is another sense in which it is wrong. Your taste can be wrong. I think it takes a moment self reflection to realise that when you like something, there are reasons for your appreciation. The same thing goes for disliking something. Importantly, those reasons are features of the work. They are the things that you find valuable in the work. Now, perhaps my experience is different from other people, but when I find some quality of the work valuable, that quality does not present itself to me as being valuable because it is valuable for me. In other words, my experience is that being valuable seems prior to finding valuable. I appreciate I might be unusual in this respect. Lots of people seem to think that it must be the case that finding valuable comes before being valuable. Or, to put it crudely, nothing is really valuable it is just what the individual values. One reason for that might be that that is how the world strikes them. My suspicion is it stems from a particular conception of objectivity. This conception is that something is objective if and only if it is available from any particular perspective. It is clearly the case that value is not available for any particular perspective, so, on this view, value is not objective.

    I think there are several motivations for this view, and none of them are very good. One motivation, which is kind, is not wanting to dictate to people how they should feel. I think this is a good way to behave but not a good reason to adopt a metaphysics that denies the existence of value. I certainly do not want to tell people how they should feel. However, I want, and I think other people should want, to feel what is appropriate. What is appropriate is determined by how things are. The important thing to remember is that access to how things are is tricky. People’s social background, prejudices, power, state of their bowels, and goodness knows what not blind us to particular features of the world and enhance others. The only way to have any hope of approaching the values that are in the world, it seems to me, is to honestly and openly listen to others. That is, to be open to the possibility of being wildly wrong. It seems to me that, however well-meaning, the view that all value is subjective, results in the view that I never need to challenge my prejudices. In fact, it seems to me one reason why rigid hierarchies of value are upheld, and that marginal voices are not appreciated. It seems to me that most of what is deemed valuable is so, but much of what is deemed second rate or worse is unfairly disregarded. I think we also end up blinded to some of the faults of so-called “masterworks”.

    Another motivation, and this one is strictly metaphysical, takes it that what is objective can be proved. It seems to me that Hume adopted this view. But, I see no good reason to think that that is true. What it is to be objective is to be a property of an object. But, some properties require a particular epistemic perspective to have access to. I take it that is the lesson of postcolonial writing.

    Given that, I think we can only come to appreciate art if we are prepared to enter into a dialogue with it and with each other. New possibilities of expression, and even new things to express can only be discovered by being open to the possibility of error, and humbly and actively seeking to have our tastes corrected. That requires that we are able to suggest to each other that we are wrong.


    Jacob Berkson

    July 29, 2013 at 4:42 pm

  4. […] years ago, I defended slams against Michael Horovitz and the 1960’s anti-competition critique. I cited T. S. Eliot to lend some weight to my […]

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