Why slams and what makes good slam poetry?
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 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 is, 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 in 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 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.”
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! http://wiltons.org.uk/event.php?p=591.