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    Return of the Spoken Word

    Debbie Ouellet  |  18.Jun.09

    The participatory element of poetry continues to pull people in... Digitalization, the ease of self-publishing, of webzines, of recording your own MP3s. This is the reemergence of the oral tradition in the digital age.” Bob Holman

    In late March 2009, I was asked by a Grade-Six teacher at Woodbridge Public School in Woodbridge, Ontario to visit their classes as part of the poetry segment of their language studies. Would I talk to a roomful of teens about writing poetry and what it means to be a poet? I have to admit that I had my doubts. These were eleven and twelve-year-olds from widely diverse cultural backgrounds, plugged into ipods, WIIs and MP3s. What could a fifty-five-year-old poet and them possibly have in common?

    What I found in that classroom packed with fifty-two adolescents was unconditional acceptance, and the beginning of a revelation. These young people had been primed to accept poetry from an early age. The advent of hip-hop, rap and slam poetry has paved a uniting bridge where youth, language and social comment have converged. The youth of our world are environmentally, politically, socially and spiritually conscious. They have something important to say and spoken word poetry as their medium of choice is catching on like wildfire.

    Return_spoken_word_debbieAbove Left: Slam poetry session Photo : Susana C. Segovia/www.ntdaily.com  Above Right: Bob Holman Photo: wikimedia.org


    Slam Poetry:
    Bob Holman, American poetry activist and slam poet has called performance poetry ‘the democratization of verse’.  Holman said about poetry in its spoken word (or slam) format,“An art, once endangered, is moving into the center of culture.”  Today, slam poetry is performed in over a hundred cities in North America by a wide range of ethnic cultures. Full of high energy, social comment and lightning quick syllables, slam poetry hits you square between the eyes and demands that you pay attention. It’s not just entertainment. It’s social and political comment in working class clothes. As Marty Mc Connell put it,“metaphor is hard-wired truth”. In the realms of pop culture, poetry slams have made their way onto HBO TV where this April the Def Poetry Jam Series featured readings by such poets and artists as Lauryn Hill, Kanye West, and Alicia Keys. Slam poetry’s style and presentation is much like hip-hop music (minus the music) with its origins deeply rooted in dub poetry.


    Dub Poetry:
    Dub poetry began in the 1970s in Jamaica. This highly political and social spoken word poetry is infectious with its reggae rhythms and rhymes. After Jamaica, Toronto, Canada has the most dub poets per capita than any other city in the world. When you consider the melting pot of diverse cultures that Toronto has become, it’s easy to see why. In an interview with Monica de la Torre, Bob Holman said, “The spoken word revolution is led a lot by women and by poets of colour. It gives a depth to the nation’s dialogue that you don’t hear on the floor of Congress.” In short, it has given a voice to those in North America who, a short ninety years ago, had little voice at all.

       Below: Dub Poetry Photo: www.yardedge.net
    Dub-poetry-lloyd-laing1
    History Repeats Itself:

    Spoken word poetry is not a new phenomenon. Twenty-five hundred years ago, in ancient Greece, the Iliad and Odyssey came from the long-standing tradition of oral poetry. Proclaiming the return of the victorious hero, and devastating loss of life in the battlefields, bards used this oral poetry to recount history and to entertain the crowds.

    The African Praise Poet or izibongo for centuries proclaimed the oral recounting of a tribal chief’s accomplishments. In the immunity of his privileged role, the izibongo would praise and eulogize, but also condemn shortcomings and poor judgement without a threat of reprisal. In modern South Africa, they’ve become social activists and a platform for free speech. This was especially evident in April 1990 when the izibongo heralded Nelson Mandella’s return to his birthplace in Umtata. John Miles Foley, in his book How to Read an Oral Poem spoke of their presence at Mandella’s return when he said,“The oral poetry of izibongo, always a partner to social life and an ongoing digest of people’s history, attitudes and hopes, was serving as a harbinger of new realities in post-apartheid South Africa.”

    The Tibetan Paper Singer or Grags-pa seng-ge carried a similar role in Central and North Eastern Asia. He recounted ongoing stories about kings and their accomplishments. His historical poems were often tens of thousands of lines long. Though the Paper Singer always ‘reads’ from a sheet of paper, many are illiterate. For the Grags-pa seng-ge the white sheet of paper was used as a talisman that he would stare at almost hypnotically while performing his oral poetry.


    Poetry at the White House:
    That oral poetry had once again become the voice of the people became crystal clear when, on May 12, 2009, the first Obama White House Poetry Slam was held. When asked why he planned to open the White House to artists and poets Barak Obama said he wanted to “open up the White House and remind people this is the people’s house.” In the White House announcement, the event was referred to as “designed around the theme of dialogue, showing how dialogue is important in every aspect of who we are as Americans and as human beings, and demonstrating how communication is a constant throughout the ages.  The hope is also that this evening's gathering helps ensure that all voices are heard, particularly voices that are often not heard.” It also helps that Obama is a fan of poetry. He’s been seen with copies of work from poet Derek Walcott in his back pocket. Obama once said, “no one should graduate from university without having read poetry”. Could it also be that the president wants his footprint in history to be recounted in the timeless tradition of the Greek Bard, African Praise Poet and the Tibetan Paper Singer?



    The revival of the oral tradition in spoken word poetry is good news for poets of all ages and styles. Enough coffee houses and poetry bars have emerged in the Greater Toronto Area, for example, that today a poet could easily find a venue to perform his or her poetry every weekend and several weekdays per week throughout the year.


    The People’s Voice:
    The truth is, around the world, it would be difficult to find any culture that does not have the oral tradition ingrained within its roots. That it’s made a comeback in popularity may be a sign of our turbulent times. Let’s face it, when the people have something important to say, who better to be their collective voice than a poet?




    Citations:

    1. The Art of Spoken Word Poetry, Learn Hub http://art.learnhub.com/lesson/4736-the-art-of-spoken-word-poetry
    2. Bob Holman, www.bobholman.com
    3. Poetry, Music and Spoken Word, The White House Blog http://www.whitehouse.gov/blog/Poetry-Music-and-Spoken-Word/
    4. How to Read an Oral Poem, John Miles Foley, 2002
    5. Bob Holman with Monica de la Torre, The Brooklyn Rail, 2006 http://brooklynrail.org/2006/05/poetry/bob-holman-with-monica-de-la-torre

     

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    Comments :

    1. Posted on 21.Jun.09   From: Accursed Sparrow

    The White House was built by harshly treated and hard working Black Slaves.

    2. Posted on 19.Jun.09   From: Daniel S. Moskowitz

    I guess the objective of Poetry is to "give a voice to the voiceless". To a large extent, after the Idealism of the Obama Presidential Campaign, the Democratic Party in the United States now has the tendency to "whitewash" a lot of problems.

    Yesterday, while travelling on the East Colfax bus here in Denver, I witnessed the Deaperation and Confusion of many of our Young People. Poetry is a good way for them to express their feelings and views, regain the functional capacity of their minds and, in the process, regain their Dignity. I, myself, was the winner of the Martin Luther King Jr. Poetry contest for Denver Public Schools in 1984. Unfortunately,partially due to my Bipolar Disorder, I really haven't had a steady practice of writing Poetry recently. Of course, my Bipolar Disorder may now just be a convenient excuse. I really just need to take the time to practice writing.

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