Thursday, December 14, 2006

Department of Provocation

Here's Donald Hall, currently our Poet-Laureate, writing in APR (March/April 05) on Slam Poetry:

There is also performance poetry, which tends to be performance and not poetry, when the words—reduced to the page—provide no juices for the mouth. I've been to the Nuyorican and other castles of slam, and I have laughed and applauded—but I was never responding to poems. I heard no line breaks; I heard only thrust and energy. I heard no vowel and consonant play, only drive and good timing and jokes or outrage. In print the work remains inert. Nothing in the marks on the page, those jagged lines to the right, carries the vigor performance supplies. Slack language is disguised by delivery, and dead metaphor finds its emptiness papered over by force and voice-tricks, by gestures and facial expression, by signatures of singular personality...

In slam poetry speed is valued over slowness, as humor and attack are valued over emotion and thought. The beauty of sound—which exists independent of feeling or idea—is absent. Performance poetry is entirely social—which is the virtue of the form but also its limitation. It cannot exist without an audience. Keats existed without being spoken. Performance poetry flames out like a match. I have a slammer friend with whom I write long letters of combat. He writes me an argument which he thinks will be a winner. He bets me that I cannot find a poem written in Poetry or The New Yorker which, read aloud at a slam, will win first prize. I could not agree with him more. To me, the notion of the argument reveals its poverty. What the hell do I care, considering a poem's virtue, about the votes of a bunch of cheerful self-chosen enthusiasts in a bar?

Comments? Anyone? Anyone?

1 comment:

Bruce Schauble said...

It occurs to me now,the next day, that the challenge could be just as easily turned around. It would be too easy to find examples of truly terrible slam lyrics that would be embarrassing on the page. (Way back in the day, Steve Allen used to do a schtick on his late-night TV show where he would read rock lyrics out loud as if they were poems:

Met him on a Monday
And my heart stood still.
Da doo ron ron ron,
Da doo ron ron.
Somebody told me
That his name was Bill.
Da doo ron ron ron,
Da doo ron ron.

It was funny, of course, but it made a point. There are different standards of accomplishment when you are writing a rock song, or a rap song, then there are when you are writing, well, a poem.

So here's the challenge: can anyone provide an example of a slam poem that would also hold up to scrutiny as a work of poetic and literary merit?