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A beginner's guide to spoken word poetry

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If you don’t think poetry is really your thing, you’re not alone.

Verse, couplet, enjambment, pentameter: the impenetrable speech of old duffers in ruffs, and a whole lot of compulsory school exams to go with them.

How about Martin Luther King, Damon Albarn, Mike Skinner? They might not sound like obvious names to pull out of the poetic canon, but they’ve all utilised a form of poetry that has come, variously, to be known as slam or spoken word.

What is it?

In many ways, spoken word existed long before written poetry.

Essentially a spoken art form, poetry became popularised in written forms with the invention of the printing press, but spoken traditions continued until American poet Vachel Lindsay advocated for its resurgence as an oral art in the early 20th century.

Today, “spoken word” has come to be associated with a spoken form of poetry or free-verse reading that focuses on intonation and variations in rhythm, speed and inflection in order to create contrast and tension – usually along a through-line narrative, or theme.

Sounds hard

To write – yes; to enjoy – no.

As a spoken – mostly live – art, spoken word has been used by musicians, for comedy, dramatically, and even in major political speeches: think of the rhymic quality of Martin Luther King’s “I have a dream”. It’s gone on to influence some of the very best spoken word artists of today, particularly those whose work concerns black empowerment and civil rights.

Part of spoken word’s popularity lies in how accessible it is – at least when it’s done well. Because performers are able to harness the power of the voice as well as the words themselves, it has tended to attract a reputation for emotional story-telling, passion and civil unrest.

Who should I listen to as a beginner?

In a word: everyone. At least, as many artists as you can.

Spoken word’s many forms and influences mean you’re more likely to find someone you really like by looking around and seeking out as many different examples as possible.

Some of the most celebrated examples include John Cooper Clarke, Alan Ginsberg and Linton Kwesi Johnson, but make sure to look at the work of Anthony Anaxagorou, Kate Tempest, Suli Breaks, Rives, Ashley Haze, Saul Williams and Hollie McNish for excellent contemporary examples.

How can I see it live?

The spoken word scene has exploded in the past 15 years, so if you live in anything other than the deepest heart of the Amazon rainforest, you might already have a local poetry slam night to attend.

Bang Said the Gun, Chill Pill and Tongue Fu are all brilliant regular London events, but if your reach doesn’t stretch as far as the capital, check out the national Hammer and Tongue competition which also hosts regional events in Brighton, Oxford, and Cambridge.

Remember to do a search for any other gigs closer to home and in the event you still come up short – start your own! It won’t take long to find willing performers, and who wouldn’t want to see some great live slams?




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