Went last night to the 25th anniversary celebration of a local literary group at a local downtown hotel. Drinks were high and, I’m sorry to say, most of the poetry was low in quality if not passion.
Many of the poets slammed, and one or two of them were pretty decent — amusing and enlivening. But without the histrionic prancing and gestures, what do you have left? Something above the average rock lyric, it could be, but, like rock lyrics, slam poetry is hard to stand on its own. Hard just to read and get anything out of. They are performances, after all, aural waves to strike a woke and attentive audience.
I learned that this Ozark group began in slam, in the early 1990s, one of the founding mothers (may she rest in peace) being something of a crazy lady slammer fond of travel and orgasms. Stories were told about her, and a poem or two of hers read.
But is slam poetry what we really need to redeem poetry for the masses? To wash it of its bad name, its dreary reputation as newspaper fodder or old ladies’ / old men’s drivel?
I understand that slam seeks to enliven both topic and audience, draw people out of their suspicion that poetry is a solemn, arcane academic business. But poetry needn’t be all passionate gesture and frippery. It needs to be accessible, I agree, but available in all shades of feeling, all tones, from comic through serene and meditative. Most of slam poetry that I hear is pretty obvious — the ideas and the feelings, that is, are obvious; easy to latch on to and agree with. And hard to gainsay.
But poetry, like good essay writing, I’d maintain, needs a serene and meditative space as well as Dionysian. Apollo must be able to light the brow, to slow things down, to touch the audience or readers in gentle and, could be, transformative ways. Poetry needn’t be performed publicly, needn’t be histrionic, in order to touch the audience.
It’s sad that the masses (read “hoi polloi”) are ignorant of poetry, but this includes well-read and well-educated people as well as semi-literates (can you say “Trump supporters”?). People in book clubs read history or novels, not poetry. They follow a story, a narrative, not images or meters. Poetry seems so far from life in what my students used to call “the modern world of today” with our high-stress work environments and our high-tech entertainment. We are so exhausted in body and mind, after a hard day’s week, what can we do but settle before the tube for the latest “content” from Netflix or HBO?