Having recently finished an English Literature degree and immersing myself in the academic study of poetry, I feel somewhat underwhelmed by contemporary exposure to the art form, a verbal mode of personal expression that speaks to each and every one of us. The word lives individually and collectively; it is a muscle that we exercise and refine each and every day. So why do I get the sense that spoken word remains a niche cultural avenue? I'm not here to pose the tired question, 'Is poetry dead?' but rather: Have we become unreceptive to the word?
Two friends of mine recently founded an online spoken word platform called Word on the Curb, which seeks to provide a channel through which young artists can explore current issues in spoken verse. I felt eager to participate in the project, and over the last few months we have witnessed the burgeoning potential of current spoken word artists and poets, young and determined to cultivate their message in order to articulate those experiences which surround them. It is inspiring, yet simultaneously disappointing to see this hotbed of talent working in an underexposed capacity.
Spoken word has grown of course; there are exciting poets who are gaining mainstream exposure such as Kate Tempest, Suli Breaks, Holly McNish, George the Poet and many others. I remember how excited I was the first time I heard Dan Le Sac Vs Scroobius Pip's lambasting ode to modern culture 'Thou Shalt Always Kill', the lines "Thou shalt not worship pop idols, or follow lost prophets" epitomising Scroobius Pip's sharp rhetoric. Performing poets like Benjamin Zephaniah have ensured that spoken word remains relevant as a cultural practice and Youtube channels such as Jamal Edward's SBTV have been crucial in fostering a widespread appreciation for lyricism in UK Rap and Grime.
However, the numbers worry me. Youtube has, in one way or another, become a useful measure of mainstream culture. Spoken word artists such as George the Poet and Holly McNish have garnered several million views and this is a testament to their ability as artists. Yet outside the select few, the figures drop quite sharply. This isn't to say that there aren't people engaging with and enjoying spoken word, but there is little evidence to suggest that a wide berth of artists who perform lyrically in the purest sense, are reaching a mainstream audience.
For Word on the Curb, our first appearance came from a young UK Rap artist named Blizzard, who gained considerable fame through the celebrated Don't Flop Rap Battles and has gone on to make a real mark in the rap scene. It was encouraging to see such a young artist willing to reach out and provide a confident yet thoughtful piece for our pilot series 'The 90 Second Project', challenging the artist to deliver within the time constraint of 1 minute and 30 seconds. Yet Blizzard is, by all intents and purposes, a rapper, not a purely spoken word artist. We have met with, spoken to and enjoyed the recitals of numerous poets, each of whom deserves a far greater audience with which to connect with and perform towards.
For my GCSE English studies, my class were taken to a live poetry event where famous poets such as Simon Armitage and Carol Ann Duffy performed a selection of their poems to a crammed room of impatient teenagers. Stifled yawns and vacant stares perpetuate my memories of these rather tawdry recitals, yet I will never forget the raucous reception to John Agard's famous poem 'Half-Caste'. The first two, well loved and respected in the world of poetry, reflected the difference between academic poetry, and poetry in its visceral, energetic delivery as spoken word, which was so wonderfully delivered by Agard.
The issue of whether younger people remain engaged with poetry and writing is illuminated in a study conducted by Pearson UK with over 400 school teachers across the UK last year, which found that 42% of children 'are likely to have turned off reading for pleasure before they reach secondary school age (11)'. It is difficult to precisely measure whether reading habits are diminishing amongst young people, yet can a loss of interest in words and the lyrical arts be measured in the music industry? A quick look at the UK music charts, or what is being pumped out on the radio day after day, week after week, could suggest a growing onus on melodic and rhythmic composition, deviating away from an insatiable love for lyricism as an artistic form. Hip-Hop, a music genre that lends itself so heavily to the rich roots of poetry and spoken word, has--certainly within its mainstream context--undergone a lyrical makeover that has placed a larger emphasis on sonic construction. The emergence of Hip-Hop sub-genres such as trap and drill have firmly taken the power out of words and redirected it into heavy 808 bass and synths.
As a part of my work with Word on the Curb, I recently interviewed the wonderful Aja Monet, a young poet hailing from New York, who at the age of 19, won the legendary Nuyorican Poets Café grand slam title. When I asked her what was holding UK spoken word poetry back from achieving mainstream occupation, she encapsulated the problem perfectly:
'I see lyricism thriving, but what are we being shown?...We just don't focus enough on the people who are doing it right.'
If reading habits are indeed deteriorating, spoken word can provide the resolution to a more academic form of poetry, and it has boundless potential. The question is, what can we do to make it happen? Monet was adamant that there should be dedicated poetry venues that singularly represent spoken word. I just hope that projects such as Word on the Curb can, in some small or larger measure, provide that avenue for spoken word to truly spread its wings.