Poetry Slams Hip-Hop

“There are only three legitimate things anyone can do with poetry — write it, read it, or publish it. Writing reviews, or holding seminars, or reading it in public — even making records of it — well, this is secondary activity, unimportant at best, meretricious at worst.”

— Philip Larkin

The votes have been cast and the results are in — hip-hop is now the preferred entertainment medium for the next generation. Hip-hop sales make up a larger and larger proportion of the pop-music universe every year, and even when it does not thoroughly dominate, its styles are forming the backbone of whatever does, whether it happens to be bubble-pop, electronic music or rap-rock. You need look no further than Eminem’s Oscar win for “Lose Yourself” to know that, like it or not, the form has arrived in mainstream culture and isn’t going anywhere.

Along the way, it has made capitalist kings out of Russell Simmons, Jay-Z, Rick Rubin, LL Cool J, Ice Cube and countless others. Simmons alone is now a cultural force to be reckoned with, and his “One Mind One Vote” campaign hopes to pull millions of nonvoting young African-Americans into the 2004 election.

Simmons understands a zeitgeist when he sees one, and so it is no surprise that such a progenitor of hip-hop would latch onto the burgeoning poetry movement known as spoken word — or “slam,” depending on the venue — and take it mainstream. In 2003, Simmons morphed his king-making HBO vehicle known as “Def Comedy Jam” into “Def Poetry Jam,” hoping to explode the careers of outstanding poets like Saul Williams, Jimmy Santiago Baca, Ursula Rucker and others as convincingly as he did for comedians Martin Lawrence, Jamie Foxx, Bernie Mac, Steve Harvey and Dave Chappelle. It worked like a charm — “Def Poetry Jam” garnered stellar reviews and a Peabody Award to boot.

That’s because, as Saul Williams — whose recent epic poem “, Said the Shotgun to the Head” was released by MTV Books last fall — explains, hip-hop has had as massive an influence on today’s spoken word poets as jazz had on the Beats — and the African oral tradition had on jazz.

“I’m definitely a hip-hop head by nature, by generalization, by generation,” says Williams. “I’m there in the mix, so I’m turned on by the same things, nod my head to the same things. Even if I’m writing a piece of prose, there is still an intrinsic rhythm that I’m looking for, even without rhyme, even without beats, even without music and microphones.”

But even with the considerable clout of hip-hop — and Russell Simmons — behind it, spoken word is sometimes still considered the redheaded stepchild of poetry. It has yet to fully win over the academics, 183 years after Percy Bysshe Shelley argued that “poets are the unacknowledged legislators of the world.” Former United States poet laureate Robert Pinsky has publicly praised the spoken-word movement, but the Favorite Poem Project Web site he started in 1997 to celebrate and promote “poetry’s role in Americans’ lives” includes exactly zero spoken-word or hip-hop artists (although it does contain a spirited reading of Gwendolyn Brooks’ canonical “We Real Cool,” a poetic hip-hop antecedent if there ever was one). This is curious, considering that the site features so many readings of classic poems by ordinary citizens like you and me.

If you ask Tree Swenson, executive director of the Academy of American Poets — since its inception in 1934 the country’s largest organization dedicated to poetry — she’ll tell you that it’s just business as usual. “As long as there has been poetry, there have been poetry wars,” she explains. “Very little of what’s written in poetry survives. But this sorts itself out through time. I think it’s very difficult to draw a line that will stay put. It wavers.”

Swenson believes part of the reason for that wavering is the inherently personal nature of poetry itself. “Poetry by its very nature resists categorization,” Swenson continues. “You can’t simply lump all poets into a single group. As with more traditional poetry, it’s always based on the individual poet and poem.”

That may be Swenson’s world view, but the prologue to editor Mark Eleveld’s “The Spoken Word Revolution: Slam, Hip-Hop & the Poetry of a New Generation” (released last year by Sourcebooks) paints quite a different picture, one where categorization — and marginalization — cannot be extricated from the world of professional poetics. A few well-decorated poets sit at a table responding to questions from various interviewers, and the intergenerational and occupational tension is palpable. “They sat at the panel,” Eleveld writes, “the learned and the poetic, some with their credentials resting high upon their shoulders … sound[ing] as if they just got off the Concorde from Paris … name-dropping Ivy League pretensions and Nobel Prize winner mentorships.”

That “aristocratic bullshit,” as Eleveld describes it, is what led the sole poet on the panel without those ivory-tower credentials, Marc Smith, to create the Poetry Slam. “I was an outsider,” Smith explains in “The Spoken Word Revolution,” “and I thought I had something to say, like a lot of outsiders do. There were a lot of people snubbing me who shouldn’t have been snubbing me. So I just ended up doing it my own way.”

The rest, as they say, is history. Spoken-word and slams quickly became poetry’s most vital, vibrant movements, populating smoky clubs and silver screens alike, most notably in the form of Marc Levin’s 1998 “Slam,” a film that starred and was co-written by Saul Williams — and took home the Sundance Film Festival’s Grand Jury Prize in the process. Williams has also become a star of sorts, landing roles in big-budget movies like “KPAX” and opening slots on tours for Rage Against the Machine, the Roots and, most recently, Mars Volta.

Meanwhile, Eleveld’s book is in its second printing, having sold 20,000 copies in approximately nine months, a major feat for a poetry release whose market considers a bestseller to be around 1,500 copies sold. No doubt the inclusion of such esteemed figures — in both the book and an accompanying CD — as Williams, “Lord of the Rings” star Viggo Mortensen, Sherman Alexie and Andrei Codrescu, as well as an introduction by current U.S. poet laureate Billy Collins, has contributed to the brisk sales.

Whether you like the forms or not, spoken-word and the poetry slam have resuscitated poetry for popular consumption. “I think poetry is more popular now than it has been in the last 100 years, at least,” says Eleveld. “‘Poetry Speaks,’ published by Sourcebooks, sold 100,000 copies because of three CDs that had canonized poets like [Walt] Whitman, [e.e.] cummings and [Sylvia] Plath reading their own work. ‘Spoken Word Revolution’ sold 20,000 in its first run. In poetry, these numbers are unheard of. The National Poetry Slam in 2003 ran for four nights, taking up eight clubs in Chicago’s Wicker Park area, and boasted 1,100 people at the individual finals at the Metro, which is where the Rolling Stones, Smashing Pumpkins and more have played.”

According to Eleveld, those numbers are a far cry from a literary landscape before poetry slams. In the mid-1980s, he remembers, “Poetry readings were sparse; audiences were usually around something like 15 people. Now, professional poets are regularly touring high schools, colleges and clubs. If you go to Billy Collins’ site, you’ll see that he travels 15 days out of the month reading his work. This is all related to slams, hip-hop and the appreciation of oral tradition.”

But even though that oral tradition — whether it was handed down from Homer, Rumi, Allen Ginsberg or Chuck D — is alive and well in the spoken-word sphere, there is still a performance aspect of slams that remains largely alien to conventional poetics. And that added dimension of public performance is just as complicated as it is attractive.

“We don’t really have an academy position on spoken word,” explains Swenson. “The lines are blurry. You certainly have more traditional poets, who begin with the page and then read their poems. Some read it well and some read it abominably.”

That is, just reading your work aloud might not be enough sometimes. You’ve got to “move the crowd,” as Rakim said on “Paid in Full.”

“There are a couple of different elements here,” Swenson continues. “Do these words work on the page? There are some poems that are so complex on the page that they’re impossible to read. But there is some middle ground, where the poem can come alive through the voice. Then are some great performers who can put on a show and wow an audience, but when the words are put on a page, they become lifeless.”

Then there is, getting back to hip-hop, what Saul Williams considers to be the built-in oppression coursing through the rap game.

“The difference between the poet and the M.C. is that the M.C. is by definition a master of ceremonies,” Williams explains. “If you aim to be the master of ceremonies, then you have to play the role of the oppressor. You have to be in control, you have — to use a hip-hop slogan — ‘to act like ya know, son, you have to act like ya know.’ Whereas the poet is allowed to be introspective, allowed to raise questions — is allowed to say, ‘I don’t know, I wonder why, I wonder what this means.’”

That innocent questioning of what the L.A. ska-punk poets Fishbone called “the reality of my surroundings” is often frowned upon by those in hip-hop and rap who, like 50 Cent, build their reputations on flak jackets and bullet holes. “The poet is allowed to be vulnerable,” Williams continues, “whereas, with M.C.’s and in hip-hop, vulnerability is a sign of weakness. And so it becomes less and less real, less connected to the true nature of humankind. The further out we go on the tip of invulnerability and being hardcore, the less we can show a soft side.”

It is this simplistic hyper-masculine posturing that has continually plagued the rap game, and kept it from achieving the type of legitimacy bestowed upon other forms of poetic expression. 50 Cent’s unimaginative subject matter and Eminem’s persistent homophobia, no matter how cleverly worded it may be (and in 50’s case, that’s being exceedingly charitable), are ultimately alienating. Which is not to say that Eminem’s work, in particular, hasn’t inspired thousands of kids to dye their hair blond and put their thoughts on paper, but to what end? Does the world truly need another dick-grabbing M.C. who’s interested mostly in heaping calumny on homosexuals, groupies, Moby and his own mother? Can we really consider lines from 50 Cent’s “In Da Club” like “I’m that cat by the bar toasting to the good life/ You that faggot-ass nigga trying to pull me back right” poetic in the slightest? 50 Cent might have been the hottest selling rap act of 2003, but to call him a poet would be testing the limits of the terminology.