Spoken Word – what’s in a name?

In my previous post, The Happiness Project, I used the term ‘spoken word’ in reference to Charles Spearin’s latest CD:

“This is a truly unique spoken word album and one well worth delving into.”

So, I was really interested to read a response to the post by Jacqueline Turner, questioning the use of the term, because of its preconceptions.

Thinking back, I used the term, because the project uses vocal sounds and patterns to create music, blurring the line between the everyday and art; between the spoken word and song.

Since releasing my debut CD with Sheish Money, I have also had alot of feedback stating that the album succeeds, because it is so different to most spoken word.

Maybe the term ‘spoken word’ has some baggage it needs to unload; maybe we need to come up with a different term; or maybe we are just splitting hairs?

I am stating the obvious when I say that poetry has always been an oral art form, but since the print revolution of the late 1800’s, there has been a definite shift toward print publication. Oral poetry has not been replaced by print publication, but the longevity and increased distribution of print has certainly made it the more dominant form during the last 100 years.

Technologies of Writing by Jaishree K. Odin is well worth reading. It states:

“In the preprint era, when only a small percentage of the population had access to written sources of information or knowledge, both public and private affairs were primarily conducted through oral communication. The primacy of physical presence in communication promoted community formations that were very much dependent on geographical togetherness and within that constraint further determined by communities based on parochial and family bonds. Printing revolution changed all that–for the first time, it was possible for political, economic, and culture producers to reach people who were dispersed geographically. As a result new types of communities were formed that were based on personal or professional interests, or political affiliations.”

This statement highlights the need for the oral and print tradition to survive side by side, as for me (and I will only speak for myself here), the ‘community formations’ which occur at readings such as SpeedPoets are just as important to the establishment of a thriving poetry culture as print and now electronic publication and distribtution are.

So with that cleared up (for me at least) why not call the oral art, spoken word?

Mark Mizaga’s article, The Spoken Word Movement of the 1990’s makes an interesting point:

“This issue of defining and classifying spoken word, and how much of spoken word can actually be termed as poetry, is a problem even for the artists themselves.”

Reading on, the difficulty seems to stem from issues such as marketing, the line between rap and poetry and a myriad other reasons. 

I use the term spoken word to describe the oral transaction a poet enters into when they stand up in front of an audience and read/recite/perform their poem.

Is there a better term? Or is the nature of a ‘term’ that it will eventually polarise some people? I don’t think there is any way around labelling things… even if we didn’t want to, it would happen.

So what’s in the name ‘spoken word’? I would love to hear your thoughts.


Filed under poetry & publishing

5 responses to “Spoken Word – what’s in a name?

  1. I’m one who commended the Stillest Hour, apart from its brilliance in words and production, for its distance to spoken word. When I think of spoken word I think of stale readings in absolute silence, as in a library or church. Listening to these on my ipod while driving is more dangerous than drinking! Your cd and the Going Down Swinging 28 that I listened to yesterday make my drive smoother, the minimalist musical background assists the meter of the words without detracting from them.

    I guess what I’m saying is that I agree that these recordings are spoken word, however I can see and identify with the negative connotations attached to this term. I think, along with new technologies there should be a new term, something like ‘Performed Poetry’, something that is not merely ‘spoken’ but conveyed into the minds of today’s technophiles.

    • gnunn

      Thanks for your response Mark. Hope this encourages others to dive in to the discussion… and glad that The Stillest Hour is makiing the drive smoother.

  2. I like Mark’s idea of ‘performed poetry’ and while I don’t think of ‘spoken word’ as having a heap of negative connotations – that might be due to the way I always imagine it as linked with music or other sounds (much like a lot of beat poetry).

    And it does seem that important interactions in society have a spoken component – political rallies, face-to-face economics, dates, rituals, concerts & performance etc – and so why shouldn’t poetry occupy that space too? The explosion of print & online culture has one of those odd dual roles – to both create community and physically isolate individuals by enabling them to communicate (at times exclusively) without leaving the private sphere of the home.

    Hmm, hope all that was actually on topic!

  3. This is something I’ve been debating in my head Graham so it’s great to see you give voice to my thoughts.

    I find people will have a go at me for reading my poems, then others will say that the memorised poems are too ‘showy’ and take away from the words themselves. They become more of a circus or theatre performance than poetry. In fact, after the slam final, I had someone come up to me and say I’d have to let go of my book if I wanted a chance to win in Sydney and I thought, “Really? Why?”.
    Is not spoken word just that? Words being spoken? No matter the context?
    Then of course there is the term ‘performance poetry’, like Nimbin’s annual comp. After speaking to them this year, they recommend you DON’T read, yet the previous years winner read his poems in protest of that very statement…

    And then of course there’s the rap argument. As a hip-hop enthusiast myself it makes me angry when rappers throw in a line about how they’re poets. Seemingly to give themselves artistic credibility after spending the previous 4 bars explaining how badly they’re going to smash someone’s face in. Then again some of my favourite rappers are those that I would consider poets as well: Tupac, MF Doom, Mos Def and Talib Kweli. So, maybe they are? Who decides? And whose opinion matters more? Mine? Yours? That guy sweating at the front of the stage, cheering on his favourite crew? Or the cynical dude like me at the back impatiently waiting for these clowns to get off stage?

    I like your thoughts Graham. Thanks for bringing to light a discussion that seems to spring to mind often.

    • I think that language is powerful, so what we call things is important because the naming shapes how we perceive our experience as listeners or how we understand what’s possible as creators.

      It can also become important if that term is picked up by granting agencies or the like so that who gets the opportunity to share their work and who doesn’t is a result of that categorization. Then you get dictatorial directions, like SD says, about not being “allowed” to use a book in order to efface the reference to the materiality of the text at all.

      I agree with Mark that I don’t see your work, G, with Sheish, as spoken word. Similarly, I don’t see Speed Poets as spoken word. The reason becomes clear if we think of spoken word as a form. There are certain expectancies from the audience – the mode of entertainment, for example and there is the priviledging of the poet as being at the center of the work. As SD says, it’s a pretty common critique that the performance takes away from the power of the words. I think that critique can be true when the work and the performance are at odds which is pretty common. So you do get people “performing” certain cadences that just don’t support the subject matter or that are kind of generic.

      The very fact that your work G, with Sheish, is collaborative and genuinely so, as is speed poets, transforms the ‘performance’ into something else altogether. Same with “The Happiness Project” which collaborates with the neighbourhood voices. On the other hand, many spoken word performers who use a band, do exactly that. They use the instruments and the sound to shore up their own performance, rather than engaging in a collaboration. At least, that is the effect, on me, personally.

      Maybe, though, if we think of spoken word as a form, then some interesting tensions can result in the refusal of certain aspects of that form.

      It’s like haiku and again G, you write haiku non-traditionally certainly in terms of subject matter but also traditionally in terms of formal elements — that combination or splicing together results in surprising shifts in perspectives for your readers. But even then, you wouldn’t want all of poety to be haiku.

      In the end, perhaps spoken word is just a form in need of innovation.

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