I’ve encountered slam poetry a few times in the past few years — more so in high school than now. I was always in the audience, never onstage. That’s not to say I didn’t write poetry. I did, and do. I acted in high school pretty often as well. I didn’t do musicals because I wasn’t a singer, but I always auditioned for the fall play and did some of the smaller productions and shows that our school put on.
I considered myself both an actor and a writer, but slam poetry never crossed my mind as a medium of interest. It never sat right with me. Even while in the audience, I wasn’t sure how to feel, or how to make sense of what I was experiencing.
Perhaps it’s because slam poetry is a synthesis of those two mediums of art done poorly. It isn’t literature, and it really isn’t theatre. The words don’t have to be good because they can fall back on the performance and the performance doesn’t have to be good because the words are there to distract you. You forget your expectations and readjust them as you go along.
I’ve gotten chills down my spine from slam poetry. But those chills were inauthentic. Is that possible to have inauthentic emotions? I think so.
It’s possible because the emotions exist on the surface level of the art. You get the same sensation you get when watching a drippy romantic comedy. It forgets to make you think and instead, you’re left with feelings that conform to what the performance set out to make you feel at all costs. It’s like intentional fallacy, but for your emotions. It’s emotional fallacy.
In the late ’50s a poet named Robert Lowell published a book of poems called “Life Studies” that began a movement of Confessional poetry. Lowell wrote about his family, his relationships and his history. In short, he wrote personally. The “I” wasn’t a fictional speaker; it was himself.
It’s not so tidy and clean but — after a storm of literary criticism — it’s said that there was a subsequent Post- and Anti-Confessional movement, which reconciled the narcissism and inaccessibility that comes with writing personally and Confessionally.
But slam poetry exists outside of these literary movements because it isn’t taught in a classroom. No one reads a slam poem and critiques it. They listen and if something confuses on the first read-through then it gets cut — it has to be ingested on the first go-around because no one’s reading it, only listening. The poem loses its depth. It stops being a poem and becomes something baseless altogether.
Lowell’s poetry was shocking at the time. Confessional poetry can be pretty shocking. Think about some of those darker poems by Sylvia Plath. Slam Poetry has embraced that full-on and hasn’t let go.
In fact, most slam poems I’ve experienced have been about sexual assault, rape, abuse, alcoholism or depression — and always in an over-the-top kind of way that seemed to miss out on the opportunity to explore the important elements of those topics in favor of dramatic delivery. Without fail, the speaker always seems to say “fuck” or “cunt” sometime during the performance, and usually in a way that doesn’t utilize the word beyond its shock value.
Is it unfair to generalize an entire medium and deem it as structurally flawed? I suppose. But if the angsty, hyper-Confessionalism of Slam Poetry that has strained all the complexity from its product is not inherent, then it is at least a trend — and one that exists because its performers often defer to melodrama over art.