In general terms, spoken word poetry is a poetic work read aloud or performed orally with the poet performer speaking naturally. Defining and classifying spoken word poetry can be a challenge given potential overlap with written poetry read aloud, rap and hip hop performance, and storytelling. Characteristics of the spoken word movement include a disdain for the academic community, a confessional or stream-of-consciousness style, and a de-emphasis on publication. Spoken word poetry rose to prominence in the 1980s and 1990s in America but had roots in oral storytelling traditions and ties to the Beat Generation of the 1950s and 1960s.
The primary goal of spoken word poetry is to provide an outlet for personal expression that is beyond academic or other institutional influence. Rather than rely on publication for distribution, the spoken word poet expresses his or her views and communicates information directly to the public via oral performance. The style is often visceral, recounting raw emotions, political and social commentary, and personal experiences. Common venues for spoken word include public spaces, open mics at coffee shops and bookstores, and other performance sites.
The cable channel Music Television (MTV) gave spoken word poetry a national forum by broadcasting a series of spoken word editions of the MTV Unplugged program starting in the 1990s. The series featured artists like Maggie Estep, Reg E. Gaines, and John S. Hall. Hall saw one of his poems top the college radio charts in 1994, the only spoken word piece to do so, and MTV sponsored his spoken word tour. Other performers like Estep and Gaines continued to be featured on MTV in sound bites between programs known as Fightin’ Wurdz. MTV’s commitment to the movement proved fleeting, however, and spoken word failed to sustain its national prominence.
The spoken word movement has roots in the oral storytelling and call-and-response traditions of African and Native American cultures. In the mid-20th century, the Beat poets made a conscious effort to bring poetry back to these roots. Like the Beat Generation poets, spoken word poets typically share an aloofness from academic circles, an emphasis on performance, and a confessional style. Unlike rap and hip hop performance, spoken word poetry does not usually incorporate melody or consistent rhythm.
Few spoken word poets record or publish their work, because they are primarily concerned with being heard and fear institutionalization of their movement. Despite this suspicion of academic environs and influence, some universities have started offering programs and courses in spoken word performance. This de-emphasis on publication is one characteristic that sets the spoken word movement apart from the Beat Generation poets. It should be noted that some spoken word performers do publish novels and more conventional types of poetry, and there are anthologies of spoken word poems.
Racial, gender, and ethnic diversity is another difference between the Beats and the spoken word movement. The Beat poets were generally a community of white men, while the spoken word movement is seen as more populist. Spoken word embraces diversity, involving women and people of color. A goal of the movement is to promote tolerance between people by dissolving social, political, and cultural boundaries.
Although the spoken word movement reached its most recent peak in the 1990s, the genre remains vibrant in specific communities and forums. The Nuyorican Poets Cafe on New York City’s Lower East Side continues to be an important platform for spoken word poetry. Universities with spoken word programs like the University of Wisconsin’s First Wave community help foster new generations of spoken word performers. Ultimately, a spoken word poem is akin to a living, ephemeral piece of performance art rather than a permanent, published work.