THE AGE OF POETRY — ON AND OFF THE PAGE
Poetry is having a major moment. We seem to turn to it, to need it most when the world’s leaders debase language and thereby thought and action. And yet within the world of poetry, a division exists, an aesthetic line in the sand, between written word and spoken word writers. One side sees spoken word as lacking complexity and brevity, while the other judges the written form as boring, elitist, and unattractive.
I’d listen to the words of my drafts filling my empty subleased room with a cluster of sounds, sharp consonants and swinging vowels. I’d feel the rhythm bouncing off the walls and drum beats echoing within my head.
Until recently, I was on one side of this unnecessary divide. As a self-categorized page poet I distanced myself from what I saw as the hype around spoken word. I felt that my poems existed only on the page. Their voice, their persona, was given to them by all of their individual readers — professors, classmates, friends. Reading them in public, performing them, would feel wrong, would change their nature and at the same time contain too much of me, my physical being. They would fall short of their innermost meaning.
Still, I did in fact read my poems out loud. In solitude, using my voice as a detective, I analyzed my verses and discovered passages that needed revision. I’d listen to the words of my drafts filling my empty subleased room with a cluster of sounds, sharp consonants and swinging vowels. I’d feel the rhythm bouncing off the walls and drum beats echoing within my head.
When, suddenly, my voice fell flat, emotionless, and echoed without depth, no bass drum, the vowels standing still, I knew something was wrong. My heart beat went on, but the words did not go in unison with it. That part, I knew, would need to be rewritten.
Reading my pieces out loud has always played an important role in the creation and revision of my poems. Only with all my senses can I fully understand my work. Only then can I locate what it needs, where its strengths and weaknesses lie.
However, in my mind the words I recited in my bedroom stood entirely apart from the boisterous performances I associated with open mics. This summer, I left my comfort zone and participated in a spoken word seminar. In a little village in the Austrian Alps, under the guidance of British novelist and poet Lucy English, I delved into the strange world that I had tried so hard to avoid. I was curious to finally discover the reasons for the popularity of open mic stages and poetry slams, the strategies they employed to make literature accessible to a wide and breathing audience, and where I might fit into this genre that had frightened me for years.
In a safe space, a close circle of 12 seminar colleagues, all coming from different backgrounds — some engineers, some marketing strategists, some literature students like me — I was asked to create a new poem for the purpose of the class. We did not get any input on how to go about writing for spoken word, so I dug into my brain like an archeologist to find the story I needed to tell, just as I do when creating a new page poem. My first attempt to read this poem out loud in class immediately taught me that, if I was intending to perform a work and bring it to life, my usual toolbox would not be sufficient. I would have to touch its very origins, rethink my concept of poetry, lock away my page creations in one vault and start filling another with this new alien.
The spontaneity and playfulness of this genre that had always frightened me had turned into a gift of freedom. I enjoyed the quick dive through spoken waters; I found it thrilling to become a part of my verbal creation.
Spoken word is a short episode, a one-time experience. Page poetry, on the other hand, is a lasting engagement. When performed on stage, the audience cannot simply reread a crucial line to understand its deeper meaning. So, if a performance poet includes inter- or intra-textual references, paradoxes, and half rhymes, they ought to be precise, strategic — all following a clear thread. Otherwise, the audience will be lost in clouds of words, all bursting into rain, leaving no story to follow but only shaken reflections in puddles. These and many more structural details made me aware of the complexity and the power of spoken word and its distinctly different character than page poetry.
The seminar was set to culminate in a filmed performance of me reading the first poem I had written specifically to be spoken out loud. As I worked toward that goal, I realized more than ever before that speech is far more than a controlled vibration of our vocal chords. Suddenly, I had to use my hands, my arms, my legs, my feet, all of my body — thoughtfully, carefully. I had to consider pausing, speeding up, looking up or down or at the audience, smiling, crying, breathing — and I had to methodically implement what I was organically feeling into my performance.
It felt surprisingly good to recite my written words in my own personal voice. The spontaneity and playfulness of this genre that had always frightened me had turned into a gift of freedom. I enjoyed the quick dive through spoken waters; I found it thrilling to become a part of my verbal creation. I also enjoyed the democracy of this genre, the welcoming and accepting atmosphere where there is no need to be published, but only the need to say something, to hear something, to give and to receive. Most importantly, I found myself changed when I returned to my first — and maybe everlasting — love, the medium of the page, now seeing it with new eyes and ready to test its boundaries and get down to the core of what makes a poem work so beautifully when it stays on the page.
After my endeavor, I can conclude that there is no need for written poetry to compete with its spoken sibling. What is complex and has to be reread on the page is translated onstage by gestures and inflection; what is expressed in unfamiliar and challenging word choices on paper is conveyed with repetitions and pauses. Spoken word and page poetry are two entirely different genres, with their own rules and strategies, their own audience and their own agenda. They are as different as novel and drama, as apple and pear. We do not have to choose; we can embrace both forms for their unique abilities and qualities. We can create a sustainable coexistence for poetry on paper and poetry spoken out loud, to guarantee that our poetic expressions will always have a right to be read, and heard, and seen.
Lisa Schantl is an Austrian graduate student of English and American Studies at the University of Graz who has a background in philosophy and media sciences. She spent the 2017/18 academic year abroad in the United States at Montclair State University, New Jersey, where she had the opportunity to follow her passion for online and print publishing. Her journalistic work has appeared in the music magazines Music-News and PARADOX as well as in The Montclarion, and her creative work in The Normal Review and Frankfurter Bibliothek. She launched Tint — The ESL Writers Journal as a platform for the diverse voices of non-native English writers around the world.