Spoken Word, Recorded Poetry, and Hip-Hop

I’m gearing up to make an audio recording of poems read aloud, and along the way I found some very interesting stuff.

When searching for recorded poetry on the internet, it is difficult to decide which keywords to search with. It seems that the recorded poems out there in the world get classified differently, and since I firmly believe that “There are no categories”, the creative challenge here is to find a way to take my favorite elements of each of these groups, and go my own way with them.

It seems, in general, that recorded poetry can take one of three forms: cultural, sub-cultural, or pop-cultural.

Recorded Poetry

I’ll call “recorded poetry” the works of the so-called “major poets”, for lack of a better term. These are works that are typically published in print first, and later read aloud by the authors, who typically have some amount of literary notoriety.

Poetry Archive is an excellent primary source for this material. Poetry Archive an internet collection of, in their words, “the voices of contemporary English-language poets and of poets from the past.” The archive allows its audience to encounter the contents in a variety of interesting ways: poems organized by poetic form , for example, or poems organized by theme, in addition to the traditional organization by title or by author . Unfortunately, there is no chronological arrangement, yet. The Poetry Archive project is still in its youth.

Amardeep Singh , Assistant Professor of English at Lehigh University recently blogged an introduction to the archive: " If you’ve never heard Yeats or Tennyson reading in their own voices (on wax cylinder recordings), now you can for free."

Andrew Motion, the Poet Lauriate of England, is involved with the Poetry Archive project, and has written about it in “ Hearing the Masters’ Voices ” for London’s Times.

I thought it was a pity that no one had thought to record poets in a systematic way, from the time that the technology first became available in the late 19th century.

That way, some of the lamentable gaps in our sound heritage would have been filled…. “The living part of a poem,” [Robert] Frost says, “**is the intonation entangled somehow in the syntax, idiom and meaning of a sentence. It is only there for those who have heard it previously in conversation . . .**It goes and the language becomes a dead language, the poetry dead poetry. With it go the accents, the stresses, the delays that are not the property of vowels and syllables but that are shifted at will with the sense. Vowels have length, there is no denying. But the accent of sense supercedes all other accent, overrides and sweeps it away.”

These convictions lie close to the heart of the Poetry Archive, which at the time of launching contains almost 100 voices: the great majority being new recordings that we have made ourselves, alongside a good many “historic” ones. (By “historic”, we mean recordings made before we began our project, ranging from the late 19th century to more recent times.) We intend to record many more contemporary poets and also to track down and add all the significant historic recordings we can find. If anyone has Hardy’s voice in their attic, please tell us.

Spoken Word

In an informative article that interviews major players in The Spoken Word Movement of the 1990’s , Mark Miazga takes a stab at the diffficult task of defining the spoken word movement.

It was a renewed fascination with the Beats in the 1990’s that was an important catalyst for an oral poetry movement that swept through the United States youth culture scene. … This has a number of similarities with the 1990’s oral poetry movement, … The term given to this visceral, in-your-face style of contemporary poetry of the nineties was spoken word. Up until then, the term only described non-music sections in music stores that contained non-music comedy, plays, or famous speeches. In fact, there have been a number of issues with the breadth of the term spoken word, which The New York Times has called “pointlessly stiff,” and the relationship of the term with poetry. For example, all poetry read aloud is spoken word, but not all spoken word is poetry. Sometimes, it is difficult to discern where spoken word ends and poetry begins. … 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. … that spoken word is, “a blanket term that cover(s) monologues, poems, stories, rap, etc. I like the term precisely because it is so ambiguous and broad.”

Maggie Estep is one of the important names to remember in the spoken word scene. Maggie has recorded two spoken word CDs, NO MORE MR. NICE GIRL (Nuyo Records 1994) and LOVE IS A DOG FROM HELL (Mercury Records 1997). She has given readings of her work at cafes, clubs, and colleges throughout the US and Europe and has also performed her work on The Charlie Rose Show, MTV, PBS, and most recently, HBO’s “ Def Poetry Jam ”. (There is an interview with Maggie Estep published at Suicide Girls .)

Speaking of Def Poetry Jam, it seems to be the last basion of major media coverage for spoken word preformance, after the demise of MTV’s Poetry Unplugged in the late 90’s. NPR also created one of their patented miniseries on the subject, entitled “ The United States of Poetry

While it may not be media-friendly enough to remain in the rankings of pop culture, Spoken Word performances are still supported globally by audiences of the poetry slams , and in places like The Nuyorican Poets Cafe

One of the major fascets of spoken word poetry that’s touted around is the fact that it is decidedly not as literary as the published variety of poetry. Caryn James wrote a New York Times review of the aforementioned MTV Poetry Unplugged show . The review posits Spoken Word as a bridge over the gap between Rap and Poetry, (a relationship I’ve borrowed here) and says:

But most of this is disposable, evanescent poetry. The special is called "Spoken Word," not "Written Word," for a good reason. Most of the poems won't endure for decades, and why should they? Their purpose is different. "Unplugged" assumes that rap is street poetry and that street poetry is a vocal, visceral expression of contemporary life.

“Spoken Word” is just one manifestation f the renewed interest in poetry. In John Singleton’s current film, Poetic Justice, Janet Jackson plays a young woman from South-Central Los Angeles whose poetry expresses her emotional isolation and heartsick response to the death of everyone she has loved. As Mr. Singleton has written in “Poetic Justice: Film Making South-Central Style,” a new book about the making of the film: “Most of the girls I knew growing up, their main creative outlet was writing poetry. Whether they were good at it or not.”

Justice is obviously supposed to be good at it. Her poetry was written by Maya Angelou, now known as the Inaugural Poet."

So there you have it, Maya Angelou can write, has written, some of this stuff. Do you suppose it will stay “disposable” forever?


I’ve said this before, in my thesis :

The realm of aesthetics is one of the playing fields for the ongoing question of meaning in the modern world. For example, the new modern generation uses hip-hop as a form of discourse, often as an expression of anger. By comparison, The Iliad is a similar expression of anger. Both are long and lyrical. Both use death, violence and the possession of women as central themes. Now, bring both forms of discourse to your typical literary pundit and he or she will call one of them art, extolling its universal themes and virtues. The other item will be largely ignored, except perhaps to be passed onto a sociologist. The Iliad, being an immaculately crafted example of the oral tradition epic formula at its best, does deserve its reputation as a beautiful work of art. Any given hip-hop song might even deserve to be dismissed, on the grounds that it doesn't say anything that every other song in the rather formulaic genre hasn't already said. However, it should be noted that the genre is new, still formulaic, and while the formula may have some serious problems, **there is an undeniable potential there for unrivaled lyrical beauty**. Nevertheless, the genre gets largely ignored by the critical eye.

If I were to turn my critical eye toward Hip-Hop, to examine its literary merits, it might help with the task at hand, which is to look for anything helpful for my upcoming poetry recording, but I’m afraid the task would be a daunting one. I’m largely ignorant of the genre.

I found a clue to where those merits might lie in an essay entitled reverse-gentrification of the literary world, which is the preface of a book by Miles Marshall Lewis

Hiphop as a culture and art form graduated from subculture status during the early 1990s, significantly figuring in the lives of worldwide youth and ending its standing as an underground phenomenon. With its mainstream success came more radio-friendly beats and rhymes, and certain characteristics that appealed to its wider audience were forefronted: crass bling-bling materialism; violent rap rivalries that extended beyond records into real-life shootings, stabbings, and murders; the objectification and denigration of women in videos and song lyrics. Furthermore, most modern rap music aficionados had no appreciation for aerosol art, deejaying, or breaking--sidelined aspects of hiphop culture whose former prominence I remembered fondly from the seventies and early eighties. I began to embrace more of a post-hiphop aesthetic, as if a new youth subculture was right around the corner and hiphop was on its deathbed.


My intent was to discover the best elements from a selection of recorded poetry styles, but I’ve only begun to understand the styles themselves. The next step would logically be to find examples of each, and learn to tell what I like from what I don’t like. I welcome any comments that might help with this.