Poetry and Politics 101: Contemporary Contexts
This series encounters poetry from the last two centuries to consider a fundamental question: what role does poetry play in political society? Poetry’s societal duty is a study that has often been neglected in favour of poetry’s relationship to language and emotion. Poetry and Politics 101 seeks to revitalise poetry in order to engage with its capacity to act as an agent of social and political change. Can poetry affect change? Can it influence people’s opinions? Can it offer a form of guidance in uncertain political times? It will also consider how poetry’s role has changed over time. Once possessing the title of the most widely read form of literature, circulated in newspapers and periodicals, and existing as a dominant feature of cultural response and reaction, poetry’s role in society started to dwindle as new forms of media began to dominate in the late 20th century. This series will work chronologically through significant time periods to consider the evolution of poetry’s role in politics and society over time.
This series will be divided into seven chapters:
Poetry and Politics 101: Victorian Poetry I - The Female Voice
Poetry and Politics 101: Victorian Poetry II - The Male Voice and the Vote
Poetry and Politics 101: Contemporary Contexts
The progression of poetry in the past two centuries, in accordance with cultural and societal shifts, has evidenced the phenomenal trait of the lyric as an adaptive, responsive, and reflective form. Acting as a witness to political turmoil, as a subversion to oppression and as an outlet for political frustration, the relation between the political and the poetical has grown increasingly apparent.
Poetry continues to adapt to the age of its expression. In the 21st century, poetry has once again been transformed. In both the postcolonial and the postmodern movements, poetry has proven itself a malleable form, a vehicle for the reclamation of identity and culture. As Jennifer Ashton (2016) claims, the project of defining poetry moving into the 21st century is encapsulated by a commitment “to building a literary art around the value of self-expression” (p. 216). In her representation of modern poetry as a commitment to the “valued representation of subjectivity” (p. 217), Ashton (2016) captures the essence of the poetry of the modern age as a prioritisation of the self.
Spoken Word Poetry
The spoken word poetry encapsulates the origins of poetry: a performative act. The genre engages with the form’s archaic roots of being performed, as opposed to textual reception, which was once the predominant means of distributing poetry. Raphael d’Abdon (2016) defines spoken word poetry as a “process of organising a poetic text around the voice” (p. 46). As such, the content of the poetry is only as important as its oral delivery.
This is not to say that the performative aspect of poetry is to be considered a lost art revived in the modern moment, nor that modern poets are revolutionary in their attention to the spoken element of the poem. 20th-century poets sought to revitalise the performative aspect of poetry, with the Beat poets being the first school dedicated to recorded media as a means of poetic distribution. This can be attributed to the revolutionisation of music as a social narrative and as a defining feature of popular culture. As Adina Georgiana Alexe (2021) argues, “music played an essential role in communicating ideas and emotions between counterculture members of the 1960s and offered people access to a common social narrative that articulated a new identity” (p. 7). The politicisation of music as a necessary form of social expression also offers an explanation for the revival of the performative and oral element of poetry that has reinvigorated the form into the twenty-first century.
As such, the contention that poetry is a necessarily oral form, “an artistic expression grounded in performance and orality: it has been such since the beginning of human civilisations” (d’Abdon, 2016, p. 48), is a significant one. Carl Hancock Rux goes so far as to argue that “there is no such thing as performance poetry” and though spectators may believe “they are getting something new […] it is not new information that […] poetry was created for the purpose of expression and performance” (1998, p. xiii). What is so significant about the adaptive shift of poetry in the twenty-first century? What about it is necessarily new?
While such views hold validity, Rux’s opinion that there is nothing new about performative poetry is a limited stance. It dismisses the cultural shifts of the modern age that have facilitated the rise of spoken word poetry as an expression of identity. The respective freedoms of the modern age are reflected in poetry as it breaks from its Victorian and Romantic chains of structured form, content, and voice. The celebration of culture, voice, accent, and identity, emblematic of the spoken word poem, has been permitted by the growing attention to the freedom and rights of the individual, and to the critical and societal reaction against oppression and discrimination of culture and subjective expression.
In an age dedicated to progression and change, “performance poetry attempts to open up new spaces of possibility” (Kelly, 2017, p. 176), acting as an agent of political discourse and societal development. The performative prioritisation of poetry is directly correlated with the increasing freedoms of speech and expression that characterise the cultural and societal priority of the modern age. Valerie Chepp (2016) alerts us to the ways in which “poets strategically use spoken word’s narrative and emotive features […] to propel their progressive politics locally and globally” (p. 44), with poets “frequently refer[ing] to spoken word as a tool” (p. 44). As such, spoken word poetry, in line with the rise of social media, has become a mobilising vehicle for the awareness of societal issues. As Chepp (2016) attests:
“Poets use spoken word as a platform to advocate for issues, a mechanism to build allies and networks, and a means to engage and mobilize these networks” (p. 44).
So, while poets may have focused on the performative aspect of poetry for as long as the form has existed, to say that spoken word poetry adds nothing new to cultural poetic discourse is a limited approach. Technological leaps that have facilitated the growth of social media have contributed to the newness of modern performative poetry, offering a global platform that allows poetry to reach new audiences. This approach is supported by d’Abdon (2016), who argues that the “rapid development of technology has fuelled the creation of manifold, eccentric and complex poetry performances that incorporate a multiplicity of media” (p. 46). With technological advances and new attention to the importance of celebrating culture and identity, and disrupting historical and present social injustices, the idea that “spoken word poetry can be a powerful agent of change” (p. 66) is certainly a valid assessment. The form as a “method of creative expression and social resistance” (Endsley, 2016, p. xv) supports the invigoration of performance poetry as a social tool.
Endsley (2016) attests to the correlation between spoken word poetry and the modern significance of music as a cultural and political form. Referring to hip hop and spoken word poetry as forms that “both prominently feature roots in resisting oppression, both are organic to communities of colour, and both have a broad appeal for and accessibility to young people” (p. xvii), suggests a modern society that is particularly orally receptive and influenced. The rise of music as cultural commentary thus explains the growing popularity of the spoken word poem.
Mainstream exposure to spoken word poets has propelled the form’s political impact. As Endsley (2016) argues, “often highly political, the performances by rising poets and celebrities featured in […] shows have been well documented and are easily accessible around the globe through DVD collections and YouTube videos” (p. xx) which exposes the genre to new audiences in ways which are limited in the case of written poetry. Such exposure has moved poetry from an exclusive community into mainstream culture, creating a space for poetry in dialogues and discourses often considered too “high-brow“ to interact with. Endsley’s (2016) response to spoken word poetry as a “powerful tradition that makes social issues accessible, changeable, and dialogical” and as a form that has “created space to project and rehearse multiple representations and signifiers” (p. xxi) is significant. The accessibility of spoken word poetry is a key signifier of its success in interacting with societal and political spaces.
A notable contributor to the success and popularity of spoken word poetry is African-American spoken word art. Valerie Chepp (2012) explores the ways in which this art form “offers a window through which to explore how a cultural site of creative and artistic inquiry can simultaneously serve as a site of social analysis and change” (p. 221). Chepp (2012) again alerts to the significance of technological advances in facilitating the growth in spoken word popularity, arguing that “performance poetry, practised largely among young adults in urban communities, serves as a site of artistic social change under advanced capitalism, facilitated (rather than diluted) by mass media (p. 222).
For African-American communities, spoken word poetry acts so much as a revival as it does a revolution. According to Chepp (2012), spoken word traditions are necessarily in opposition to the archetypal Western processes of “knowledge production, where the optical and textual are hegemonic modes of information sharing” (p. 224). The defiant features of the spoken word poem, as an informative mode that breaches the hegemonic boundaries of the textual and the optic, is precisely what makes the form so valuable in studying the "dissident ideas and political practices” (p. 224) of African-American communities. In defiance of centuries of violence, oppression, and suppression of identity and culture, spoken word poetry as a tool to reject hegemonic modes of discourse offers an opportunity for dissidence and a new celebration of culture and identity that can operate outside the boundaries of the very structures of discourse that facilitated the violence against them.
In a reclamation of stolen culture and identity, spoken word poetry archetypically offers a first-person narrative that draws heavily on subjective experiences and histories. As Chepp (2012) attests, “scholars have described spoken word performance poetry as an identity-based art form, and one that especially values marginalised identities, experiences, and personal struggles” (p. 231). The subjective voice serves as an expression of communal struggles and mindsets, offering a sense of community as the form “relies heavily on the emotional response of listeners, and the physical and sensual interaction between the writer and [their] audience” (d’Abdon, 2016, p. 45).
For the African-American community, spoken word offers a unique format to recover their stolen heritage and celebrate their culture in defiance of centuries of oppression and injustice. In regard to this reclamation, Chepp (2012) alerts to the significance of word-play in spoken word poetry, which is “important in the African American context because, historically, it helped to disguise the knowledge-politics embedded in the cultural art form” (p. 233). Gates (1988) relates such wordplay to a similar function in “black vernacular” where “since slavery, the black person has encoded private yet communal cultural rituals” (p. 339).
Jay Bernard: Surge
The significance of spoken word poetry to culture and identity reclamation, and to political intervention, is epitomised by the work of Jay Bernard, a poet and performance artist, in their poetry collection Surge. The collection, widely performed by Bernard, draws parallels between the Grenfell fire of 2017 and the New Cross Fire of 1981 to explore the continuation of racial injustice and discrimination in a supposedly progressive society. In their collection, Bernard focuses heavily on Jamaican Patois in their attempt to draw attention to the continuing injustices and racial discrimination in 21st-century Britain. In their poem Ark, he engages with Patois in a response to the continuing violence against their community, which in an attempt at archival reductionism has been downplayed and devalued by British culture.
Ark by Jay Bernard (2019): Mi brudda dead, mi brudda dead, mi brudda dead-o / Mi sista dead, mi sista dead, mi sista dead-o (lines 18-19)
The reclamation of Jamaican Patois epitomises Bernard’s struggle to reclaim their identity as they strive to draw attention to the continued violence against their culture. They ask “where to put the burning house, the child made ash, the brick in the back of the neck […] I file it under fire, corpus, body house” (lines 24-26). In an angry declaration of the devaluation of the experiences and discrimination of black people, Bernard seeks justice. The utilisation of cultural language within this poem draws back to a sense of community, a shared understanding of the injustices and violence enacted against their people for centuries. The spoken word poem offers the poet a unique opportunity to deploy “cultural tropes, political sensibilities, and indigenous knowledges” with which audiences will identify (Chepp, 2012, pg 231). In performing this to his audience, the poem carries a coded weight of cultural understanding, a recognition of communal struggle, that speaks to the audience and alerts them to the inclusivity of their political struggle.
Speaking on Patois, Bernard admits they “didn’t even understand [it] was a language” (Massana, 2020, p. 233). Speaking on this revival, they note it came as a:
“profound recognition of something valuable that I thought I’d lost: traditional knowledge that marks me as someone specific, from a specific community, with a long history” (p. 234).
In a conversation with Bernard, ADL notes that in his family “we switch between different words in different languages without realising we’re doing it. But if we were to sit down, it would be very difficult to work out the code” (Qtd in Massana, 2020, p. 234).
Both of these poets alert to a fundamental strength in spoken word poetry. It offers marginalised communities the opportunity to break against hegemonic modes of discourse that mark British English as the predominant mode of communication. by reclaiming their cultural language, poets can speak to a shared history, even more dignified when performed, which carries meaning only to those who share this cultural personal history. Speaking on this reclamation, ADL notes how cultural words can often “never mean anything to the dictionary […] but to us mean something else because they’re charged with personal history” (p. 235). The charged element of words is particularly significant here. Offering a communal experience, spoken word poetry offers a unique political discourse in its ability to transcribe personal history through the spoken word, as an inclusive opportunity to speak to an audience that shares in their understanding of a particular mode of speaking or a particular language.
Bernard’s emphasis on the “lost” nature of their language is also compelling. Spoken word poetry offers poets an opportunity to revive languages that throughout history have been repressed in favour of conforming to Western cultures in order to escape oppression or discrimination. Their revival of Patois offers a dissident approach to this rhetoric, as an opportunity to reclaim their identity and their recognition of the violence against their culture, and to further communicate this to an audience to encourage them to do the same. It offers an opportunity to “foster a critical consciousness, counter dominant ideologies, and be used in the service of social justice” (Chepp, 2012, p. 239). In this sense, language as a politically charged entity is fully utilised this way. It revives lost identity by empowering and celebrating previously repressed cultures, providing a sense of community to an audience while they bring awareness to the continued existence of systems of racial injustice and discrimination.
The significance of spoken word poetry cannot be understated. It exists as an art form that draws on the history of poetry as a performative act, whilst revitalising this performance to respond to contemporary instances of political injustices. The genre evidences the adaptive nature of poetry, which repeatedly proves itself malleable to technological, industrial, and cultural shifts. Marking a new step in poetic advancement, its interaction with popular mass culture, with dominant political discourses, and with poetry as a fundamentally communal act, demonstrates the ways in which poetry as a social and political form is just as important and as influential as it was centuries earlier.
Alexe, A. G. (2021). “The emergence of an ecological self in the 1960s American cultural revolution: A study of Beat poetry and countercultural music“.
Bernard, J. (2019). “Ark”. Surge, Penguin Random House.
Chepp, V. (2016). “Activating Politics with Poetry and Spoken Word“. Contexts, 15(4).
Chepp, V. (2012). “Art as Public Knowledge and Everyday Politics: The Case of African American Spoken Word“. Humanity and Society, 36(3), pp. 220-250.
d’Abdon, R. (2016). “Teaching spoken word poetry as a tool for decolonizing and africanizing the South African curricula and implementing “literocracy”“. Issues in English Studies in Southern Africa.
Endsley, C. (2016). The Fifth Element: Social Justice Pedagogy through Spoken Word Poetry. State University of New York Press.
Kelly, E. (2017). The Fifth Element: Social Justice Pedagogy Through Spoken Word Poetry: Book Review. Studies in Social Justice, 11(1), pp. 174-177.
Massana, E. (2020). “Poems as Livable Worlds: A Conversation with Afshan D'souza-Lodhi and Jay Bernard“. Lectora, pp. 223-246.
Figure 1: Styka, J. (c. 1800s). Saint Peter preaching the Gospel in the Catacombs [Painting]. Retrieved from https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Jan_Styka
Figure 2: Mahaney, F. (n.d.) Poetry Never Went Away [Illustration]. Retrieved from https://studybreaks.com/culture/reads/spoken-word-poetry/
Figure 3: Emer, E. (n.f.). Spoken Word Poetry [illustration]. Retrieved from https://theeyeopener.com/2019/01/how-the-internet-elevated-spoken-word-poetry-but-also-made-it-worse/
Figure 4: Ruiz, C. (n.d.). Untitled [Illustration]. Retrieved from https://www.nytimes.com/2015/05/17/books/review/toward-an-oral-art.html
Figure 5: Semansky, P. (2021). American poet Amanda Gorman reads a poem during the 59th Presidential Inauguration at the US Capitol in Washington DC [Photograph]. Retrieved from https://theconversation.com/amanda-gormans-poetry-shows-why-spoken-word-belongs-in-school-153838
Figure 6: Canter, A. (2019). Jay Bernard [Photograph]. Retrieved from https://www.theguardian.com/books/2019/jul/06/surge-by-jay-bernard-review-the-painful-echoes-of-britains-black-radical-past