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POETRY IS NOT A PERFORMANCE ART
by Miles Mathis
My father sent me a link from the New York Times this week, concerning Obama's decision to bring avant garde art into the White House. He expected I would want to comment on it publicly. Some may be surprised to find that I have very little to say about it. In fact, I will limit my commentary here to a repeat of what I said to my father. I said, Can the propaganda get any more transparent? Obama has sold himself as national spokesperson for all the centers of power, for the banksters and the Pentagon and the Israel lobby. He has filled Bush's shoes almost completely already. He has recommended buying stocks, so he is a paid cheerleader for Wall Street. I'm only surprised he didn't recommend specific stocks. “Hi, I'm President Obama speaking for Coca-Cola. Like me, it's 'refreshing honest'! Or is that 'honestly refreshing'? Hah, hah. Pick up a case at Wal-Mart today. And don't forget to buy some stock, too!”
His promotion of contemporary art is a step over the same not-so-fine line. He is over the line since the news stories are mentioning specific names of living artists, like Jasper Johns. Obama might as well wear a sandwich board during his press conferences saying “shop at Pace-Wildenstein Gallery”. Have we come to the point where we will accept the President plugging private businesses? The next step is neon signs for Bank of America and Citigroup and Gagosian Gallery right on the White House facade. Are we quite certain that Obama is not getting kickbacks from specific galleries, in the form of sweetheart deals on paintings, or in the form of cash? Until someone does a thorough investigation proving he is not, I will assume he is. Most of his non-tax-paying appointees have already been caught getting kickbacks (see Larry Summers' kickbacks from Goldman Sachs, as just one example). So why should we think Obama is scrupulous? It takes much more imagination to assume the best of politicians than to assume the worst.
For now, I will leave it at that. This week I happen to be more interested in Obama's opening of the White House to slam poetry. This interests me not so much for the economic implications, since I doubt that the slam poets were able to buy themselves in the door, like the modern galleries. No, I think Obama is making this link to slam poetry to firm up his links to the left and the margins, and to women and people of color. He has sold all of them out in a multitude of ways in his first months in office, and he badly needs misdirection on a multiple levels. He needs the media to report on slam poets and modern artists traipsing lazily through the white house, smoking clove cigarettes and spitting into the vases, and he needs trips to Buchenwald where he can blab about the Holocaust, and he needs to be seen kissing his wife and throwing balls to his children and so on. Anything to keep the nation's eyes off the prize.
But even that isn't the reason I wanted to write this paper. I wanted to write this paper because I want to say that slam poetry is not poetry. It is rap without the music. It is spoken poetry without the poetry. It is bad rhyming with no depth, no rigor, no beauty, no complex form, and no subtlety. Like avant garde art, is the cooption of real art by faux-artists. Since I consider myself a progressive, as far away as possible from the financial concerns of the Republican party, I don't really relish sounding like an aristocrat, but there it is. In my opinion, there is no direct link between art and politics, and, besides, promoting bad art cannot benefit either the left or the right. There is nothing progressive about bad art or bad poetry.
This needs to be said because slam poetry continues to grow in popularity. As this week's New York Times tells us, “Slam poetry has been incorporated into school curriculums across the country; more than 80 cities now compete in the annual national championship; and similar contests are springing up in the most unlikely places, most recently on Réunion Island in the Indian Ocean.” This is just to say that slam poetry is another form of fake art taking over the world, destroying literacy as it does so (the plural of curriculum is curricula, and apparently not even the New York Times can hire editors that know that anymore).
I know that the promoters of slam poetry will attack my title here. They will say that poetry has been a spoken art for millennia. True, but my title does not include the word “spoken”. I am not denying that poetry has an oral tradition or that poetry can benefit from being spoken. I am saying that poetry is not a performance art, in the sense that the performance cannot be more important than the art. Nor can the performance stand for the art.
In a true performance art like dance, the performance IS the art. Without a performance, there is no art. Without a dance, there is no dance. You cannot have a written dance.
With poetry, however, the bulk of the art is in the writing. Speaking the poem can bring this art to life, but it cannot create it. A good reading and a nice voice can maximize the power of the words, but even without a reading, a poem is art, in full. Or it should be.
But slam poets are trying to substitute the performance for the art. They take a banal series of words, and by speaking quickly and with cadence, they attempt to give this series of words an emotional content. In this way the “art” is all shallow effect. When you take away the performance, all the art evaporates. If you read a slam poet's poem, you find almost no art left.
To prove this let me give you an example. I have been to several slams. I even competed in one back in the early 90's in Austin. I treated it like a reading, and simply tried to read my traditional poem with a beautiful voice, with full emotion. I am pretty sure I succeeded in that. But that is not what slam poetry is about, as you are probably aware. I didn't get a single vote. No one knew what I was talking about. My dream imagery confused them, and my vocabulary was beyond them. Although I often rhyme, my rhymes are too far apart to be recognized by slammers. They are used to rhymes that are within three words of eachother, not end rhymes or distant internal rhymes. They also have no appreciation of other types of form, since these forms are invisible in spoken poetry. I passed out copies of my poem, to encourage them to read along while they listened, but this was considered either odd or extraneous, and no one did it. They missed the beauty of the composition, from the meter to the length of the line to the shape of the words on the page. All that art was lost to them.
I listened to the other competitors and was not impressed. To my ear, it was junior high level poetry with a lot of screaming and stomping. When I shared this opinion with a friend, she said, “Yes, but this is just local level stuff. Local level stuff is bad no matter what art form you are looking at. When you get to the national level, it is probably pretty impressive.” She was wrong. Let us look at the national winner this year, Mayda del Valle, and her slam poem entitled “Elemental”.
I like em fresh faded jeans saggin
in a b-boy stance with fat laces
an he gots to be a sneaker addict.
I thought I had it with these hip hop cats
but I'm addicted and I can't break the habit
First time I fell for the spine
of the street artist scribe
a tag of the graffiti writer.
This cat had a mean streak
an I don't mean the kind you write with.
Figured he'd give the outline of love
but never filled it with substance...
I just wanted to be the white wall he left his tag on.
I don't think I need to quote much more than that. I gave up on Mayda within ten seconds. Not only is her subject matter completely commonplace and uninspired, her ideas are shallow and her words lack all complexity. The only skill she has is in her delivery. She is fast and nearly flawless, and her voice is fairly smooth. She does not have a beautiful voice, but she is less annoying than most other slammers, with their squeaks and nasals and honks and other provincial affectations. She is also fairly attractive. She out-delivered all the other non-poets, and so won the prize.
I quoted Mayda not only because she was the national champion, but because she was one of Obama's invitees. But let's look a little closer at those few lines. [This is the first poem listed on Google and Youtube, so I did not select the worst lines I could find. I just took the first thing offered me.] We have a stringing together of cliché and a dropping of lingo, both to ingratiate the poet to her audience. Nothing in the first eight lines transcends these two categories, and nothing approaches poetry. Finally, in line nine, we have a lame attempt at a double entendre, but she only weakens the “mean streak” by diluting it with a gratuitous reference to a pen. Line 11 attempts a metaphor, with love being compared to a book, but her opposition of outline and substance is again cliché. Finally, she wants to be the “white wall he left his tag on.” No doubt Mayda is sold as a slam feminist, but her meaning here can only be read as anti-feminist. She wants to be the white page he writes on, which is completely passive and objectified. She wants to be tagged, like a lioness with a number on her ear or a pigeon with a ankle transmitter. She might as well want to be the fire hydrant he takes a piss on.
This is not an extravagant reading, since she has another poem called “To all the Boys I've Loved Before (part 1)”. I suppose it is dedicated to Julio Iglesias. This is sort of like Percy Shelley quoting Dolly Parton or Michelangleo going to Thomas Kinkade for inspiration. When I see a poem entitled “To all the Boys I've Loved Before,” I see it as a sign to keep moving. It is a flapping banner screaming, “NO POETRY HERE!” But Mayda's audience is not so picky. They are impressed by crude cultural references, just as they are impressed by cliché and lingo and bald commonplaces. In real poetry, the poet makes a conscious effort to avoid lingo, cliché, and commonplace, but slam poetry is the embracing of these categories. One might say it is the summation of these categories, and nothing else.
Some have asked me why I use such uncommon words in my poetry. To avoid lingo, cliché, and commonplace. They say, “Isn't poetry mainly about communication? People don't want to have to look words up in the dictionary.” Well, most people don't want to do anything but sit on the couch with a flipper and a bag of chips, but that isn't my concern. I don't choose words to be difficult, I choose words to write poetry. All art is rare, and it requires a bit of work from the artist and the reader. I happen to like looking up words in the dictionary, because I am sick of all the old familiar words. You can't create mystery with cliché, and a large part of the English language is now cliché, due to massive overuse in the media. A huge number of words have been artistically devastated by the advertising industry, by Hollywood, by television, and by the internet. A large fraction of the dictionary is off-limits to poetry, since you cannot hope to create subtlety or mystery or beauty with words that have already been through the mouths of a billion mediocrities. Words are not only denotative, they are connotative, and once a word has been loaded down with a certain number of vulgar connotations, it can no longer stand unsullied on the page. The poet must flee cliché, lingo, and commonplaces, since only banality can be created by banal words. Fortunately, the English language contains tens of thousands of under-used words, and many of them are quite serviceable poetically. What I mean by that is that many of them have a nice sound and look to them. They are not too long or too difficult to pronounce, and they fit well in meter. Many are also nicely onomatopoeic. Yes, you must learn what they mean, but it is worth it because it gives us a fresh new language to use, free of cliché and overuse. In entering this new language, we can easily enter a new world of new visual and aural sensation, with words of new shape and sound and often of new meaning.
Although I think this must be of interest to those really invested in the power and beauty of words, I realize that it will leave many cold. It will be beyond the boundaries of a slam, for a start. The audience at a poetry slam is not seeking great poetry, it is looking for someone to represent them. For proof, go to Youtube and look at the slam audiences at the national level. There are no white guys in the competition and almost no white guys in the audience. The audience for slam poetry is very much like the audience for Oprah, except that it is less white. It is mainly a female hip-hop audience. I would guess 80% female and 90% non-white, which is considerably less white than Oprah's audience.
I know that many will jump to the opposite meaning I intend. They will think I am trying to say that only white guys can write real poetry. No, just the opposite. I am not trying to say that only white guys can write poetry, I am trying to say that, even in the 21st century, white guys should be fairly included and fairly represented in poetry. A poetry contest, written or spoken, should be about poetry, not about racial or sexual identification. Yes, people need to be included in groups and they need to identify with eachother. If they are in groups that have historically been discriminated against, this is doubly true. But I suggest that high art is not the best place to display and codify this identification. Like it or not, poetry is a high art. It always was and still is.
I often make an analogy between art and sport, and this is a good place to do so once again. Like art, sport is social and it is a form of identity. Competing in sport and watching sport brings us together. In addition, we identify with sports figures, both as athletes and as racial heroes. Think of Tiger Woods. Nothing wrong with that. But these are tangential aspects of sport. At the end of the day, Tiger Woods does not compete to be social or to be a racial hero. He competes in order to play golf very very well. And we do not watch Tiger mainly to be social or because he is black. We watch because he is very good at what he does. Golf is not about social identity, it is about perfecting a form. To say it another way, it is about shooting a low number. If Tiger looked great and acted great but shot a high number, the whole “performance” would collapse, would it not?
This is why Tiger is real and Mayda is not. She looks great and acts great, but at the end of the day, as a poet, she has shot a high number. Tiger is a great golfer who is also handsome and black: the combination makes him a hero, a figure of identity politics, but he would not be a hero if he were not a great golfer. There are lots of guys who are handsome and black. We don't make them heroes just for that (except on MTV). No, the primary fact of Tiger's achievement is that he wins tournaments, and to win tournaments you have to shoot a lower number than all the rest. You do not win tournaments by having a pretty swing or by talking fast or by being politically correct or by plucking the strings of the audience. You must be a master of the course.
Like golf, poetry is a defined field. You cannot redefine golf as a high number with a lot of style. Or, you could, but most people (I hope) would find that fatally shallow. In the same way, you cannot redefine poetry as a slick or stylish delivery of cliché without opening yourself up to the same charge. The entire history of poetry, oral and written, across all countries and continents, has been defined by the search for the rare and the subtle and the beautiful and the deep. It has never been concerned with cliché and commonplace and kitsch. It has never been about identity over form, or performance over content. The poet has never before been mainly a representative of a gender or a race or a group.
The poet has always sought transcendence, which means, in part, that the poet is attempting to transcend the daily categories of life. Poetry is not a stylish restatement of culture, a clever hogdepodge of normal existence, a re-grouping of advertisements and TV and movies. It is not a slick smorgasbord of other media. Nor is it a self-revelation, a tell-all, an emotional purge. As with modern artists, modern poets have completely mistaken the field. Mayda has been misinformed by her predecessors, who have taught her that poetry is a cleverly compressed diary of some sort, mainly sexual. No, that is a comedy act, not art or poetry. That is the field that Chris Rock is in, and poetry must be something else. Poetry is not a compressed comedy act without the comedy, a fast and furious routine that the audience cannot really follow. It is not hip-hop without the hop of the dance (in which case it is just “hip”). No, there is more to art than just being hip, and neither the modern artists nor the slam poets have ever understood that. Art is often more about being unpopular than being popular, but the moderns don't want to pay that price.
All artists of all types should study the art and the artists of the past more closely. The artists with staying power never had their eyes on short-term success. This is crucial, since contemporary artists always do. There is nothing long-sighted about any of the contemporary arts. Slam poetry is the most myopic art form ever invented. It must be, since group identity is always short-sighted. One might say that group identity is categorically inartistic, since it is impossible to be inventive while clinging to a group.
Some will throw up their hands and say, “What do you want! According to you art cannot be cultural and it cannot be self-revelatory. It cannot be social and it cannot be about the individual. What else is there!” Well, I never said art could not be self-revelatory, in the sense that the artist cannot reveal himself. In one sense, that is the whole point of art, of course. Art is both personal and social, in that the personal ideas and feelings of the artist are plumbed, and in that these ideas and feelings are shared. But art cannot be as simple and direct as the moderns have made it. We must make some distinctions. The artist is revealed in art, but the artist cannot create art with that intention in the foreground. The poet cannot write a poem in order to reveal herself. Creating art is not strictly equivalent to talking to your psychologist or crying on the phone to your mom. Nor is it equivalent to pornography, to directly living your most intimate moments in public. Art must contain a beautiful indirectness, like overhearing someone else's conversation with her Muse, or sitting in on a dream. In all great poetry there is a glorious unawareness on the part of the poet. The great poet is in full control of the words—the syntax, the meter, and so on—but in poor control of the emotion. The emotion seems to come from somewhere else. It is a sort of accident. The emotion is heaviest when it is not carried at all.
When I write a poem, I am never trying to reveal myself. Poetry is not about me; nor is it about the other. It is about diving into water black as ink, seeking sense beyond the walls, listening intently to the void. The poem is as mysterious to me as it is to anyone else. It is like an asteroid arriving from deep space, still smoking from the long dark journey.
Does my poem reveal me? Of course. Is it sometimes about the other? Of course. So it might be said to be both personal and social. But, you see, it is not consciously one or the other. Obliquely, or secondarily, it is both. Primarily, it is neither.
But slam poetry is the precise opposite of this. The slam poet is in full control of the emotion and in poor control of the words. The slam poet is not a Nabokovian master of syntax or meter or vocabulary, as we saw above with Mayda. And the slam poet is manufacturing the emotion, since she is performing to create the emotion. The performance is acting, not art, because the performer intends the reaction. The performer cannot be unaware of the emotion, since the subject was chosen for the emotion, and because the performance is chosen to transmit this emotion to the audience. There can be no beautiful indirectness, no accidental quality, no serendipity, no ingenuousness. Acting is never ingenuous. To be an ingenue is to be a bad actress, that is all.
Real poetry is intended words with unintended consequences. Slam poetry is intended consequences with unintended words. Real poetry is controlled words with mysterious meanings. Slam poetry is sloppy words with pre-determined meanings (cliches) and controlled responses. The slam poet makes you feel what she intends not by the words themselves, or the mystery in them, but by her performance. As with a song on the radio, the words are almost beside the point. It is the performer and her voice that hypnotize, not the words. Mayda del Valle could read from the phonebook and create nearly the same reaction. But when you write down her words and study them, you get little more than the phonebook. There is more mystery in the phonebook than there is in “Elemental.”
Just so you don't think I am basing this whole critique on some deep-seated racism or sexism, let me critique a second slam poet, Dante Basco. He is prominently featured on Youtube, like Mayda del Valle. I don't know the race of either Mayda or Dante, though I would guess Hispanic with Mayda and an Asian mix with Dante. It doesn't really matter, of course, at least not to me [though I suspect it matters to the audience: I don't think I would be welcome there, unless I acted like Eminem, and maybe not even then]. What matters is that Dante, like Mayda, is talking and walking the lingo. He is doing the hip-hop talk and the hip-hop movements, trying hard to be cool and alternative. His subject is also chosen to be hip and alternative. He is telling of his encounter with a hooker. The poem is called “Nikki.” Very cool that, like Prince's “Little Nikki.” You can be sure that no one at the Def Jam will have a poem called “Brunnhilde” or “Eurydice.” Nor "Rebecca" either, since the Jews are considered too white to jam, despite their other qualifications. At any rate, Dante, although a smooth performer, is not as smooth or pretty as Mayda, and it is no surprise she wins these things. You see, it is not Mayda that I object to, or Dante, or anyone else, personally, it is the whole gathering: the unstated rules and the criteria for judging. The intrusion of hip-hop culture when poetry has nothing to do with hip-hop culture or any other culture. The intrusion of racial politics when poetry has nothing to do with racial politics.
A national poetry contest, of any sort, should be a national poetry contest and nothing else. We don't have hip-hop spelling bees or hip-hop poker tournaments or hip-hop Nobel Prizes for Physics. Why should we have hip-hop poetry as a national contest? As a poet, I find it highly offensive. Just as the deck should never have been stacked against them, the deck should not be stacked against me. Poetry should be like a golf tournament, where the low score wins, period. Of course art will never be judged as precisely as sport, since it requires judges. Golf doesn't require judges. There is nothing subjective about it. But art could be judged more objectively than it is. There is not even a genuine attempt to judge based on quality. The prejudices are so powerful they have become metaphysical: they are invisible but determine everything.
There are sports that are subjective, like figure skating, but in figure skating there is a real effort to be color blind and race blind. The same can be said for spelling bees and college entrance exams and most other kinds of competitions. All sorts of prejudices are consciously suppressed. The rulebooks often state in direct language that such prejudices are forbidden. But in art, all this is inverted. Not only are the prejudices not forbidden, they are often expressly encouraged. The prejudices are extreme, although they don't always concern race or sex. I am not saying that there is a strict reverse discrimination against white males. There is some of that, but in visual art, the strongest prejudice is against the past. The white male is at a disadvantage because he is considered to be the goat of the past, but he can drive around that prejudice if he adopts the right anti-past stances. If he accepts all the tenets of the opposition politics, he is part of the opposition. This is how the Damien Hirsts and John Currins of the world got in (as well as by other social grease). In slam poetry, we see the same thing. If you have the right attitudes, you're in.
But is spoken poetry mainly an attitude? Is it cultural identity? Is that what we want it to be? Do we want to define it that narrowly? Do we really want to link oral poetry to hip-hop? Is there any sense in requiring spoken poetry competitors to conform to such a set of limiting standards? Admittedly, the standards are unwritten. Nothing in the rules says I cannot compete. But the standards are clear to anyone who watches a contest. There is not a great deal of variation. The entrants may be multicultural, in that one is black and one is Asian and another Hispanic and so on, but as a matter of attitude, they are remarkably similar. They all seem to have just dropped in from the MTV awards or a Snoop-Dogg video. There was more cultural and creative variation between Keats, Shelley and Byron than there is between the all the Def Jam competitors combined.
As a specific and very near example, consider me once again. Politically, I have a lot in common with the slam poets. In some ways, I am more progressive than many of them. I am pro-union, anti-global, for equal opportunity, against corporatism, and so on. I have been a signatory of petitions alongside Jadakiss, Immortal Technique, Mos Def, Paris, KRS-One, and so on. See my links page to discover the full range of my politics. But I cannot compete at a poetry slam. There is no effort to include me. As I have put it elsewhere, I would be like Mr. Darcy at an Eminem concert. Does this make me an aristocrat or a Republican? No. It just makes me different.
It would be truly multicultural if contests like this showed some real diversity. But the fact is they don't. And it is not my fault they don't. They have excluded me and all like me on purpose. They expect all slammers to conform to the forms of hip-hop and if they don't they aren't spoken poets. Or, they may be speaking poets, but they will not be recognized as such. They will not win any prizes or be feted in any way. You will not see me or anyone like me at any of the national contests, and you will not see us at any of the 80 local cities, where the cool are chosen by their peers. And it is not because I cannot write or perform that I will not be included. It is because I will not write or perform in the required way. Think about that. If you are really progressive, you may want to study that.
You will say, “Why do you care? You have already shown that these slam contests are not about poetry, so why would you want to be included?” I have no desire to be included in hip-hop culture, but I do have a desire to be given fair consideration as a poet. When I see national competitions with “poetry” in the title, I expect that poetry will be happening and that poets will be welcome. I don't expect that a “poetry contest” will have been hijacked by some political faction or narrow group of people. Just as it makes me mad when the National Portrait Contest is hijacked by people who don't give a damn about portraits, it makes me mad when a national poetry competition is hijacked by a narrow faction of hip-hop performers who have no real understanding of poetry, either the history of poetry or the art of poetry. True, people are free to “do their thing,” and there is nothing intrinsically wrong with people getting together and performing spoken hip-hop. My problem is that they call themselves poets, when they are not poets. Poetry is not just reading or writing common sentences that have been broken into lines (this criticism also applies to more “formal” poetry, of the type that now gets published in journals). As I said, poetry is a high art, with three Muses all its own, and these Muses requires the proper supplications. Erato will not arrive for any loudmouth kid on the street with Mean Streak pen and a desire to be seen. Euterpe will not arrive for every dark-haired beauty with nice legs and big voice. Calliope will not arrive for any big-city English professor who knows the right editors. The three only arrive for real artists, for those seeking the subtle secrets beyond the inner doors, below the floors, and above the rafters.
I don't want to be invited by Obama to the White House and I don't want to be seen on Youtube and I don't want to hang with the rappers or b-boys, but it would be nice if I weren't implicitly and explicitly excluded by all competitions. You see, just as with visual art, there isn't a real poetry contest to enter anywhere in the world. There is nothing to aspire to. You can enter the hip-hop slam poetry contest, or you can hope to be published in one of the major journals. But the criteria for journal poetry are nearly as non-poetic as the criteria for slam poetry. It is no wonder that slam poetry is growing in popularity, since it really does have more content than New Yorker poetry or New York Times poetry. Journal poetry has been deconstructed nearly as fully as visual art, and editors require a slavish regard to these stripped-down standards. Like slam poetry, journal poetry is fatally narrow and controlled. It must look and scan “modern”, which means in practice that it must be pinched and claustrophobic and formless and minimal, like a poem written by a poet with his head in a vise and his balls in the maw of a worm. Slam poetry is also narrow and controlled, in that all the competitors are trying for the same effect, but at least it is not minimized. It has not yet been deconstructed. As a form of kitsch, it has been free to drive around all the theoretical roadblocks that have destroyed journal poetry. Although the content in slam poetry is vulgar and manufactured, at least it exists. Something is happening in slam poetry, while in journal poetry, nothing is happening, good or bad.
But neither slam poetry nor journal poetry is a sign of hope to the Muse. She is not present in either. The rules of both have purposely shut her out. Nor is she an invitee of the Nobel Committee. After decades of awards to non-poets, Euterpe sold her summer house in Stockholm.
That is why I am angry. The death of all the high arts is not an event of small import or quick recovery, and I will be convalescent the rest of my life. If your constitution has suffered no ill-effect, you may take that as proof you are not an artist, without further questioning.
If this paper was useful to you in any way, please consider donating a dollar (or more) to the SAVE THE ARTISTS FOUNDATION. This will allow me to continue writing these "unpublishable" things. Don't be confused by paying Melisa Smith--that is just one of my many noms de plume. If you are a Paypal user, there is no fee; so it might be worth your while to become one. Otherwise they will rob us 33 cents for each transaction.