Illustration of a poet performing spoken word poetry

How Spoken Word Poetry Is Transforming the Genre

Poetry isn't just written down. Some poets are evolving the genre by using their voices as their medium.
March 24, 2020
3 mins read

When most people I’ve talked to think about poetry, their first thought is of Shakespeare, or Emily Dickinson or any number of classic poets. These authors wrote with a distinctive style, each word carefully crafted, hidden shades of meaning throughout. What they don’t think of is spoken word poetry, which is an entirely different thing altogether.

In the 1960s, a group of poets and authors started a new literary movement. Their work was aggressive and often spoken aloud. It was meant to be performed, not just recited. Allen Ginsberg, one of the most famous poets from this movement, wrote his poem “Howl” and would perform it at various locations, even broadcasting a live performance of it in 1957. This group of loud and outspoken writers were known as the Beat Generation, eventually encompassing an entire genre of written work in the 1950s and ’60s.

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The Beat Generation brought spoken word poetry into the limelight. They radically changed how poetry was viewed at this time, taking it from the Surrealist movement into a more accessible form of entertainment.

Over 50 years later, spoken word poetry is making a comeback. Poetry slams (competitions where individuals or groups perform spoken word poetry in a competitive setting) sprang up in the 1980s and 1990s, gaining popularity after the first National Poetry Slam.

These poems, like the Beat Generation’s, are loud, performative, often political in nature and full of life. They’re pulling poetry back into the mainstream. You don’t even need formal training in the form and function of poetry to participate. All you need is passion and a voice to speak your passion with. Because of this, poetry is resurfacing as a popular art form.

Poets like Neil Hilborn of Button Poetry are swiftly taking the world by storm. With his spoken word piece “OCD,” which has over 13 million views on YouTube, Hilborn created one of the most viewed performance poems of this era. He writes honestly about mental illness and his efforts in coping with it. Another poem of his, “The Future,” discusses suicidal ideation and bipolar, while “Joey” talks about mental illness and health care.

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Depression and Other Magic Tricks” by Sabrina Benaim, which ranks No. 28 on Amazon’s Best Selling Poetry Books, owes its popularity to spoken word poetry. Without the popularity of the poem Benaim became famous for, “Explaining My Depression to My Mother” (which has over 50 million views across different social media platforms), the book would not enjoy as much commercial success.

Poetry may not be the most popular form of literature, but it’s definitely on the rise thanks to spoken word performances. The ease of accessibility via YouTube and other social media platforms has increased the popularity of poetry in a definitive way.

Emerson Holmes, Lindenwood University

Writer Profile

Emerson Holmes

Lindenwood University
English Studies

Emerson Holmes has been previously published in the Eunoia Review, the Neon Mariposa Magazine and Crab Fat Magazine. To send him turtle-related paraphernalia, or for inquiries, contact him through his website.

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