Spoken word

This article is about a performance art. For recordings of books or dialog, see Audiobook. For the 2009 film, see Spoken Word (film).

Spoken word is an oral art that focuses on the aesthetics of word play and intonation and voice inflection. It is a 'catchall' that includes any kind of poetry recited aloud, including hip-hop, jazz poetry, poetry slams, traditional poetry readings and can include comedy routines and 'prose monologues'.[1]


Spoken word has existed for many years. Long before writing, through a cycle of practicing, listening and memorizing, each language drew on its resources of sound structure for aural patterns that made spoken poetry very different from ordinary discourse and easier to commit to memory.[2]

'There were poets long before there were printing presses, poetry is primarily oral utterance, to be said aloud, to be heard.'[3] Poetry, like music, appeals to the ear, an effect known as euphony or onamatopoeia, a device to represent a thing or action by a word that imitates sound.[4] 'Speak again, Speak like rain' was how Kikuyu East African tribesmen described her verse to author Isak Dinesen,[5] confirming Eliot's comment that 'poetry remains one person talking to another.[6]

The oral tradition is one that is conveyed primarily by speech as opposed to writing,[7] in predominantly oral cultures proverbs (also known as maxims) are convenient vehicles for conveying simple beliefs and cultural attitudes.[8] 'The hearing knowledge we bring to a line of poetry is a knowledge of a pattern of speech we have known since we were infants'.[9]

Performance poetry, which is kindred to performance art, is explicitly written to be performed aloud.[1] and consciously shuns the written form.[10] 'Form', as Donald Hall records 'was never more than an extension of content.'[11] In the African traditions, it included drumming, and the use of the 'talking drum'.[12]

In ancient Greece, the spoken word was the most trusted repository for the best of their thought, and inducements would be offered to men (such as the rhapsodes) who set themselves the task of developing minds capable of retaining and voices capable of communicating the treasures of their culture.[13] The Ancient Greeks included Greek lyric, which is similar to spoken-word poetry, in their Olympic Games.[14]

Development within the United States

The most notable U.S. exponent of oral poetry, Vachel Lindsay, helped to keep alive the appreciation of poetry as a spoken art in the early twentieth century.[15] Robert Frost also spoke well, his metre accommodating his natural sentences.[16] Poet laureate, Robert Pinsky, also an advocate, considered 'Poetry's proper culmination is to be read aloud by someone's voice, whoever reads a poem aloud becomes the proper medium for the poem.[17] Every speaker intuitively courses through manipulation of sounds, it is almost as though 'we sing to one another all day'.[9] Sound once imagined through the eye gradually gave body to poems through performance, and late in the 1950s reading aloud erupted in the United States'.[16]

Some American spoken-word poetry originated from the poetry of the Harlem Renaissance,[18] blues music, as well as the 1960s Beat Generation.[19] Spoken word in African American culture drew on a rich literary and musical heritage. Langston Hughes and writers of the Harlem Renaissance were inspired by the feelings of the blues and spirituals, hip-hop and slam poetry artists were inspired by poets such as Hughes in their word stylings.[20]

The Civil Rights Movement also influenced spoken word. Notable speeches such as Martin Luther King's "I Have a Dream," Sojourner Truth's "Ain't I a Woman?" and Booker T. Washington's "Cast Down Your Buckets" incorporated elements of oration that influenced the spoken word movement within the African American community.[20] The Last Poets was a poetry and political music group formed during the 1960s that was born out of the Civil Rights movement, and helped increase the popularity of spoken word within African American culture.[21]

Spoken word poetry entered into wider American culture following the release of Gil Scott-Heron's spoken-word poem The Revolution Will Not Be Televised on the album Small Talk at 125th and Lenox in 1970.[22] The Nuyorican Poets Café on New York's Lower Eastside was founded in 1973, and is one of the oldest American venues for presenting spoken-word poetry.[23]

In the 1980s, competitive spoken word poetry competitions emerged, labelled 'poetry slams.' American poet Marc Smith is credited with starting the poetry slam in November 1984.[14] In 1990, the first National Poetry Slam took place in Fort Mason, San Francisco.[24]

The poetry slam movement reached a wider audience following Russell Simmons' Def Poetry, which was aired on HBO between 2002 and 2007.

International development

Outside of the United States, artists such as French singer-songwriters Léo Ferré or Serge Gainsbourg, made a personal use of spoken word over rock or symphonic music from the beginning of the 1970s, in such albums as Amour Anarchie (1970), Histoire de Melody Nelson (1971) or Il n'y a plus rien (1973), and contributed to the popularization of spoken word within French culture.

In the UK, spoken word has been utilised by musicians such as Blur,[25] The Streets and Kate Tempest.

In the Philippines, the art of spoken word has been popularized by the hit romantic comedy series On the Wings of Love, with one of the supporting characters, Rico (played by Juan Miguel Severo) being a spoken word poet.

in Zimbabwe the art of spoken word has been mostly active on stage through the House of hunger Poetry slam in Harare, Mlomo Wakho Poetry Slam in Bulawayo as well as the Charles Austin theatre in Masvingo. Festivals such as Harare International Festival of the Arts, Intwa Arts Festival KoBulawayo and Shoko Festival have supported the genre for a number of years.[26] Artists such as Chirikure Chirikure, Biko Mutsaurwa (Godobori), Cynthia Marangwanda (Flowchyld), Arnold Chirimika (SoProfound), Tongai Lesly Makawa (Outspoken) Tendekai P Tati (Madzitatiguru), Philani Amadeus Nyoni, Tswarelo Mothobi (A scribe called Tswa) Samm Farai Monro (Comrade Fatso) and Batsirai Easther Chigama have been active on the Zimbabwean Spoken word scene


Spoken-word poetry is often performed in a competitive setting.

In 1990, the first National Poetry Slam was held in San Francisco.[14] It is the largest poetry slam competition event in the world, now held each year in different cities across the United States.[27]

The popularity of slam poetry has resulted in slam poetry competitions being held across the world.

See also


  1. 1 2 Hirsch, Edward (2014). A Poets Glossary. New York: Houghton Mifflin Harcourt. ISBN 9780151011957.
  2. Hollander, John (1996). Committed to Memory. New York: Riverhead Books. ISBN 9781573226462.
  3. Knight, Etheridge (1988). "On the Oral Nature of Poetry". The Black Scholar. Abingdon: Taylor and Francis. 19 (4–5): 92–96. doi:10.1080/00064246.1988.11412887.
  4. Kennedy X J & Gioia, Dana ' An Introduction to Poetry' Longman 1998 ISBN 9780321015563
  5. Dinesen, Isak (1972). Out of Africa. New York: Random House. ISBN 978-0679600213.
  6. Eliot, T. S. (1942). "The Music of Poetry" (lecture). Glasgow: Jackson.
  7. The American Heritage Guide to Contemporary Usage & Style. Houghton Mifflin Harcourt. 2005.
  8. Ong, Walter J. (1982). Orality & Literacy: Cultural attitudes. Methuen.
  9. 1 2 Pinsky, Robert (1999). The Sounds of Poetry: A Brief Guide. Farrar Straus & Giroux. ISBN 9780374526177.
  10. Parker, Sam (December 16, 2009). "Three-minute poetry? It's all the rage". The Times.
  11. Olson, Charles (1950). "'Projective Verse': Essay on Poetic Theory". Pamphlet.
  12. Bakara, Sebastian (1997). The Drumbeat of Life.
  13. Bahn, Eugene. & Bahn, Margaret L. (1970). A History of Oral Performance. Minneapolis, MN: Burgess. p. 10.
  14. 1 2 3 Glazner, Gary Mex. Poetry Slam: The Competitive Art of Performance Poetry. San Francisco: Manic D, 2000.
  15. 'Reading list, Biography – Vachel Lindsay' Poetry Foundation.org Chicago 2015
  16. 1 2 Hall, Donald (October 26, 2012). "Thank you, Thank you' Page Turner". The New Yorker.
  17. Sleigh, Tom 'Robert Pinsky', Bomb Magazine, Summer 1998
  18. Aptowicz, Cristin O'Keefe (2007), Words in Your Face: a guided tour through twenty years of the New York City poetry slam. New York: Soft Skull Press. 400 pp. ISBN 1-933368-82-9
  19. Neal, Mark Anthony (2003). The Songs in the Key of Black Life. A Rhythm and Blues Nation. New York: Routledge. 214 pp. ISBN 0-415-96571-3
  20. 1 2 Folkways, Smithsonian. "Say It Loud". Smithsonian Institution. Retrieved 15 February 2013.
  21. "last poet fragments".
  22. Ben Sisario, "Gil Scott-Heron, Voice of Black Protest Culture, Dies at 62", New York Times, May 28, 2011.
  23. "The History of Nuyorican Poetry Slam", Verbs on Asphalt.
  24. "PSI FAQ: National Poetry Slam". Archived from the original on October 29, 2013.
  25. DeGroot, Joey (April 23, 2014). "7 Great songs with Spoken Word Lyrics". MusicTimes.com.
  26. Muchuri, Tinashe. "Honour Eludes local witers". NewsDay. NewsDay. Retrieved 15 May 2016.
  27. Poetry Slam, Inc. Web. 28 Nov. 2012.

Further reading

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