When many people think of poetry, dull sonnets and incomprehensible free verse spring to mind. This art form, however, has found exciting new ways to live on.
Last Tuesday the ACU English department’s Writer in Residence, Al Haley conducted his yearly Poetry Slam. Featuring performances by his ENGL 323/523 Poetry Workshop class and guitar interludes by Daniel Merritt, Haley’s slam was an opportunity for students to write and perform poems in ways that they may not have considered before.
“Honestly, my early experiences with poetry were not good,” Haley said. “I considered poetry antiquated, irrelevant and something for old ladies.”
After taking a poetry workshop in graduate school, Haley’s eyes, ears, heart and mind were opened to the incredible ways that good poetry can use language and emotion to communicate in ways that ordinary writing can’t.
Slam is a genre that arose in the 1980s, not from scholars, but from everyday people performing in bars and jazz clubs. Assistant professor Steven Moore said slam is a style of poetry unlike any other, comparing it to rap, hip-hop and performance art.
“There’s so much passion in the room, so much joy. Students have a new appreciation for poetry because of slam,” he said, citing the success of the National Endowment for the Arts with programs that encourage students to perform poetry.
Often drawing on political topics or intensely personal subject matter, the slam creates an environment where raw emotion and stage presence are inseparable from the words themselves.
“We hide behind issues, and sweep problems under the carpet. Slam poetry gives voice to those things that we’re afraid to talk about,” Moore said.
Those who see poetry as irrelevant in modern life should have sat in with Haley’s class and listened to the student who slammed with anger about her drunken father, the one who related his struggles with anxiety and the one who made her audience face up to religious hypocrisy on campus. Not a single poet was irrelevant or indecipherable, and every performance came from the soul of its creator.
Many are willing to offer praise and admiration to a well-spoken rap artist, earning them recognition as a “wordsmith.” The similar subject matter and mind-blowing rhymes of slam are a powerful way that one of the world’s oldest art forms continues to impact culture. It proves to Americans that art is alive and well in the spoken word.
He said he remains optimistic that more students will continue to take poetry workshops and come out to future slams.
“Why come to a poetry slam?” Haley said. “That’s easy. You get to be entertained, laugh, hold your breath, shout and wind up still thinking about the whole thing after it’s over. How are you going to say no to that?”