Recently, I went to a slam poetry reading — by recently I mean last night — and I was struck with the complete lack of similarity in critical factors between spoken word and written word; meaning, the things which would make a poem pleasant or engaging to read were not the things which made a poem pleasant or engaging to hear. In a written poem, complexity in the text allows for more patterns to emerge, more meaning to manifest. Conversely, in a poem spoken, complexity does not inherently add to the piece but can even detract.
Let me back these claims up a little:
During my, albeit one, experience with slam poetry, I found that what most swept me away was delivery — rhythm being included in that category — and the oscillation between high and low rhetorical registers eg. one poem had a short, repeating verse about spiritual wounds and the path to healing, but the meat of the poem, its most substantial aspect, was these graphic, stream-of-consciousness verses about how the poet’s step-father beat him.1 The term ‘sublimation’ comes to mind here — the process of distilling painful experience, harsh reality, not into a bitterness or a hatred, but into something
positive different, something transcending the particulars.2 The particulars and the emotion they evoke, the hypnotism of the rhythm, while forming the majority of the content, didn’t best embody this man’s poem; rather, those brief interludes where something broke through reality, through pain, through the particulars, unifying and modifying reality into something more — into a moral impetus, a desire for the future, a knowing for the present — that is what I remember most and what I feel best subsumes the poem. Not pain, but change and hope.
Sublimation is an important factor in written poetry as well — I can’t deny — but one often finds an entire work of sublimated content, of modified experiences, emergent feeling, rather than a mix with harsh, emotionally pertinent, reality.3 The personal journey from the mundane to the poetic is often kept hidden, and for me, that is part of the appeal of written poetry — it’s otherness, it’s incommensurability with daily life. However, the slam poets who employed things I might love in a written piece — word play, alliteration, extended metaphor etc. — things that add to ‘otherness’, to the creation of a purely poetic space, I found less engaging. In these cases, there was no connection to substance, no life blood coursing through the words, only a dull, mechanical vomiting of tropes. When reading poetry, the author is not present, and even if they felt nothing while writing, even if they merely filled out a formula — their own or another’s — the reader can still project affective content in, give the poem substance themselves. The honesty of the voice is missing: that by which the most skilled of wordsmiths stands naked.4 In a spoken piece, poetry takes on another dimension — it becomes social/intersubjective, physical/acoustic, visceral/embodied — and it is through that dimension it gains the most power. All the machinations of intelligence, of formula, of calculative word choice, they pale in comparison to the awe-inspiring skill of a great orator. I can admire written work from a distance, muse at the intentionality behind the form, appreciate intricate symbology, but in a spoken piece delivered with mastery, I am swept into the world of the poet, into their emotion, their turbulence, their reality. I feel not just like a mind appreciating a mind but a soul appreciating a soul — a mind with a body, with a world, a mind with stakes in that world (my definition of soul).
As for complexity and its relation to the two forms of poetry, the claim I was intending to develop before the above tangential remarks:
Complexity requires attention. It requires intention. The more the complex the form of the thing to be expressed is, the less attention one has to give to the thing itself. One could break even spoken word into a set of ‘factors’, rhythmic and aditoury variables, analyze the effects of different tonal combinations and delivery speeds — high rhetoric? high bullshit — but the fact remains that these “tonal combinations” and rhythmic structures are embodied attitudes toward the world, towards others, and towards ideas. One cannot happen upon a formula for speech, for good speaking, because speech is the embodiment of one’s life, specifically one’s life embodied towards others.5 Still, this embodiment requires attention and intention even if not an intellectual process — arguably requires more thereby — and too much formal meditation and intentionality, when it exceeds the skill of the poet to stay grounded in their subject matter, becomes a detriment to the power of the work.
Conversely, a written work is developed over time in multiple iterations: there is no final moment of truth for it. An author can brood on the thing to be represented/conveyed in the poem in one iteration, compose a form in the next, play with word choice in another etc. There are multiple poets in a /developed/ written piece, not just one, and they all handle different aspects of the composition. Likewise, in reading a poem, reading it thoroughly, there are multiple readers ie. the successive readings of and meditations on a piece culminate into a true understanding, experience, and appreciation of a multifaceted composition, a grasping of its sense.6 This is not the case in a spoken poem. There is only one chance at expression, at reaching your audience; with this in mind, delivery tops complexity in pieces intended for speaking — where the two conflict, not implying they always do.
Phew, all that theory with quasi-free-associative structure; I must admit, I walked into this post blind, with only vaguely thought out assertions. Every point I attempted to make requires a tremendous amount of qualification, which I will develop in the footnotes should any feisty reader wish to check my work. I find thinking about language and speech self-referential. The insights I gain through writing reflect directly back on that writing, revealing its defects through its virtue. Touching just on a few factors pertinent to poetry revealed a whole swath of others I left out of account and had yet to think about, so I can by no means claim a complete analysis.7One can also become ungrounded from their subject matter in writing, not just in speaking, by theoretical and formal concerns — can lose sight of what inspired them to write, what fascinated them about their subject — and I fall prey to this often. What I wanted to get across was the power of the spoken word, of embodied speech, of visceral communication. As one who spends most of his time reading, I often forget how powerful language can be when used in its ‘original’ context. The written medium definitely has advantages even in its being disembodied, but man cannot live on ink alone, cannot subsist on thought without body, on theory without application.
1 My use of “rhetorical register” might be incorrect here. Further on in the post, when talking about ‘multiple’ readers, I was struck by a possible interpretation of “rhetorical” register — the multiple ‘readers’ we all embody simultaneously are these registers. What then would differentiate a ‘high’ register from a ‘low’ register? I wouldn’t want my use of high and low to connote moral or intellectual superiority to either; merely, I want to denote the continuum of concrete to abstract through the ‘vertical’ metaphor. Abstractions, these one must have been exposed to previously in order to derive meaning from their utterance while — in the case of the concrete — only membership in the general ‘language community’ is required, in most cases at least. Those who associate superiority with education may then think my distinction is specious, but I by no means think they are related inherently. There are many ways in which ‘education’ is also an unlearning of the innate.
2 I want to avoid using morally charged — valanced — language like positive and negative. The use that’s made of the dichotomy in popular discourse, frankly, disgusts me. In the case of this specific poem, the poet is clearly working through some unpleasant experiences, learning forgiveness, and healing from an emotional wound — I don’t deny that that warms my heart and that I would like to see more of such metamorphosis in the world — but I will never deny someone’s right to anger and resentment. These things have their place within the human socius and the human heart; they inspire one to enact material change, to grapple with the resented. Spiritual sublimation of the harmful and unpleasant cannot be denied worth, but I would venture that this process is only possible after the material circumstances behind that unpleasantness and harm have been upbraided. Further than that, sublimation can often be used as a vector to escape action, to escape engagement in one’s circumstances — I do this often enough — which cannot only be harmful to one’s own long term benefit but also to the benefit of the community at large. Even if only using positive/negative as a way to denote harmful/beneficial, the common usage still doesn’t reflect this given the above. All this to say, the positive/negative dichotomy is insufficient for qualifying the functional and holistic value of an emotion or a state of being, and blackmailing all those who express sentiments which make us uncomfortable with it should /perhaps/ be avoided — by “perhaps” I make an attempt to appear good natured and amiable but feel strongly on the validity of the point.
3 Kant defines the sublime as that which exceeds our ability to conceptualize, an experience or a concept that generates a feeling of infinity. What then does it mean to make experience sublime, but to make it infinite? Hope is sublime — as is despair — because it looks towards the horizon and the horizon is infinite; all the emotions associated with poetry, they are not bound to the is but extend it infinitely, fill the void with heavens and hells. They are the unconceptualizable concepts, those notions which break our current reality open in order that it might receive a new one. Poetic feeling is the bridge between lived worlds, between an actual way of being and a possible way of being. Sublimation is, in some sense, a letting go of definition, of limit, and of stasis — and it is in the shattering of the stable, the known, the currently lived that it has its power but also, for some, its danger.
4 Initially, when reflecting upon pop-music, the blatant disenguinity and fabricated lyricism, I thought I would have to redact this point. If an industry can so effectively fool masses of people with formulaic expression, what validity could my ‘nakedness of the speaker’ notion hold? I think it could be defended on a couple points: in some cases, people want to be fooled, and there is often a differentiation between the function of the speaker and the one who formulates what the speaker will speak ie. the one who is writing the songs to formula is not actually the one performing them. The speaker may be genuine while expressing something someone else contrived — perhaps the special quality of pop-stars is vaccousness, the ability to believe and embody the contrived in order that the industry, through you, might fool others. On the point of people wanting to be fooled: while I don’t want to over endorse the postmodern-nihilist tagline, I definitely think that, when faced with the looming abyss of purposelessness, of the unknown, people will cling to known-falsities. In my own ‘youth’ — technically still in that youth — when I supposedly ‘liberated’ myself from religious notions, I was initially exhilarated by the freedom and the particular pleasure of deconstruction, of watching a reality fall away, but as time went on, I grew nostalgic for those religious “delusions” and the security they provided, that security that once was felt as a prison. To leap into an abyss, to abandon an untruth when there is no truth in sight, not only is that not appealing, it may also be unwise; in this particular situation, disbelieving in the disingenuous when you can find nothing genuine would be akin to social suicide — to perhaps be a touch dramatic in phrasing.
5 Good writing, I opine, allows one to simulate that embodiment imaginatively, implies an absent author well enough to evoke their presence in the mind of the reader. Channeling Baudrillard(with a hint of Deleuze): The despotic signifier, the source of meaning — the author, the idea of the author. The simulacra, the fantasy, the unreality — their presence in the written text. The deceitful craft, the wile of the textual serpent — how produce such a fantasy, such an unreality, convincingly; the ultimate apex of the craft being a fantasy completely exchangeable for reality, for presence, for a true other. The Devil’s Mirror, stealing the soul of The Real to fuel the fantasy. The ultimate ideal of writing — and of communication more generally — is for it to be imperceptible, for it to disappear underneath the expressed. The ultimate of craft is for there to be no craft apparent.
6 This concept of multiple readings being required to truly grasp a poem perhaps reveals my dilettante status in these matters — in an appropriate education, one is trained to recognize all the multiple forms of intentionality as a whole. The successive readings, rather, take the form of institutional norms for a certain art form one internalizes, allowing one to appreciate a poem in a way not contingent on its particularity. Sort of like in the Orthodox church: as you learn the dogma you begin to appreciate the intricacies of the ritual, to see all the intentionality and symbolism that previously went unnoticed — institutional art likewise is an acquired appreciation. One is able to reconstruct, in some cases, this formal education with a reverse engineering of sorts; admittedly, this sometimes produces results not in line with the intentionality of the institutional artist. It is a useful practice in that, if you know how to recreate an artistic/linguistic paradigm through observation, you can form your own. Likewise in Philosophy: if you can learn to excavate the institutionally taught assumptions of a philosopher, to understand a tradition without being in that tradition, you can create your own philosophical frameworks etc. Always good to check your work though! (I want to add something here about the readings one naturally does just as a speaker of language, readings which don’t have to be taught institutionally — noting the desire in this case will have to suffice for fulfillment.)
7 I want to clarify what I mean by analysis: I don’t mean to reduce complex phenomena like communication to the variables I abstract from them. I believe things are more than the grids we overlay them with, the parts we trace out and remove from the whole. I also think analysis must take into account the irrational, the unexplainable, the just because ; further than that, I think it’s sole use is in peeling back constructions, revealing what is rational, what is structural about a phenomenon, and what is not eg. one can analyze the particular style of a painting, the technical process of its creation, and how well it conforms to its intention, but what makes the given style aesthetically pleasing, worth striving for, the technique worth reproducing, that is necessarily irrational. Analysis reveals the hollows within which wonder hides, the sources of magic, if you will. The essence is the unspeakable, the ephemeral, that which cannot be known but only known around . To mistake form for essence is to be fooled by a particular construct utilizing that essence. Beauty is not Cubist, or Impressionist, or Surrealist, but each of these formal constructs utilize the essence of the aesthetic, of ‘beauty’ — to be vague — in a different way.