Sam Berkson – The Spoken Word Rennaissance

It has long been said that ‘spoken word’ is going through a renaissance. More than ever this seems to be true and there is gathering evidence to suggest that in fact the ‘stage’ poets are starting to cross over the division and land onto the ‘page’.

Live poetry has for much of the post-war period, divided critics. Since the 50s and 60s jazz and beat poets, there have been those who have derided poetry as a live entertainment. In fact some believed that by performing their work, poets were marring their poetry by losing the ‘authorial’ voice which should exist only in the head of the reader. The famous ‘International Poetry Incarnation’ at the Albert Hall in 1965 proved the crest of this wave, with Alan Ginsberg leading an all-star cast of contemporary poets including fellow Americans Lawrence Ferlinghetti and William Burroughs, German ‘sound poet’ Ernst Jandl, and British poets, Adrian Mitchell and Christopher Logue.  It was documented in Peter Whitehead’s film, Wholly Communion and was, says Jeff Nuttall, a time when “the Underground was suddenly there on the surface”.


(Photo: John Hopkins)

The scene was politically left-wing: against the war in Vietnam, in favour of nuclear disarmament. With dub and punk came more poetry, poetry once again clinging to the coattails of music scenes, once again derided by some of the ‘page’ poetry establishment as being merely populist, uneducated poetry. Of course, poets like John Cooper Clarke, Grace Nichols, Linton Kwesi Johnson and Benjamin Zephaniah are very much still with us and have had their work published by respected presses, made their way onto GCSE syllabi and into something like acceptability.


A new generation of poets has emerged, bred on Hip Hop who have once again taught themselves stagecraft and delivery. Interestingly, they are publishing books and putting on theatre pieces.

We now have ‘spoken word theatre’ which is something different from a play and something different from poetry performance. A number of ‘spoken word artists’ are producing books. Burning Eye Books in Bristol has set up specifically to publish performance poetry, releasing anthologies and individual collections from Jonny Fluffypunk, Sally Jenkinson and Ash Dickinson. Kate Tempest’s Everything Speaks In Its Own Way, Dean Atta’s I am Nobody’s Nigger are two examples of recent or forthcoming publications of spoken word artists. Interestingly, both titles are referential, Kate’s from James Joyce’s Ulysses and Dean’s from Julian Curry’s Niggers, Niggas and Niggaz.

(Photo: Naomi Woddis)

Perhaps the point is that poets have always looked back at other writers and taken inspiration. The division between written and performance poetry was just something imposed from outside. Poets before me have said that all poetry is performed, whether in your own head or out loud. George Barker called poetry ‘incantatory’. For me, the syntax of poetry is sound. By which I mean what carries words forward in a poem is not the order of the words in fully-formed sentences, but their rhythm and musicality. A poem like this:

river run

river blue

river green


river run

might not be a very good poem, but it is still recognisably a not-good poem rather than a not-good piece of prose. Of course, the poetry-prose distinction is on a sliding scale. There are prosy-poems and poetic-prose. Nor am I trying to claim that either side of the scale is ‘better’ or ‘worse’ than the other. But the more rhyme, rhythm, alliteration and assonance words have, the more we call them poetic. Hence, poetry is joined with sounds and so must be, in some way, performed.

The question is where now for this generation? Critics from previous generations say the new scene lacks political core. Certainly, there are many on the UK ‘scene’ who would happily perform at a Tory party conference, write a poem for an advert or to celebrate the Queen’s Jubilee, accept an OBE, take corporate sponsorship – all of which would have been heresy to the jazz, punk or dub poets. On the other hand, poetry still features in the current underground political movements.

Crowds at Occupy events for example have seen plenty of unpaid, performance poets. I have seen poets at events promoting squatting or fighting library closure, benefit cuts, arms trading, private landgrab of public lands, deaths in police custody and plenty more issues with more or less media prominence. Some deride ‘slam’ poetry as being too competitive and its poetry as being trite or formulaic. This may be true in some cases but it is worth remembering that there has always been dross in all eras.

There is certainly a greater interest in live poetry than ever before in my lifetime. The decline of traditional publishing may only go to increase investment in live shows, cause a rise in self-publishing and new methods of distribution. Whether the expansion brings with it T.V coverage and what that will do to the poetry, is a question we have yet really to face. What interest me now is the poets who have taken the non-traditional route into writing poetry – mainly through performance, often through Hip Hop – and are now taking over the traditional places for poetry: books and theatre. Crossing the divide.

Sam Berkson’s new collection Life in Transit (Influx Press), is out on 5 November. Book launch event at Arcola Theatre Tent on 15 November.

Sam Berkson