In the wake of Malcolm X’s assassination in the winter of 1965, Black and brown poets like Amiri Baraka, Miguel Algarin, and Sonia Sanchez consciously rejected effete paper poems for those that sought to capture what W.E.B. Du Bois called “the soul of black folk” — the laughs, cries, howls, and hums of the working class people’s daily lives. By the late 1960s, these soulful poets, whom Joshua Bennett profiles in his excellent book “Spoken Word: A Cultural History,” performed their poems in cafes for the discontented masses who had grown impatient with policies and practices that oppressed anyone who refused to accept their place in the racial and gendered hierarchy that had come to define American life.
Part memoir, part homage, part performance history, “Spoken Word” is divided into three parts, or “books,” that show the evolution of the performance poetry scene from the 1960s to the 2010s. Spoken word poetry, or spoken word, is “an art form where written verse is crafted expressly with the intention of being performed for an audience.”
But Bennett’s book is much more than a history: it’s a living poetic meditation on his own life as a poet and the lives of pathbreaking if largely ignored poets who did spoken word even before that moniker had been invented. In Bennett’s telling, the spoken word movement was an intersectional, interracial, and interethnic movement in which Puerto Rican, Black, and Asian American poets spit in the face of the literary establishment, academia, and any and all journals controlled by white men who denied them access to their publications because their poems emphasized performance.
Using lecture notes, flyers, and handwritten poems to complement oral histories of those who recall the evolution of spoken word from the 1960s to the 1990s, Bennett begins his story during the Black Arts Movement, when the founders of spoken word — among them Miguel Algarín and Migual Pinero — took over smoky cafes like the Nuyorican Cafe in New York to blast Black fire and brown brimstone between saxophone riffs. At times, Bennett imagines what it might have been like for poets like Algarín, for example, to ride the subway shuffling through lecture notes and jotting down ideas about the urban environment which provided the backdrop for these poets; other times, he flips through these files of dead poets like an investigator looking over a missing persons case in order to resurrect people and events that were rarely captured on audio or video.
The second part of the book describes the rise of spoken word poetry slams that by the 1990s had evolved into national slam competitions, where several of the most notable poets, such as Saul Williams, Patricia Smith, and Tyehimba Jess, came to prominence. Through careful detective work, Bennett identifies the first poetry slam — held at the Green Mill cocktail lounge on July 20, 1986 — by the experimental artist and poet Marc Smith. Smith’s cohort of spoken word poets, along with the Chicago poetry ensemble who met often at the Get Me High Jazz club on the Westside, established the basic structure of slam.
Over the next four years, these events spread to cities across the nation and inspired the birth of poetry slams in cafes and bars, eventually giving rise to a national poetry slam competition. The once underground movement had gained enough mainstream momentum and popularity that in 1994, producers at MTV organized the Free Your Mind Tour in order to gather footage for “Spoken Word Unplugged,” which was, according to Bennett, the first in a long line of televised spoken word events.
In the early 2000s, the HBO series “Def Poetry Jam,” produced by hip-hop mogul Russell Simmons and hosted by rap artist Mos Def, capitalized on the dynamism and word play shared by hip-hop artists like Eminem and Jay-Z and spoken word artists alike. “Def Poetry Jam” solidified spoken word as a legitimate style, surpassing conventional styles of poetry as the most popular mode within the genre —a popularity that was not without its own issues, Bennett notes. Some first- and second-wave spoken word poets found cafes and bars now packed with a new type of fan, one attracted by the trendiness of the form or the prospect of a verbal fight.
The final part of “Spoken Word” explores the impact YouTube has had on catapulting unknown poets like Bennett himself into super stardom. Online accessibility has allowed poets outside of major metropolitan areas to be seen and heard, so that in recent years, spoken word artists have emerged without having to win major slam competitions or even perform at iconic venues like the Nuyorican cafe. Bennett’s own poem, “10 things I want to say to a black woman,” went viral, giving him a reach unimaginable to the previous two generations of spoken poets, who were dependent on cafe owners and record producers like Russell Simmons for visibility, and Bennett believes the rise of social media has both promoted the growth of spoken word poetry and made it relevant to those artists raised in the digital age.
Ultimately, Bennett’s book provides readers with a nuanced interpretative history of the spoken word movement that, as he observes, created an “unimpeachable beauty” between performers who, “line by line, brick by brick,” inaugurated “new worlds” based on a shared dream that their “dreaming might be the bridge between us.”
SPOKEN WORD: A Cultural History
By Joshua Bennett
Knopf, 302 pages, $30
Ousmane K. Power-Greene is the author of “The Confessions of Matthew Strong” and “Against Wind and Tide: African Americans Struggle Against the Colonization Movement.”