The critic Dominic Fox has suggested that poetry “has nuisance value… the amount the entity on the receiving end will pay you, even though your claim is meritless, just to make you go away.” It is less likely than other forms of text to breeze straight into comprehension, its content resolving into bytes of information. “There may after all be something in it. A poem is a bid for the share of attention needed to look into the matter. … Its value is precisely what [you] would pay the poet to shut up, go away and stop bothering you instead.” This is, needless to say, an aspect of poetry’s Janus-face – as Le Carre-esque critical mole in the ‘Circus’ of language; as embodiment of tradition and the permanence beloved of reaction. It becomes, as often as not, a social safety-valve: its purpose is to force the man in the club to look up from his paper long enough to hand the poetic urchin a shilling. (Carol Anne Duffy’s relentless tokenism as Laureate – witness, most recently, her perfunctory elegy for Steven Lawrence – plays exactly this role.) Daniel Lucchesi and Alex Ramseyer-Bache’s film We Are Poets presents us with an hour and 21 minutes of social steam escaping.
The six poets, all under 18, who form the film’s subject are slam or performance poets. That is, though their texts are usually written down as aides memoires, they are presented exclusively on-stage, through speech and gesticulation. (One Bay Area poet in the film performs something resembling a Maori warrior-dance whilst spitting.) This is repeatedly emphasised: at one point in rehearsals their coach remonstrates with them for not “being off-book by now”. That they are still, as a consequence, poets is also, as the title suggests, hectoringly emphasised. Their work, we and they are told, may not conform to the ideal of literary record – the “page poem”, the written and archived text that provides the form of the vast majority of the ‘western canon’ – but they are no less deserving of that mantle. At one point no less a poet – although given that, on his albums, he raps over a backing production, the epiphet is not a sticking one – than Saul Williams comes on to give them a pep talk. Though we might take Shakespeare as the yardstick by which we decide whether something is ‘poetry’, he says, “the oral history of poetry is much longer than the written history of poetry”; if Homer, celebrated by centuries of western thought as the finest of poets, were alive today, “he’d be labelled a performance poet”.
Putting aside the fallacy that, because Homer came from an oral culture, the centuries of written versions of his work don’t matter, the invocation of a debate of the ‘is slam poetry?’ sort – and related, implied debates around education, the academy, cultural ‘elitism’ – is strawmanning of the highest order. The debate is a tiresome one, and one which no-one except perhaps David Starkey and the hosts of Radio 5 Live phone-ins would bother having these days. Avant-gardists, under the pressure of conceptual art, sound, critical theory, have long since stopped believing that written texts – composed, no doubt, in a garret – have an inherent privilege in the poetic scheme of things, if anyone except Mallarmé and the L=A=N=G=U=A=G=E group ever did. For the film to invoke something like this argument in order to position its protagonists as adventurers in language is absurd. Moreover, as Mark Fisher has pointed out, to invoke the notion of a canon, as if the academy and media were composed entirely of glowering Leavisites ready to rain on performance poetry’s parade, is nonsensical: Harold Bloom’s grumpfest The Western Canon was written “as a challenge to the relativism that is hegemonically dominant in English Studies”, and 30 years of postmodernism in literary academia has made even writing on cereal boxes into respectable text. (This last is, needless to say, a positive development.) The media, too, is more than full enough of inversely patronising Oxbridge graduates to give anything that doesn’t involve much intellectual work, that gives the appearance of a ‘democractic’ art-form, boosting. (This isn’t to deny that there is a debate to be had about the way the academy handles non-written artistic media – slam could be seen, in this respect, in the same light as ‘happenings’ and Fluxus in their own field, the history of art – but more of that in a moment.)
The film follows the group, members of the organisation Leeds Young Authors, as they are picked and prepare for Brave New Voices, the major event in the international slam calendar, held in Washington D.C. (The form is more popular in the States, and the teams seen here very adept.) Most of them are winning personalities on camera: Kadish, a brash, funny black 16-year-old, full of endlessly eloquent chat; Maryam, a 16-year-old Kashmiri Muslim, forthright about the divide between her self-perception and the assumption of others that she must oppressed in her community; Joseph, who, endearingly, shows off his favourite sci-fi novels and discusses his experiences, as a mixed-race child, of abuse from both black and white communities. Their stories are mostly very interesting. The poetry is not. I’ll admit to finding slam, for the most part, displeasing. With enough drinks inside me and the right sort of poets it can be a good enough entertainment. But I go to slams as one goes to socially obligatory but onerous parties, hiding in the corner half the evening, hoping someone will spike the punch. Part of the problem is that the performances here, in spite of their potential virtue of entertainment, do not aspire to entertainment – they aspire to capital-M Meaning. Hence we get earnest raps about the effects of crack, about racism, about the wish to make poetry, about family or relationships, all delivered in the immensely annoying rhythmic sing-speak typical of slam. In one excruciating sequence Joseph and Maryam act out an allegory of American imperialism as a rape scene – the sort of politics one expects from 16 year-olds, I suppose – followed by their coach pointing out, with a weary look, “the judges will be American”. There are a couple of very good performances: Kesed, a former slam champion, delivers a short, raging, virtuoso piece to camera; during a workshop, Oakland slam poet Ise Lyfe does a few seconds of thrilling double-time chat before lapsing back into moralising. If the film’s value is meant to reside in these displays of virtuosity – the personal and interpersonal drama of the poets’ preparations being largely uninteresting – then there isn’t much to be said for it.
The filmmakers give us these performances mostly unmediated, some tasteful editing aside, in line with slam’s own philosophy of language. Language here is recast as a positivist medium of simple presence and solidity, scripting, via the vocal presence – and, the coaches remind their charges, “the visual aspect” – of the poet him- or herself and in broad brushstrokes, the contours of an experience set in a social reality we all apparently share. Wordsworth’s deceptively simple description of poetry as “the spontaneous overflow of powerful emotion” (a phrase that seems to suggest vocal outpouring) is taken here at its blunt face value. Personal testimony is presented as an end in itself. What you see, the camera suggests, is what you get: unvarnished truth – or truth whose varnishing (showmanship, theatricality) works not to increase its lustre but to show off how plain and solid it is. Although the film sets a lot of store by the notion of poethood – in the last round Rheima and Kadish perform a piece beginning with “I AM THE POET” – its meaning is left largely unexamined. Joshua Bennet claims, late in the film, that “you can’t teach someone to be a poet… it’s the heart, it’s intrinsic, and I think it hides in the belly of every human being.” So far, so conventional: poetry as the struggle in “the language between man and man” (Wordsworth again) to open out the agon of lived experience. But this task of poetry is itself antithetical to this kind of mystification, the myth of immediacy and inherency. Its difficulty, its resistance to the demand of immediacy, is itself the result of the articulation of real human capabilities and thought in a world of petrified social relations, in which, as Adorno writes, “man is the ideology of dehumanisation”. The opinion of the young authors themselves, that poetry works to “get stuff off your chest” – “I found it easier to write than to go out and have a strop in school” – is more level-headed and accurate, and one feels glad they have an outlet like this. But it’s disspiriting to see young people, having grasped language, to stick with such a limited, instrumentalised form – the hiss of social steam – in a form aligned with the relentless, dreary positivity of neoliberal culture. (No coincidence that slam was included in the 2012 Cultural Olympiad.)
The young poets are from ethnic minorities, as are most of the contestants they meet in the States. One of their complaints – or assumptions – is that poetry as they confront it in education has nothing in common with the speech of their own experience. (“I had to explain… it’s not that kind of poetry.”) If this is a film about race and language, there are two half-presences that haunt it. One is hip-hop. Lyfe, who apparently works as a “hip-hop theatre artist”, is shown claiming that rap is “looking to break into the next thing”. This is an ethical as well as an aesthetic claim. Spoken-word is often aligned with ‘conscious’ rap, associated in turn with hard work, abstinence, ‘community’, tradition, authenticity, a principled spurning of the seductions of gangsta. Lyfe is implying that slam poetry will leave behind hip-hop’s tainted history, replace it with something (aesthetically and morally) pure. This is the kind of reductive reading of hip-hop one usually gets from middle-class white critics: it is, rather, compelling and critical precisely because of its unrespectable enmeshment in capitalism. Lyfe’s own work as seen in the documentary gets interesting only as it approaches the condition of hip-hop, as it mentally summons a beat under it. The other is the BBM messages circulated across London during last August’s riots, excerpted in many media reports. Most of the kids in this film seemingly come from neighbourhoods perhaps one rung up from the estates that broke out in looting, arson, anti-police violence. Their parents opine that writing at least “gives them something to do, something to achieve, instead of roaming t’streets.” 19-year-old Saju, we’re told, joined Leeds Young Authors as part of an ultimatum to avoid being expelled from school for petty crime. They are repeatedly told they’re representing “your community, who got you here”. By the end one yearns for the touch of an Ol’ Dirty Bastard – or, perhaps, a James Baldwin or an Isaac Julian – whose art spurned community, responsibility, narrow good taste. The directors are careful to suggest the deprivation that surrounds their protagonists. But at their most compelling their chat breaks towards the confidence, the bent syntax, the mordant wit, the crunched syllables and telegraphed meaning of those messages (or, for that matter, the best grime lyrics). The appeal of such texts was not the time and attention of the kindly middle-class reader. Slam, and the film that chronicles it, joins the long lineage of moralising attempts to channel working-class anger and hurt into forms that add no noise to the system, that keep them penned into a worldview that naturalises injustice, into a language that, Adorno writes, “domination alone has stamped”. The film’s poignancy lies in the contrast between these young poets’ hunger and determination, and the paltry, sanctimonious forms they encounter to give it shape. One wants to give them the whole of language and, in it, another world.