When did shouting obscenities, insults against anonymous caricatures, and empty aphorisms constitute poetry? When did it become less about substance and more about volume? Actually, when did substance turn out to mean “what incendiary, hateful remark can I rhyme with the last single-syllable insult that I said two seconds ago and can I chain it into this outdated statement on racial dysphoria that my professor would approve of?”
Naturally, I’m going to blame communists for this one.
I have been to one—one—slam poetry (reading?) performance. It was while I was still a somewhat-impressionable literature student going to what passes for today as a liberal arts school, which really just means that it doesn’t have a very good engineering program and they’re in the process of getting a new humanities building greenlit. Which they were. It was built a couple years after I left. I went to this reading because I was tagging along with a girl I wanted to sleep with at the time. Naturally, that chance never arose.
I’m not going to tell you about how the reading went, other than how it was awful and almost like a meta-post ironic comedy sketch of itself, except it wasn’t being ironic and it wasn’t intended to be a comedy sketch. Basically, everything was awful and I hated everyone. Basically, everything is awful and I hate everyone. Just kidding. The truth is, everything was awful, and it still is. Because slam poetry is still a thing.
So what the hell is slam poetry? I don’t know. It eschews the traditional roles of rhyme and meter in favor of rhythm and rap-like verse, interested more in how it feels than how it’s structured, and ignoring all of the reasons a good framework of traditional verse—if altered here or there—works out. And, generally, it completely ignores the imagist methods of evoking the senses to build scenes out of as few words as possible—the only form of free-verse poetry that actually works without turning to complete garbage. Slam poetry doesn’t do any of this. It’s literally the soap box for the revolutionaries who bravely tear down the traditional value structures of the Old World in favor of their new, ideological, message-based loud-speaker propaganda rehearsals, except lacking in punch or bite. A newcomer might be impressed with the vehemence of their message, but after you sit through a handful of these hacks in a row, you start to realize that it’s all the same crap enunciated in all the same ways.
Seriously. This garbage is as if you took stand-up comedy and removed the comedy part of it. It’s stand-up garbage—whether it’s X-rated performances about menstruation, hate-filled tirades about white people being trigger-happy racist murderers, or—slightly less often—how the West is responsible for pillaging all of the wealth in the world and how all of us are slaves to banks. That said, class warfare is a harder one to riff on these days, so it’s more likely you’ll run into man-hating and white-hating in these performances. The classist undertones are almost always there, to be sure, but it’s usually wrapped up in something like how evil whites are, but they’re even more evil when they have money and you don’t, or how evil men are, but they’re even more evil when they have some money and you have less. Keep in mind that all of this is spouted from the lips of vehement college students wearing outfits that cost more than my kitchen cabinets did (seriously, I paid about $150 for the whole set) and they’re speaking in coffee shops frequented by New Yorker contributors, and they’re probably a stone’s throw from the camps they erected back in 2008 during Occupy before they moved back in with their upper middle-class parents.
“Oh, but that’s just the extreme examples. There’s some really good slam poetry out there. You just have to find it in the right open mics.”
No there isn’t. There is no good slam poetry. Rap battles are fucking garbage and those are already superior to slam poetry. And if you think I need to literally crawl through the vilest hipster-infested “counter-culture” establishments populated by freaks (the kind who still think dyed hair, awkward piercings, and tattoos are forms of self-expression when their own ham-fisted ideology tells them that they’re still slaves to a capitalist machine) in order to find these poetic savants, then you’re fucking wrong for a variety of reasons. Like about what poetry is. Or mistakenly believing that hipsters aren’t just today’s hippies, and that the hippies are still delusional self-aggrandizing suburbanite whiners, and that the authority figures and role models who are supposed to penalize this behavior and encourage them to grow up have all been murdered or burned like idols before the lefty horde. It’s all terrible. Everything is terrible.