Poetry and spoken word in Britain


This 2014 poetry video from Britain is called Kate Tempest – ‘Circles’.

By Matt Abbott in Britain:

Spoken word is poetry – but not as we’ve known it

Thursday 21st January 2016

by Matt Abbott

“What exactly is spoken word?”

I’ve had a fair few people ask me that recently. “Are you basically just saying ‘spoken word’ because it sounds cooler than poetry?” To be fair, I don’t shy away from the term “poet,” and I definitely write poems as opposed to spoken-word pieces — but either way, I still see a very important distinction between poetry and spoken word.

To me, spoken word is Linton Kwesi Johnson staring straight down the camera as he recites Inglan Is A Bitch. It’s John Cooper Clarke being gobbed on by punks in 1979. It’s Kate Tempest reducing people to tears in the Poetry&Words tent at Glastonbury in 2013. Attila The Stockbroker talking about the transformation of his relationship with his stepdad. The very first time I heard The Streets, when I chanced upon Weak Become Heroes on one of the MTV channels at the age of 13, had my mind completely blown. And so on and so forth.

There’s no denying that spoken word is enjoying a huge resurgence at the moment. Spoken-word nights are popping up around the country like wildfire, and artists like Kate Tempest, Hollie McNish, George the Poet and — rather bizarrely — Cooper Clarke, are living in the outskirts of the mainstream.

I’m obsessed with the latest Roots Manuva album at the moment. I know most folk would classify him as a rapper, but to me it sounds like a spoken-word album.

Anyway, I suppose the point I’m making is that poetry is not restricted to the tedious anthologies that we’re made to dissect during GCSE English lessons. There are only so many ways in which Carol Ann Duffy and Seamus Heaney can be interpreted (for the record, I do like Seamus).

And while many of the academic crowd look down their noses at spoken word, claiming that its impact lies in style over substance, and that choosing something as vulgar as an ABAB rhyme scheme is an atrocity, they can’t deny that spoken word is turning a whole wave of new people onto poetry, and particularly young people.

The whole ethos of my poetic output has been to write and deliver material that’s instantly accessible, regardless of whether anybody has any prior interest in poetry. And that’s mainly because, other than the aforementioned anthologies, I’ve never really taken interest in poetry in its purest form myself. When I started, my favourite “poets” were Alex Turner, Paul Weller, Mike Skinner, Eminem, etc.

The same goes for A Firm of Poets; formed as a spoken-word collective in 2013, we’re now a nationally recognised spoken-word organisation. And it’s all about spoken word for the masses; engaging, entertaining, visceral and accessible. Not dumbing it down, but not doing the opposite either — which is what a lot of poetry readings are guilty of. It was the snobby, superior, self-indulgent air of many of the poets at Glastonbury in 2013 that drove Ralph Dartford and I to form A Firm.

So now, as I sit and type this, I’ve made the progression to be a full-time spoken word artist. I run my own spoken-word record label, Nymphs & Thugs.

Pretty much any established poet, academic or not, will sell their books at shows (or readings). The thing that gets me is that even the “performance poets” do so. I love the idea of seeing an incredible spoken-word show, and then being able to walk away with a CD at the end of it.

If that’s how the poet intended for their work to be enjoyed, and that’s how it grabbed you on the night, and that’s how it generally delivers the most impact, then that’s how you should continue to enjoy it, surely?

Another quick point. When you see a band live, you can like their new stuff on first listen, but you’re pining for the songs that you know. It takes a dozen or so listens to get that connection, and often they’re fused with nostalgia; your favourite songs generally remind you of a specific time in your life, and more often than not, your favourite time of your life. We invariably soundtrack our memories.

With spoken word, you can get that connection on first listen. Not always, obviously, but far more often than with songs. It’s a different connection in the long run, but when worlds collide between speaker and listener, it can hit you like a 10-ton truck.

Which is why I founded Nymphs & Thugs last spring. I remember the effect that the Cooper Clarke bootlegs had on me when I was 17. That would never have happened if I’d only had his book, in which case I might never have had anything to do with poetry or spoken word at all.

So that’s what spoken word is, next time anybody asks.

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