“Writers must oppose systems. It’s important to write against power, corporations, the state, and the whole system of consumption and of debilitating entertainments…I think writers, by nature, must oppose things, oppose whatever power tries to impose on us. You know, in America and in western Europe we live in very wealthy democracies, we can do virtually anything we want, I’m able to write whatever I want to write. But I can’t be part of this culture of simulation, in the sense of the culture’s absorbing of everything…If you’re a writer who, one way or another, comes to be seen as dangerous, you’ll wake up one morning and discover your face on a coffee mug or a t-shirt and you’ll have been neutralized.”
R.M. Engelhardt acknowledges that there is a difference between the passive participant and those who live a passion-driven life, but can often be seen in “Versus” wondering if there is a difference in the end. Passion clearly perpetuates the creative imperative, manifest in poets like Engelhardt as non-negotiable, but to what end? There comes a time in the life of the poet where this question has to be dealt with. It is one thing to accept the terms of “the muse”. It is another to toil in the direction of some outcome, some goal. What, beyond that yielding and succumbing, is the poet desirous of? Fame, significance, appreciation, relevance? The poet succumbs because he or she must, but it doesn’t end there. The poet is driven to more just as the living are driven to interact in this world beyond survival. We do more than eat and breed and sleep, there is something that pushes us. But why? In the years that I have been aware of Engelhardt’s work, it is this willingness to examine these concerns head on and in a surprisingly candid manner that I think captures my interest the most in his work, which often gets into the problematic terrain of ego, and the ways that we relate to one another through not only our life’s work but through love and community. He states rather directly in “Versus” that poetry is dead, he comments on the state of popular culture and asks the obvious questions about the poet’s role in it. Why bother, and why persist? Persistence, I think, is the theme in Engelhardt’s work that prompts people to characterize him as “romantic” as many of the poems convey a sense of pining, portraying people desirous not only of love but of transcendent relationships. “She believes in something unseen”, (8, “Perhaps”) “I’m just sick of passing romances”. (“In Cleopatra’s Eyes”, 9) In ‘Versus”, we see that relationship between the speakers and both issues: wanting to do more than write, wanting to do have more than a date on a Saturday night. (“toys”, 6, “More than just another dance”, 2) This idea of wanting more, wanting to believe in and have faith in that but at the same time considering one’s observations and wanting to be rational. Persistence then is challenged by cynicism, both inner and external: “The time for poets has passed” “And someone once told me that honest people don’t exist anymore in the 21st century” “And someone once told me ‘That love…is dead.” Do we persist, press on anyway? In “Naïve”, Engelhardt describes the urge to avoid the trainwreck. In “Truth” we see people opening boxes, digging through metaphorical “boxes” of expectations mingled with mythology. What happens when people confront truth? Some thrive, some perish, some vanish immediately in the sight of their realizations. This brings us back, again and again, to the questions in “Versus”. What are we after? And can we get there? ‘We all grow older/Still trying to find our way/Like children” (“Any Day Now”, 11) Many poets grapple with a maturing phase not unlike the point around mid-life when one begins to really take stock about where to put energy, what to be concerned with and what to let go of. Some describe it much like finding their way, having gone through what some describe as a period similar to the honeymoon phase of a relationship. There are burdens in the poet’s world, choices about resources and time and energy and in the beginning there can be a sense of eventual payoff that in later years we learn can be quite elusive. There’s no denying that Engelhardt has love for the craft, but he pushes us to consider what that means, and to perhaps distinguish between the love of writing and the expectations. In some instances, the object of love can be easily interchangeable with “the muse” as both are subjects in these poems of that transcendent longing. The love that leaves for the man who promises everything, the “angel” who vanishes, the losses are connected: the poet wants to believe in more, wants to have faith in more, but life can be a series of losses, followed by grief. Engelhardt closes “Versus” with a shout-out to those who persist, who don’t give up, who keep searching and don’t give in, who stay true to the realm of dreams.
“I have said that Texas is a state of mind, but I think it is more than that. It is a mystique closely approximating a religion. And this is true to the extent that people either passionately love Texas or passionately hate it and, as in other religions, few people dare to inspect it for fear of losing their bearings in mystery or paradox. But I think there will be little quarrel with my feeling t…hat Texas is one thing. For all its enormous range of space, climate, and physical appearance, and for all the internal squabbles, contentions, and strivings, Texas has a tight cohesiveness perhaps stronger than any other section of America. Rich, poor, Panhandle, Gulf, city, country, Texas is the obsession, the proper study, and the passionate possession of all Texans.”
~ John Steinbeck, Travels with Charley: In Search of America
“Every age has its own poetry; in every age the circumstances of history choose a nation, a race, a class to take up the torch by creating situations that can be expressed or transcended only through poetry.”
The poetry that thrives in a culture of non-readers. Very sincere, bad poetry. Delivered in front of and given encouragement from a small group of people who are also bad poets. Slam poets think that their poetry is more powerful if they just yell it. Sincerely painful to listen to. It’s bad poetry. They try very hard, but they have no idea what they’re doing.
Most slam poetry could be better classified as motivational speaking or stand-up comedy.
Poetry : A Definition
1. An archaic form of literature, now dying off. Doggerel.
As practiced in modern times, poetry is a discredited means of (supposedly) communicating aesthetic thoughts or feelings in verbal form. Thousands, perhaps millions of person-hours, disc/server space, and trees are wasted to develop and store this tripe.
“Award winning” poetry is usually the worst kind, representing the vilest outcome of combining incestuous art-cronyism with self-indulgent self-promotion.
2. A complete waste of time.
1. Bob is nearly finished with his english degree, but he still needs a credit in poetry of the twentieth century.
Small trees that shine
out of watery depths
With broken limbs, like
Not why I write.
Above, as you have just read are two comedic and yet sarcastic definitions of what slam poetry is and what poetry itself is to a generation out there who on Urban Dictionary believe that they are being comical and witty. But the truth is that there is some deeper hidden meaning in both of these separate ideas of a definition. Once, poetry was a sacred thing full of wisdom and a secret meaning that the reader was to ponder but it was also about the words and life experiences of the poet, a mystical figure shrouded in enlightenment whose words were like prophecy. The Bible? Poetry. The Koran? Poetry. Religions and laws based on those religions? All poetry and all based on those voices and those words written by wordsmiths and scribes. And those words once meant something more and those poems were epic. Every civilization on earth from the dawn of recorded time has had their great poets. Every age had something to say that defined them. But the question now exactly is where is poetry going and where are all those voices now?
It seems that over the last thirty years or so that poetry has been manipulated into something it should never be by popular culture and by the idea that poetry is anything that you can say (ex. Lyrics) when up upon a stage for a contest and to win a few dollars. As an event idea It’s a wonderful thing that slam poetry open mics have helped academics, colleges and schools bring kids and students into the light of reading literature but it is now an overused tool and it’s time has sadly passed. Slam poetry has simply become another label that has outlived it’s time and usefulness. For poetry should be much more than this, and it has to become much more than this or it just isn’t poetry anymore and the poet merely becomes just another performer or rapper. Once upon a time poetry was important. It created new worlds of imagination and reached imaginations. It influenced and inspired generations who fought and died and who stood up against war and oppression. But tell us, where are these voices now when we need them most? Where is our new Walt Whitman or William Shakespeare when we are merely as writers and the public writing something just to get up on a stage and to just rant but not to write any words or poems on the page that are powerful or eternal? Who will write these lasting words that will speak to our descendents or to a generation 500 years from now?
It’s time to write. It’s time to dispel the myth that true poetry in all it’s forms is not archaic or dead but alive and well and to bring those forms back into being. It’s time to be inspired and write not just for an audience who applauds you in a cafe or a bar after a few drinks and score you but for those who will read your words many years from now. So let’s be honest. Slam poetry, as a label and as a form, as a contest or as an event has had it’s day and it’s time to pronounce it dead. If you are a true poet or a writer this shouldn’t bother you but not writing or finding the right words should because that’s what we do. You write. The 20th century produced some amazingly talented poets such as T.S. Eliot, Silvia Plath, Borges, Garcia Lorca and many many others but after the Beat Generation ended it seems overall there are just a mere handful of poets now living or dead in comparison whose work and craft and the truth within it all have truly earned the right to be called “Poets”.