Some people say comedians are the poets of our time. Others claim it's filmmakers or singer/songwriters. Very few seem to think that the actual poets are the poets of our time. With poetry month just ended, we aren't any closer to finding out who the real poets are. That's because the candidates for the title are drawn from two apparently at-odds groups. One believes in the primacy of words on the page, and their work is therefore unwillingly labelled page poetry while the other tends to see the wholeness of poetry emerging only in a performance atmosphere. Hence the appellation stage poetry (or slam or spoken word).
Each side caricatures the other. Page poetry, that dull guff we were force-fed in the school system, is portrayed as a victim of its own sense of economy. For a century it's been tightening up on the largesse of language, divesting itself of such trashy trinkets as rhyme, rhythm, euphony, sentiment and voice.
Having thereby lost literary weight at an alarming rate, it has also finally lost its once massive audience and is left with little more than its least attractive ingredient - arrogance, a quality it tends to intone at state-funded lit fests in a style even flatter than the poems themselves.
Audience response to such recitations is, at its most ecstatic, a deep "hmm" released from the chest, nasal and bass. This poetry is thought of as Eurocentric, university-based, apolitical and elitist. Its main magic is its ability to connect words in a way that causes them to electrocute one another. The poems come pre-executed.
The truth, however, is far richer. Charismatic readers have been a staple of the Canadian poetry scene at least since the time of the Bohemian Embassy in the 60s. Think Milton Acorn then, Christopher Dewdney today. Their works are neither static nor apolitical. In fact, the best poets of that tradition are culturally engaged and enthralling in performance.
Stage poets, on the other hand, are caricatured as having no idea of discipline. Their poems are way too long and unedited, spoken way too fast and have way too many rhymes. In fact, they are like billionaires of rhyme on a spending spree. They spin a rhyme or hinge a poem on a rhyme triple-time as though rhyme were the only possible engine for a poem.
Strip away the sonic effects and there are only the gestures and flailings of histrionic rebellion and political naíveté, whose one magic is that of turning any stage anywhere into a soapbox or confessional. Canada's first poet laureate, George Bowering, to his regret, even compared it to a dog who walks on its hind legs.
Nevertheless, slam or spoken word has become a populist phenomenon all over the world. Drawing from rich multicultural traditions like griot, hiphop, beat and classical, it lifts poetry far beyond mere entertainment to the level of a potent political tool and functions for many as a kind of secular church. Its audience is large, loudly appreciative, discerning, devoted and very diverse. Think dub pioneer Lillian Allen and today's Motion, Leviathan or Shane Koyczan.
And that diversity has been a key bone in another area of contention between the two poetries: funding. Historically, page poetry has enjoyed the vast majority of government arts bucks, while spoken worders share the wealth through stapled chapbooks and online organizing.
But that is changing. Motion and Koyczan both have full-length books out now. The diversity appeal of the spoken word community happens to fit neatly into government mandates. A special spoken word/storytelling grant was initiated at the Canada Council seven years ago. Since then, the Ontario Arts Council has followed suit. It's a small beginning, but is it a trend? Is slam going to take over? Is Eurocentric on the way out?
I doubt it. But equality would be good. They are, after all, two halves of the same lifeboat, and there are many nimble practitioners who work ably in both camps. In fact, the best-attended events at literary festivals lately have often been their spoken word nights, where specially invited page poets are tempted to mingle and try their stuff in front of a band.
Nor is it unheard of for spoken word performers to find themselves special guests at literary readings, where they tend to bring the house down. And so each infuses the other with latent gifts, abandoned mojo and devotees.
A few more years of such frisson and who knows? Maybe poets will actually become the poets of our time. Then, as now, the proof of the poutine is in the eating. If you'd like a taste, the monthly Toronto Slam takes place May 21 at the El Mocambo. The winner gets 75 bucks. Last month it was Matt Toth, also know as Gypsy Eyes.
For the more literary, the Griffin Poetry Prize finalists read May 31 at the MacMillan Theatre. The winners will be announced on June 1. They also get some money - $50,000 each.