Poetry is—and has always been—a performance art, but the amount of substandard poetry being performed might be bogging the community down more than raising it up.
This past year has seen a massive uptick in the number of poets. Poetry book sales increased by 79 percent in 2016. This competitive spirit has driven poets to dig deeper and write more meaningful poetry, often throwing light on issues that would otherwise be left in the dark like abuse, racism and sexism.
Whether its origins are from Norse Vikings or the ancient Japanese, spoken word poetry has always been a powerful artform. It has been performed before kings and before countries, to flatter and to fight and, most importantly, to emote. One of its current platforms can be traced back to the early ‘80s in Chicago, where sleepy poetry recitations were livened up with contests, or as poets call them, slams.
Poetry is growing ever more prominent, and when poetry increases in impact, more people start writing, which is great in theory. It means that performance poetry finds better footing as a contemporary artform, a bigger audience and a space for poets to make careers out of passion. Poets from India, China, Vietnam, Canada, England, Brazil, Sudan and all across the globe are becoming revolutionaries, standing for what they believe in and making a real difference. It’s inspiring to know that words can go from paper to stage, becoming a herald of societal betterment.
We live in a world full of overenthusiastic teenagers, fame-hungry capitalists and activists willing to do anything to aid their cause. In a such a world, people try to stay on top of the fad and consequently turn the poetry industry to a conveyor belt churning out a long line of mediocre poems. Sometimes these poems are written by the genuinely interested newcomer who’s too eager to perform and doesn’t work on their writing enough; other times, they’re written by the social media influencer who saw a new platform to exploit.
More than the poetry community at large, the conveyor belt hurts the struggling individual. Poets who spend years honing their craft, carefully writing and rewriting every line, practicing their performance over and over before they take to stage, are being beaten to the punch by influencers with a steady social media presence and masses of followers. These so-called insta-poets get away with blanket statements and empty metaphors under the guise of poetry.
This trend is most visible on Instagram, a site littered with pictures of one or two or four lines of sentimental, generic drivel in a typewriter font that is meant to be poetry. Instagram poets include J. Iron Word, R.M. Drake and a dozen other identical poets whose posts you wouldn’t be able to tell apart, if not for their names at the bottom of the post.
This is not to say that poetry cannot be simple, but when these poets churn out mindless poems like clockwork, keeping them to fewer than 20 words every time, you cannot help but wonder if this is all for sake of engagement. Their daily posts become a ploy that focuses on the outcomes of or reactions to poetry rather than poetry itself, or more importantly, the process of writing poetry.
I’ve attended slam after slam, only to find 60 different poets writing in the name of feminism. Such poets use the same ocean metaphor to describe themselves, or win the national poetry slam because they offered up the most social justice selling points. Rupi Kaur appears to steal from Tumblr statuses and call it poetry, only to go on to write a bestselling poetry book.
I cannot accept that these practices are not motivated by the urge to turn a quick buck. I’m sure this phenomenon has shown up in every performance artform, when a few artists capitalize on a trending phase only to explode into relevance. But when it trickles into performances that base themselves on original thought and raw emotion, when it stains authentic expression—which is what poetry is all about—the whole platform begins to feel counterfeit.