A Brief History of Spoken Word Poetry: 5 Fierce Spoken Word Poets from the Past to Present
Spoken word poetry is one of the most popular subgenres of poetry today. Channels like Button Poetry—publisher of renowned spoken word artists Neil Hilborn and Andrea Gibson—regularly garner millions of views on YouTube. Rudy Francisco performed his piece “Rifle” on The Tonight Show. Many high school English lesson plans now incorporate spoken word, with many schools even forming teams and traveling to competitions. And in 2020, Brandon Leake brought slam poetry to perhaps its biggest and most national stage yet, becoming the first spoken word poet to be prominently featured on America’s Got Talent.
Behind this increasingly mainstream appeal, it’s easy to see why spoken word has become so beloved: Many fans have cited the form’s diversity and accessibility, seeing slam as a way to introduce poetry to new generations. Despite its recent boost, spoken word poetry’s origins go back further than many people realize. Take a look back at some of the most influential pioneers, as well as today’s modern and innovative voices.
Bob Kaufman, a Black Jewish poet who studied with the New School, infused his poetry with jazz influences and the rhythms of daily life. He became known for his performances in San Francisco coffee shops, on beaches, and on street corners, an early example of how spoken word can introduce the general public to poetic tradition. A radical activist and labor organizer, Kaufman also illustrates poetry’s frequent intersection with protest and social justice.
Unrest characterized much of Kaufman’s life, with his experiences of housing insecurity, addiction, union-busting, and imprisonment also informing his work. Notably, Kaufman was under FBI surveillance throughout the McCarthy era. Today, his legacy further cements him as part of the Beat poetry movement, through which he exhibits not only pivotal writing but impressive literary citizenship. In fact, he founded the journal Beatitude with famed Beat figure Allen Ginsberg.
Introductory works and resources: This rare footage of Kaufman reading. You can also watch the documentary And When I Die, I Won’t Stay Dead, an award-winning 2015 release that looks back at his interconnected poetry and activism.
Though fans often cite Gil Scott-Heron as an early founder of rap music—with samples of his spoken word tracks later sampled by Kanye West, Kendrick Lamar, and Common—he referred to himself as a “bluesologist.” His work brings together the influences of jazz, blues, and Harlem Renaissance poetry. Throughout his lifetime, Scott-Heron recorded 13 albums.
Many people still view Scott-Heron’s work as an enduring rallying cry for some of today’s most pressing movements and issues, including prison abolition, police accountability, and pushback against corporations. His most iconic work continues to be “The Revolution Will Not Be Televised,” a track that encourages listeners not just to watch change unfolding through media, but to get involved with it themselves. Above all, Scott-Heron’s poetry upholds the idea that to effectively participate in social revolution, individuals must develop a deep awareness and undergo a true personal transformation.
Introductory works and resources: “The Revolution Will Not Be Televised,” “Comment #1.” To hear more inspiration behind these and other tracks, listen to Scott-Heron’s speech about the intersections between poetry and blues.
Born in 1949
While spoken word has a long lineage, the slam poetry movement—characterized by performance poetry, poetry infused with movement, and open mic events—gained traction in the 1980s. His motivation for creating the first well-known open mic night at a lounge in Chicago can be summarized by this quote: “The very word ‘poetry’ repels people. The slam gives it back to the people . . . We need people to talk poetry to each other. That’s how we communicate our values, our hearts, the things that we’ve learned that make us who we are.”
Smith hosted the longest-running slam poetry series, the Uptown Poetry Series, in Chicago. Now, he’s involved in growing slam’s popularity and significance abroad, particularly in Europe. Smith is also known for speaking out about the commercialization of slam poetry and emphasizing the importance of its blue-collar and socialist roots.
Tarriona “Tank” Ball
Born in 1988
Tarriona Ball, better known as Tank of the soulful, genre-bending band Tank and the Bangas, represents another example of the connection between music and poetry. In addition to winning NPR’s Tiny Desk Contest in 2017, Ball has also achieved success in poetry, establishing herself as a powerful fixture in the New Orleans slam poetry community. Tank is especially known for intimate, diaristic poetry that speaks to the nuance of regretting a relationship yet also having gratitude for it. Vulnerable AF, Ball’s first published poetry award, has recently been nominated for an Audie Award, marking it as one of the best new releases in audio publishing.
Introductory works and resources: “The Ball Sisters,” Vulnerable AF Audiobook. For a more intimate look, watch her speak candidly about her identity, her insecurities, and what makes her feel beautiful—as well as recite her poem “What You Tell Yourself When You Think No-one’s Watching”—in this two-part docu-style interview series: Part 1, Part 2
Born in 1993
With his more than 60,000 Instagram followers and tour spanning 36 states, recent America’s Got Talent winner Brandon Leake has brought spoken word poetry to a wide audience. He became the first spoken word poet to be featured in the competition, and he also won a Golden Buzzer award from Howie Mandel. An educator and activist as well as a poet, Leake has produced a series called HATE: What Are YOU Going to DO? in partnership with Emerson College since his history-making reality TV win. The show takes on issues like women’s rights, racial justice, and the role of youth activists in social movements. Leake’s first poetry collection, an inspiring and emotional release titled Unraveling, was published last month.
Do these history-making poets inspire you to delve deeper into the spoken word scene, and maybe even make you want to get involved with your local slam community? Here are some of Read Poetry’s tips for emerging performance poets.
This is part of Read Poetry’s National Poetry Month series. Check out next week’s newsletter and blog for a look at the history of lyric poetry. Happy National Poetry Month!