Poetry slams? Where have I been?

I like to think I’m tuned in to culture and society, but I’m beginning to suspect there’s no end to things that never cross my radar. The latest example is the poetry slam.

Poetry is dead, I thought, abandoned by my generation and found dead, if at all, by those who’ve followed. Recently, I learned, I’m wrong. (So what else is new?)

It turns out that poetry slams are big among people less than half my age. They’re part poetry, part performance and part sport, and they trace their roots back to 1984, when poet Marc Smith started the Monday Night Poetry Reading in Chicago. Two years later, the event had morphed into poetry slams. If you want to see the granddaddy of all poetry slams, head to the Green Mill Jazz Club in Chicago.

In a slam, poets perform their work on stage, and judges award points to each contestant. The poet with the highest score after several rounds wins. In effect, it’s the poetry world’s version of “Last Comic Standing.”

Poetry slams are not without their critics. Yale’s Harold Bloom calls them “the death of art.” Others denounce them for their competitive aspects.

I think anything that gets young people interested in self-expression and the power of words has more going for it than not. I feel the same way about hip-hop – not my cup of tea, but it has heightened the appreciation of words among the young.

To see the kind of talent that poetry slams foster, watch the video clip above to hear Taylor Mali talk about his peers as the “most aggressively inarticulate generation to come along since, you know, a long time ago.” Then, answer a question about poetry in my poll in the right-hand column.

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