by Camil Piperni
In 2019 at a school in Brooklyn, a class of 7th grade students were asked to analyze and respond to John Masefield’s Sea Fever. The poem was a central part of the grade’s preparation for that year’s state testing.
The class’s idea of poetry was based on the poems we’d been given to annotate. While most of the poems were written by a variety of different people, almost every poem had three similarities. To begin, each one was written by an old white man who’d been born a minimum of 2 centuries ago. Each was written in a complicated form of old and outdated English. Each, according to the curriculum, was seen as an example of an intellectual and academic poem that would further our understanding of literature. This was the school’s understanding of poetry - an ordeal that no one enjoyed.
The overly complex and outdated language the “academic and intellectual” poets used made them incredibly difficult to understand. They needed to be read over and over again for the reader to gain even the slightest understanding of what the poet had meant. Putting in this amount of work and effort into reading completely removed the joy from it. The ideas and metaphors used are so distanced from anything this generation had ever experienced that poetry was seen as an overly complicated and pretentious medium.
In Study Breaks Magazine, writer Deshia Dunn explains how the disconnect between younger generations and poetry is broken. “In an effort to combat the growing distance between the “great” poets and the people expected to read them, a more inclusive version of the medium has arisen—slam poetry, sometimes referred to as spoken word.”
At a poetry class held over the summer by a writing organization in Pennsylvania, my spoken word teacher explained her love of slam, speaking on how beautiful it was because it never wrapped ideas in complicated lines and metaphors. Beautiful because it was not an ordeal to unpack and read, because it was something that you immediately understood and were deeply affected by in the moment. The best spoken word pieces, she explained, were the ones written in dialects and languages you heard and spoke in the street. Spoken in AAVE, Spanglish, and slang, the familiarity of the words deepened the meaning and impact. These dialects, while grammatically correct, are seen as “inappropriate” or “un-academic” because they’re spoken in communities of color.
Spoken word poems generally are under 4 minutes. In this limited time, instead of wasting sentences for the reader to carefully read over and understand the message of a poem (and to some degree lose the joy in the reading and listening), phrases and emotions are stated clearly. The audience doesn’t have time to google definitions of overly complicated and outdated words. They don’t have time to pick at a poem and unravel it until they’re certain of the meaning. Instead, the body of the poem is presented to you, already unwrapped. It is made clear and easy to understand by the vast majority of those who listen.
The ability to understand a poem without unpacking it like an essay combined with the familiarity of the poem’s language makes slam effective. “When a poem works, you feel it,” the poet laureate Adrian Matejka writes in his interview with the Porter House Review, “You don’t feel it in your brain. You feel it in your shoulder blades and in your chest.”
The only thing I or my classmates ever felt when reading Sea Fever was exhaustion.