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Louder Than A Bomb is the name of a scholastic slam poetry competition in Chicago. It’s also the title of a new movie from Greg Jacobs and Jon Siskel, a documentary focusing on teens from four different high schools as they prepare for the annual competition.

The strategy of filming the run up to an academic contest and coupling the building intensity with an up close and personal focus on one or more participants is a well tried motif (e.g. Spellbound, The Great Debaters).

Moreover, slam poetry is not new. First manifest as a phenomenon back in the 1980s, slam rediscovered poetry as living art and simultaneously diverged from nearly all literary conventions. Slam is primarily oral not written. It’s raw and undisciplined, relies on performance, personal charisma and presence more than felicitous language. It arises from youth culture, not the academy, owes more to rap than to Shakespeare. Twenty years later, however, these contrasts no longer have the same shock value.

But despite the familiarities, in fact maybe because of them, Louder Than A Bomb comes off as fresh, vibrant and relevant. Having had time as a “traditional” poet to come to terms with slam’s radical approach, I felt better prepared to accept and consider it as a legitimate form of poetic expression. And having brought to the theater certain expectations with respect to the concept of the “academic contest as film” I found myself all the more surprised at the non-competitive elements that stood out so eloquently in Louder Than A Bomb. That these kids compete not as spellers or debaters but as poets uniquely facilitates their ability to discover each other as human beings. Throughout the film there is an out-loud dimension of enthusiastic a-ha comprehension and support. In a city known for turf battles and gangs, color and class barriers, poetry as a means of drawing children together is amazing stuff.

Just as poignantly, the richly detailed often troubled situations in which many of these teens are growing up directly influences and is interpreted by the poems. When Lamar Jorden, leader of the Steinmenauts team from the West Side of Chicago, in a voiceover at the beginning of the film says, “I was a bit of a troublemaker, and I did some things I regret. I would like damage a lot of things in my house, but my father never cried about that. When I got arrested, my father didn’t cry about that. First time I made my father cry, was the first time he heard me perform poetry,” one understands the poverty of communication in his life, and the r0le poetry plays in addressing it.

Even for Adam Gottlieb, progeny of nearly perfect circumstances, matriculating at Northside College Prep, one of the nation’s top schools, encouraged by his still married, affectionate middle-class parents, poetry has clearly deepened his sense of himself and of the world. Charismatic in his delivery, he channels the Beats, and his genuine feelings of fraternity for his “opponents” wows them and us. Nova Venerable, half-Indian, half-African American, representing Oak Park/River Forest, is more direct but just as mesmerizing, her voice edgy and wounded as she reveals her pain over an estranged and abusive father, and the threatened loss of a chronically ill brother. Nate Marshall, who represents Whitney Young, lives with his mother, both his parents having struggled with drug addiction, and early on points out for the camera where in the South Side neighborhood park he was “jumped” by assailants. Of all the works we hear, his come closest to rap in their pacing, rhyme-laced, upbeat and full of humor.

Despite the slam slogan, “the point is not the point, it’s the poetry,” I found the interactions outside of the performances complementary and compelling. Here’s verse that functions as a catalyst for understanding between children, and also between children and their parents (and teachers as well) at a critical juncture in their lives. When was the last time “serious” poetry could claim to be this essential? Could the literati be missing something?

Dana Gioia in a recent essay in the Hudson Review writes:

While the new popular poetry has received immense coverage from the electronic media and general press, it has garnered relatively little attention from intellectuals and virtually none from established poetry critics. One can understand the reluctance of academic critics. If they have noticed the new popular poetry at all, they immediately see how little it has in common with the kinds of poetry they have been trained to consider worthy of study.

As Gioia, who favors formal prosody, points out, in contemporary poetics, it’s mostly with rap and slam poetry that formal elements like meter and rhyme find unabashed celebration.

The students’ poetry itself provides the best evidence for both the vitality and sincerity of their interest. Was every poem declaimed worthy of publication in the Norton Anthology? No, of course not. But they did consistently surprise me with their coherence and power, their willingness to tackle thorny subjects. Perhaps given the overdose levels of reality TV currently being injected into our culture, the celebrity contests like American Idol and Dancing With The Stars dominating the small screen, the existence of poetry as a purer ambition for American teens represents desperately welcome iconoclasm. For anyone with an interest in the true wealth and breadth of American poetry, this is a must see film.*


*(In keeping with Louder Than A Bomb’s 10 point system for evaluating its declaimers, I award a score of 9.0).

I think part of the problem with modern “criticism” is that much of it isn’t really criticism, not in the traditional sense. There are few critics today like T.S. Eliot (not going back too far), who wrote about poetry from the standpoint of a core philosophy he had engineered. I don’t particularly care for Eliot or his unpleasantly biased point of view. But he did have intellectual rigor when it came to criticism. We do have a few individuals, all parochial in the end of course, like Eliot, and academic, like Eliot–these are the drawbacks of such criticism. Helen Vendler comes to mind for one.

Unfortunately, even here one finds a kind of “kingmaker” apparatus, where the critic anoints those poets deemed worthy of “serious” consideration in our time. Less attention is paid to poetry in general, and the qualities that make it poetry, or (less often) great poetry.

Most of what passes for critique,however, is the “book report” capsule review one finds in literary journals and newspapers. Here, I fear, it is difficult to disentangle true criticism from the commercial process. Newspapers and magazines as published instruments have a natural incentive to favor books they can praise since these are books people might buy. Poetry is desperately undervalued in our culture and it’s the poets who are desperate. Desperate to be heard and desperate to be read. The poetry world is very small, insular and incestuous. Most of those who read verse also write it. Is it a great surprise that few are willing to be fully candid in their reviews? It’s far more expedient to be circumspect and political. It’s also easier, since the evaluative criteria are of course subjective, and few critics write from a core philosophy they can articulate, never mind defend. Knowing who your friends are becomes the one constant. Worse, those who resist this tendency often write with such scathing arrogance that their example hardly begs others to write negative reviews and join them on the “dark side.”

Clearly there is bad poetry being written. Every book contains some, or nearly every book. Some books, even by good poets, are nearly all bad. We all know about the complacency that afflicts the “major” poet in mid to late career, and the Emperor’s New Clothes effect, with regard to his/her work. The same applies to the latest fad offering from the latest “iconoclastic” hotshot. Unfortunately we have become so accustomed to our little world of vanity and desperation that we can’t tolerate the truth, only occasional ad hominem rants. Here’s to more integrity, intelligence, and rigor in criticism, but I’m not holding my breath.

(In response to Travis Nichols, The Poetry Foundation, Should Poetry Critics Go Negative?)

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