Slam Poetry: Definition & Examples

Instructor: Lauren Posey

Lauren has taught intermediate reading in an English Language Institute, and she has her Master's degree in Linguistics.

In this lesson you will learn about slam poetry, which is a relatively new and increasingly popular form of poetry. We will also take a look at some examples of slam poems.

Free Form Poetry

When you think about poetry, what features come to mind? You probably think about rhyming structure, right? In fact, there is some poetry that does not rely on rhyming at all, and does not follow ''traditional'' poetry structure. This free-form poetry is called slam poetry, and it has only been around in its current form since the mid-1980s.

Slam poetry was invented by a man named Marc Kelly Smith, a former construction worker. In 1986 he performed his new type of poetry for a jazz club in Chicago, and since then slam poetry has taken off. It is now widely popular around the world, and frequently performed at a variety of venues big and small.

Slam poetry is based on the free verse styles of the Beat poets like Alan Ginsberg, and on the poems of the Negritude movement which was led by black French-speaking poets. The Negritude movement focused on experiences of discrimination and oppression; slam poetry often focuses on political and social issues as well.

Slam poetry is performed all over the world, such as this 2013 performance in London
London poetry slam

Defining Features

Slam poetry is mostly defined by its lack of traditional poetry features. First of all, it doesn't follow any particular rhyme scheme. Parts of the poem might rhyme, particularly if the poet wants to draw attention to that section, but some slam poets don't rhyme at all. Slam poems also don't follow any particular structure, as far as line or stanza length.

This type of poetry is meant to be performed and listened to, not read off a page. The main feature of slam poetry is the design for oral performance. It often centers on deeply emotional topics, such as politics, bullying, or social current events. It can be about any topic, but slam poems are supposed to carry an emotional impact, and this is easier to do if you start with an emotional topic. That being said, if you feel very strongly about sandwich structure, your slam poem can certainly be about how to build a sandwich.

Another important feature is that the poem must be original material. You cannot, for example, recite a Robert Frost poem as a slam poem. It has to be a poem you wrote yourself.

Performance Art

Venues where people meet and perform slam poetry are called poetry slams. Due to the performance-related nature of slam poetry, these venues are vital, and they vary widely in size. You might see a small one at your local coffee shop or library, but there are also much larger slam poetry competitions with hundreds of people attending.

The larger competitions have official judges and scores, and the judging is based on the poet's performance. Judges rate how enthusiastic the poets are, as well as the emotional impact of the performance. Interestingly, judges are people randomly selected from the audience. As a result, they have a good idea of how the poem is affecting the general audience, since they are part of it!

Slam poetry is meant to affect the audience, regardless of the topic, and since it does not have to rhyme or follow a particular structure, emotion and delivery are really the main criteria.

Even the US Coast Guard holds poetry slams
Coast Guard poetry slam

Examples

The following examples are excerpts from slam poems performed by Marc Kelly Smith. This first one is titled ''Speaksters'':

All rise and bow and kneel
Another Spokesman of Mass Appeal
Has hopped atop the concert stage
To open up his Holy Rage.
''We shall all … or should all … or would all
Love 'love' if we could only
Free ourselves from too much freedom
And the uneasiness of ease ... (1-8)

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