Spoken Word vs. Traditional Written Poetry

As a developmental writing instructor at a community college, I’m accustomed to having to explain the differences between the various genres of writing. I understand that a student needs to comprehend the differences in purposes for writing a persuasive or argumentative essay as opposed to, say, an analytical essay.

As an author, writer, and poet, I never really anticipated that I would be called on to explain the differences between spoken word and traditional written poetry. But that’s exactly what happened. At my last Memphis Public Library-sponsored author reading event, I was called out (though it felt more like being taken to task) to explain the differences between the two. His argument: There is no difference because it’s all an expression of how the speaker feels. My response: Well, yes and no. It is true that both genres are an expression of how the artist feels, but so are music, paintings, essays, and other creative mediums for that matter.

Almost immediately as I began to formulate my response, I thought of the most significant difference between the two: purpose.

“The most important difference,” I began to explain, “is purpose. Spoken word is performance poetry and written poetry may require several readings before the reader feels he/she has fully interpreted the poet’s message.” Even then, the reader may feel a bit unsure that his or her interpretation has fully unraveled the meaning. But that’s okay. The most important thing to understand about reading a poem is that it can and will mean various things to different people.

So, back to purpose. Purpose determines what goes in a poem and what gets thrown out just like when writing an essay. Think: the difference between a book and its movie.

My son and I just finished watching The Lightning Thief by Rick Riordan. As a follow-up to reading the book, we decided to watch the movie. It was a way to reward my seven-year-old son for his dedication to completing the 375-page book. But as we watched the movie the other night, I instantly began to note differences between the two, to the chagrin of my son. Yes, I’m that person.

In the book Medusa lures Percy Jackson and his two sidekicks Annabeth and Grover into her place and offers the teens something to eat. And while they were eating, they slowly began to realize that something was not quite right with the woman, they later realized was Medusa. While Riordan was able to give the reader a more leisurely, laid-back experience in the book, there is no such opportunity in the movie. The scriptwriter can’t afford to lose the attention of the audience watching the movie, so the movie becomes a loosely-based, action-filled translation of the book. In the movie, Medusa delivers the line (which I love): “I used to date your daddy.” And that’s one of the moments that stood out in the film version because of the delivery and emotion it inspired. In the book, Percy Jackson seeks the advice of the oracles before beginning his journey. Not so in the book. Some of the scenes that were masterfully written in the book just didn’t show up in the film, to my chagrin. But, again, it’s all about purpose.

Spoken word poems are written with the audience in mind. Audience reaction and engagement are a cornerstone of spoken word performances much like live theater. In rehearsing for a play, the director may advise the actor or actress to pause at a particular point before or after the delivery of his or her lines because of an audience’s expected reaction.

One of my favorite spoken word artists, has a poem entitled, “F*ck I Look Like!” On her YouTube video of the performance, she pauses for audience reaction when she first says the title of her poem and several times throughout delivery of the poem. The high-energy performance highlights the speaker’s frustration as an educated black woman. The poem also highlights the differences of perceptions when reading a black and white writer in what bell hooks has called an “imperialist white supremacist capitalist patriarchy.” Davis points to the perceived differences between Maya Angelou’s and Mark Twain’s work to get her point across, but it is her lyrical word play along with the profound messages embedded in the poem that capture the attention of and excite her audience.

On the other hand, take “Nikki Rosa” by poet Nikki Giovanni. One of the poem’s messages is that a black person’s childhood can be tainted with negativity by other outsiders when they are trying to write about it: “and I really hope no white person ever has cause/ to write about me/ because they never understand/ Black love is Black wealth and they’ll/ probably talk about my  hard childhood.” Again, the audience reader receives a powerful and profound message. But because Giovanni’s message is embedded in the lines of a traditional poem, she depends on the visual depictions of the words to help get her message across. For instance, the fact that Black begins with a capital letter as opposed to lower-case. The word black has always held a negative connotation, here the poet ensures that the reader understands that in this poem Black people are revered and the color black doesn’t mean anything negative. Word placement also had to be an important consideration for the poet. The words “Black love is Black wealth” appears on the same line. To break them up on different lines would leave room for misinterpretation and clearly she wants to leave no room for misunderstanding. In a poem about the depiction of black family life, she wants the reader to comprehend that the love that existed in her family was more valuable than anything that money could buy.

Some poets also use layering of meanings in their poems, which any lover of words could spend hours discussing.

“We Real Cool” is one poem I’ve used with my tenth graders to demonstrate the necessity to dig deep to understand a poem. Students read the poem and think right away, after one reader, they understand everything the poet was trying to say. Then we annotate it together, as a class, and once we’ve given meaning to each declaration, the poem is given new meaning. “Dream Deferred” by Langston Hughes is another such poem. During class discussions, the students search for meaning behind lines like “fester like a sore –/ And then run?” to determine what the image means. What we end up determining is that it can and does mean many things.

There is typically no such room for open-ended interpretation with spoken word. To make the listener have to work for understanding is to lose the audience. One of the cornerstone elements of spoken word, again, is audience engagement.

When Rudy Francisco says “staple me to a cross, pierce my side with a broken promise and I will bleed all the crippled reasons why you deserve one more chance,” in his piece  entitled, “Scars/To the New Boyfriend,” we are immediately with him. This vivid description and allusion to the crucifixion of Jesus Christ leaves no room for misunderstanding. This is an allusion that his audience is easily and readily understood by his audience. While viewing his YouTube performance of this piece, it is immediately clear that his description is not only something the audience understands, but there’s evidence of a visceral agreement between him and his audience. A sense of “Yeah, dude, we feel ya.”

On the other hand, if Francisco had chosen to allude to the Roman emperor Nero, as William Shakespeare does in his play Hamlet, he might have left the audience members scratching their heads. The allusion to Nero might work better in traditional written poetry because the poet could include a footnote explaining the relevance or the reader might go research Nero on their own, deepening not only their understanding of his presence in the poem, but of the man himself.

Simply put, when Paul Laurence Dunbar said “With torn and bleeding hearts we smile, / and mouth with myriad subtleties” in his poem “We Wear the Mask” he didn’t insert room for a pause to allow for finger snaps and applause. What he left room for was understanding. He wasn’t performing for an audience; he was making White Americans aware that black people’s geniality shouldn’t be confused with complacency or an effusive acceptance of their oppression in America. “Nay, let them only see us, while/ We wear the mas.”

The basic difference, then, is this: spoken word, though a burgeoning art form focuses on the oral delivery as opposed to great detail and attention to the written text. Whereas, the opposite is true with traditional written poetry.

Peace & Love,


About Rosalind Guy

I'm broken & my soul is weary/ my weary soul rebels, fights/ anything & anyone who tries to heal me/I beat my head against a wall of memories/ trying hard to break free from the chain of memories/ I can only be free by saying it so/ i weave a necklace from words and finally/ I find freedom/ free free free. As you can see, words are powerful to me. As Maya Angelou said, words are wallpaper of the soul. I have lots of nightmarish memories that threaten to break me, but I learned a long time ago about the power of words. They can be used to heal and destroy anything that threatens to destroy the person. Words coupled with love have the power to save and heal. I am author of three books: Skinny Dipping in the Pool of Womanhood, Tattered Butterfly Wings, and Blues of a Love Junkie. I am a high school English teacher. I am a former reporter. I am a mother. I am a woman. I am a fierce advocate for those who cannot speak for themselves, those who's voices go unheard. Check out my Amazon author page at the following link: http://www.amazon.com/Rosalind-Guy/e/B00BGH5F88/ref=sr_ntt_srch_lnk_1?qid=1432491754&sr=8-1.
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6 Responses to Spoken Word vs. Traditional Written Poetry

  1. phoenixrisenweb says:

    This is a great article! I think that when a poet performs a reading of what they have written you hear it as they perceive it, as it was meant to be perceived by pauses and inflections, bringing the poem to life (hopefully).
    If a poem is read by another, not the original poet, you hear it as they perceive it. There will be subtle differences of course, and I think that depends on the depth of the poem.
    When I write, I consciously leave things open for interpretation, so the reader can unravel the message. Poetry is like painting, the scene is in the painters eyes, but he interprets through the lens of his own imagination.
    Great write!! Thanks for sharing this!

  2. darshitajain says:

    This is so useful! I have my own spoken word organization and this is exactly what i needed to make people understand the difference between traditional poetry readings and spoken word performances that we do! Thank you!

  3. res1der says:

    I enjoyed this post. Your points on purpose and audience engagement is absolute. I have been doing poetry for several years but I always felt difference were more generation driven than the style of poetry. The similarities between poetry and book to movie was surprising point to the post. Sidenote: Thanks for using Percy Jackson as your example.

  4. Ben Banyard says:

    I’m rather late to the party on this one – I see that it was published about two and a half years ago! I’m a ‘page poet’ looking to do more with my performance and this article popped up just now while I was doing some research. I attend lots of readings here in the UK but have never taken the plunge and tried any of the popular spoken word nights that happen here in Bristol. Your article will really help me to pick out a set if I summon up the courage to branch off in the performance direction!

    I was wondering though – in your experience do performance poets/spoken word artists generally recite from memory? That’s the part that worries me the most! Would it matter if I were to hold a written text, but use it more as a prompt than a word-for-Word source for my performance?

    • Rosalind Guy says:

      Hi Ben. Thanks for showing up late to the party ;-). Most of the spoken word artists I follow recite from memory, but I don’t think that’s what gives their work life. I think the think they bring to spoken word is the visceral feeling, their ability to make the listeners feel what they feel. It’s acting, not just reading. I think it’d be perfectly fine to refer to written text, but only as a prompt because you want to be able to connect with your audience. I’m doing a reading this week at the library here, and I plan to read from written text, but I’m not a spoken word artist. Hope this helps.

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