Technology is often scorned as bringing about The Judgment Day for literature. Malevolent kindles destroy the sacred tradition of holding a physical work in your hands and make it even harder for writers to earn a living through their art. But YouTube may just be the saving grace of poetry – a form which, let’s be honest, is read by fewer and fewer outside of elite academic circles. Outside of Uni, I don’t know anyone who reads poetry for fun. But YouTube, with its inane intimacies of celebrity life and adverts selling us ideals, has allowed for an explosion of creativity, a democratization of performance. Now, anyone can pick up a camera and start telling you all about themselves. YouTube allows spoken word to flourish.
As a genre, Spoken Word is unlike any other literary type. It is disinterested in the material object which so many of us (myself included) fetishize.
It’s all about the words, how loudly those words can be arranged to make the biggest impact. It’s highly personal, relying on the relation between audience and poet. And now, thanks to YouTube, poets are not only holed up in quirky London clubs. Videos allow them to broadcast their rhymes all over the world. Spoken Word, as a genre, is remarkably practical, if poetry can ever be practical. It cares about issues. Often, but not exclusively, it wants to make the world a better place. It doesn’t worry about didacticism at the expense of the aesthetic – passion is powerful, it becomes aesthetic.
The idea isn’t really new. Writing in 1798, Wordsworth teamed up with bestie Coleridge to write a new type of poem – poems which spoke in the voice of the common man, which spoke of the poverty and suffering the most vulnerable in society faced. Wordsworth wrote about impoverished children, desperate mothers, the homeless. And following this tradition, this naïve but vital belief that literature can make a change, are Spoken Word poets all over YouTube, writing about sexual violence.
In ‘Rape only happens to girls who ask for it’ HeyitsRachel speaks almost tearfully, frowning as she fractures stereotypes about sexual assault. Her video is followed by a slide of shocking statistics. These videos are aiming for shock factor – because their value rests on the idealistic but important belief that we all desperately wish were true, that enough exposure to a problem will force society to deal with it. The most alarming thing about many of these videos were some of the comments, and how many testimonies of assault, rape and abuse are shared there. The responses are often far from sympathetic. One man writes that of course rape is a terrible shame, but women need to be more careful about how they dress and where they’re walking at night. ‘Only fat chicks bitch about rape’ one commenter declares. This trolling can be dismissed as the strange nastiness of a minority of individuals, but it is also undeniable evidence about why we need poetry that talks about these issues. Because people still don’t talk them seriously. Even if in victim-blaming is shunned in certain social circles, it is widely acceptable in others. In her individualised portraits of victims, Rachel’s poem provokes debate. The comments section becomes an ideological battleground between different ideas about how we treat victims, about the roles of men and women in society. Spite and nastiness abounds, but it also serves as testimony to the necessity of poetry that challenges the way we think, the way we judge others.
Can poetry ever really make a difference?
In ‘Rape Poem to End all Rape Poems’ four girls chorus a ‘WARNING’ to their audience. ‘Time for another rape poem. Didn’t I just hear like three of these? Yeah, you probably did.’ They shout, with visible emotion. ‘We wouldn’t need so many damn rape poems if America had listened the first time!’ There is vigorous applause. Poetry, whatever the issue, does not result in anything tangible. How can we quantify exposure of issues, increased awareness, or even solidarity for victims? Poetry might not give us the quantifiable effects of policy making. But it does accomplish something; a momentary disruption in the way we look at ourselves, each other; a traffic-light pause to look at the world around us. This might not be life-changing – but it is, at least, something.