My love-hate relationship with Spoken Word

Spoken Word is a frustrating art form. Its historical roots run deep, but in its present form it fluctuates between being vibrant, engaging and socially active - to pretentious and dull.

When Gill Scott-Heron wrote "The Revolution Will Not Be Televised" I’m pretty sure he wasn’t talking about a revolution in spoken word. What he was talking about was a civil, social and financial revolution, a revolution where "Women will not care if Dick finally got down with Jane...because Black people will be in the streets looking for a brighter day". Scott-Heron used spoken word to simultaneously critique capitalism, endorse change, and create a wonderful hymn of political and social disenfranchisement.

Spoken word grew out of a desire to comment on the status quo, using an unconventional free verse style to evoke unconventional thoughts. From ol’ Gil, to Allen Ginsberg, and, arguably, all the way back to Walt Whitman, it was a form that fundamentally didn’t conform in either style or content. An anthem for those who didn’t agree with the norms in their society. An aural/oral middle finger to those in charge.

It makes sense, then, that spoken word resonates with a young contemporary audiences. The internet has done wonders for the form, allowing the angry, intimate words of the speaker to reverberate out of your laptop as you nod your head emphatically. "Yes!" you say (in your head) "we *should* liberate [insert oppressed group] and not stand any longer for [insert outrageous act]." Often you will share it on your [insert social media forum] and feel just a little bit better about yourself.

It is usually personal and evocative. Sometimes it’s quite cool. Scroobius Pip, an Essex born hip-hop spoken word artist, seems to have become a necessary part of gaining middle-class hipster accreditation. Scroobius Pip became famous after his collaboration with Dan le Sac on the track "Thou Shalt Always Kill", which is, ironically, a kind of perceptive, cynical deconstruction of what would soon become hipster identity. "Thou shalt not stop liking a band just because they’ve become popular" he articulates, in his low-budget video, "Thou shalt not attend an open mic and leave before it’s done just because you’ve finished your shitty little poem or song you self-righteous prick."

I deeply wish spoken word culture had listened to Scroobius and Dan. I have attended too many circle-jerk university spoken word nights; winced as my contemporaries ruin their poetry using over-chewed rhetorical flourishes. Pauses. For effect. Clichés, that cause your heart burn with the fire of injustice. A false culture of imagined oppression - a self-obsessed anthem of inflated victimhood.

Spoken word is an art form that walks a fine line between being compelling and contrived, and more often than not, people don’t fall on the right side. However, no matter how cynical one may become, there are artists that use spoken word to introduce young people to poetry, or promote feminism. The ones who use themselves as a subject only to critique and inspire, not to self-aggrandise. Poems such as Mark Grist’s "I Like a Girl Who Reads" or Kait Rokowski’s "How to Cure a Feminist" are perfect examples of spoken word which doesn’t make me want to bash my head against something heavy. They are funny, genuine and intelligent.

It’s only those writers who manage to steer away from pointless rhetoric, who don’t hide the flaws of their writing with saccharine phrases, that manage to successfully convey their message. Poetry is an art form on the wane, but the culture of spoken word has reinvigorated it - which is anything but bad. Even if it does mean putting up with a few wankers along the way.

The spoken word artist Scroobius Pip. Photograph: Getty Images.
A still from Genius
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Thomas Wolfe biopic Genius is a hackneyed portrait of the great white male

Genius ends up being terrifically boring, while enthusiastically reproducing the creative hierarchies of the time it portrays.

You can learn everything you need to know about the film Genius, starring Jude Law as the volatile novelist Thomas Wolfe and Colin Firth as his weary editor, Maxwell Perkins, from its opening five minutes.

An overly desaturated shot of Twenties New York reveals a hoard of hardworking men trudging solidly through the ratrace of city life. But what’s this? One man is set apart, lingering on a street corner and staring up at the words “Charles Scribner’s Sons” on the building across the street. He smokes and stares, so we know he is like other men – yet different, more thoughtful.

Meanwhile, alone in an office, another man is reading Hemingway. He is interrupted by an enormous pile of papers that lands with a thud on his desk. This manuscript has been rejected by every other editor in the city (a sign of true, misunderstood literary genius). Is it any good, the reading man asks Manuscript Delivery Man? “Good? No! But it’s unique.”

Our reading man opens page one of the manuscript. “… A stone, a leaf, an unfound door…” His interest is piqued – here is a man who knows the earthy prose of a true male genius. We are treated to cinema's most captivating delight: a reading montage. The reading man barely glances up from his paper as he jumps aboard a leaving steam train. “… Of a stone, a leaf, a door…” The train races through the countryside. “And of all the forgotten faces…” The reading man trudges up a country path, still engrossed.

“Which of us has known his brother? Which of us has looked into his father's heart?” The reading man enters his home. He spares a fleeting glance for a woman (His wife? It is hardly relevant) in a sitting room surrounded by pieces of womanly fabric and several other ladies. Nameless girls (His daughters? They are beside the point) run delicately from room to room, giggling. Over dinner, he looks up at them occasionally to smile blandly at their delightful artlessness, but he cannot enter into trivial conversation – immersed as he is in the world of the story. “Remembering speechlessly we seek the great forgotten language, the lost lane-end into heaven, a stone, a leaf, an unfound door. Where? When?”

Our reader reads overnight, down the country path, on the same train in the morning light. “He stood for the last time by the angels of his father's porch,” he reads. “He was like a man who stands upon a hill above the town he has left.” He finishes the manuscript and sighs with the deep satisfaction of a man who is, finally, understood.

Cut to black. The word “GENIUS” appears on screen.

As an exploration of our problematic understanding of the word, Genius the movie is more revealing than any satire. It’s a script that could have been written by Mallory Ortberg. But its conception of genius as white, male, American, self-absorbed, indulgent, obsessed with its own individuality, and unable to comprehend its mediocrity, is presented without irony or self-awareness.

The movie continues in this general vein: Perkins and Wolfe strike up a friendship as well as a professional relationship and spend long hours together drinking whiskey, talking with what they consider to be great wisdom about how love is a lighting bolt!! and repeatedly crossing out words (as cinematically thrilling as you might expect). We meet other “geniuses” aside from Perkins and Wolfe: Hemingway and Fitzgerald. We ponder upon the real nature of genius – is it writing “wrenched from the gut”? Temperate editing? Or the genius of knowing your fellow man? There are writing montages, editing montages, and lots of close-ups of typewriting, crumpled papers, and streaks of red pencil. Hold on to your hats, kids, cause this is going to be a wild ride!

Women, black people, and the homeless are all used as vague backdrops onto which these conversations play out – but never fully considered as real, human people, people who Wolfe might find worthy for his next book, an investigation into America – all of it! In one scene, Wolfe and Perkins walk past a queue for a soup kitchen, prompting Wolfe to launch into a rant about the state of the country. “My work is frivolous!” he cries on a rooftop. But Perkins assures him of his enormous emotional contribution to society, and Wolfe soon seems to forget the men named on IMDB only as “Dock Worker / Homeless Man”. They stand arm-in-arm, smiling sagely out over a struggling city neither seem to know very well. Strings swell approvingly.

In another, we head to a jazz club with Wolfe and Perkins, so Perkins can experience the musical inspiration behind Wolfe’s experimental prose. The writers decide to best depict this with Wolfe throwing around words like “savage” while badly explaining the concept of jazz to anyone who’ll listen, before making grim sexual advances towards three women simultaneously: “Jazz Club Woman 1”, “Jazz Dancer” and “Jazz Club Customer”. It is not deemed necessary to give anyone other than Wolfe and Perkins any dialogue.

The film makes a less than half-hearted attempt to engage with the question of female creativity through Wolfe and Perkins’ partners. Wolfe’s girlfriend, the married Alice Bernstein (Nicole Kidman) is portrayed as Wolfe’s earliest and most steadfast champion: financially, emotionally and creatively supporting his literary endeavours. She is a set designer, and after Wolfe finds fame, he refuses to recognise her job as a creative or necessary pursuit, refusing to come to her plays.

As Wolfe becomes disinterested in her, Bernstein’s character changes at lightning speed scene to scene, one minute vindictively pointing a gun at her replacement, Perkins, the next swallowing handfuls of pills, supposedly as an act of attention-seeking, the next vowing she feels nothing for Wolfe at all. By the end of the film, she is reduced to muttering trite statements about how Wolfe was the sole thing that made her feel truly alive. We meet Zelda Fitzgerald, but only after she has been all but overcome by mental illness: she, too, is a hysterical prop used to warn the central men of the dangers of their obsession with their work.

Perkins’ wife is also a female artist side-lined. In one strange scene, we see her describe her playwriting, only to be talked over by Wolfe, who declares drama an “anaemic form” and returns to the topic of his novel, while Perkins’ daughters giggle at him in awe. We never hear of Louise’s work (or, indeed, anything about her that is not related to her husband and children) again. Perkins’ children, too, are only seen as interesting when they’re talking about their father or Wolfe.

These vague diversions do little to actually analyse the discriminatory way in which genius is conceived, be it in the Thirties or 2016. Here, genius is something white men do as their wives and daughters grow increasingly bitter. The homeless man standing out in the cold, or the black sex worker in a jazz club could have nothing of interest to add. In only allowing Wolfe and Perkins (and Hemingway and Fitzgerald) to speak for themselves, Genius ends up being terrifically boring, while enthusiastically perpetuating the creative hierarchies of the time it portrays. 

Anna Leszkiewicz is a pop culture writer at the New Statesman.