There are two reasons I think HBO's Def Poetry Jam is important for poetry:
1) It's poetry
2) It's on HBO
I don't think this show gets much attention from the academic poetry establishment, and I think this is a mistake. Yeah, I'll admit this show uses the term "poetry" loosely, and an average episode of this series offers maybe 50% hiphop styling, 35% attitude and about 15% poetry.
Okay, fine. That's still 15% more than anything else on TV, and I think it's great that HBO is willing to put this show up in place of the usual junk.
The serious poets of the world may not like this fact, but it is a fact: Def Poetry Jam is the closest thing to poetry many people will ever see. Stack every acclaimed literary journal published this year up to the ceiling, from Paris Review to Mississippi Review, and I think it's a safe bet that more people will see a single episode of Def Poetry Jam than will ever read all of these journals put together.
Season Five kicked off, as usual, with rapper Mos Def shouting out to Manhattan, the Bronx and Brooklyn (hey, thanks, Mos, but really, you don't need to name-check your favorite blogger just to get a LitKicks review -- I'm happy to do it). Then came J. Ivy and Dahlak Braithwaite, two young poets whose performances signaled the show's continuing commitment to hiphop as poetry. The rhymes were strong but the words didn't linger much beyond the rhymes. Put a backing track by Timbaland or Just Blaze behind either one and you've got another song on the radio. This stuff is appealing enough to listen to, but I do want more originality and power out of the words themselves.
I like a poem with a specific subject, like Claudia Alick's angry bit about working 40 hard hours a week just to (barely) get by and pay her bills. Black Ice followed her with a convincing protest poem, "Imagine", and an 18 year old newbie named Gideon Grody-Patinkin was up next with an amusing rhyming piece about the discomfort of physical contact, handshakes and hugs.
At the half hour's halfway point, I was yearning for a seasoned poet with some performance experience (experience in spoken word makes a big difference). Avery Brooks showed the newcomers how it's done with "Purlie Variations", a powerful piece written by Ossie Davis. Next up was the first celebrity of the night, Fugee Lauryn Hill, who looked like Angela Davis and recited in a deep, somber voice.
I wasn't thrilled by Lauryn Hill, who seemed to be trying to look and sound like a Def Poet. I was more impresseed by Rachel McKibbens' affecting piece about showing up at her daughter's school and being judged for her tattoos and clothes. This was one of my two favorite performances of the show, and Dave Chappelle's closer was the other. This was another celebrity drop-in, but where Lauryn Hill seemed to be trying to bend her style to fit in at a poetry reading, Dave Chappelle simply threw away the formula and bent the poetry reading to fit what he's best at. His first poem was a really funny bit titled "Fuck Ashton Kutcher". I don't think Dave Chappelle is a poet, but he did what I want a poet to do -- he expressed his own individuality and followed no formula but his own.
The first episode of the fifth season of Def Poetry Jam started slow but ended strong, in my humble opinion. If you caught this show, I'd love to hear what you think.