Def Poetry Jam: June 10, 2005

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.

7 Responses

  1. Ashton Punk’d…that I’d like
    Ashton Punk’d…that I’d like to see

    You’ve convinced me, brooklyn. I just need to get access to HBO, soon as poss.

  2. What about contextHello all!
    What about context

    Hello all! New here. Really like the site!

    My comment is about context and content. You say, Levi, that even though it is about only 15% poetry, that’s 15% more than is out there already.

    I get that, but if you had someone on stage ranting bad poetry on Jerry Springer, you could say the same thing, and I really don’t think such exposure would do poetry or potential poetry admirers any good! I don’t believe all publicity is good.

    The subject matter of the poems featured on the show sound like those done a thousand times. Do they hold up on paper is the question we should be asking. I am seeing (locally here in MN) a lot of SLAM poetry being popular because of its novelty aspect and (absolutely) not because of the quality of the writing. Most of it is repetitive, annoying blathering in that boilerplate sing-song style that is so cliche now anti-smoking commercials are using it.

    We need what’s next. We need what is to come after the whole SLAM thing. What’s the next evolutionary step? I say finely crafted poetry, on relevant subject matter, delivered in an engaging way. What a concept, huh?

    My two cents. Thanks for the venue. I look forward to being a part of this site and enjoying the great things it has to offer.

  3. Hi Michael — welcome, and
    Hi Michael — welcome, and that’s a really nice site you’ve got BTW.

    Well, I see your point about poetry on Jerry Springer. But, at the same time, wouldn’t you agree that each individual person reading a poem — whether at a poetry club, on HBO or on Jerry Springer — has to be ultimately be taken on their own terms? There is a possibility of great poetry happening at any of these places. Maybe it will happen by mistake, or when nobody’s looking. I have seen a few really memorable moments on Russell Simmons’ show, like a bit by a guy named Shappy who is also the bartender at the Bowery Poetry Club. I have a good memory of Kanye West making an appearance on the show back when he was just Jay-Z’s producer and nobody had heard of him — and I instantly knew from his performance this guy was going to get big. Yeah, nine out of every ten performers don’t add up to much. But at three minutes per, it’s not too bad.

  4. I agree with Michael here —
    I agree with Michael here — while maybe in some cases the “something is better than nothing” argument works, I don’t think I’m buying it in this case. I think Def Poetry Jam has become as cliche and predictable as it purports not to be — a sort of parody of itself.

  5. Of course it is a parody of
    Of course it is a parody of itself but it is a parody of poetry as well. Poetry should be left out of the title and equation all together as it relies less on poetry, and is closer to, performance art than anything. DEF PERFORMANCE ART JAM may not have much of a ring to it but it is truer than including poetry in the title.

  6. Well, the performers do
    Well, the performers do rhyme. I seriously believe the proportion of worthwhile to terrible isn’t much different than in a typical literary journal. But I do see your points too … at least, I think it’s an interesting topic to discuss.

  7. But rhyming does not a poem
    But rhyming does not a poem make.
    Lyrics in songs rhyme. They are not necessarily poems.

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Litkicks will turn 30 years old in the summer of 2024! We can’t believe it ourselves. We don’t run as many blog posts about books and writers as we used to, but founder Marc Eliot Stein aka Levi Asher is busy running two podcasts. Please check out our latest work!