Caryn James reviews MTV's "Spoken Word"
New York Times
THE DISTANCE BETWEEN RAP and poetry has always been as thin as the page of a book. That gap disappears in "Spoken Word," an energetic and wry all-poetry edition of the smash MTV series "Unplugged."
The show is full of MTV moments. Maggie Estep stands center stage, wearing tight black jeans, a black tank top and no shoes. Lights flash in the background, bass-heavy backup music plays and she yells out a self-mocking poem about "the stupid jerk I'm obsessed with." The camera swirls and tilts as she talks about how the stupid jerk looks over her shoulder as she talks to another guy "Who adores me / And would bark like a dog/ And wave to strangers / If I asked him." Here is poetry as Performance, poetry as video. And though most purists would prefer to ignore this truth, here is poetry returned to its roots,in song and chant. There's nothing to say an MTV moment can't be poetic, as long as you don't think Matthew Arnold and T. S. Eliot own the poetry franchise.
In "Spoken Word," six other writers perform their work in a cafe setting that duplicates the spoken-word clubs that have sprung up in the last few years and pays homage to the days of the Beats. (People actually hold cigarettes; definitely retro.) Like Maggie Estep's, most of the poems speak bluntly to issues on the authors' minds. Reg E. Gaines recites "Please Don't Take My Air Jordans," a poem about kids willing to kill for expensive sneakers, as if the piece were a rap performance.
my air jordans cost a hundred with tax
my suede starters jacket says raiders on the back
I'm stylin' ... smilin' ... lookin real mean cuz
it ain't about bein heard just bein seen
If anything, the poem is too preachy, but it speaks a real-person language that MTV viewers understand. The performance artist Henry Rollins even assumes a prissy voice and recites an ode to MTV, as if it were the "Masterpiece Theater" of youth. (Not a wrongheaded idea.)
On the higher literary end is Edwin Tores's "Peesacho," a rhythmic gender-bending poem about a strange Latino. "Him like to sing like a her," the poet says, and he sings the female part in a poem of complex rhythms and layers.
But most of this is disposable, evanescent poetry. The special is called "Spoken Word," not "Written Word," for a good reason. Most of the poems won't endure for decades, and why should they? Their purpose is different. "Unplugged" assumes that rap is street poetry and that street poetry is a vocal, visceral expression of contemporary life.
"Spoken Word" is just one manifestation of the renewed interest in poetry. In John Singleton's current film, Poetic Justice, Janet Jackson plays a young woman from South-Central Los Angeles whose poetry expresses her emotional isolation and heartsick response to the death of everyone she has loved. As Mr. Singleton has written in "Poetic Justice: Film Making South-Central Style," a new book about the making of the film: "Most of the girls I knew growing up, their main creative outlet was writing poetry. Whether they were good at it or not."
Justice is obviously supposed to be good at it. Her poetry was written by Maya Angelou, now known as the Inaugural Poet. Ms. Angelou was the perfect choice for "Poetic Justice" because her style is also directly emotional and vernacular. "On the Pulse of Morning," the poem she read at the Clinton inauguration, is typical of her work; it belongs to the oral tradition of poetry as spoken word, instantly accessible to the hearer. Those 18-year-olds writing poems are emulating her even if they don't realize it.
Ms. Angelou is, of course, more imagistic and lyrical than any of the MTV poets aspire to be. And MTV has a sardonic take on literature that is wildly different from the ambitious and earnest "Poetic Justice." But both the film and the "Unplugged" special grasp the importance of this vibrant, essential and growing means of self-expression. These entertainments blur the line between literature and pop culture in a way that defines the times. Something more than show biz is going on.
MTV has often been flogged by social critics and media critics for shortening the attention span of youth around the world. Quick-cut editing and MTV have become synonymous, referred to in a derisory tone. Much of the criticism has simply been scape-goating something new. MTV is too important a cultural force to sneer at.
Tossed into the MTV schedule these days are several one-minute or half-minute literary adaptations. In the best, Aidan Quinn reads a bit of Kafka's "Metamorphosis" and ends by peering through a keyhole at a giant beetle. The spot is a mordant, playful little treasure. Timothy Hutton enacts an irreverent Donald Bartheime story about a suburban dad. Only the logo "Books. Feed Your Head" at the end of each spot marks it as a public service announcement. And, frankly, getting people to read books seems beside the point. The "Feed Your Head" spots are bits of pure art to be appreciated on their own. Like "Spoken Word," they are contemporary literature brought into the age of MTV.