criticism of slam poetry


The slam poetry culture is a relatively recent phenomenon in India but has spread in cities quickly, giving both amateur and reputed poets the chance to bring their words to life. However, this sudden spread has had some ill desired effects too for wordsmiths.

When you see a person getting poetic, you imagine a Keats-ish, Ghalib-ish artist sitting in a tranquil space, scribbling lines on a few pages and narrating them in a slow hushed tone with rhythm. Now, the times have changed. In urban jungles like Delhi, people want everything fast, be it their metro trains or their poetry. The spoken word culture caters to such needs. The rise of new artists bringing you meaningful content in both Hindi and English means that the audience doesn’t need to be literate with finesse to appreciate poetry now. Poetry is being more accessible and understandable. Often, slam artists use casual, simple language, and socially relevant themes, which makes the current generation relate to them. This can be seen as a new renaissance in the world of poetry as it is creating content which is not exclusive. You got most of the reputed artists on YouTube; poets make innovative use of pop culture references and the use of blank verse has ensured that to be a poet, you needn’t always rhyme. But, as they say, there are two sides to each coin. In the world of slam too, there are a few shortcomings which are coming into light.

With the advent of slam poetry, many might have thought that this is one platform where diverse themes would be showcased. To an extent, it is true, but lately, in majority of such poetry sessions in colleges, cafes, and all other places, the themes are characterised by a certain “homogenisation” – Feminism, anxiety, Bollywood style romance, body shaming, and patriotism are concepts which are echoed by every poet in the recent slams. Issues like mental health and gender equality are indeed important and need to be communicated to the public, however, one can’t always resort to clichés to remain socially relevant and to evoke sympathy. “I am a woman. I am a phoenix rising from the ashes.” “Yaad karo un amar jawano ko jinhone Bharat Mata ke liye haste-haste apne praan tyaag diye” (The Indian soldiers are indeed brave and respect the motherland but even they are human like us; no one wishes to die). If we as artists keep on using such clichés, then the audience would naturally get bored at one point and our message would get lost somewhere in the crowd

Uniqueness is needed, especially in a time when college campuses are being infected by a few pseudo-intellectuals who think they have all the knowledge and free thinking of the world, but in reality, their thought process is a blatant recreation of content already available online. Unfortunately, a wave of pretentiousness is rising in the slam circuit. People are trying hard to act like they know what they are performing about, even if all they know is half-baked facts. This is particularly the case of many poems on mental health disorders, for instance. Poets who don’t suffer from serious illnesses like anxiety, depression, and even Bipolar disorder, use it as a mere poetic device. They totally romanticise the trauma associated with mental disorders which negate the experiences of those who are actually grappling with them. When one pretends too much, the raw and real nature of a spoken word performance fizzles away and it ends up sounding a little fake. It should be a poem after all, not an advertisement jingle.

Come to think of it, the fault somewhere lies in the audience too. Apart from communicating change and rebelling against unjust systems, slam poets also entertain. Anyone who looks you in the eye while holding a mic automatically becomes an entertainer. And to entertain, one must do what the audience demands. If the audience is lazy enough to snap their fingers on something new or experimental, it naturally becomes disheartening for the performer. As a result, he or she might go on walking on the cliched homogenous road for slams in the future.

These musings are not targeted to hurt the sentiments of anyone involved in the emerging world of Indian slams. It’s just that there is a huge scope in these slams which can be explored if we are bold enough to venture into it. Here’s to hoping that one day, slams don’t get categorised as an urban elitist “normie” phenomena. Here’s to hoping that every creative wordsmith gets the chance to express the inner workings of their mind with a voice that is their own. With that, your humble narrator would like to end his performance and make way for the other artist…
Feature Image Credits: Ocen Services
Shaurya Singh Thapa
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As a community of believers of free speech, the burgeoning slam poetry scene in India is surprisingly averse to constructive criticism, giving way to its own stagnation.


There is something inherently ironic when a community, usually invested in voicing the most uncomfortably true opinions about the society, itself shies away from criticism. It signifies an unwillingness to grow. Currently, this is what threatens to make the desi version of slam seem gimmicky. Non-acceptance, the elephant in the room which nobody is willing to confront, may as well turn the tables for a presently blossoming slam poetry scene across Delhi’s cafes and colleges. Let’s face it, India still has miles to go to produce performance poetry matching the levels of, say, the “Button Poetry” series. There is too much focus on performance, and often the content suffers.

“I usually attend slams because it’s good money. I just have to write to engage the crowd and evoke a few responses, but I’m not really happy with what I write,” claims a second year student, a regular at competitive poetry slam events across the DU circuit. There are, believe it or not, students who think desi slam is just a passing trend. Some find the “training grounds” for young slam poets (workshops, slam retreats etc.) too pricey. They provide close to no useful training for that amount of money.

This is the rotten core underneath the shiny veneer of a sense of empowerment, which many budding poets experience by reciting at these events. This is a facet which many relate to, but are scared to confess. When the herd follows one route, can an individual sheep turn the other way? But it must, if India is to witness world-class slam poetry events, producing top-notch poets.

On one hand, the genre of slam poetry is in itself, without a doubt, an excellent means of communicating hard-hitting messages. A live audience can listen and respond to politics, sexuality, anxiety, love, heartbreak and much more, almost immediately. It provides the poet instant gratification, if he or she was successful at moving the audience. And if not, the audience can very well discard them. The results are immediate.

However, on the other hand, the current and popular version of slam in colleges edges dangerously close to melodrama. It should not(contrary to misconceptions) just be about evoking uncontrollable tears as if it were a cheesy saas-bahu soap, or evoking peals of laughter as if it were stand-up comedy.Granted that slam requires a certain kind of writing — poetry meant to be read aloud, not read in solitude. Even so, there should be a standard, key concept and structure to it. Poetry cannot be a mindless formula of rousing extreme emotions.

In a country where education is one of the most profitable businesses, young poets have to ensure that the slam scene doesn’t head down that dirty road. It is time to swallow the bitter pill of constructive criticism. Nobody is a “born” poet and actor. We all have to begin by learning the tricks of the trade.


Image credits:ndsmcobserver.com

Image caption: Keep calm and Poetry Slam


Deepannita Misra

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