First Allstars Poetry Slam
Oxford Playhouse, Tuesday 6th March


There's a lot of poetry being written. It's good to see. Or perhaps I should say hear, because at the First Allstars Poetry Slam, the emphasis was undoubtedly upon the aurality and orality of the language. Poetry takes on a whole new character when it leaves the printed page…

For the uninitiated, a 'Poetry Slam' is a fast, furious knock-out contest that judges each contestant's performance of their own poetry to reveal one winner. Twenty competitors divided into four heats are whittled down to five in the next round, then two, finally one. Each poet performs for three minutes, and is judged according to writing quality, performance quality, and warmth of audience response. What makes a 'good' performance poem can be very different to a 'good' printed poem - rhythm, rhyme, lively delivery and clarity of message are everything. Sylvia Plath may not have got far in a Poetry Slam. But Roald Dahl's Revolting Rhymes would almost certainly have done.

The poetry itself varied from simple sketches of life's banal minutae to abstracted philosophy. There was poetry about yoghurt hatred, Delia Smith, dieting, and shopping questionnaires. Many of the poems fell into the trap of the facile and predictible, and became simply, in one of the contestant's own words, 'rambling about inane subjects'. At the other end of the spectrum, analyses of the nature and practice of poetry, of social oppression and liberation, of the Big Questions of Life - these poems could lack a tangible simplicity, a 'way in' for their audience. But between these two extremes lay the poems that proved most successful. Marianne Moore once defined her idea of poetry as equivalent to 'imaginary gardens with real toads in them', and the poets who managed to keep hold of the 'real toads' of everyday life whilst placing them in the 'imaginary gardens' of a larger poetic concept, came out on top. The winner, Don Barnard, wrote of meeting the grim reaper over a pint of stout, of the inherent classism in our nation's attitude to seafood, and won the audience over from the start with his dead-pan performance of My Canary: A Tale of Tragedy and Oedipal Passion.

Poetry slams are not to everybody's taste. The poetry is populist in the main, constructed from the linguistic and material elements of common culture. But common culture is what defines us all as social beings, and it cannot be lightly dismissed. Poetry that returns inclusively to its unpretentious foundations is met with an uplifting enthusiasm from a kaleidoscope of participants. Poetry slams remind us that poetry is not only for angst-ridden, Beckettian, polo-necked students, but is a living inspiration for real people living real lives. After all, poetry originated orally, and it certainly doesn't suffer for a return to its roots.

Rachel Hewitt, 6 / 3 / 01