So, anybody who has called themselves a poet has probably run into this situation.  You’re at a social gathering, making idle chit-chat with people you know very barely, and somebody interjects “He’s a poet” and points at you.  The people around you smile, and go, “Oh, we’re poets too!”  It sounds nice, but the conversation is headed towards disaster as soon as the person says, “So, do you want to hear one of mine?”  And, to be polite, you say, “Yeah, sure. ”  The person then assumes a fake sort of Brooklyn-ese, and replete with copious hand gestures, they go through their bad knock off of Jay-Z.  I guess I might be a little more forgiving if it ended up being imitations of Bushwick Bill and The Geto Boys.  At least then, I’d be tempted to think that they’re joking.

But, then again, that brings up another issue when it comes to reading poetry slush: you ending reading some stuff that’s not even poetry.  People quite often make the mistake of mistaking the word “poem” for the word “song.”  Granted, there are some similarities, and some bleed over between the two separate entities, but that doesn’t change one fundamental truth.  A song is a wholly different animal than “a poem.”

So, lets start with what, as I would see it, a poem actually is.  Poetry is the art of using language, usually in a compressed manner, to express something.  Poetry creates a reality experienced on the page.  Sure, it can also be spoken or sung, but a poem must rely totally on printed language.  If it doesn’t work on the page, than it’s not a successful poem.

A song, on the other hand, is accompanied by music, and music plays just as an important role as the language of the lyrics.  For example, hip-hop has traditionally employed a lot of beats, loops, and samples that add to the lyrics’ meaning.  The aforementioned Geto Boys comes to mind, where on one their first Rick Rubin produced outing, they used samples from Al Pacino and Scarface.  Also, Tom Petty sued them and legally forced them to remove his voice sample from “Gangster of Love.”  So, when it comes to a song, if you remove the music, you have only half the experience left.  In poetry, the language has to account for ALL of the experience.

This is why hip-hop’s close cousin, poetry slams, are also not completely poetry unto itself.  Poetry slams are more performance art than actual poetry.  The moment that the text being recited begins to rely on stagecraft, voice inflection, and body language, it’s no longer poetry, but more of a dramatic monologue.  If you remove the performer from the text on only have half the experience left, then it’s definately not poetry.

To be fair, there are some songs, hip-hop lyrics, and poetry-slam monologues that are so well written that the language could stand by itself.  In those cases, such cross-overs could be considered poetry; however, in the scheme of things, these are the exceptions, not the norm.  Half the time, those song writers are versed in poetry as well.  However, when it comes to reading unsolcited poetry slush, 99.999% of the people who send in their garage band’s love ballads do not know any better, and their love songs tend to be trite, anyway.