Poetry's life of grime: Why young rappers are the natural successors to Tennyson

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As it celebrates its centenary, the Poetry Society is reliving its youth. Katy Guest went to spit a rhyme with a real slam poet, and saw the experts in action

Thanks to the Poetry Society, I have recently seen the then-Culture Secretary, Andy Burnham, dancing in his grey suit in a room full of clapping teenagers. I have spat a rhyme in front of a founder member of the Betjeman Society. I've seen a young woman in tartan trousers rap "The Lady of Shallot", then shout the rudest words I know so fast that her voice turned into a snare drum and made the ears go red on a nearby bust of John Milton. And I now know the director of the Poetry Society is a secret fan of grime (a form of music represented by the likes of Dizzee Rascal and Lethal Bizzle – the kids love it). In its centenary year, the Society seems to be reliving its youth. To the delight of the room full of teenagers, so is Andy Burnham.

When he spoke at the final of the Poetry Society's new competition for youngsters, SLAMbassadors UK, recently, Burnham told the teenagers gathered at London's Royal Festival Hall that, when he was their age, "It wasn't cool to like poetry." It was a poem by Tony Harrison that changed his life, opened his ears and convinced him "that poetry could speak with a northern voice, that it wasn't something that was just for posh people". He added, "When you develop your skill with language and words, it gives you the confidence of an insider."

Sitting in the room in front of him, reckoned Burnham, he saw several future Cabinet ministers, an author, a film-maker, "a poet laureate, or maybe two". He leapt out of his seat to congratulate a young Liverpudlian poet, Jaya Bhavnani (aka JMA), after she performed her poem about the world as a spice rack. He danced – not even too badly – when Joelle Taylor, the most enthusiastic MC south of the river, told the audience to get on its feet.

But most of the teenagers in the SLAMbassadors final had already discovered that poetry can speak in their voices, too. When I talked to 16-year-old Benedit Sebuyange after an electrifying performance by her and her brother, Daniel, reduced the audience to a quiver, she clearly wasn't the least bit intimidated by language and words. She sometimes admits publicly to "writing poetry", but more often calls it "spoken word", she told me. The last time a schoolfriend came to see her in a showcase, she was blown away. "English literature and poetry need this," Benedit said. "It's not just about Shakespeare."

The Poetry Society agrees, and with the support of BBC Blast and funding from the Aldgate & Allhallows Foundation and Awards for All, it is about to take the SLAMbassadors concept nationwide for the first time. As of tomorrow, the Blast Bus will be touring the UK, leading workshops for schools and youth groups and encouraging entries to the next great slam competition. From now until 19 October, when the last entries for next year's SLAMbassadors will be accepted, 13- to 19-year-olds can upload their poetry (in film or audio form) to the Blast website, where it will be judged by a professional panel from the BBC and the Poetry Society. Six acts will be chosen from across the UK to take part in an intensive, two-day workshop with Joelle Taylor and the legendary poet Benjamin Zephaniah. The sets they create will be showcased in London at a live performance in front of a public audience.

A month ago, I met Taylor in a room above the Poetry Society's tiny offices to find out what the winning teenagers will learn – and to write my first poems in many (but perhaps not enough) years. "If you can talk, you can write poetry," she insisted at the beginning of our workshop. Which sounds to me like the sort of thing people who can sing say to people who can't; but she promised that by the end of the day I would have written three new poems and performed my work in front of strangers. Brilliant. "When you're performing," she advised, "you just have to remember that nobody knows you're shy."

As I scribbled down her comments, Taylor reassured me that using my notebook like a comfort blanket is not necessarily a barrier between me and slam stardom. "For you, every word has so much meaning that it's hard to choose the right one," she pointed out. "People who don't read and write don't attach so much gravitas to words. A lot of freestylers [people who improvise their lyrics on the spot] don't read or write, but they can stand on a stage and write in air and it makes perfect sense." She added: "You're freestyling now; just using a pen."

That said, however, I was still not convinced that writing about poetry and performing poems are the kind of skills that naturally occur together. Surely performance poets and page poets – as I now know they are called – have little in common. A few years ago, the then-Poet Laureate Andrew Motion reviewed Angry Blonde, by Eminem. "Such metaphorical life as his lines possess is always a prey to his rhymes, which (to put it mildly) sound lucky or opportunistic, rather than definite and resourceful," he wrote, concluding: "writerly, he ain't." On the other hand, that was nothing to the panning that Motion received for the rap he wrote in honour of Prince William's 21st birthday.

Taylor disagrees – and believes it is not until you have heard "The Lady of Shallot" performed as a rap, with a beatbox background and a chest-thumping rhythm that you can really understand what the poet was surely getting at. "Beatbox and rap is exactly what Tennyson was doing," she explained. "Wordsworth had his walk [which provided his rhythm]; Tennyson did this..."

A beatbox rhythm, she added, can be improvised by a beginner by repeating the words "boots cats" – or some other words not suitable for a family newspaper – until they sound like snare drums. Hats off to Judith Palmer, the otherwise very ladylike director of the Poetry Society, for putting her all into the filthy version in a room lined with portraits of some of Britain's finest living and dead poets. It's a funny old life.

Sad to report, the poems that I wrote – or the rhymes I spat, now that I am a semi-trained performance poet – were not suitable for performance at London's prestigious South Bank – nor anywhere else, for that matter. The teenagers who did perform, however, were heroic. At a previous Slam event, Taylor was once called upon to break up a fight, and, with images of knife crime and gang warfare hard on her mind, ran to the scene. "It was two boys saying 'You nicked my line,'" she laughed. "I said, 'Oh dahling, did somebody steal your metaphor? Are we arguing about poetry?'" No such perfidy occurred here.

As we waited for the final to start, Judith Palmer confided: "At the last slam I was ready to think, 'This is very valuable work we're doing with the children, very worthy.' But it was brilliant!" And, as Andy Burnham would surely confirm, there were some true geniuses performing on the stage that night.

Rounding off the night was Sean Bello, aka Halo, whose grime poem/rap/lyrical work of art had the audience on its feet, dancing. At 12, from Poplar in east London, he was the youngest performer of the evening. He also turned a lot of middle-aged poetry buffs into fans of grime.

Concluding the evening, Palmer (feet still tapping) read from a 1912 essay, "Poetry in Education: The Manifesto of the Poetry Society – signed by Representative Members and endorsed by the Council". Poetry, like music, it said, "is written for sound rather than sight reading, and, to secure the proper appreciation of rhythm and the delicate beauty of words, should be read aloud". This would show, it went on, "what exquisite pleasure can be derived from the rendering of Poetry by a beautiful, developed voice, thoroughly under the control of an intelligent brain." Here's to the Poetry Society's next 100 years. n

For more information: slam.poetrysociety.org.uk

The extract

'I the Self' by Benedit Sebuyange

The chains that bind us

Do not make our complexities

Neither do the dynamic minds

of the system

Kinds that war with formality

Yes, we are stuck in the middle passage

Of our conscience continually

We must follow the fight

For the mystery of being free...

We run to the words of fine

Do you refine to the labels that make you?

Or do you break through?

Still attached to your umbilical chord

And new worlds

Am I the who's who that you choose?

Or am I the author that uses my pen as my sword?

See, society has bound us in captivity

Stuck in the middle passage of our mentality?

You cannot define my history

Yet you try and shape my identity

Are you God to say that you made me?

Check my DNA that encapsulates every vibe

That will not dissipate, try and calculate I the Self

That you cannot manipulate

I am what you will not be

The one qualified to be unique

Rise above the mountain peaks

I am the breath of God

So will not bow down to anyone

I have found my roots

I am African.

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