While Judge Bill Gibron usually cowers at the mention of Walt Whitman and his ilk, he thoroughly enjoyed the in-your-face verse of this entertaining series.
"The poet doesn't invent. He listens."—Jean Cocteau
There is a beauty and a grace in the spoken word that is decidedly absent in today's popular entertainment. When one considers the subject, they usually associate the concept with a one man or one-woman shows, a monologist or a performance artist. The last thought that enters their mind is poetry, probably because at one time or another, we all faced the school day nightmare of having to stand up in class and recite some of Emily Dickinson's dithering out loud. But thanks to rap and hip-hop, there has come a new appreciation for rhyme and rhythm, for the careful construction of sentences and sentiments into remarkable, moving oral opuses. Ever the entrepreneur, Russell Simmons decided to create a showcase for the more urban approach to verse—known as "slam" in the vernacular—and approached HBO (home of his previous Def Comedy success) with his new idea. The pay channel jumped at the idea, and the Def Poetry hit the airwaves. Now in its fourth season, HBO has begun releasing the series on DVD. And it is just as potent.
Hosted by rapper/actor Mos Def, and featuring a strikingly diverse set of poets from all walks of the cultural life, the Def Poetry is doggerel for those who hate the stanza, free verse for those overly sensitive to the sonnet. This is not your old English teacher's haiku, or some tired set of elegies from a bygone era. Even with its 9/11 leanings (Season One originated right after the terrorist attacks), the sentiments spoken are mostly timeless, dealing with issues are diverse as dignity, sexuality, race, and spiritualism. Over the course of the four episodes in this set (a rather small number—HBO should have considered releasing multiple seasons here), we are treated to the following poets and artists:
Episode 1: Steve Coleman / Georgia Me / Vanessa Hidary / Lemon / Nikki
Giovanni / Black Ice / Suheri Hammad
Now, there are some who will take offense at the opinions expressed here, not just because of their often crude, profanity-laced laments. There is a great deal of anger, and a lot of PC proselytizing for the sake of showboating. This is poetry of politics and prejudice, of suffering and self-righteousness. It is easy to get lost in all the rhetoric, to feel like every poet's presentation is just a series of buzzwords draped across hot button phrases to make a heavily mannered point. But if one looks beyond the agenda to the actual skill at word association and lyrical imagery, Def Poetry becomes a kind of communal primal scream therapy with structure, a way for voices not usually heard in the mainstream to make their complex, coarse message heard.
Don't be fooled, however. There is obvious favoritism hidden within the show itself. Each episode contains what would best be described as old school slamming, or perhaps a better phrase would be historical harangues, where famous names from the genre's past (The Last Poets, Amiri Baraka) make an appearance to show the youngsters how it's done. As these fascinating figures take the stage, the color fades away, replaced by the sepia tones of nostalgia and respect. As the individual reads their work, usually in a manner much less artificial and annoyed than their fresh faced followers, they seem to suggest that all slams have their foundation in the well-formed thoughts of the elder literary statesmen (and women).
There are also random celebrity segments along the way, and while it's fun to see David Chappelle or Cedric the Entertainer work their canto magic, they prove why they are better known for their comedy, and not their couplets. The queen of dull, drippy verse, Jewel, also makes a less than stellar showing, reading a "love" poem with about as much passion as someone taking a nap. As for the rest of the so-called "regulars," they are a mixed bag of braggadocio. There is a lot of performance art here, the throwing of hand signs and striking of poses to embellish and create visual iconography and punctuation. Sometimes, it works. Other times, it plays like blatant pandering to the crowd. It's interesting how quasi-forgettable Yellow Rage's antagonistic rant on being Asian seems—with all its frontin' and "F"-words—when compared to Suheri Hammad similarly themed plea for Muslim understanding, or Black Ice's anti-boasting bit.
Still, the great thing about Def Poetry is that it's a cornucopia of styles and types, a wellspring of individual tastes and textures that is guaranteed to stimulate thought as it inspires praise…or anger. Some of the poets here come across as seasoned and practiced. Others visibly tremble as they take the stage. Mos himself is a questionable choice for host, and not because of his way with words. No, Def is way too laid back, almost comatose, in his delivery and energy. Even when discussing an important figure or current personality, he seems barely able to work up the force to care. He is especially bad with names (his pronunciation of "Dr. Sonia Sanchez" makes her name sound like "Sony Sanit"). While it is keeping within his "persona" as an urban beatnik, a cool cat hep to the hood happenings around him, Def should realize that clarity is key in any spoken word arena. We expect it from the readings, so why should the main MC be any different? These minor quibbles aside, Def Poetry is to be commended for bringing the art of oral communication to the small screen. In an increasingly tech-centric world, such a skill is woefully lacking.
HBO does a nice job with the DVD transfers here. The 1.33:1 full screen image is colorful and clear, with only minor instances of grain. The contrasts are crisp, and the details dynamic. On the sound side, the Dolby Digital Stereo provides a perfect platform for these amazing artists to work, and the whisper to a scream strategy of some of the speakers is never cause for concern. We hear every word in pristine aural excellence.
As for extras, we get a 15-minute making-of featurette that is really nothing more than a chance for the poet Mums (star of the HBO drama OZ) to interview a few of the Def Poetry regulars. Taylor Mali is quizzed about his previous career as a teacher, while Dawn Taylor talks about how she channeled years of sexual abuse into her words. Mums also speaks with Beau Sia, Steve Coleman, and Sarah Jones, getting their perspective on the art of spoken performance. While we don't learn much about the Def Poetry show itself, these interesting conversations help us understand the compelling need to communicate.
There was a time, not too long ago, where society demanded a good speaker, not just someone who could spin the news into digestible bites, or a policy into a series of talking points. The well thought out expression of ideas was valued, not vilified. Thanks to rap and hip-hop, and the emergent slam scene, the value of verbiage is once again being acknowledged. Def Poetry is a natural extension of such recognition. It is a highly entertaining, if occasionally inflammatory, experience.
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• Featurette: Making of Def Poetry Jam
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