Armed with a list of demands, Saul Williams graces PSU

Spoken word poetry has existed since the first human being’s narrative. Long before the advent of writing and the printing press, these stories served the soul, religion and education of primitive culture, covering everything from creation to how to avoid getting eaten. The stories were told in a definite meter and rhyme, aiding memory and recall while providing aural beauty. Since then, spoken word has become a genre in and of itself. Part narrative, part stream of consciousness and employing the tools of rhythm, rhyme and theatrics, spoken word poetry can be devastatingly powerful in its emotional punch or laughably ineffective – depending on the skill of the artist.

The zenith of spoken word came in the ’90s with the wildly popular poetry slams – competitive events where poets compete against one another and are scored "rodeo style" by a panel of judges. At the height of the Slam movement poet Saul Williams wrote and starred in a movie that bore its name. "Slam" won accolades at film festivals around the world and propelled Mr. Williams into the national eye.

Mr. Williams has a distinct voice and rhythm which are instantly recognizable. His words pour forth in an emotional cascade that is both melodic and riveting. His subjects are intimately urban, concerned with the experience of black youth, social justice and the balance of wealth and power in America. His poems are at once battle cries and love cries.

The years since the release of "Slam" have found Mr. Williams exploring music and hip-hop. He has traveled the globe and has been regarded as a voice for disaffected young people everywhere – black, white, poet or otherwise. He has collaborated with a panoply of different musicians. His most recent album, for instance, includes cameos by Serj Tankian and Zack de la Rocha.

The problem is that while Mr. Williams has progressed through his career, his poetic style has stuck in the craw of thousands of young poets who want to express themselves with spoken word. It is rare to attend a slam where the poets do not sound like Saul Williams clones, their hands karate chopping the air somewhere around the level of their waist in time with their words. Once a diverse and nuanced art that used the entire dynamic range of the human voice, it seems that Mr. Williams’ voice, rhythm and use of internal rhyme has become the standard mode.

But Mr. Williams will always do it better. It is absolutely essential that the Saul Williamses of this world continue to propagate the gospel of poetry and spoken word. In many ways the future and survival of poetry is dependent on the ambassadorship of spoken word and slam poetry. However, as the new poets grow and learn their craft, they must also develop their own voices, as Mr. Williams has developed his, or spoken word will be a one-pitch annoyance that will fail to reach any ears other than its own.

Mr. Williams’ work is emotionally raw and rousing, his verbal acrobatics a sublime treat. As a spoken word artist he continues to convey the soul and religion of our culture. He teaches us how to keep from getting eaten.

Mr. Williams presents his work in performance and lecture on the PSU campus this Friday at 6 p.m. The event will take place in Shattuck Hall, Room 212. It is free and open to the public.