Spoken Word: Everything to Know About the Art of Oral Poetry

Article Image
Photo Source: Shah Vinci/Shutterstock

From ancient Greek soapbox soliloquies to viral TikTok videos of poetry slams, spoken word has always charged language with kinetic immediacy. Encompassing a unique blend of honesty and an engaging delivery, this type of poetry has long captivated listeners around the world.

Whether you’re a seasoned wordsmith, a total beginner, or simply a creative type who wants to learn more about the art form, here’s our deep dive into this genre of radical self-expression.


What is spoken word poetry?

Spoken word is a poetic genre in which performers recite their original pieces aloud. It is marked by powerful vocal inflections, spontaneity, and theatrics. More freeform than traditional forms, the genre often focuses on topics of social justice, identity, community, and personal experience.

The origins of spoken word go back to the epic verses spoken by the bards of ancient Greece, but its current incarnation came to prominence during the Harlem Renaissance, when Black artists used the medium as a form of social commentary and empowerment. Spoken word has become increasingly popular thanks to the rise of poetry slams, short-form video content, and audio-sharing platforms.

Spoken word isn’t just an art form; it’s a means of expression that gives voice to both personal and collective experiences. It’s a creative type of communication that goes beyond the limitations of conventional written poetry, giving writer-performers a platform to express their innermost thoughts and social critiques. Spoken word bridges the gap between the personal and the political, often making it a powerful tool for sparking advocacy and change. 

Regardless of your level of experience as an actor or writer, understanding spoken word poetry can improve your own abilities. It’s all about forging a connection between the audience, the poet, and the words.

How to perform spoken word poetry

Spoken word

Alexander Gold/Shutterstock

1. Study others’ performances. Attend local poetry slams and open mic nights, watch videos of slams and individual performers, and immerse yourself in the works of greats like Tarriona “Tank” Ball, Dominique Christina, Gil Scott-Heron, Bob Kaufman, Brandon Leake, Mumbi Macharia, Marty McConnell, and Marc Smith. Listen to musical artists who incorporate spoken word into their songs, such as Childish Gambino, Kendrick Lamar, Chance the Rapper, Vic Mensa, Mary Lambert, and Jamila Woods.

2. Compose your own poetry. Start with a subject you’re enthusiastic about, such as societal insights or personal truths—topics like identity, social justice, relationships, community, and education. Since the purpose of spoken word is to be performed, not just read, aim for a conversational tone, and read aloud as you write. Brevity is key, so keep your composition between three to four minutes.

3. Edit for impact. Cut out unnecessary words and concentrate on using colorful, expressive language. Include rhythmic features such as alliteration, rhyme, and repetition. Like hip-hop, spoken word should move to a beat. 

“They both come from a place of truth, like a raw voice and rhythm,” spoken word artist IN-Q told LAist. “The way that poetry works, at least for me, and the way that hip-hop works, is there’s a bounce to what’s being said; and it really brings the audience in, in a way that no other art form does.”

4. Rehearse mindfully. Practice your piece as much as possible, and pay close attention to your delivery when it comes to volume, tone, and pacing. Emphasize important phrases, and use dramatic pauses to increase the emotional impact of your words. Record yourself performing, then listen back and think about areas where you could improve. Apps like Biograph, Reverb Record, SpeakBeat Metronome, and Soundtrap can help you find your rhythm and voice.

5. Pay attention to your body language. Spoken word relies on having a strong physical presence. To imbue your words with emotion and meaning, consider your facial expressions, hand movements, and body language. You might grimace, clap your hands, or fold in on yourself to emphasize a point; it’s all about what feels right for you and your words.

6. Perform in front of an audience. Once you take the stage at a poetry slam, think about ways you can engage your audience by making eye contact, projecting to the back of the room, and paying attention to people’s reactions. Spoken word is a form of theater; use viewers’ energy to add potency to your performance.

7. Project confidence. If you’re insecure in your poetic abilities, remember that showmanship is half the battle; often, less-than-stellar writing can be saved by compelling performance. (Eddie Redmayne in “Jupiter Ascending,” anyone?) Show off your enthusiasm for your chosen topic, and don’t be scared to be vulnerable.

Examples of spoken word performances

Here are a few striking samples that highlight the raw emotional depth and passion infusing the genre. As these artists demonstrate, spoken word is an approachable art form that resonates with a wide range of global audiences.

Dominique Christina, “The Period Poem”

Christina bravely and defiantly tackles a topic that’s frequently seen as taboo. This intense, raw poem defies social conventions and stigmas attached to women’s bodies, affirming that femininity and strength aren’t mutually exclusive.

Prince Ea, “I Am NOT Black, You are NOT White”

Through his energetic performance, Ea considers the idea of race as a social construct. He challenges preconceptions and proposes a profound comprehension of human identity that defies simple categorization.

Rudy Francisco, “Complainers”

In this piece, Francisco offers an inspirational message of resilience, using a catchy rhythmic pattern. His presentation is a superb illustration of how spoken word can drive listeners to take action.

Amanda Gorman, “The Hill We Climb”

Upbeat and forward-looking, Gorman’s poem, which she performed at Joe Biden’s inauguration, perfectly captured the momentous occasion. Her graceful, elegant delivery demonstrates how potent spoken word can be at important ceremonial events.

Neil Hilborn, “OCD”

In this candid, powerful poem, Hilborn details his experiences as a person with OCD and breaks down how the condition has impacted his relationships. His open, sincere delivery makes the piece feel even more touching and personal.

Javon Johnson, “cuz he’s black”

In this stirring poem Johnson explores the anxieties and structural injustices faced by Black parents in the U.S. His poem makes a significant statement about racism and parenting through insightful narrative and emotional depth.

Sarah Kay, “If I Should Have a Daughter…”

Kay opens her poem with a heartfelt message to her future child encouraging her to be optimistic and to always persevere. Her performance is intimate and compelling thanks to a potent blend of strength and tenderness.

Shane Koyczan, “To This Day”

As he addresses the difficult topic of bullying and its lasting consequences, Koyczan alternates between sadness, rage, and resistance. He tells a compelling story that speaks to anyone who’s experienced marginalization or felt misunderstood.

Hollie McNish, “Mathematics”

In this poem, McNish considers xenophobia through the lens of a witty story with a numerical twist. Her direct, sincere approach refutes anti-immigrant arguments with plain facts, making a strong, eloquent case for inclusivity.

Warsan Shire, “For Women Who Are Difficult to Love”

This magnetic piece captures the complexities of identity and the nuances of relationships through thoughtful, lyrical prose. Shire uses her voice to convey a poignant message about love and self-worth that resonates with women who feel misunderstood.

More From Backstage Guides


More From Acting

More From Creators

Now Trending