Understandable Antipathy: On Hungarian Rap and Slam Poetry (part 2.)
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Understandable Antipathy: On Hungarian Rap and Slam Poetry (part 2.)
Whether we like it or not, slam poetry (and in the wider context: performative poetry) at the beginning of the 2010s was a game changer, both on the international and the Hungarian literary scenes. It brought about a shift of paradigm both in how it was communicated and in economic terms. Slam poetry became widely popular, and it seemed poetry was trying to gain back some of its long-lost territory: the undivided attention of the reader, stage performance, and verbal expression, where it originates from. In Hungary it became so powerful and popular that the major annual slam poetry event, called Pilvaker, originally organized by Red Bull, had to be covertly taken over by the government media agency so that they could censor the texts and ensure no open political criticism would be transmitted live on national tv. Therefore, slam poetry did bring about change. This is also proven by that fact that both the Ted Hughes Prize in 2013, and the Literary Nobel Prize in 2016 were received by performance poets such as Kate Tempest and Bob Dylan. It is no surprise that these events caused uproar in the entire international literary community. Writers didn't understand why song lyrics deserved a literary Nobel. Why were they considered literature? Because literature doesn't start with literacy, it starts with verbal expression and music.
However poorly received it was by the elite literary canons, slam poetry did also manage to fill the void left behind by political poetry as it became obsolete after the change of the regime in '89. Once socialism was over and freedom of speech became a part of everyday life, writers didn't need to use doublespeak; social issues were no longer forced into hiding between the lines of witty poems. Political poetry gave way to what liberal democracies with their socially conscious minority politics liked to emphasize so much: the popular message of equal opportunities and the freedom of self-expression. Slam poetry events in the global West became a hub for marginalized groups such as the LGBTQ+ community, people of color, women writers, working-class poets, and so on. People could speak freely about social and economic issues, their everyday problems, and their turbulent love life.
So, the rise of the Hungarian slam poetry movement, after the first official event organized in the Palace of Art (Műcsarnok) in 2006, provoked significant aversion among members of the traditional literary community. This was partly due to the media hype it generated: journalists coined exaggerated headlines claiming that slam was “the new poetry” or that slam was “sexy,” while traditional poetry readings were dull and boring. The antipathy felt by the traditional page poets was understandable. They are often known to be more withdrawn and not always keen on performing their work on stage. Slam poetry, meanwhile, made artists realize that it is not necessarily appalling to use a microphone and a stage for a reading or to promote your own work and start rebranding poetry by creating a bit of hype around it. The other component of their aversion was due to the immediate effect that slam performances have on the audience and the “dubious fame and popularity” generated by it. while traditional poetry requires the reader to take the time to delve deep and scrutinize every detail of the text. This was a major conflict between the two genres. Another factor was that social gatherings such as slam poetry events are highly entertaining and attract crowds. People enjoyed the performances, engaged in conversation, exchanged ideas, and of course, this way venues generated significant profit. Traditional poetry readings, by contrast, were usually very low budget and only for a few, highly dedicated people. So, it is obvious that the two weren’t comparable.
I believe that slam poetry is first and foremost a performance genre, and genres in themselves don't have artistic qualities. They are not valuable or valueless per se. They contain what we fill them with. It is not generally slam poetry that is dull: it is bad lyrics. And we come across dull poetry, dull prose or dull opera all the time. I think it is partly due to the lack of openness and curiosity in the Hungarian writers’ community (an attitude that is deeply rooted in our socialist-elitist literary traditions), and partly due to the exaggerated media-hype, that, by the end of the 2010s, Hungarian slam poetry became a form of superficial amusement for lovesick college kids, and a forum for empty anti-government buzzwords. We must also admit that slam poetry events didn't always provide the quality of literature we would have expected. They were imperfect, but so is democracy. When everyone can take the stage and express their opinion it is inevitable there will be some less elaborate voices. In democracy “less elaborate” is included. But at least it is not a prefabricated set of norms made by literary gatekeepers that we must follow blindly. We need to put up with possible defects if we want to live in a self-governing, democratic society. Nevertheless, the role of democracy in art is a tricky one. We do, after all, need some professional standards – editors, or a board of jurors – to filter out what's worthy of aesthetic attention. But we can still do that with passion and empathy while guaranteeing equal access to learning and publishing for authors from all walks of life.
In my late twenties I participated in slam poetry events myself and performed a few times in competitions and showcases. But I didn't feel like it was my thing. I experienced stabs of anxiety and discomfort every time I had to enter a contest with a text that was either too personal, or at times too complicated for performing live, but was first and foremost not meant for competing. Today I feel that, apart from the events run by a few radical left-wing civil organizations, slam poetry has lost its focus, its revolutionary momentum, and its ability to shape society. While it may have seemed rather self-important to claim, even ten years ago, that slam poetry could make such a difference, this genre did provide an opportunity for entire young generations to express their personal beliefs and political opinions in a somewhat sophisticated and intellectual manner. It helped them find kindred spirits, and socialize in a lively and bubbling literary environment. The topics slam typically deals with, such as everyday politics, minorities, family, and romance make it highly accessible for younger generations. Once you are thirty, you may not feel the urge to rant about the latest scandals in world politics, your high rent, or tell the story of your last breakup in front of a hundred people in a bar, but for high school and college kids it means a memorable social experience, a great test of their bravado, charisma, and stage-skills, and it shows them some important literary landmarks they can relate to. All in all, slam has been the voice of the working-class, the marginalized LGBTQ+ society, and middle-class university students; it managed to bring together different minorities in a neoliberal world, therefore it was socialist and true to the values of ‘68 by its very nature. But in its competitiveness, its urge to entertain and turn literature into a commodity it proved to be rather capitalistic after all.
Slam poetry and rap made the same mistake as the entire popular culture of the 90s and 2000s in Western societies: they believed in neoliberalism, the free market, and that art is something to be sold. They were convinced that success and money, if you worked hard enough for it, was not something to be ashamed of. That if you compete and you win you should be acknowledged and paid for it. These are examples of the protestant work ethic so substantial to western welfare societies, and so little known to us, Hungarians. No wonder: slam poetry started in 1984 in Reagan's America, while at that time in Hungary, which was still under the socialist regime, people were being monitored by the state police. Throughout the 20th century the country has suffered various catastrophes, the Trianon peace treaty, the Holocaust, and the fifty-year communist regime to name a few. For this reason, the seeds of welfare society could never really take root in Hungarian soil. Money and success were only a sign that you were a favorite of the ever-present political regime, or simply a thief, or a “greedy capitalist.”
It needs to be said that in Hungary the real values of Marxism or social-liberalism could never be institutionalized, and the regimes that called themselves socialist built a facade-culture and did everything to suppress any kind of real political activity and artistic endeavors that made efforts to address society's burning issues. Today's elite culture still considers itself left-liberal while still distancing itself from the people and their actual cultural interests. It is sad that KMTG, the new writer's academy set up by Viktor Orbán’s right-wing conservative government and which was receiving ten times the financial support of other traditional writers' associations, actually came up with a more progressive, left-wing idea than the liberal elite itself. They started a free literary magazine that is distributed throughout the entire country, initiated literary readings and theater performances in the provinces and founded a literary agency that promotes Hungarian literature abroad and funds the translation of foreign works into Hungarian. One of KMTG’s unforgivable sins, however, is that in return for offering huge government support, it expects its authors to be a hundred percent loyal to the regime and to spread state propaganda.
©Anna Bentley 2022 for the English translation