I felt impelled it make a response to this last news about a slam-poem created and performed by Neil Hilborn. I read the responses on the source video’s comment section, the comment section on Huffington Post, and then a blog post by James Grimshaw (a Leeds English student). My first impression was lackluster, and then shock at the response it is apparently getting. The poem itself was okay. Just sort of okay. Hilborn uses many of the same techniques employed by Slam artists for decades now. He focuses a lot on his direct emotions, spicing up some of his verse with some imagery – yet not strong imagery. The use of repetition is admirable, but it feels like a rather superficial attempt at portraying what OCD is about. Dealing with my crippling depression, I’ve always imagined OCD being much of the same arresting feeling. In the poem it is more used as something to gain strength onto the next line. In a sense, for me, the reader isn’t stuck but rather going too fast – to the point he doesn’t know what he is doing.
And let me interrupt myself by pointing out the “for me” part of the last sentence. Grimshaw, in his blog, seems to respond heavily to those who look at this poem negatively, going as far as to claim just plain ignorance for those in the comment section. Now I saw a few problems with his post, and it relates heavily to the positive responses Hilborn seems to be getting for this rather plain piece. One of the biggest gripes that Grimshaw seems to have is people claiming their opinion as objective fact. Part of his argument seems to imply that only the naysayers are passing off their opinions as objective facts. This seems to fly in the face, just a little bit, of what he goes on to do, which is to define what poetry is. He uses a quote from another video, by Michael of Vsauce, a highly reliable source on definitions for art forms… apparently. Don’t get me wrong, I think the definition given, that poetry is “a form of literary art which uses aesthetic and rhythmic qualities […] to evoke meanings in addition to […] the prosaic ostensible meaning,” is a fine definition, but at the end it does feel rather ambiguous. Anyone holding that definition could easily call anything an art form. Let’s use that definition, taking just the “literary” part out, and apply it to the videogame Space Invaders. Or Super Mario Bros. Or newer games like Runner. Don’t they apply “aesthetic and rhythmic qualities” to evoke some sort of meaning? The definition becomes weak in its ambiguousness, in its openness. So can there be a true definition of poetry?
Of course not. It’s been changing for a long time now. Different schools and groups put in their own definition to be scrutinized by others in society, and either accepted or rejected. Poetry is a social object, its definition changes with society. Poetry in this society has been relegated to a hobby or an instrument for career advancement. It doesn’t hold the same power as it did even twenty to thirty years ago. And with this, I want to look at Hilborn again.
I can’t shake off the question on why this became as popular as it did. It is good to see people talking about poetry again, even if it is to say that this isn’t a poem, but why did this seem to hit the consciousness of society so direct and cleanly. I just want to put up one argument and see what the response is to it.
In the beginning of this post I started with a little dissection of some of the issues I had with the poem. It does have that rhythmic and aesthetic quality that could easily be labeled as poetic, but I don’t think it did well to illustrate or illuminate the subject it was attempting to cover. In fact, I believe that the techniques he employs are rather typical and the opposite of that arresting moment of OCD. Overall I don’t think it has a lasting power. It will be forgotten as quickly as it was put up. I did feel it did one thing though, even if it wasn’t intended. It portrayed the image of life speeding out of control to the point that we repeat our own mistakes. This, I believe, is the foremost reason why people are attracted to it. Instead of portraying the image of OCD, it instead shows how life is beginning to feel in this country. The idea of a love poem, or even a poem speaking to mental illness, is enough to attract some people to see it once. What has people talking about it is that hidden quality underneath that points to our social ills as a whole. It seems far from intended though, it is mostly felt. That’s what I get from this sudden surge in views and the coverage by social media. Furthermore, I think the defenders of this piece are simply attempting to solidify some sort of presence for poetry or to further a conversation on mental illness/OCD. While I don’t feel that it is wrong to do this, I do feel that it is short-sighted and not getting to the real heart of what makes this poem so popular. It also further brushes the issue of the growing insignificance of Art under the rug.
Whatever Hilborn makes of this surge in popularity, good luck to him. However short, I appreciate his attempt at speaking about mental illness in public. It takes a lot of guts to speak on an issue you suffer from. I only hope the he continue to do that sort of honest work. And that we continue to push it.