Sarah Kay and Spoken Word Poetry

By Yonatan Gordon

I wandered over to TED.com today and found a video from Sarah Kay entitled, “If I should have a daughter …” The 1st part of her 18 plus minute speech was a spoken word poem on this topic, and the 2nd, a short retelling of how she became a spoken word poet.

It was a popular speech with over 6.6 million views so far. But for our purposes (as is our approach) I’d like to hone in on just a few of the concepts presented there. Specifically the name Sarah, this artform we call “spoken word poetry,” and the therapeutic effect of creative expression (whether the medium be written, music, video, etc…).

First her presentation if you haven’t already seen it:

Here’s what Sarah says about her name:

My parents named me Sarah, which is a biblical name. In the original story, God told Sarah she could do something impossible and she laughed,because the first Sarah, she didn’t know what to do with impossible. And me? Well, neither do I, but I see the impossible every day. Impossible is trying to connect in this world, trying to hold onto others while things are blowing up around you, knowing that while you’re speaking, they aren’t just waiting for their turn to talk — they hear you. They feel exactly what you feel at the same time that you feel it. It’s what I strive for every time I open my mouth — that impossible connection.

When did the Biblical Sarah laugh? When she was told by an angel of God that she was going to have Isaac. To quote from Rabbi Ginsburgh:

The epitome of laughter in the Torah is that of Sarah at the birth of Isaac (יצחק) whose name derives from the word for laughter (צחוק): “God made me laugh, whoever hears shall laugh with me.” Giving birth at the age of 90 (and Abraham at the age of 100), after being barren and physically unable to have children, is witnessing Divine light and miracle emerging from total darkness.

To see the impossible every day means witnessing Divine light and miracles emerging from darkness. Perhaps this imagery is best expressed later in her speech about the bud that bloomed shortly after Hiroshima. To laugh is good and healthy. But rather than something incredulous or disbelieving, the source for Sarah’s laughter in the Torah (according to Kabbalah) derived from the great revelation of being informed about the birth. The experience of unbounded joy … of light that emanated from darkness.

Spoken Word Poetry

From Sarah’s presentation:

Spoken word poetry is the art of performance poetry. I tell people it involves creating poetry that doesn’t just want to sit on paper, that something about it demands it be heard out loud or witnessed in person.

Who is the classic “spoken word poet” in Jewish tradition? Without much deliberation many of us would say King David. The first thing to know is that, according to Kabbalah, we consider poetry an “arousal from below.” Whereas Moses spoke the Word of God from Above to below — from God directly to the people — poetry is generally the other way around. In order to come closer to God we become inspired to offer up whatever contributions come to mind. Sing, pray, dance … whatever the expression, whatever the medium, we call this an “arousal from below” in Kabbalah … or in Divine service, the trajectory of a ba’al teshuvah (returnee to God and His Torah). This is also a feminine way of looking at the world.

King David corresponds to the sefirah of malchut (kingdom) in Kabbalah… a feminine channel that receives Divine influx from the channels, the sefirot above it. So King David sang his poetry and it was later written down as the Psalms. This is the first lesson … better to first speak out poetry then later write it down if its good rather than write then speak. Something to ponder.

Now that we mentioned a little about poetry … what is the significance of this term “spoken word”? For this again we’ll turn to a Rabbi Ginsburgh article:

Before his passing, Moses taught us that, “Man cannot live on bread alone, for man lives on God’s spoken word.” This verse does not mean that man does not need bread in order to live—you cannot live on spirituality—rather, that bread alone is not enough. In Kabbalah it is explained that bread—understood here as an archetypal symbol for any and all sources of nourishment—contains both a physical dimension and a spiritual dimension. The physical dimension by itself cannot sustain life. It must go hand in hand with the bread’s spiritual dimension, itself the “spoken word of God” that is enclothed within the physical dimension. To use the model of lights and vessels, the spoken word of God is the light enclothed within the vessel that is the bread’s physical body. The light within the bread is identical with the holy sparks contained within the food. But, without the body of the bread, without its physical dimension, the light cannot be transferred to us. So the bread’s physical dimension is necessary in order to figuratively feed us the light, as taught by the Magid of Mezritch.

Why would poetry need to be spoken and performed at all? Seemingly a blog post or book of collected poems should do just fine. Why is it that we expect that good and worthwhile poetry should be performed live in front of audiences?

We can abstract the above paragraph a bit to include spoken words that aren’t on the level of Moses or poetry that isn’t on the level of King David’s psalms. The lesson we can learn for ourselves is that when there is light, we need vessels to contain the light. When a poem is performed in front of an audience, the feedback is immediate … but also the effect is immediate. Whether the poem later gets published or not it was performed. The thoughts have entered the airwaves and reached listening ears. The thoughts have begun have reached the world, and no matter what happens from that point on, hopefully the world is now a little bit lighter, a little bit more inspired to come closer to God from the effort.

The inner concept behind the Spoken Word Poetry medium is that while publishing these poems is wonderful, the hope and wish is that they will change and improve the REAL world. Even though books are wonderful, capturing that motivation, the dream that impels a person to leave their house that day, to get up in front of that stage, and start speaking, and potentially so potent and so powerful. Of course as quoted in the paragraph above, then the search for vessels to hold this light begins. But already, already since it was first presented in the real world to real people, the hope is that real results, real vessels, will result.

The Therapeutic Effect of Creative Expression

This was perhaps the most prevalent theme throughout Sarah’s speech. That getting people to speak (or at least write) creatively is healing. Where do we see this in Jewish thought?

Proverbs (12:25) states the following: “Anxiety in a man’s heart depresses it, but a good word gladdens it.” The word “depresses it” is interpreted by the Sages to mean “speak it out;” alleviate worry in the heart and sweeten reality through “speaking it out”

Thus if you’re feeling down, stressed or depressed … speak it out. Write some poetry or an article, record a YouTube video of your thoughts, something, anything expressive.

Since we quoted above from Sarah her statement that, “I strive for every time I open my mouth — that impossible connection,” I thought to end with something from Rabbi Ginsburgh that speaks about speech, connection, and alleviating anxieties and stress (again the underlying theme of Sarah’s speech):

Our Sages say: “The secrets of the Torah are only given to one who is worried in his heart.” The worry referred to here is not from a lack of trust or sense of security, nor is it caused by the transitory matters of this world. Rather it is a deep, existential uneasiness with our present, imperfect reality. We are taught to accept that “all is for the good” and that G-d is perfect, implying that all is exactly as it should be. On the other hand, it is clear that due to man’s free will, the present world situation, at least from a superficial view, is less a reflection of G-d’s perfection then man’s accumulative imperfections. More then just accepting the world as it is, we are commanded in the Torah and implored by our sages and prophets to become partners with G-d in rectifying and elevating the world. The sincere probing of the heart and mind, and the anxiety it causes, creates a vessel with which to receive the secrets of life and Torah, in order to sweeten reality.

 

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