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What Is Urban Poetry?

By P.D. Trout
Updated May 23, 2024
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Urban poetry is a literary art form in which poetry is used to express feelings or to share experiences that are related to living in urban communities. Common themes include poverty, social injustice, stress, struggles and survival. As with many other forms of poetry, it is common for the lines of an urban poem to rhyme, but it is not necessary all of the time. Urban poetry also can vary in length, meter and rhythm. These poems are not set to music, although music might be played in the background during a live performance or a reading of urban poetry.

Although many people consider the term "urban" to refer to modern cities full of brick and steel structures, large expanses of asphalt and concrete, flashing lights and hundreds of thousands of people, forms of urban poetry have sprung out of cities for centuries. Although cities have become more modernized, many of the conditions that inspire urban poets are much the same as they were hundreds of years ago. For example, urban poetry has been popular in India for several centuries.

One overriding theme of urban poetry is the condemnation of social injustice. Modern urban poets tend to focus on issues that negatively influence the lives of minorities. Rather than express an opinion about an issue, many urban poems tell the story of someone living in a city, which allows the reader or listener to gain a better understanding of urban issues by learning about the storyteller's personal experiences dealing with those issues. For example, a poem about a loved one being an innocent victim of a violent crime can send a message about one type of problem that people living in an urban community might face. Another urban poet might address the same issue by writing a poem calling for an end to violence or for better police protection.

Although urban poetry might be fictional, it typically addresses a subject or situation that the poet has personally experienced. The motivation to address unjust or difficult situations that the poet has experienced often leads to powerful emotions on the part of both the poet and the audience, particularly during a live performance. Some people believe that urban poetry is more appropriate as a spoken art form than as literature. Therefore, this type of poetry frequently can be found as audio recordings rather than in books or other printed material. Live performances are common, including "open mike nights" — or "open mic nights" — during which experienced and new urban poets alike are invited to share their art.

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Discussion Comments

By browncoat — On Apr 27, 2012

@pleonasm - I could certainly see that some forms of music have been influenced by spoken poetry and maybe have influenced it in turn, but I think the recent rise of street poetry has more to do with modern forms of media than anything.

People like short snippets of information and entertainment now. They are used to being able to get that through the internet, with the video sharing sites.

So, sitting down and letting people entertain them and inform them with short poems doesn't feel as alien as it might have once been, not for young people anyway. And the poets have an easy method of getting their work out there and getting feedback.

If they are any good, they go viral and if they aren't, their friends and networks can help them to get better.

It's definitely an interesting time for poetry.

By pleonasm — On Apr 27, 2012

@croydon - One of the strengths of urban poetry has always been the fact that it is often shared among the people who it is inspired by, so it grows stronger and more meaningful with their input and response to it.

I consider some forms of music like hip hop to be poetry as well, since it is spoken word and the meaning of the words is more important than with other song types.

Maybe the influence of that kind of music has made it easier and more common for spoken word poets to operate with the approval of the people around them, whereas previous it might not have been considered cool.

By croydon — On Apr 26, 2012

I have really enjoyed watching the rise of spoken word poetry in poetry jam competitions in my local city.

Watching young people compete in expressing themselves through poetry is just really exciting, and it's a pleasure to sit and listen to the poems about life in my local area as well.

Since one of the things they are scored on is connecting with the audience, they pull out all the stops in trying to please a group of intelligent listeners and get them to feel something strong.

And that's what might be missing from some of the other poetry we get these days. People writing poetry in order to move a literary audience who expect to have to puzzle out a meaning, rather than be hit in the face with it.

Puzzles can be interesting but they hardly inspire others. While some of the urban poetry I've heard at these events has been very inspiring.

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