Have you ever found yourself completely immersed in some activity, so deeply absorbed that time seemed to disappear? You might have described that experience as being ‘in the flow’. Have you thought a poem ‘flowed beautifully’, or heard about a rapper with excellent ‘flow’?
The concept of flow is important to spoken-word poetry, but it is difficult to define. Flow is based on the sound of a poem passing in time (one of the conditions of spoken word). Many ‘traditional’ poets and poetry academics would dismiss ‘flow’, although it bears a strong resemblance to other familiar poetry terms, such as meter. The reason I think ‘flow’ is the right term, and worthy of discussion, is that it is more than just a technical device: it also encompasses a desired effect on writer and listener, and intertwines poetry with creativity in our daily lives.
In this post, I’ll share my thoughts on three aspects of flow:
- The act of writing as a flow state
- The act of listening as a flow state
- Flow as a poetic technique.
Writing as a flow state
Psychologist Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi, one of the pioneers of the scientific study of happiness, coined the term ‘flow’ to describe an optimal experience. Flow is “a state in which people are so involved in an activity that nothing else seems to matter; the experience is so enjoyable that people will continue to do it even at great cost, for the sheer sake of doing it.”
It’s a state that’s familiar to writers, athletes, chess players – in fact, anyone who becomes deeply immersed in some task. As a teacher, I see it most frequently in the visual arts classroom, where a rare atmosphere of quiet sometimes reigns while students are absorbed in their work. Opportunities to ‘get in the flow’ are increasingly valuable, given our modern environments are increasingly characterised by disruption, multi-tasking and instant gratification.
For obvious reasons, a flow state is ideal for writing. Neuroscientists have linked it to a process called transient hypofrontality, which triggers a loss of the ‘inner-critic’ which can impede our creative processes. We don’t need to wait for inspiration to strike in order to access a flow state; we can encourage it at any time using a few simple strategies. A focus on quantity, not quality can trigger it: set yourself a time limit (10 minutes) or a page limit (3 pages) and simply write anything that comes to you, without stopping, until you reach your target. You should also remove any rules or expectations that hinder your creativity – spelling and grammar, for example. Some people like to write to music or with a sensory stimulation they can return to, like a scented candle or a set of rosary beads.
While writing as a flow state is by no means unique to spoken-word poets, I do believe that flow is uniquely embodied when poets perform their work. Because every performance is a deliberate remembering of the writing process, spoken-word poets engage their listeners in their own sense of urgency, determination or excitement as the words emerge. It might be the hundredth time for the poet and the first time for the audience, but both are intimately connected through the experience of flow.
Listening as a flow state
The experience of listening to a spoken-word poem can also be described as a flow state. As listeners, we surrender to the flow of words in the moment. A page poem is made to happen by the reader, but a spoken poem happens to the listener. This condition has been described as “getting lost in language that surges forward, allowing the mind to wander in the presence of words”. There’s a beautiful interplay as the mind falls open and receives the words, while paradoxically becoming more aware of its own thoughts and movements in response.
The moment of intense engagement with a live poet is one that many people, in my experience, find moving and transformative when they first encounter it. It’s described perfectly by Luka Lesson in his poem “Moment to Moment”:
And I’ve realized that I’m not longer writing poetry I’m setting up good silences
I’m leaving space for you to fill in the gaps
There are many ways that the audience-poet connection of live performance shapes the craft of spoken-word. As well as helping us tell the truth, a live audience also reminds us of the intense pleasures of the act of listening.
Flow as a poetic technique
Finally, flow can also be seen as a technical device used in spoken-word poetry. There’s a strong connection between the history of spoken-word poetry and hip-hop music, which share many of the same roots. In hip-hop, ‘flow’ describes the way words are constructed over a beat using patterns of stressed syllables. Because hip-hop uses the voice to create rhythm, which is usually left to percussive instruments in other music genres, a rapper with strong rhythmic cadence is said to have good flow. While the beat is absent in spoken-word poetry, many poets create flow in their use of rhythm and careful construction of cadence, which engages the listener expressively and aesthetically, as well as aiding in memorisation and performance.
You can see how a background in hip-hop helps poets develop a mastery of flow, in this example from Luka Lesson’s “May Your Pen Grace the Page”. He personifies the ‘pen’ as a ‘she’, while shifting into a continuous rapid flow:
All I’ve done here is marked out the stressed and unstressed syllables using a traditional analysis of poetic meter: U = unstressed and / = stressed. You can see that a continuous pattern emerges, made of a repeating 4-syllable motif: / U U U. Perhaps most impressive, this whole section spins off the natural rhythm of the word “potentially”. Although they break across the lines on the page, these motifs form a compelling rhythm when we hear the poem. The flow is emphasised by the repeated “o” sound of “coffee”, “rocking”, “rolling” and “uncontrollably”. As a poetic technique, this particular flow is a great choice for Lesson’s comparison of the act of writing with the act of lovemaking; which is also best when we’re in the flow! Here’s the full poem live:
This example illustrates an extended, continuous flow. Spoken-word poets also break, alter, and complicate the flow for effect. Unlike hip-hop emcees, poets are relieved of the expectation to keep the beat going, so there is room for flexibility in the choice to follow or depart from any established flow.
Now I’ll show you how I’ve used flow in one of my pieces:
In my poem, “Sleeping Beauty“, I used short, sharp phrasing with a driving beat to convey the message concisely. Sometimes it’s useful to think of poetry as music. If you listen closely, you can hear a 4/4 beat created by the pattern of stressed syllables, even though the meter changes:
The 4/4 beat helps to drive the poem forward with greater urgency than I could create with, say, the more traditional iambic pentameter. But at certain moments, I wanted to arrest this movement so that the words would hit home more forcefully. In the chorus, I built up a semi-regular motif of 3 unstressed syllables after a stressed: / UUU. Because it’s still following a beat, the extra syllables crammed in also increase the pace and heighten tension:
When I break the pattern by landing awkwardly on “she wasn’t” U / U, it almost feels like a stumble, and stops the flow. It’s followed by a pause of a full beat to allow that revelation to skin in. Flow establishes expectations in the listener. When we hear a pattern we expect it to continue, so breaking that pattern can cause a powerful shift which enhances meaning.
How have you used flow in your writing? What’s your favourite poetry or music for listening in flow? As always, I’d love to hear your thoughts in the comments below. You can always contact me with your ideas too.
- If you want to delve more deeply into flow, print some lyrics from your favourite poets, listen along, and mark up the text with beats or stressed and unstressed syllables. You might find some interesting patterns.
- Practice freewriting to music. Make sure it’s flowing enough to be in the background and there are no lyrics.
- Take one of your own poems and mark the meter. Are there patterns, suggestions of rhythms or beats?
- Note places where you want the poem to ‘flow’, and where you might want it to ‘break’ in order to create impact. Play around with different flow at these points.
- Reflect: how does your own personal poetic language emerge? Do you start with rhythm or words?
Like it? Read more in the SlamCraft series or buy the book.
 Csikszentmihalyi, Mihaly (1990). Flow: The Psychology of Optimal Experience. New York, NY: Harper and Row.
 Charles Bernstein, introduction to Close Listening, p7.