Glossary of techniques used in spoken-word poetry

When we try to study spoken-word poetry or performances of poems, there are a multitude of techniques that are specific to that setting. I compiled this list for students and teachers to improve understanding of these performance and poetic techniques. Hyperlinks will take you to examples on Youtube, which I recommend reviewing for appropriateness before use in the classroom.

Please credit when sharing; and let me know what works.

Glossary: techniques used in spoken-word poetry

* = language or content warning

Technique Definition Example
Performance techniques
Pace How fast or slowly the poet speaks The fast pace illustrates Luka Lesson’s virtuosity as a wordsmith – Anonymous.

Slow pace emphasises the seriousness of subject matter –* Anisa Nandaula

Tone How the poet’s voice conveys their attitude to their subject Taylor Mali’s impassioned tone conveys his passion for teaching – What Teachers Make
Gesture Movements of head, hands or body to express meaning “I make them understand that if you’ve got this, [pointing to head]

then you follow this, [pointing to heart]” Taylor Mali What Teachers Make

Pause / silence Leaving a short length of time between words or sentences Luka Lesson pauses after “my friend went into chemotherapy this week” to let it sink in – Antidote
Pitch / register Using high, natural, or low ranges of the speaking voice The three boys use their voices in unnatural low registers to parody “manly men” – Finalists 2015: ViewBank College
Volume How loud or softly the poet speaks Kate Tempest’s high volume enhanced by close microphone technique conveys passion – Cannibal Kids
Dynamics Changing volume within the piece Abe Nouk goes from loud “I know what hatred looks like” to soft “but today that defeats the purpose” – What Love Looks Like
Emphasis Stress given to a word or words indicating importance Denise Frohm emphasises to create irony in “I mean, straight women” – *Dear Straight People
Accent Distinctive pronunciation, usually indicating the speaker’s country of origin, area, or social class Abe Nouk’s Sudanese accent reveals his story as a refugee – What Love Looks Like

Kate Tempest’s south London accent aligns her with the ‘oppressed’ she describes – Cannibal Kids

Imitation Performance intending to copy or simulate another voice or person Taylor Mali imitates the laughter of a dinner guest who criticises teachers, showing how it annoys him – What Teachers Make
Multi-vocal Two or more voices or performers in the piece OutLoud Australia presents teams of 3 or 4 students in each performance

Race in Australia performed by two poets

Unison Two or more voices say the same words at the same time The two poets state “I belong” in unison –  Race in Australia
Vocal sound effects Using the voice to make non-human sounds Jesse John Brand makes sound of tape recorder fast-forwarding to indicate time flying past – *Dear Mrs Miller
Beatboxing Imitating sounds of a drum machine with the voice; vocal percussion Saul Williams uses bursts of beatboxing – Ohm

Sophia Thakur uses beatboxing to represent the blows of an abuser – *Beatbox

Singing The poet sings a word or phrase The New Crusades opens with singing – Luka Lesson
Multimodal Using more than one performance mode, such as film, lighting, music Animations of words written on walls and skin is superimposed on the poet – Luka Lesson May Your Pen Grace the Page
Improvisation Any part of the poem created spontaneously or departing from the prepared performance Kate Tempest jokes “Not you, different strangers!” in a performance of *13 Commandments
Audience participation Listeners are invited to be involved in the performance, perhaps by clapping a beat or repeating key lines. Many poetry slams are participatory in nature, with audiences encouraged to show appreciation during the performance. The audience responds to Luka Lesson’s performance by calling out, clapping and cheering frequently in May Your Pen Grace the Page – filmed at the Nuyorican Poets Café, home of slam poetry.
Call and response The audience is asked to call back a

response to a key word or words

Listeners repeat the line “out with the old” – Sarah Temporal End of the Road
Cover Performing a piece written by someone else Joelle Taylor performs Dulce et Decorum Est by Wilfred Owen
Poetic techniques
Wordplay Playful or clever use of words, exploring multiple meanings “politics being a latin word. ‘Poli’ meaning many, ‘tics’ meaning blood sucking butt lumps” – Shane Koyczan This is my voice
Reconstruction Words or phrases are broken down into parts and recombined to form new meanings “You look so pretty with straight hair

You look so pretty when you’re straight”

– Arielle Cottingham Tramlines

Redefinition Words are redefined to give them new meanings, sometimes by spelling them out, reconstruction, or association. “May the lead in your lead-pencil lead you astray / We spell it L-E-A-D ‘cause we’ve made leaders this way” – Luka Lesson May Your Pen Grace the Page
Iconic substitution Suggests that a thing is like another thing, through similar sounding words “I’m basically feeling that art isn’t hard / What’s hard is your heart” – Luka Lesson May Your Pen Grace the Page
Incantation Use of words for magical or prayer-like effect; showing belief that language effects reality “May you mean every word that you say” – Luka Lesson May Your Pen Grace the Page
Invocation Calling upon a person, spirit or deity by name to lend power, i.e. ‘in the name of…’ “Thus, in the name of: Robeson, God’s Son, Hurston…and the countless unnamed” -Saul Williams Coded Language
Flow Use of emphasis and pace to create implied rhythms. In hip-hop: the way rhymes are constructed over a beat. “Potentially my pencil be / the deftest thing you’ve ever seen” – Luka Lesson May Your Pen Grace the Page
Rhyme Repetition of sounds in two or more words Eyes / disguise / lives / alibis / outside
Complete rhyme Consonant and vowel sounds match identically Eyes / lies
Slant rhyme Similar but not identical sounds. Either the vowels are different while the consonants are identical, or vice versa. Eyes / chimes

Lives / leaves

Multi-syllable rhyme Rhyming each syllable in words two or more syllables long Tragedy / cavity / gravity
Multi-word rhyme Rhyming groups of two or more words with another word or word-group Reeboks / see cops / be shot – Eminem

Monotony / got to me – Patti Smith

Internal rhyme Rhyme occurring within a line “His palms are sweaty, knees week, arms are heavy” – Eminem *Lose Yourself
End rhyme Rhyme occurring at end of two adjacent lines “I’m fortunate you believe in a dream / This orphanage we call a ghetto is quite a routine” –Kendrick Lamar *Sing About Me
Daisy-chaining Rhymes link across multiple lines. A new rhyme scheme starts before the first one ends, creating smooth flow. “Everybody’s a victim in my eyes / When I ride it’s a murderous rhythm / And outside became pitch black / A demon glued to my back whispering, Get ‘em.” – Kendrick Lamar *Sing About Me
Holorime An entire sentence or phrase rhymed perfectly with the next. The ‘holy grail’ of rap rhyming. “The worst-hated God who perpetrated odd favours / demonstrated in the perforated Rod Lavers” –MF Doom *Meat Grinder
Motif / rhythmic motif A recurring rhythmic pattern or idea “Potentially” sets up repeating 4-syllable motif È / È È – Luka Lesson May Your Pen Grace the Page
Doggerel Comic verse composed in irregular rhythm Tug Dumbly *The Dog with the Golden Arse
Anaphora Repetition of a word or words at the beginning of successive phrases, clauses, or lines “I make them question.

I make them criticize.

I make them apologize and mean it.”

Taylor Mali What Teachers Make

Listing / accumulation Creating a list or piling up ideas in a way that builds up or emphasizes the main point. List poems are very common in spoken-word poetry. Accumulation of dedications “this is for…” – Shane Koyczan This is my voice

A numbered list of personal advice – Kate Tempest 13 Commandments

Epithet a word or phrase used to express a certain characteristic of a person or thing. (Derived from ancient storytelling traditions such as Homeric epics) “rosy-fingered dawn”, “the wine-dark sea”, “loud-thundering Zeus”, “Athena, hope of soldiers” – Homer
Zeugma To yoke together different meanings “Discarded clothes and ambitions” – Sarah Temporal, Sleeping Beauty
Onomatopoeia Words that mimics the sound they describe “And let the waves reach the shore with a shhhhhhh…” Lemn Sissay Let There Be Peace
First person The poet speaks from their own point of view, using ‘I’ or ‘we’ “I too have lived through this long night of the mind” – Sarah Temporal Sleeping Beauty
Second person The poet uses ‘you’ referring to an imagined listener or audience “may you mean every word that you say” May your pen grace the page Luka Lesson
Third person Referring to someone other than speaker or listener using ‘he’, ‘she’, ‘they’ “She heard life going on outside” – Sarah Temporal Sleeping Beauty
Direct address The poet speaks directly to the audience using ‘you’. “This is yours. Make my words worth something.” –Anis Mojgani Shake the Dust
Humour Intended to make the audience laugh Phil Wilcox *This Microphone Only Tells the Truth

Tug Dumbly *The Dog with the Golden Arse

Cliché A phrase that is so overused it has become meaningless or trite Sports clichés such as “ball-park figure” “keep your eye on the ball” – Tug Dumbly Sport Talk

Download: Glossary-Techniques used in SWP

See also:

SlamCraft – the writing and performance craft of spoken-word poetry

For teachers – free resources for teaching spoken-word poetry

Youtube playlists compiled by me:

Best Slam Poetry

Teaching spoken-word poetry

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