The Watcher - Def Poets' Society

I gotta figure that your typical English class poetry units would wake up a lot more future rhythm and rhymers if the teachers introduced them a la Mos Def: "Y'all ready for some poetry, motherfuckers?" Of course, you'd have to follow that up with something a little rougher than Emily Dickinson trying to "Awake ye muses nine," lest the whole affair come off sounding like hip-hop's answer to Christian death metal. But with the spoken world revival now fully emergent and sanctioned with a fourth year of Russell Simmons' commercial blessing, there's plenty of credible poesy to go around.

Yes, it's time for the fourth season of "Russell Simmons Presents Def Poetry," airing on HBO Sunday nights at 11 p.m. ("Bury it deep and toll a bell," as Savannah's Conrad Aiken once wrote.) The 10 half-hour episodes are again hosted by Mos Def, the multi-talented hip-hop artist and actor.

For good or ill, "Def Poetry" has done for spoken word what Def Jam Records (also a Russell Simmons creation) did for hip-hop. Whether this success will leave the soul of the art intact remains to be seen.

Mos Def opens each episode with his own reading of work by greats such as Audre Lorde and Etheridge Knight. Several up-and-coming spoken word artists (including four Atlanta poets) then perform their work, along with one veteran poet (Oscar Brown Jr., Nikky Finney) and one hip-hop artist (MC Lyte, Kanye West) going a cappella for a change.

As is typical of mainstream spoken word, these poets make no postmodern apologies for writing poems with a moral and make no secret of their message. "I don't need a man, but one would sure feel good right now," says Atlanta's Bonnie Harvey in her performance, then she goes on to list the qualities of the kind of man she wants to love "until lemons become sweet." Most of the poems have manifestos both political and personal.

But while most of the poems are not subtle in what they say, many are impressive for the agility with which they say it. While Def Poetry is not an on-air competition, it has some of the edge and excitement of a slam. And the sight of a modern American crowd whooping and cheering for their favorite poets and turns of phrase is enough to awake any poetry lover's muses nine.

— Thomas Bell
"Russell Simmons Presents Def Poetry" airs Sunday nights at 11 p.m., beginning July 18 on HBO. www.hbo.com/defpoetry. Several Def Poetry poets will perform at two National Black Arts Festival events: "A Tribute to Black Women" is July 19, 9 p.m. at The 5 Spot, 1123 Euclid Ave. "The Spoken Word Kickoff" is July 21, 9 p.m. at The West End Performing Arts Center, 945 Ralph David Abernathy Blvd. 404-730-7315. www.nbaf.org.