Performance Poetry

Valerie Bloom - 14 June 2006

Sorry about the silence. I've been having a few computer problems.

I come from a culture where the art forms are closely intertwined; so a poem might incorporate music, dance,etc. There was more of a delineation here,I think, until fairly recently,especially when it comes to poetry. Nowadays though, poetry is more often performed than simply read.

Some readers may raise their brows at the idea that poetry can be anything more that the written word. Anything else would be considered a distraction. Of course there are poetry performances which leave the audience less than satisfied, and asking the prickly question we keep coming back to; is that poetry? On the other hand, some performances can move in a way the words alone might not be able to, by giving them a new dimension. Then again there are powerful performances of poems which, when you read them afterwards can leave you decidedly underwhelmed. My feeling is that the words and the performance should complement each other, even if the performnce is only in the voice. Have you seen much performance poetry? And how do you feel about it? How would you feel about a poem which is electrifying in performance but lacklustre on the page?


I suppose that the habit of the performance of poetry has changed over the ages. Originally poems and ballads must have been circulated orally because the incidence of literacy was so slight. Then with the spread of more or less universal education poetry could be read and enjoyed as a solitry and reflective activity. The disaster happened when the teachers got hold of it and put generation after generation off poetry and drama by bad teaching and boring presentation. If poetry is returning as a performance art then I'm delighted though I see little sign of it in my neck of the woods. You can find if you look for it but all too often you see a self-satisfied academic who thinks (s)he's being sall the more profound by presenting work in a querelous monotone devoid of feeling, warmth, humanity and lucidity. I'vr tried reading your poems in that manner and have found that it can't be done. Patently we need more Blooms and fewer Harrisons (to name but one culprit. We could also do with a few more contributors to this site. Where is everyone?

What is the definition of performance poetry? It is often said to be a different genre altogether, and I wonder what the characteristics are which make it distinct from poetry on the page? Valerie, you are a poet whose poems seem to work equally well in performance and in books. When you're writing a poem, do you think about this? How do you ensure it will be effective in both ways? And in your opinion can all poets can do both equally well or are some definitely 'page poets' while others are 'performance poets'? Also, is it true that some people look down their nose at performance poetry - is it seen as inferior? If so, why?

Thank you, John. It's interesting that you should see the disaffection with poetry as the fault of bad teaching. Only today I was talking with a teacher trainer who said that many of the prospective teachers were terrified of teaching poetry. That certainly corresponds with what I hear from many of the teachers I work with in schools. It's a vicious circle because invariably they were themselves taught badly or not taught anything at all about appreciating poetry. So is there a case for poetry specialists in the same way that we have Maths and Science specialists?
When it comes to definition, Karen, there are perhaps as many definitions of performance poetry as there are of poetry in general. I believe John's right about its origins in the West. In my background, it probably started with the griots who sang praise songs to their leaders and recited the history of their people in West Africa. This oral trdition was transported to the Caribbean Europe and America with the slaves and later throughout the diaspora with by their decendants. Poeple obviously could not listen to a recitation which could go on for hours if that was all it was. Griots were entertainers and the hitory or the praise song had to be presented in such a way that the words were illuminated and enhanced by the accompanying actions. For me, performance poetry is a decendant in the same mold as those early histories. The poems are presented with drama/music/chanting/dance. But a performance can simply be a compelling rendition where the cadences of the voice captivates the listener. In performance poetry there's no room for tedium. The main difference between a performance piece and a piece written for the page is that the former needs to be readily accessible as the audience has to get the meaning immediately. It means there is not the as much emphasis placed on ideas that require a lot of mulling over. Concrete images are more or less compulsory. Performance pieces come to me in different ways. Sometimes the words arrive first and I write the poem, then think about how to arrange it for performance. At other times the actions present themselves and I fit words to them. I have been carrying a song around in my head now for months, waiting for the right word. I can't rush it. I will know when the whole poem is ready to be born, and then the words will arrive ready to fit into place. Some poems are like that; if they're rushed they abort. A performance piece doesn't really come alive until it is being performed because the audience plays a large part in refining it. it is only by the audience's response that you know which bits work and which don't. A good perfomance piece for me is one that works both on the page and on the stage. The same care needs to be taken in crafting the words and the presentation. Some poets are better with words and some with action. It can be magic when the poet is good with both. The problem arises whenpeople don't spend the time or effort to make sure that a piece is the best it can be. We allfall into that trap sometimes, but some people make a habit of it and if someone has been subject to bad 'performance poetry', it can put them off the genre altogether, and they can get the impression it is just amateurish posturing.

I've never come across the term 'griot' before. The context seems to be African but the word looks French. How is it pronounced? Re the poor teaching of poetry perhaps the issue is being tackled fron the wrong end. The focus should be on getting people to enjoy poetry rather than to study it. Once the experience of poetry has become a treat and not a chore then children and others may study poetry without knowing they're studying anything. To be more radical it may even be that we should encourage the teachers to ban poetry altogether. Poetry would then take on the appearance of something dangerous and forbidden -- something to be read as an act of rebellion and non-conformity. By the time the little beggars are old enough to know what we've been up to they will be reading poetry (and possibly even writing it) for pleasure. And surely poetry should sometimes include an element of the dangerous, the unexpected and the uncomfortable? If the teachers ask me how to enthuse a classroom of bored teenagers with the work of that awful bunch: The Poets of the Curriculum' then I can't help them. They are the teaching professionals and I don't have their skill-set. But to approach the task with an attitude of 'this is going to bore me more than it bores you' is not right first step. Language is the highest sign of human development and poetry is its highest form. We have to do better than this. Let's insist on at least one griot in every school in the land. It couldn't hurt.

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Glossary term


A lyric poem, usually addressing a particular person or thing.

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