The audience awaits. Reading a newly created written work out aloud is paramount; to yourself, if to no one else. Where possible, as an integral part of the creative process, you should read it out at a workshop or in front of others. This can be daunting for a beginner. In this month’s blog, I look at the differences between this activity and so-called performance poetry that you may encounter at poetry slams.
There is a dialogue in the poetry community on whether this is a different art form. The issue was sufficient to trigger a denial in a recent Rialto editorial, which proposed that: “the page/stage divide is a myth”. In this month’s blog I also contend that it is not a divide but the result of a spectrum of poetic characteristics.
Poetry has always been an oral tradition; what is relatively new, is poems being written down. Traditionally, poetry was composed orally and performed orally. In societies without the written word, rhyming and repetitive elements helped performers memorise the work and pass it on down the generations. This extends to the epic and ballad forms of poetry like the Iliad epic poem.
This article is about oral poetry written down first then read out aloud. This includes (i) ‘page’ poems read out at open-mics and competition finals (ii) spoken-word poetry, which you might hear performed at poetry slams. It also embraces (iii) popular song lyrics, from the likes of songwriters such as Cole Porter, Jacques Brel, Leonard Cohen, Bob Dylan and many, many others. This latter song lyric form has a strong ritual element. This can be seen in a lot of popular music where a “campfire” aspect and focus on performance is so characteristic.
What is there to say about performance or spoken-word poetry? What are its characteristics? I have recently been listening to several excellent performances available on You Tube. My observations are:
- Repetition is heavily used especially to underline key themes;
- They carry a strong sense of voice in the vernacular.
- Often they have a first-person and very personal viewpoint;
- Have a tendency to be longer poems, often over three or four minutes of an open-mic slot;
- Less formally structured, so not sonnets, villanelles or others. How many haiku have you heard in a performance slam (at least as stand-alone poems and not interpolated into a much longer work)?
- Gestural accompaniment is part of communicating the message.
Literary or ‘page’ poetry primarily is a written form, created for longevity on the page; although, it is important that it reads well aloud. Sometimes, the writer may even second another to read out their poem. These poems may be read and re-read over and over again admitting the possibility of formal structures, multiple layers of meaning and subtle diction.
So there does appear to be a difference in characteristics, although I will continue my research. However, I have to ask myself what a ‘performance poem’ looks like on the page; would I recognise it as such? I wonder, how reading a sonnet with expressive gestures would be received at a slam? Where does dramatic recital of, say, Shakespeare’s blank verse fit in? There are so many questions like this that I find it difficult to distinguish any real divide.
As poets, we should be eclectic in our tastes and all these variations should be embraced as part of the modern poetic world. Poetry demands a balance between expression of feeling, original metaphor and a well-crafted vehicle to deliver its message.
 Rialto Issue 95 Winter 2020/21, http://www.therialto.co.uk
Copyright Clifford Liles, March 2021