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Performance poetry

Performance poetry is poetry that is specifically composed for or during performance before an audience.

Table of contents
1 Poetry in Oral Cultures
2 The Advent of Literacy
3 The Advent of Printing
4 The 20th Century
5 The 1970s and After
6 External Links

Poetry in Oral Cultures

Performance poetry is not a modern phenomenon. It begins with the performance of oral poems in pre-literate societies. By definition, these poems were transmitted orally from performer to performer and were constructed using devices such as repetition, alliteration, rhyme and kennings to facilitate memorisation and recall. The performer "composed" the poem from memory, using the version they had learned as a kind of mental template. This process allowed the performer to add their own flavour to the poem in question, although fidelity to the traditional versions of the poems was generally favoured.

The Advent of Literacy

The introduction of writing had had a number of consequences for the composition and transmission of poetry. One of these was that the oral poems, or at least the most popular of them, tended to be written down. Another was that poetry now tended to be written for, rather than composed during, performance.

This kind of poetry was common through the Middle Ages in, for instance, the work of the troubadors and travelling bards who went from one noble's court or house to another singing or reciting their works in order to earn their living.

The Advent of Printing

Although popular works, including popular poems or collections of poems, were already being distributed for private reading and study in manuscript form, there can be little doubt that the introduction of cheap printing technologies accelerated this trend considerably. The result was a change in the poet's role in society. From having been an entertainer, the poet became primarily a provider of written texts for private readings. The public performance of poetry became generally restricted, at least in a European context, to the staging of plays in verse and occasionally, for example in the cases of the Elizabethan madrigalists or Robert Burns, as texts for singing. Apart from this, the performance of poetry was restricted to reading aloud from printed books within families or groups of friends.

The 20th Century

The early years of the 20th century saw a general questioning of artistic forms and conventions. Poets like Basil Bunting and Louis Zukofsky called for a renewed emphasis on poetry as sound. Bunting in particular argued that it the poem on the page was like a musical score; not fully intelligible until sounded. This attitude to poetry helped to encourage an environment in which poetry readings were fostered. This was reinforced by Charles Olson's call for a poetic line based on human breath.

During the 1950s, the poet Cid Corman began to experiment with what he called oral poetry. This involved spontaneously composing poems onto a tape recorder. This practice was something that Allen Ginsberg was to take up in the 1960s. David Antin, who heard some of Corman's tapes, took the process one step further. He composed his talk-poems by improvising in front of an audience. These performances were recorded and the tapes were later transcribed to be published in book form. Around the same time, Jerome Rothenberg was drawing on his ethnopoetic researches to create poems for ritual performances as happenings. Perhaps most famously, the writers of the Beat generation were noted for performance events that married poetry and jazz.

In Britain, sound poets like Bob Cobbing and Edwin Morgan were exploring the possibilities of live performance. Cobbing's groups Bird Yak and Konkrete Canticle involved collaborative performance with other poets and musicians and were partly responsible for drawing a number of the poets of the British Poetry Revival into the performance arena.

Meanwhile, many more mainstream poets in both Britain and the United States were giving poetry readings, largely to small academic gatherings on university campuses. Poetry readings were given national prominence when Robert Frost was commissioned to write and read "The Gift Outright" at the inauguration of John F. Kennedy. After that event, spoken word recordings of Frost and other major figures enjoyed increased popularity.

The 1970s and After

By the 1970s, three main forms of poetry performance had emerged. First was the poetry reading, at which poems that had been written for the page were read to an audience, usually by the author. Poetry readings have become widespread and poetry festivals and reading series are now part of the cultural landscape of most Western societies. However, most people would not consider the poetry readings of this type as part of the performance poetry phenomena.

This leaves two types of poetry performance, poems written specifically for performance on the Jerome Rothenberg model and poems like those of David Antin that are composed during performance. Both these types would generally be considered to constitute performance poetry.

In the U. S., the rise to prominence of the L=A=N=G=U=A=G=E poets with their distrust of speech as a basis for poetry has broadly speaking meant that performance poetry went out of fashion with the avant-garde. However, the increasing popularity of open mikes, which allow "unknown" poets to take the stage and share their own work in 3-5 minute increments and of poetry slams has meant that performance poetry is now one of the most widespread forms of popular poetry. In the 1990s, the Favorite Poem project of then U.S. Poet Laureate Robert Pinsky gave new visibility to ordinary Americans reading and performing their favorite poems. Contemporary performance poets are now experimenting with poetry performances adapted to CD, to video, and to Web audiences.

Performance poetry has also been boosted considerably by the appearance of def jam -- the hip-hop recording company helmed by Russell Simmons -- on the scene. def jam has created a television show that showcases performance poets that runs on HBO, as well as a show of performance poets that ran on Broadway for almost a year and won a Tony award.

In Britain, where the influence of L=A=N=G=U=A=G=E was more limited, many avant-garde poets are deeply committed to continuing the performance of Cobbing and his peers. Well known names include cris cheek and Aaron Williamson. Slams and open mikes are also popular , and many British performance poets have been influenced by punk poets like John Cooper Clarke and reggae poets like Linton Kwesi Johnson.

External Links


Performance poets

See also: List of performance poets.