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A Howl Against Performance Poetry

A Howl against performance poetry
By elevating energy and gusto over talent and judgement, performance poetry is strangling the real thing.
by Shirley Dent, October, 2005
'I saw the best minds of my generation destroyed by / madness, starving hysterical naked….'
With that line 50 years ago this month, Allen Ginsberg let rip with a poem that changed both the way poetry was perceived as a public event and pushed the limits of what poetry could say about the private: what TS Eliot called 'private words spoken to you in public'. The anniversary of the first reading of Ginsberg's 'Howl' in San Francisco's Six Gallery on 7 October 1955 coincided this year with the end of UK National Poetry Week. A comparison between the two offers a glimpse into why contemporary poetry is going wrong today.
'Howl' is a deeply personal poem on one level. Dedicated to Carl Soloman, it spits out the shared experience of mental ill-health and social ostracism while at the same time surrounding the reader with a sense of a mind-blowing love. William Carlos Williams writes in his introduction to 'Howl': 'Say what you will, he proves to us, in spite of the most debasing experiences that life can offer a man, the spirit of love survives to ennoble our lives if we have the wit and courage and faith - and the art! - to persist…. He avoids nothing but experiences it to the hilt. He contains it. Claims it as his own - and, we believe, laughs at it and has the effrontery to love a fellow of his choice and record that love in a well-made poem.'
But it is neither the love that dare not speak its name finally speaking, nor the detailed catalogue of alienation, that made 'Howl' the poetic anthem of a generation. 'Howl' has been called, with justification, an 'assault on American values' - and it is this assault that astounded, and resonated with, the Cold War generation of 1950s America. Despite the near-rant quality of 'Howl', and Ginsberg's adolescent indulgence (an indulgence he never got over) in esoteric mysticism and obfuscation, the poem is a cerebral and emotional jolt to the system. It succeeds in its mission to assault because it is not simply a rant but, as Carlos Williams says, 'a well-made poem'.
'Howl' is alive with rhythm and reason and risk, working together. It does what you hope every good poem should do: knocks language about a bit, twists language with new reason, and says something in such a way that makes you lift your head from the page and think about the world anew. A testament to the power of 'Howl' is that it is still being printed - the edition I have is the fifty-ninth such printing - since its first publication in 1956 (which instigated an obscenity trial). The committal to print is an important part of the development of poetry, of why poetry is more than a throwaway rant or the la-di-da of a happy pop lyric. And yet, this notion that a poem is language arranged in a form that has the power to speak - to shock - beyond the immediate person is under heavy and consistent assault in contemporary poetry circles.
Ironically, it is performance poetry that is eating away at the universal characteristics of poetry. Voice has become, not something that is welded into lines of language on a once-blank page, but a fetishised thing of personal ownership - my voice, with my accent and all I have to say with this voice is to do with me, me, me. That's why the only way you can experience this language is if I personally perform it for you.
Some performance poets - like Lemn Sissay - are good poets, so let's not go mad and throw the baby out with the bathwater. Nevertheless, the bath water is stagnant with its own misplaced self-righteousness and needs a good flushing out. The Poetry Society's Foyle Young Poets Awards event on National Poetry day this year drove this home to me.
My beef here is not with the Poetry Society or the young poets. The Poetry Society does more work than any other body to ensure the continued life of poetry in the UK, and the fruits of its labours can be seen in the young poets' work: there is work of great potential in the prize-winning collection of these 11- to 17-year-olds' poems. Rather, my beef is that we are so very uncomfortable with the challenge that poetry, in its unsullied elitist form, lays down - even when its great potential is in our faces. This is not to say that nobody took the time or trouble to convey this challenge to the young poets on the evening itself: the critical challenge laid down by poet laureate Andrew Motion reading Keats' 'On first looking into Chapman's Homer', and Michael Schmidt's talk about poetry spinning out like a spider's web, forcing you to discover something new in language, had me cheering along. But then it all went horribly wrong.
Let’s make no bones about it: poetry is difficult. Poetry is difficult; let's not make any bones about that. So I suspected something was up when a jovial Ian McMillan took to the stage and started talking about poetry as an adjunct of encouragement. The idea that all it takes is to be encouraged - that, I'm afraid, is a barefaced lie. It takes talent and criticism and judgement to create great poetry, just as Keats knew when he first looked into Chapman's Homer.
And then the performance poets, the 'Slambassadors', took to the stage and all the talk of self-esteem and encouragement slotted into place. But what misguided and patronising encouragement to give these young people.
The energy and gusto of the young performers were never in doubt, but energy and gusto alone do not maketh the poet. That, however, is not my chief objection. It was as if a dividing line had suddenly been drawn in the room: between the mainly white middle-class young poets who made up the audience for the performance and who had just been listening to Keats, and the mainly black young performance poets who proceeded to tell us all about racism in the twenty-first century. This divide was beyond ignoring: it seemed to say Keats and metaphysics are okay for the white kids, while ideas of racial identity are for the black kids.
Now, if the Slambassadors had done a 'Howl' on us, if they had shot us down with their language, with their twisted erudition, if they had taken Keats and roughed him up a bit and returned him to us pierced through with insight, then this divide would not have mattered. It would have dissolved because language, doing what language humanly does at its best, would have taken us all somewhere else. But it was not so. Somebody has told these young people it is enough to speak and that they should be - will be - listened to; that their own authentic voice is enough. This is also a barefaced lie. 'I want to be some place / where I am not judged by my race' simply doesn't cut it and does nothing to astound me or assault my senses. I was simply tempted to shout out: 'You'd best get out of this room as quickly as possible, then.'
These kids may have reason to rant, but they should not make the mistake of thinking that ranting is enough without the 3Rs of Ginsberg's 'Howl': reason, rhythm and risk, with a good dollop of erudition thrown in. Nowhere in 'Howl' does Ginsberg say 'I want to go away / to where I'm not judged cos I'm gay'. Courage in and through language, not encouragement to perform to a stereotype, is the name of the game in 'Howl':
'…the madman bum and the angel beat in Time, unknown / yet putting down here what might be left to say / in time come after death / and rose reincarnate in the ghostly clothes of jazz in / the goldhorn shadow of the band and blew the / suffering of America's naked mind for love into / an eli eli lamma lamma sabacthani saxophone / cry that shivered the cities down to the last radio / with the absolute heart of the poem of life butchered / out of their own bodies good to eat a thousand / years.'
Shirley Dent, 2005.
(Reproduced with the permission of the author, and Spiked Culture, www.spiked-online.com, where the article first appeared.)
Fri, 14 Apr 2006 12:01 pm
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<Deleted User> (2736)

The above reply was by F James Hartnell
Sat, 6 May 2006 12:20 pm
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<Deleted User>

Performance poetry is a performance art and as such is aimed at entertaining people in some way. This last takes a range of media, humour being prevalent, but also provoking thought, drama, suspense, a tingly electrifying atmosphere, thematic linkages, etc. None of which detracts from the poem if it's well-written and it often makes garbage palletable.

Deeply personal poetry that doesn't do anything worthwhile to anyone other than the writer, whether written or performed is rubbish no matter what. If you orate your poem to an audience, there is always a certain amount of performance involved. I find that overly expressive delivery can ruin the live experience of poems that I actually enjoy when I read them off the page.

What I think I'm trying to say is that good performance poetry generally stands up in print form, and there is no conflict at all.

You mentioned Eliot, and his observations stuff reads as performance poetry anyway, as does the Wastelands and his Statesman poem. Dans le Restaurant is absolutely performance - you can practically see him se frotter ses doigts as you read it.
Mon, 26 Feb 2007 01:31 am
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<Deleted User>

Dear 'D.G,' (any relation to H.D.?) although flattered by your insistence that some of my 'stuff' qualifies as performance poetry, I felt it expedient to write to correct you; also, whatever I undertake to do with my 'doigts' the verb 'frotter' does not enter into the equation. Please be assured, I take your suggestion very kindly, and perhaps my occasional bout of nerves during public readings has helped to nurture your opinion. Now, I muist ask you this, do you have an account with my branch? Or would you care to open one?
Wed, 28 Feb 2007 11:26 am
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<Deleted User>

I used to be an editor. Those whom the gods wish to destroy they first make editors. Metaphorically speaking, I stumbled from my pedestal, trousers rolled and pockets filled with coffee spoons, after my appointment at F. & F.. I had dared to eat a peach; Elvis and I both -- cruelly harvested from our pedestals after partaking of fruit (in his case it was banana fritters). And thank you for your kind mention of Cats. If my life had been longer I would have written books to accompany numerous musicals celebrating other parasitic life forms besides the rapacious feline. Which leads to me to another thought, do you, by any chance, have any news concerning the rap version of Murder in the Cathedral? I cannot think of anything more apt than the murderous knights using choppy hand-movements to illustrate, initially, their intent and, afterwards, their guilt. By the way, I am only in visitation. I am not grounded here on WOL. Nor are my energies residual.
Wed, 28 Feb 2007 08:01 pm
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I agree with Shirley Dent, on the whole. Most performance poetry is nothing more than a bunch of rhymes strung together and a few obvious sentiments. "Let's reclaim the night", "Drugs are good/bad," "Blair's a liar" etc etc etc ad infinitum...

That is, when the poet isn't writing about sex in ways that would make Roy Chubby Brown proud...

Sometimes, I hear something challenging, like the male poet who spoke in the voice of a young pregnant teenager. It challenged the audience's expectations in ways that had me on the edge of my seat. But then he spoiled everything by tubthumping his way through his next poem, full of Kiplingesque rhythms and that most overused poetic device of all, rhyme.

I ask you, rhyme. In this day & age. We'll be bringing back thee's and thou's next.

Somebody called poetry "entertainment." It's not: it's art, and if it doesn't make you feel like the top of your head's been taken off, there's no more point to it than there is to the latest episode of Eastenders. I'm not a branch of the Entertainment industry and I don't tell jokes.

Wed, 2 May 2007 11:40 am
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<Deleted User> (7790)

The thing that makes you feel like the top of your head's been taken off is a badly adjusted guillotine. Historical records will back me up on that one. And, what's wrong with humour, except when chundered by the likes of Roy Chubby Brown, Bernard Matthews(sic), Bernard Manning and that wiry little numpty who goes 'nic nic.' As far as I am aware, poetry embraces every human emotion, every human response, every human experience. I should be heartbroken if poetry didn't sometimes entertain. If it was purely a remonstration, a didactic and educative and polemical and serious mulling of the sombre presented by the sombre to the sombre I would take up tap dancing and a permanent grin. Perhaps your surname has influenced your predilection? Anyway, I shall be back shortly to discuss your abhorrence of rhyme -- I've just got Pam Ayres on the phone asking me to help her finish a limerick.
Wed, 2 May 2007 12:41 pm
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Historical records be blowed. Why should we still be hearing the same kind of old-fashioned, reactionary nonsense year on year? And why do people continue to call themselves poets when their sets remain the same year on year?

Poetry is not about advertising, selling us a lifestyle (whether that's the middle-class telly life or the lookatmeI'mradical indie* life). It's not about reactionary conformism.

Because that's what rhyme is: reactionary. It doesn't lead people to think, it doesn't surprise, it just tinkles or thumps in the ear like a bloody military band. And we all know where military bands march us off to.

And by the way, you're mispronouncing my name.

* "Indie" - there's a misnomer - every "indie band" sounds exactly like the last one, they're all as corporate as Britney Spears and about as authentic as a pair of Nike trainers produced in a Taiwenese sweatshop by ten-year olds.
Thu, 3 May 2007 03:02 pm
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And I ought to say that I have nothing against open-mikes - they're a good place to start. I don't expect to hear amazing wonders all the time from beginners.

But I do expect rather more from someone who's been doing it awhile. I expect them to challenge themselves as well as the audience, not to give us the same old crowd-pleasing guff cause it went down well the last time.
Thu, 3 May 2007 03:05 pm
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Hello everyone!
What I'd like to know is what constitutes Performance Poetry? When does a reading become a performance? Does it involve having to move about a bit, or altering one's voice?
Answers on a stuck down envelope.

Marvin Cheeseman
Thu, 3 May 2007 04:52 pm
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Sorry my name was on twice - I've not done this sort of thing before...
Thu, 3 May 2007 05:12 pm
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Pete Crompton

The cage.

Frightned of the explosion
When hard foundations rock
Closed off to new invention
Then new ideas shall block
And choking on stagnent ways
And threading at unfraying freys
A new poet takes the stage
But you don’t want that
You don’t like that
Perhaps it scares you that.
Perhaps your perfect framework
Is so geometric
You forgot about the eccentric
Who may challenge
And speak of sex
Why not
Better than the blood clot that seems
Wild as the indie commuter
For what is the sex after all
What say you is the fall
Of the indie
When music itself dare you question
As though you stand
With this textual intervention
I happen to love indie music
And I don’t care for labels
I like sex talk
And I don’t divorce reality
From written word.
Nor stand smug on sixteen miles of publishing deals
Smug on the imminent turning of press plate wheels
Smug with a confidence in words
When all we want is to learn
For without the new blood
Then poetry would be stand
And be stood
In the festering moment
Of frustrated cud
That could
And should
Curdle in the heat
Of the passing of time
I would rather embrace obvious ryhtme
Than the pretence that turns over
Many a time
In the minds of the experience writer
He may say
With confidence

You like my wooden fence?
Very nice to sit on sometimes
Very nice to wood stain some times
Would stain
He would stain me
Should I listen.

Thu, 3 May 2007 07:09 pm
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Pete Crompton

Hi Marvin,

My interpretation of a performance is when you take your voice and marry it with your body. When you take your body and merge it with your mind, for conscious thoughts are expressed in the performance and the language of our posture / facial expressions / jesticulations all become the performance. Pace , tone of voice, the way you may clench a fist or reach out to the imaginary. Perhaps how you would be should you not be on the stage, perhaps if annoyed or in a rage with authority or someone close, these are private performances, the tricjk is to be yourself on stage, and that comes with practice , for me nerves get in the way but im getting better all the time. I would like to go to some poetry workshops and practice more stage drama. Poetry for me is entertainment as well as art, just as art is entertainment, purist mindsets are not refreshing at all and choke the growth of the new.
Thu, 3 May 2007 07:27 pm
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<Deleted User> (7790)

Apologies, Mr Willing, please regard my previoust mis-pronunciation of your name as a sight-rhyme. Doh, what have I said...!
Thu, 3 May 2007 10:30 pm
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Good luck Pete - I agree with you that poetry can be a form of entertainment - but it doesn't have to be just that. What I enjoy most about going to a poetry gig is the sheer variety and quality that's out there. People are bound to gravitate to whatever they either enjoy or get the most satisfaction from. My favourite poets are Henry Normal, Roger McGough and Simon Armitage - some of their poems rhyme, some don't. What matters is that they make a connection and resonate - to me personally. Their work can be amusing, thought provoking, inspiring, mind-blowing, you name it. I don't need anyone telling me what should and shouldn't be, where we're at, what's right, what's wrong.
Anyway, I'm off to watch the Columbo I taped yesterday, it's burning a hole in my subconscious.
Thu, 3 May 2007 11:18 pm
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Oh if only indie music were genuinely independent... If only it weren't a bunch of dull rockists looking over their shoulders to see what the other bunch of dull rockists were doing...

If only we had something as genuinely independent as The Gang of Four, The Fall, The Pop Group; but who were actually doing something original instead of trying to imitate someone else... If only performance poets were as original as John Cooper Clarke instead of trying to sound like him... If only everyone weren't trying to PLEASE AN AUDIENCE rather than blow its mind...

If you want to find genuinely innovative music, you have to go to the new jazz: punk freeform from Led Bib, Acoustic Ladyland and the like, the Bad Plus deconstructing Blondie and Nirvana, Polar Bear, EST, Micheal Wollny. Or there's mash-ups, weird left-field musics beaming in from Mars. Rock ain't where it's at anymore.

Indie music is like Simon Armitage: comfortable as an old shoe. But it lets in the rain rather than life. If you want something genuine these days, straight ahead seems like a lie. The world isn't straight ahead anymore; it keeps switching channels, the signal keeps breaking down that goes from the world to the word. Naturalism is a lie; nothing's natural anymore.

I sometimes find that performance poets can surprise me, by their passion, their real feelings coming out between the attempts at humour, something moving, sometimes something from left-field. But mostly it's no surprise; that's the problem.

But I guess most of us don't like surprises; we'd rather be given baby food.
Fri, 4 May 2007 01:52 pm
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By the way, Pete, I really like this part of your poem:

"You like my wooden fence?
Very nice to sit on sometimes
Very nice to wood stain some times
Would stain
He would stain me
Should I listen."

Get rid of the rest, start again from there, and improvise round the words fence, stain and listen. Mash up the vocab!
Fri, 4 May 2007 02:21 pm
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I like sex talk too; I just don't like the obvious.
Fri, 4 May 2007 02:23 pm
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Pete Crompton

thank you for your suggestion on the poem, would like to continue the conversation re indie music etc, but in real life. I think its easy to mis-interpret on here, what events may you be attending? maybe we could have drink and chat. Peter.
Fri, 4 May 2007 02:37 pm
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Leesten very carefully... I shall say thees only once...

I actually enjoy some performance poetry...

But I'm constantly disappointed by it's not fullfilling its potential. By its laziness with regard to both language and ideas at times. I saw George Wallace last night, at Britton's Protection in Manchester. Even though I think the appeal of the American long line (as invented by Walt Whitman) is somewhat overrated here, I enjoyed his stuff, and it made you think. Or if not think, wonder.

That's what I don't get from performance: a sense of wonder. I don't have to understand everything about a poem to get that.

Yeah, a drink would be good. Where about's do you suggest?
Fri, 4 May 2007 02:58 pm
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Pete Crompton

Erect here, the fence
A creosate candidate
For Sundays
Creaking in autumns push
Yet so silent a power
Of borders
Laden with the lush
the throttle of twisting vine
fading in summer sun
its tan skin
essence of oil
flashbacks to childhood
and sports days
always the fence
always the division
always piercing
virgin soil
shade and shelter
I touched and felt her there
Splinters remain
From the verticals
Yet pushed from skin
Persistent the pain
And these panels
The bastions of memories

You like my wooden fence?
Very nice to sit on sometimes
Very nice to wood stain some times
Would stain

He would stain me
Should I listen.

Crompton 4-05-2007

ok steve, i gone away and just wrote waht came into my head.

re drink, err do you want to come to the riders on the storm tonight?
Fri, 4 May 2007 03:24 pm
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I liked the poem.

I've been busy this last weekend, sorry I haven't replied.

I'd rather not meet in a performance evening, by the way. Too loud to talk in.

Wed, 9 May 2007 11:34 am
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Poes must rhyme... when they dont... they are prose. Im sorry, Im a rhymoNazi - unaplogetic at that!!! :-(
Fri, 4 Apr 2008 09:04 pm
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<Deleted User> (4597)

oops. Duplicate post. Sorry.
Thu, 10 Apr 2008 02:34 pm
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<Deleted User> (4597)

Tomas, that is quite simply wrong.

Poetry is not bound by such narrow rules. Certain KINDS of poetry must rhyme in order to fit that particular genre of poetry. However, poetry is much, much more than rhyme and your dependancy upon it threatens to weaken your poems. Inferior vocabulary choices are often made in order to fit a forced rhyme scheme and thus devalue the power of the words.

The poet sat and scratched his head
and forced the words to share a bed
And in their forced and painful marriage
produced a shit poem
Thu, 10 Apr 2008 02:34 pm
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darren thomas

I have to agree with Steve. To say that poetry MUST rhyme to qualify as poetry makes a nonsense of the poetic works of many a great poet. Poetry must contain many things - the least of which is an obvious rhyming scheme such as rhyming couplets. Nursery rhymes are just that - rhymes. 'Poetry' per se, has much more depth than marrying words that contain a similar coda and rhyme.
Don't get confused with the difference between 'poetry' and 'rhyme' the two are often associated with each other but they don't always belong together.
Read Philip Larkin's work - The Whitsun Weddings or any of Billy Collin's poetry to discover the real world of poetry. Rhyme is a tool to use as and when, but not all the time.
Fri, 11 Apr 2008 08:10 am
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Malcolm Saunders

Of course poetry does not have to rhyme. That is just as misguided as to insist that rhyming is a bad thing to be avoided.

There is not a rigid barrier between prose and poetry. Wherever the use of language has beauty and the pleasure of reading as well as conveying meaning there is a poetic content.

When the language is forced it loses flow and that lack of elegance inevitably detracts from the pleasure of reading or hearing it, so clumsy rhyming is usually worse than non-rhyming poetry which has beauty in its construction.

As well as enjoying good rhymes, I also like puns. Punning often makes people wince and sometimes it can be truly horrible, but there is a great deal of fun to be had by playing with the exploitation of linguistic similarities having differing meanings. Unfortunately puns seldom work in performance. As with everything, it is a case of using the right forms for the right occasion.

There is also a place for simply being silly and getting an easy laugh. It does not stop you being a poet if you do that.
Fri, 11 Apr 2008 09:46 am
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How can the writings of Wordsworth, Shelley, Yeats, Burns, Service and Frost be consodered anything but brilliant poems? They are, as they tell a story, and they rhyme.

Ulsters Weaver poets also understood this, and while the ancient Greeks, Romans and indeed Irish before 1800 created poetry from syallables, moraes and other instruments of sonic measurement, the rhyme really encaptures the essence of poetry.

Anyone can say a scribble is art, and while Picasso made a living out of crap drawing, his work is not art in the true sence, on par with Michalangelo, or even Jack B. Yeats.

Still, beauty is in the eye of the beholder... or the ear as may well be.
Sun, 13 Apr 2008 12:49 am
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<Deleted User> (4725)

Tomas I really must disagree with you.

Rhyme, sonic measurement and aural rulesets have always been considered integral and classic to poetry, all the way back. However, poetry is fluid, organic and free. It does, though it is new-ageish and cliched to say it, belong to everyone. If kids are provided with encouragement to "put their thoughts onto paper" they will produce poetry; it may not be good, or well-informed, or neat, but it is still poetry. If poetry is the public expression of private thoughts then everyone can make a poem, as everyone has private thoughts. One cannot sweepingly denounce things as "not poetry" just because they don't fit in with their narrow view of what poetry is good. I have read Frost et al, and I do not enjoy it; for me, it is not good poetry. But I would never suggest it is not poetry. Poetry needs to be kept alive in a modern age increasingly disenchanted with it. This does not mean we have to be continually updating and losing touch with our roots, but neither does this mean that we have to create an iron-cast set of rules that govern how we express ourselves; this goes against the heart of what poetry is; a free expression of a person's personality.
Also, seeing your posts on here you emphasize rhyme an awful lot; however, this is not the only sonic arrangement that governs a poem. Beat and metre are freely present in a lot of poems that do not rhyme, and provide a backbone on which the poem hangs.
Thu, 17 Apr 2008 02:40 am
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Yep, Im old fashioned, a rhymonazi!!! For me, free verse and all that is a form of prose, not poetry.

Prose an be descriptive as poetry, where the word "prosaic" comes from.

For me, poetry is made of stanzas, centred on the rhyme, with rhythm od wording a desirable but no essential feature as well.

Well agree to differ, eh?
Thu, 17 Apr 2008 05:08 pm
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<Deleted User> (4725)

Indeed. Everyone has different ideas on what poetry is. But here is where we differ!
Thu, 17 Apr 2008 08:34 pm
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This has gone away from performance poetry, and on this rhyme nonsense, I will say only this: what about assonance? Does that muddy the waters a bit. Oh - and asking how Wordsworth can be considered as anything other than great poetry really grates on a lot of modern (postmodern) poets. I could give you all kinds of arguments against it on the basis of matter, meter and phraseology, but I would probably burst a blood vessel in the process.

getting back to performance poetry, there are all sorts of issues here. I mean, what actually is a performance poet these days. Is a performance poet someone whose work only works in the context of a performance and doesn't read as poetry when presented as text? I haven't met anyone whose work hasn't read as poetry from the page, but who could get it to work as poetry in performance without inserting unnatural pauses that aren't there in the punctuation and syllable flow.

Is a perfomrance poet someone whose work sounds better when delivered using performance skills and a bit of voice tone modulation, than without? That's every poet that's ever lived then. I know of nobody whose work benefits from being delivered in a really dull monotone, and if they did, that would be a performance in itself.

Or is it that the meaning of the poem is so attenuated by the "acting" performance that the poem and performance are inseparable from each other? This would be nonsensical, because a different performer could reinterpret it to have a different meaning and different theatre aspect, and make it their own, without loss of validity.

In brief, "performance poet" only refers to people who take their poetry out of their morrisey-postered bedrooms and perform it to other people, see what other people are doing these days and take on board new ideas and learn their craft in a modern setting.

However, some of the poems I write are page poems that I will never perform, but this is purely because they have no live entertainment value. Going to gigs and listening to other people and being up there performing your work gives you a feel for what should be done as spoken word and what shouldn't. I'd tentatively say that performed poetry needs to entertain in some way - ie. to do something to the listener's mood and thoughts. This can be to amuse, to scare, to arouse, to provoke thought, etc. Any form of entertainment. If they need to see it written down in order to link the imageries or to see what's clever about it then it should be left as a page poem.
Sun, 27 Apr 2008 03:32 pm
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Pete Crompton

Hi Dermont
I agree.
Good points raised in your post.

I have a Morrissey poster, in a frame, in my hall.


song lyrics often inspire me as they allow me to acess an emotional level more easily, or should I say they induce strong feelings (as good music and lyrics should)

Morrissey once said 'only seals perform'
(think it was when he was on Joanthan Ross TV Prog)

I thought..hmm that's really interesting and I spent a while trying to decide what performance was.

for me (and I am considered a perfromance poet I think) I love to write with performance in mind quite often.

I will often write for the page too

I think it's important to be diverse

most important its to be honest and believable
that always shines through a performance.

if you are happy (and you know it) clap your hands.

a good philosophy.

Thanks DG for your reply on this, and for getting the thread back on topic
(that's not to say its not interesting despite it drifting)
Sun, 27 Apr 2008 05:01 pm
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<Deleted User> (4744)

Am I a performance poet... hmmm. I'm not sure, perhaps I do a bit now and again, but I could give itup if I wanted to. I just don't want to right now.

I have work which cannot be spoken, only read from the page. One of those is a nod to my dyslexia incorporating many of the things that I do and then need to sort out later. Another is written as a sort of computer programming language and as such impossible to read aloud.

Every month or so I attend a poetry reading session. I know which works best at those. The key for me is the KISS rule. Keep It Simple, Stupid. If I read a complex piece with undercurrents and imagery that needs thinking about, They clap politely with blank expressions. If I read something that's all on the surface, with a punch, it's received much better.

Here's the rub though. If they read my stuff then it's the other way round. The preference is for the complex. So yes, I'd say there is a difference between the styles. However, good performance poetry should in my opinion also stand up to being read from a page and not just heard performed.

If I were to just jump up and spout... it'd probably come out backwards, inside out, and sideways. It's be shallow with problems in rhythm and rhyme (if rhyme was intended. Sometimes I do, sometimes I don't depends if the rhyme adds or stifles the language by forcing the choice of words and not selecting the best words.)

At the monthly reading I was once told that the way I presented and delivered the work gave it "more" and without my delivery the poem would not of stood up. I just smiled and suggest he picked a poem at random for me to read and to see if I could do the same for it. (I'm not a bad unseen reader)... He lost that one.

I'm rambling now... but I think in conclusion I'll just reiterate. Good poetry will stand up to reading from a page or being performed. I'd apply the same to "performance" poetry and written poetry. It's all the same to me.

That's my take anyhoo.
Sun, 27 Apr 2008 09:11 pm
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Blimey. This is a good thread.

Julian - Thanks for posting the article. However... Shirley Dent seems to lionize Ginsberg's 'Howl' as the definitive poem that transcends catagorisation as performance or page poem. One problem... You can't blather on about relevancy and have a poem that's 52 years old as your benchmark. As good as 'Howl' is, and Ginsberg's reading of it is, in context of the article it doesn't make for a particularly convincing argument. Performance poetry and non-performance poetry has moved on. But to what?

Incidentally, I agree with a lot of what's been said here already - even the conflicting viewpoints!

As for my point of view - Bad performance poetry encourages passivity in one's audience and, at best, solely entertains. Good performance poetry shocks, stimulates, provokes and resonates. And it shouldn't just be limited to that.

I don't consider myself a performance poet, but I'm fascinated by what people do with performance poetry. I think the best stuff occupies a space that's both artistic and entertaining. However, therein may lie the problem - believing 'art' and 'entertainment' to be binary opposites.

It IS the words that matter, though. Performance or page poets are only as good as their poems. Good poems resonate - there's no getting beyond that. Maybe what we need are new ways of getting those poems across. We could just be hankering for the next stage in the evolution of poetry. Could it be that slams, open mics and chapbooks are holding us all back and we could do with some new ideas?
Fri, 2 May 2008 01:00 pm
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Just posted a load of gigs and stuff about my new book on here and saw this. Had a look and a laugh. Steven Waling..now that name rings a bell.
Didn't you do a hatchet job on a book of mine aeons ago? Judging by what you've posted on here I got off lightly! Gawd bless you.

Now I've got to select a face. From this bunch? Marge from the Simpsons, Messi (that tricky Barcelona forward), Seething Wells, Mary Whitehouse, Danny Cullip (ex Brighton captain/centre half) and HITLER....

Thu, 22 May 2008 09:37 am
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Hello Attila,

I wouldn't worry about Stephen's vitriolic reviews - he's a well meaning enough grim-up-north sort, and he does (or did) a few good poems. At least you're famous - I'm not, and purely by chance, I once came across a review of a gig I'd been involved in that he'd written on a thing called brando's hat. I had met him about a week earlier through friends. In his review he criticised the poets in general for "performing", but he singled out myself and Tony Walsh for specific criticism.

He said about me that "one poet tried to shock us all with horror". To be fair, he was right - but in my defence, I'd say that had I done anything else to them all with horror, it would have been inappropriate. Tony, however, is a different league to me; closer to your own league. So, despite having read the criticism and heard Tony's stuff that night, I still either don't understand the criticism, or regard it as valid.

That said, whilst Stephen writes these vitriolic reviews, he has done the odd pretty good poem and his reviews are part of a blog rather than intended to be harmful so treat your bad review from Stephen as the north west poetry scene welcoming you with a rite of passage.
Fri, 23 May 2008 08:52 pm
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Lets see how far I can push this entertainment manifesto of mine with irresponsible, inflamatory comments:

Let You Entertain Me, By DG

I’m a poet, not a comedian,
though humour’s my main idiom,
and I love it when a poet says:
“That’s all there is these days.”

Oh please! Spare me...
yes, there’s lots of humour at poetry events,
but don’t whinge if it eclipses other entertainments

Do something about it:
Something to say? Don’t say it; shout it!

If I want to make you laugh,
I’ll have you rolling in the aisles.
If you want to tug my heart strings,
great! But, bloody make me cry.

If you want to awe-inspire me,
cool! I’d like to be transfixed.
If you’re trying to enchant me,
fine! I want to be bewitched

If you want to horrify me,
jab an image into my brain.
If you’re looking to inform me,
(shrug) documentaries entertain.

If you’re trying to get me fired up,
sure! Then clench my bloody fists.
If you’re trying to sound depressing,
sweet! I’d love to slash my wrists.

But, if you say the art is suffering
from too much comedy;
no it’s not – us humour lot
do _our_ jobs properly.

Sun, 8 Jun 2008 10:22 pm
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Atilla - I still have your dischuffed letter of reply on my wall. It's a treasure.

Actually, my views have mellowed of late. Now I don't think there really is such a thing as performance poetry. Just good or bad poetry. And I've seen both, believe me. There's an awful lot of dull poetry out there.

Performance can corrupt though - if the only reason you're doing it is to entertain the crowds, and not to actually create something real & true & honest then it's no more important than a packet of Minto's. Not that Minto's aren't nice. But they don't go far.

Then there's the "I'm right - everybody else is wrong" ranter, who never gets off the stage. Go right a letter to the local paper if you're that bothered about something.

Or the "Look at me, I'm shocking ain't I" who thinks swear words and coprophilia are funny. They're not. They're just boring. On the whole.

Poetry that comes out of real lived experience and emotion - now that's a rare pearl that ought to be treasured.
Mon, 14 Jul 2008 03:07 pm
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Stephen, I am honoured that you deem me important enough to keep my letter on your wall.
How about poetry which is honest, mainly from personal experience, talks about things that are happening in the world and entertains people?
You sound as though you don't need to earn a living. Well, I do, and I'd rather do it doing something I love than some shit job I can't stand! If you think my poetry's crap, fine - it's an occupational hazard! And if I'm in a particularly combative mood an occupational hazard of having a go at me is that you get back what you dish out, face to face if the opportunity arises, on paper if not! Come to a gig. I'll buy you a beer.
These faces haven't improved.....
Fri, 22 Aug 2008 05:27 pm
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Oh, I do need to earn a living. Just not in the business of show (and - let's face it - despite its radical pretensions - show business, not art, is precisely what performance poetry is.)

I never really wanted to be a left-wing version of Pam Ayres. Not that you're like that, but I've seen plenty who are.

I've also seen some radical avant-garde performers I really like (Geraldine Monk free-improvisig over Martin Archer's keyboards; Peter Finch; Maggie O'Sullivan; Allen Fisher) and I'm going to see another of The Other Room readings next month with Caroline Bergvall. Which, if her installation at Bury Art Gallery is anything to go by, will be a gas. I'd rather have something that really is out there than another set of Kiplingesque rhymes.

I never have much money but I somehow survive.
Wed, 27 Aug 2008 10:40 am
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You call this surviving, Steven?
If I am allowed to "update' my view, I do agree with you about some of the stuff that doesn't improve, and the use of tourettish scatology as some form of punctuation.
It concerns me that we don't have the resources to create the opportunity for our readers/performers to improve their work, perhaps through workshops. But I also think that some of them/us could improve if they would read more poetry. We are frequently astonished to discover that we have some people writing lots of 'poetry' who rarely, if ever, read it.
There seem to be some who think that becasue it is being performed, they don't need to worry too much about the quality of the poem. Some write well but cannot read their own work.
I have witnessed so-called 'famous' performance poets whose technique amounts to no more than shouting a lot. Some of the best of our poets don't actually perform at all, or are better when they don't try to. Lynda Morgan is the antithesis of that (see her profile). She never performs but reads so well it knocks the socks of many of our performers. But then, she has the raw material: really good poems.
John Mather's work is a bit old-fashioned and romantic for some, but it is well-constructed and he reads better when he doesn't perform. His strength is that he has witnessed, and is reporting scenes that are now gone, like watching the working boats on the Leeds and Liverpool Canal.
He won't win a slam or perhaps a major poetry competition, but he is a treat to listen to; a privilege to hear and read.
I agree that the challenge is often missing from some of the poetry of performance poets - the stuff that makes me nod in recognition, the clever phrase, the spareness of good writing, so forth.
But the sheer diversity of a poetry evening tends to make me think it was worth it. I did attend a recent evening though when several of the readers seemed to be setting out to shock, a kind of juvenilia competition. Disappointing. But then there is always a gem, too.
Tue, 9 Sep 2008 10:36 pm
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I run a monthly poetry night at the Salutation Inn in Manchester called 'Inn Verse'. There is no particular emphasis on 'page' poetry or performance poetry and we have had many fine examples of both. Part of the reason for the night's continued success (it has run for over a year now) is that there is no performance space, we just read from where we are sat. We read in a very quick 'round' which gives interesting juxtapositions of different styles and genres of work. Someone could sit down after a 3 minute political polemic and th person next to them might read a 5 line lyrical reflection. This works surprisingly well. At the very least, if you don't like what's being read at any particular moment, something different will be along soon.
Part of the problem is labelling. Poetry is a broad church. To judge performance poetry by the criteria of page poetry is unfair in that the latter specifically exists 'in the moment'. If the work of a performance poet does not stand up to critical reading then so what? That was not its purpose. The purpose is entertainment, comic or otherwise. I agree that there is a glut of low quality performance poetry which hears a giggle at the use of the F-word and considers that to be critical validation, but that should not preclude use of such language if it is done cleverly and in context. I know several performance poets who are very skilled writers who manage to produce work that is nuanced, witty, linguistically sophisticated and, yes, entertaining. It is the easiest thing in the world to tar them with the same brush as the those who produce work which is simplistic, lowest common denominator, shock-value schlock.

Having said this, I must admit that my particular bete noir in terms of performance poetry is the 'revelations of psychic scars' school. Talking about how bad one's life is or has been without some skill, irony or distance. We should charge those who indulge in such bilge at the going rate of pyschoanalysis. £100 ph sounds about right. For each member of the audience.
Wed, 12 Nov 2008 04:33 pm
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