Has 'performance poetry' been replaced by 'spoken word'? Discuss
Once there was performance poetry … now it could be argued there is only spoken word, according to a top London poetry compere. In a blog-essay, poet Niall O'Sullivan, who hosts the weekly, long-running Poetry Unplugged open mic event at the Poetry Cafe in London, blames lack of financial rewards, ageing, and "a mellowing of spirit" for performance poetry's demise. He identifies its heyday “with reference to the 1970s through to the late 90s/early noughties” - and the year that it "died" as 2005.
He adds: “It was a distinctive style and approach to poetry that was initiated by the like of John Cooper Clarke and Linton Kwesi Johnson, perpetuated by John Hegley, Attila the Stockbroker, Jean Binta Breeze and Benjamin Zephaniah before entering into a later phase reflected by poets such as Patience Agbabi, Lemn Sissay and Murray Lachlan Young. The performance poetry era was preceded and inspired by live poetry movements such as the Beat poets, the Black Art Movement and the Liverpool Poets.”
O'Sullivan goes on to argue that “performance poetry as a movement died out for a few reasons. Fame seekers abandoned ship after they realised that no more £1m contracts would be dished out any time soon — signified by the change of climate in the music industry as it was by any momentary interest in pop star poets. Other poets that had been mainstays of the scene had simply grown out of it, finding themselves more involved with families and spouses, after day jobs had silently developed into careers and cheaper mortgages on the outskirts of London. The mellowing of spirit and all those cosy creature comforts dimmed the need to stand on a tiny stage while speaking through a poorly rigged PA to a handful of audience members.”
O'Sullivan, who was one of poetry’s great and good who were invited to meet the Queen last year, says of performance poetry heroes such as John Cooper Clarke: “Much lip service is paid to John Cooper Clarke, now that he has been brushed up and hagiographised after miraculously seeing success, acknowledgement and a larger following on the other side of his heroin-fuelled wilderness years.”
He adds: “Cooper Clarke deserves all the work and adulation he can get, he’s paid his dues, but his coronation as Godfather of Spoken Word has more to do with setting anchor in a conveniently forgotten and airbrushed past.”
Even more controversially, O'Sullivan refers to Facebook as the “go-to method for promoting gigs and networking”. Clearly, he has momentarily forgotten the role of Write Out Loud’s famous Gig Guide. A London-centric mistake, perhaps.
You can read the full blog here
PHOTOGRAPH OF JOHN COOPER CLARKE AT THE SOUTHBANK CENTRE IN 2012: DAVID ANDREW / WRITE OUT LOUD