Has 'performance poetry' been replaced by 'spoken word'? Discuss

entry picture

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





◄ Jo Bell wins £3,000 Charles Causley prize

Poet Nathan Filer scoops £30,000 Costa award with first novel ►


Profile image

Chris Co

Sat 1st Feb 2014 18:31

I wouldn't disagree with you Ian, not in the slightest. In terms of the use of PR to successfully advertise. People should use whatever "works" within reason so they can positively get where they want to go.

Labelling to sell yourself, I would differentiate between that and the mainstay of what labelling is and what people seek to do with it. What i'm saying then, is that I think your example regarding promoting yourself is correct, but I think your wider analogy falls over.

Labelling poets generally, is not just what IS what... like that over there is curry powder, so let's label it curry powder. Labelling in the poets context is pigeon holing, straight jacketing and defining something as one thing, defining a poet as one thing, when very often poets are not (unlike curry power) one thing - at all.

To take a pinch of Louis Macneice

I am not yet born; O fill me
With strength against those who would freeze my
humanity, would dragoon me into a lethal automaton,
would make me a cog in a machine, a thing with
one face, a thing, and against all those
who would dissipate my entirety,


On a totally differing note. We've had a technical issue with the website. It should be sorted by the weekend and the videos up. Will send the link once we get from A to B. Best of

Profile image

Ian Whiteley

Fri 31st Jan 2014 12:35

Oh Chris - I've circled this topic for hours, with a small voice in my head saying 'don't bite - don't bite' - but I've bit ;-)
"We don't need labels - said the boy who put curry powder on his cornflakes". It's OK if it's in your kitchen - you know what everything is and where everything goes - but if you've got guests - well, it becomes a little more difficult.
If it's 'all us poets together in a room' then, of course it doesn't matter what your poetry is or is about or how it's delivered - because we all know what to expect.
But if you're going to be on a bill with a folk guitarist, a country singer and a rock band - then just advertising it as 'poet' will come as a bit of a surprise for most. after all - the first 3 examples on this superstar bill didn't just sell themselves as 'musicians'.
So - the words 'performance poet' do need to be stated - because you're not just 'speaking words' and you're not just 'a poet' you are going to 'perform' - with all the 'mysteriousness' that that word can conjure for an audience not brought up on 'mere' poetry.
PERFORM - to act a part,to play or sing,to do feats, tricks or other acts of exhibition.
SPEAK - to utter words or talk.

I know which word I'd prefer to precede 'poetry' if I'm selling it to a wider audience - and which description - not label - would work best at drawing in the casual attendee.

As I said earlier - all performance poetry has to involve 'spoken word' not all 'spoken word' will include 'performance'.

I agree with you that it's up to us as individuals whether we want to be labelled or not - but it surely isn't our choice if the form is described in such a way.



Profile image


Thu 30th Jan 2014 12:58

A fine example of over-analysis of a medium that has and will survive - in spite of efforts like these to categorise and define what is what, and who does it. The only things that ever change are the 'labels' that people keep trying to attach to the fog that is creative thought.

Profile image

Chris Co

Wed 29th Jan 2014 22:54

No clear definition exists between performance poetry, spoken word, or even arguably poetry written for the page that is read/performed with a high degree of skill.

For this reason the entire article and conversation is, frankly bollox.


Even if someone wishes to define, each of the above in turn (why would anyone?) you will find yourself failing miserably on a number of counts.

But why do you say that Chris?


a) you cannot delineate or clearly create a definitive boundary between the above. Many a poem will have elements of performance, elements of the page, elements of xyz.


b) poets themselves write (I know this is shocking) different poems, and poems differ, some are more apt for performance, some are more page, some could be more errr spoken-wordish or def jam in style etc.

The person that wishes to define what each of the above might be, fails when they try to apply ridged definitions to poetry and poets, what's more and what's worse - they seek to put poetry and poets in a box and stereotype them. If you are attempting to define these things and then use them as labels to denote who fits where - that is exactly what you are doing.

I write poetry. I write it on a page or type it onto a cpu or tablet. I sometimes perform or read this poetry. Some of it suits being read aloud, some of it suits being performed - some suits "the page" more and stays there.

Whilst I write some poetry with page or stage in mind, ultimately it is all poetry and I am a poet. I reject all other labels - for the straight jackets they are!

Profile image


Tue 28th Jan 2014 19:57

I enjoyed this article and it's nice to see an article actually eliciting any kind of response on WOL nowadays - it proves that at least that we're stimulating thought!
Like others before me, I've never seen the difference between spoken word and performance poetry and I could do with someone explaining it all to me.

'Spoken word' sounds a whole lot more boring - though I guess it depends much on who is doing the speaking and how they are speaking it :) Clearly, if you are hoping to entertain and keep an audience switched on then it helps if you make your words interesting and understandable. For me also, poetry isn't just about words - it's how you put them together, make them flow, make them fly. I've never enjoyed venues where people read tomes, or short stories - or let's be frank - PROSE. Poetry rises above all that, when it's done well.

I found the allusion to Apples and Snakes interesting. I heard someone perform from that venue at another Northern location recently. She was obviously white English born but adopted the most bizarre style for performance - a bit like a slurred south African/Caribbean rap artist. I couldn't make head nor tail of it and it sounded awful. If performance poetry is going to flourish, we need to find our own voice, not try to mimic the voices of others - then we only sound like parrots or monkeys.

Profile image

Laura Taylor

Tue 28th Jan 2014 14:29

Hmm. Reminds me of last year when I spoke to a festival organiser, who got all excited when I said I was a performance poet, and asked me to apply. Then when I did apply, they said they 'only wanted spoken word'. The whut?!

I loathe the phrase 'spoken word' anyway. What else are you gonna do, bloody well mime it?!

Profile image

Ian Whiteley

Tue 28th Jan 2014 12:42

Jan - I think you're confusing 'performance poetry' with 'slam poetry' - because, trust me, there are certainly no 'medals' given out in performance poetry ;-)
Helen - I guess the difference is akin to a musical allegory - with spoken word poetry being a band 'running through' a number to get it technically correct (spoken word) vs a full blown gig with real spirit, verve and enthusiasm thrown into it (performance). One is technically fine - but is just a 'reading' the other has more pzzazz for a better way of saying it :-)
just my opinion of course

Profile image

Helen Calcutt

Tue 28th Jan 2014 12:25

Perhaps Performance Poetry has died out - because I don't know what the difference between Spoken Word and Performance Poetry is. So, somebody teach me?

Profile image

jan oskar hansen

Tue 28th Jan 2014 10:11

I dislike performance poetry, the best "actor"
poet gets a medal...

Profile image

Ian Whiteley

Mon 27th Jan 2014 22:50

by definition 'performance poetry' is also 'spoken word' - however, not all 'spoken word' poetry is 'performance'.
The real art to performance is in the performance itself - not just someone reading it - and that's what I look for in a good poetry night out. I can listen to the CD's if I want to just 'hear words'. :-)

<Deleted User> (11861)

Mon 27th Jan 2014 22:36


I would appreciate the downgrading as the blog was a subjective recollection rather than a grand statement or manifesto. It was more reflective than it was declarative.

By omitting any reference made in the blog with regard to the Spoken Word era and everything that is happening right now you give the impression that I think that it all ended in 2005, which I agree would be a pile of old rat's testicles.

It's great that Clarkey, Attila, Linton and many of the Performance Poetry luminaries are kicking arse today but the point stands that the majority of the characters from those eras have disappeared from the scene for perfectly understandable reasons. It also stands that most of the young people flooding onto the scene today are calling themselves Spoken Word artists and not Performance Poets. Semantics, I know, but it gave me the reference point I needed to contrast two epochs in live poetry.

Thanks for correcting the surname (my ancestors didn't drop the O for a bowl of soup) and for the support you have given to Unplugged and all those other defiantly alive Performance Poetry events across the UK. I in turn apologise for neglecting to mention that sterling work in favour of name checking Facebook.

Kind regards,


Profile image

Greg Freeman

Mon 27th Jan 2014 22:16

Firstly, Niall, as the author of this piece, I must apologise profusely for misspelling your name consistently throughout. Of course, I will correct it. Secondly, I'm sorry that your criticism of the report develops from initially describing it as "a bit of a misreading of the blog" to a "hatchet job". A hatchet job, it was never intended to be. What would be the point of that? You are a well-respected figure in the poetry world and we at Write Out Loud try to support poetry in all its forms. You may disagree, but I don't believe I have reported anything you didn't say. As for "quote mining and paraphrasing", I reject that. I quote three long paragraphs, and include a link to the full blog at the end. Readers can make up their own minds. You also say: "I don't see what my presence at the reception at the Palace has to do with it." Only that it gives some indication of your standing in the poetry world, and thus the newsworthiness of reporting your blog in the first place. Your own account of going to the Palace was the previous item on your blog. Again, I have linked to that, too. However, it may well be that I have given your piece more news space than it truly merits, and that its arguments are more complex than portrayed. I plan to downgrade its prominence in due course, and replace it as the lead with something else.

<Deleted User> (11861)

Mon 27th Jan 2014 21:09

Unfortunately, this is a bit of a misreading of what the blog was about. I wasn't heralding the death of performance poetry but rather talking about two generations/cultures of poets that fall under the admittedly intersecting labels of "Performance Poetry" and "Spoken Word".

It wasn't one of those disingenuous proclamations of the death of Performance Poetry that crop up every now and again. They get on my tits too. In a way, what I was actually saying was, "Performance Poetry is dead, long live Performance Poetry" Sounds a bit wanky when I put it like that, hence why I put it differently.

Also, I don't see what my presence at the reception at the Palace has to do with it. Are people going to throw the same ad hominem remark at Kate Tempest, Jo Bell, Lemn Sissay, Michael Horowitz, Kei Miller, Martin Figura, Malika Booker, Jacob Sam La Rose, George the Poet, Joelle Taylor and many others who attended in response to any unrelated argument they might make?

Attila, I have a ton of respect for who you are and what you do. If you read the blog itself it's not saying what the hatchet job above portrays me as saying through quote mining and paraphrasing. If you are commenting on what I actually wrote in context then I'm sorry for getting on your tits and would gladly accept your correction. I have read with you a couple of times over the years and have always found you to be an encouraging and energising person.

As for this article, I'm not that surprised that the writer has got the point of my blog all wrong seeing as he can't even correctly write my surname.


Niall O'Sullivan

Profile image

attila the stockbroker

Mon 27th Jan 2014 19:59

What a festering pile of old rats' testicles :) If you go and lig with the Queen you're maybe going to come out with clueless nonsense like that - there's more going on now than there ever has been, and I know 'cos I'm out there doing it as always! Cheers A

If you wish to post a comment you must login.

This site uses cookies. By continuing to browse, you are agreeing to our use of cookies.

Find out more Hide this message