Does it really have to be performance versus page?

5 May

Jenny Lindsay, too young to be a veteran, too experienced to be a foot soldier, but the veritable Colour Sergent of the Scottish performance poetry scene discusses performance and page poetry.

Performance poetry is the lowest form of art. It is a bunch of assymetrical hair-do’d teenagers ranting on about Iraq and feminism like they have some kind of insight the rest of us don’t. It is stand-up comedy masquerading as poetry. It is ranty, it is in-yer-face, it is masculine, aggressive, populist. It is postmodern. It is to poetry what the soundbite is to politics: occasionally memorable, but ultimately meaningless. It is style over substance. It is a democratising art-form: anyone can join in. It is open to all – come along and share… It is freedom of speech, man. It is far less elitist than page poetry. It’s not ‘really’ poetry.

I have promoted live poetry events for around 8 years, and the above represents the most common assertions I hear from both page and performance poets regarding the difference between stage poetry and its more traditional counterpart. I agree with none of it.  Page poetry does not have a depth and substance that performance poetry necessarily lacks; nor does performance poetry have the patent on appealing to diverse audiences. Quite simply, where page and performance poets split is on their intentions as they write, not on their ultimate intentions or appeal. Any good poet wants to communicate a message of some sort, uses poetic techniques and devices to get that message across, and wants – to differing extents – to communicate to an audience.  Quite obviously, if you want to perform your poetry rather than try to publish it, you will have to employ different techniques to make your work successful, which, to some poets means performance poets are less ‘serious’ somehow than page poets.

The question of what makes performance poetry any different from page poetry requires a longer answer than lies within the scope of a short blog, but the differences start with the intentions of the writer. A performance poet knows that their work will primarily and above all else be heard by an audience that does not have the luxury of having read the work beforehand (and nor will they afterwards), and thus knows that their poem must have an immediacy and a plain message that can be immediately understood – something page poetry does not need by necessity. Does that mean the writer is an entertainer rather than a poet: does it mean, as has often been asserted, that comedy is the only tool of a performance poet? No. While comedy is one of many tools that a good performance poet can employ to get their message across, it is by no means the only one – in fact, with most performance poets the comedy is incidental rather than the prime purpose of their writing.  What a good performance poet will do is find a way of making a point through a combination of literary and performance techniques.  They will use universal language and themes to say something personal. They use personal experiences to say something bigger. And always, above all, they use plain language: performance poetry is not studied academically nor is it deconstructed in seminars. It is not written to be. It is written to be informative, immediately understandable and entertaining. It is written to be performed.

There are clear differences between page and performance poetry, though many poets would disagree with me on this. However, I often think that those who try to say there is absolutely no difference between performance and page poetry are more often than not merely at pains to say that one is not better than the other – and that I would certainly agree with.

All poets will have their own prime reasons for wanting to write and/or perform their poetry, but, as with all writing, this will usually be a combination of ego, a burning desire to communicate something important and a love of and knowledge of the power of language. All writers feel this to a greater or lesser extent. So, does the added motivation of wanting to entertain mean that performance poetry is all style over substance? Again, no. Though good performance poets will be keenly aware of their audience, audiences ( including the generally non-literary audiences of performance poetry shows) want an entertaining evening out and an impressive use of language.

That is not to say that page poetry readings lack this combination of entertainment and art. But the readings seem to me to be secondary to the ultimate aim of the page poet, which is to express meaning through an impressive use of language, often following certain poetic conventions, rules and traditions. Any performance is secondary to that. Of course, many poets completely transcend the page/performance divide, coming across equally well on stage as they do in print; and many page poets read their work in such a way as to engage an audience completely. This does, however, come from practice; from watching others reading and performing, from making a concerted effort to relate to the audience at a reading and from reading ‘naturally’; not putting on the terribly ubiquitous poetry ‘voice’. Performance poetry is far more than simply reading poetry aloud; and reading poetry aloud (and well) is a skill entirely different from writing good poetry. It is good skill to acquire – and engaging with the performance poetry world can help with this.

I’m no expert on these things of course, but the icing on the cake for a page poet is to be published I would think, or to become the writer in residence of somewhere, or to gain a grant or fund to develop their work. I’m not really sure what the icing on the cake is for a performance poet. Many of us pursue these things too, but really, the ultimate icing for a performance poet would be to make a living out of performing: something that is almost impossible without getting published, teaching, doing workshops and generally taking things on you would rather not and which often detract from what you really want to do: write. And therein lies the ultimate similarity between page and performance poets – we’re all practitioners of an art that doesn’t generally interest or impress the vast majority of people, and most of us will struggle to be heard, read, enjoyed and make a living out of our art. It is therefore quite darkly hilarious that many poets do not read other poets work, and nor do many performance poets attend performance poetry events! I’ve been lucky in that I’ve been promoting as long as I have been performing poetry and have seen a wealth of different styles of performance; but it is as equally important to read poetry. Page and performance poets can learn a lot from each other; and equally.

And so…I think we miss a trick by splitting the two as rigidly as some poets do. Being a performance poet is no excuse for lazy writing or for claiming a popularity that page poetry is perceived to lack. Meanwhile, being a page poet is no excuse for not trying to engage with a wider bunch of people than would generally attend poetry readings or buy poetry collections. Live poetry is, for me, a bloody good night out, and poetry is so diverse; its practitioners come from such a wealth of different styles and genres that it would be quite impossible to say you ‘hate’ poetry. You may well have seen a bad performance poet, (you may well have read a bad page poet!) but if you saw a bad singer-songwriter you wouldn’t consign everyone from Bach to Lady Gaga to the musical scrapheap.Performance poetry has to employ different techniques – both in terms of subject and style – than more traditional poetry, but that doesn’t detract from its artistic merit. And audiences, who in my experience come from all backgrounds, ages, races and classes, enjoy a performance/reading/cabaret/event where they get to hear many different styles of poetry; performance to page and everything in between. Poetry as an art can only ever benefit from being heard in places you wouldn’t normally hear it, and being heard and enjoyed by people who wouldn’t normally think they would like it. That is what live poetry is all about. Poets of the world unite! After-all….it’s all poetry.

3 Responses to “Does it really have to be performance versus page?”

  1. Poetry Police May 10, 2010 at 12:43 am #

    Poetry is the consumate verbal Art, that a lot of page-centric practitioners pay lip-service to in their prose when waffling on about this fundamental aspect without which there is no poetry; tho when it comes to turkey time, seem to hide behind a book, s wielding their holy tome in front of an oinky talented, less or uneducated open-mic vets; in the vain hope that what cosmic adjudicators above marking our performance in Letters are keeping score – are biased toward their imbalanced poetic; favoring the aural over the oral being that brings a poem to life in a way the silent reading does not.

    It’s all about balance. Having your poem work in both mediums. The hard part is learning how to write and present the darn things properly on the page. One misplaced comma can, when you’re working in the higher reaches – totally collapse it for your audience the Reader, and it is them, the most important part of the equation; we should be thinking to make happy and entertain.


    The problem with Performance poetry, is that it is, as the cynics charge, too often not about poetry, but getting laughs. The best poetry, in my experience, effects a collective response in the audience, not of laughter, but a Silence that comes with true poetic gravity.

    I remember seeing Tom Paulin read a long, onomastic poem using inventive word-play and all sorts of toponymic tricks that was but a stream of language in full poetic torque; and what struck me was how engrossed he was in the act of recital; the reading from the page irrelevant to the overall performance, and him lost in this brilliant coruscading torrent of words that we the Reader (audience) could in no way claim dull, because of the skill and ability of the author and the originality of his creation.

    I learnt later; after about twenty times out reading my own poems; that Paulin was essentially, unconcerned about the audience because the reality of what was happening, on his part; was not a ‘performance’, but merely a rehearsal for the next performance. This is soemthing you cannot get by reading books alone; the live, real-time meat-space effect your poems have (or don’t have) when brought to the final stage of life; as a verbal object.

    I remember Buddy Wakefield in Dublin on the I am a Lagan tour with Andrea Gibson and Katie Wirsing; saying that ‘slam’ was essentially a gimmick to get the kids interested in poetry. It seems to me, that after this; we either discover and develop the unchanging element of arranging sounds about into startling and original combinations; or build up the unimportant ‘celebrity’ aspect of po-biz, by mis-evolving only a comedic, most immediately-gratifying-to-our-ego portion in our luvvie-cauldron of poetic being; and join the ranks as yet another, what Concrete-Conceptualist poet Jeff rey Side calls; the Alan Partridge of light-verse. Competing not for silence and gravity, but instant laughs; hoping the more we get the more real we become as poets. Alas, it is nea so.

    Cheer up; here’s a barnstorming performance of my fave new Dublin poet Aisling Fox, recent graduate of the Arts University College at Bournemouth.

    All turn into the light-verse

    Desmond Swords

  2. Russell March 31, 2011 at 11:48 am #

    This raised some interesting questions and some persuasive arguments, particularly the idea of immediate messages in performance which you can take longer to ponder on the page. Ta


  1. One Night Stanzas » Blog Archive » Procrastination Station #69 - May 7, 2010

    […] A truly brilliant article on performance poetry vs page poetry from the great Ms Jenny Lindsay […]

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