Poetry Guide: Performance Poetry
Performance poetry is poetry that is specifically composed for or during performance before an audience. During the 1980s, the term came into popular usage to describe poetry written or composed exclusively for performance and not for print distribution. Whereas poetry readings featured poets reading their printed books for a live audience, some of which were recorded on audio media, performance poets use a different style of writing poetry that is less conducive to print and better suited for their oral presentations. Conversely, much performance poetry does not work well when printed in books. Performance poets are often not academically trained in writing poetry. Their poetic allusions are to pop culture rather than to the great literature of the past. Consequently, many performance poets are denied credibility by Academics, but are able to build a greater audience for poetry by communicating to a wider range of people.
The term "Performance Poetry" originates from an early press release describing the popular 1980s performance poet, Hedwig Gorski, whose audio recordings achieved success on Spoken Word radio programs around the world. Her band, East of Eden Band, was described as the most successful at music and poetry collaborations allowing cassettes of her live radio broadcast recordings to stay in rotation with popular underground music recordings on some radio stations. Gorski, an art school graduate, tried to come up with a term that would distinguish her text-based vocal performances from Performance Art, especially the work of Performance artists who worked with music at that time, such as Laurie Anderson. Performance poets relied more on the rhetorical and philosophical expression in their poetics than performance artists, who arose from the visual art genres of painting and sculpture. The Austin Chronicle newspaper printing Gorski's bi-weekly "Litera" column first published the term Performance Poetry to describe the work of Gorski with composer D'Jalma Garnier III as early as 1982 or 1983.
The National Endowment for the Arts categorized Performance Art within the visual arts judging panels; whereas, NEA placed Performance Poetry within the category of literature. Since many performance poets did not have publications, the latter classification made performance poets categorically ineligible for the NEA fellowship funding or recognition. Their audio cassettes were not acceptable sample material for literature grant consideration; unfortunately, their performance poems translated into text on paper could not compete with poetry written for print publication. The NEA makes no exceptions to this date for the varied presentation of samples in the poetry category of grants. Performance Poetry with music peaked during the 1980s just as Performance Art peaked in the 1970s.
During that time, San Franciso and New York were the centers for this type of activity; however, Austin, Texas, (The Third Coast) also had a thriving scene during the 1980s with a coterie of unique characters. Some of the best original Austin performance poets and performing poets who went on to national and international noteriety include Raul Salinas, Konstantyn K. Kuzminsky, Joy Cole, Hedwig Gorski, Roxy Gordon, Ricardo Sanchez, Susan Bright, Harryette Mullen, and others. The Austin Poets Audio Anthology Project, a public arts project, recorded them for radio broadcasts. Other performing writers in the robust literary scene of the Austin area during that time when performance poetry turned into a school of poetry included Pat Littledog, Greg Gauntner, Albert Huffstickler, Larry Thoren, Charles Taylor, Andy Clausen, and Isabella Ides, and many more. Performing poets/writers and especially performance poets excelled in the ability to put the event of oral literature into the primary social/communicative function for literature. The plurality of the literary performance is under the control of the poet/writer, and the performer never minimizes the paricipation of the audience members.
Poetry in Oral Cultures
Performance Poetry is not solely a postmodern 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 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.
The Beat Poets were the first to popularize crossing over into recorded media to distribute their performed poetry. The best-known Beat poet, Allen Ginsberg, followed the lead of fellow Beat, Jack Kerouac, in reciting his work for audio recording. Ginsberg always used music with his readings and often accompanied himself on the harmonium. Ginsberg put William Blake's poems to music and performed them with the harmonium. Even though the Beats did not use the term "Performance Poetry" to categorize their work with music and audio recordings, the Beats provided an immediate model for the work of Hedwig Gorski. She is a Nova Scotia College of Art and Design art school graduate in 1976. The art school was infamous for starting the careers of numerous 1970s performance artists, such as Vito Acconci, known for photographing his bites. Hedwig Gorski coined the term "Performance Poetry" to describe her poetry performances with her musical band East of Eden. Gorski originated the term "Performance Poetry" to distinguish her textually based performance poetics from the sculptural sound approach of Laurie Anderson and other Performance Artists working with music. The term "Performance Poetry" was first published in the Austin Chronicle "Litera" column during 1983 in a press release Gorski wrote for a performance of the East of Eden Band in Austin, Texas.
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.
Contemporary British performance poetry, influenced as much by stand-up comedy and MC performances as by its own history, continues to thrive at a grassroots level, with performances in pubs and theatres, as well as at arts festivals such as Glastonbury and The Edinburgh Fringe. This hybrid of poetry, comedy and spoken word is exemplified by acts such as Rachel Pantechnicon, Murray Lachlan Young and Aisle16.
John Cooper Clarke
Konstantyn K. Kuzminsky
Linton Kwesi Johnson
KAMIKAZE BARD Little Davy King
- Performance poetry at Suite 101
- Hedwig Gorski's Portfolio on the Southern Artistry Site