I often find myself wondering about the difference between “poems for the page” and “performance poetry”.
If you go to most “spoken word” performance poetry nights in London, the style of the poetry performed will often be closer to stand-up comedy or rap than it will be to a literary text. Poets will usually perform from memory, and will use gestures or be more obviously performative in their delivery. Whether as an audience member or performer, it involves stepping into a very different world from the world of the poetry which is successful on the literary scene. People like John Cooper Clarke can carve out entire careers as poets without needing books in print as support.
Is it possible to write poems which are successfully memorable in both page and stage environments? Here are some thoughts about what makes a poem work in performance.
(1) accessibility – there is something about standing in front of a group of people that requires the poet to meet the audience more than half-way and read poems out that are accessible. It’s easier to wrestle your way into a difficult poem on the page when there is time to study, to go back to ponder phrases, to winkle out meanings. In a performance the poet has no such time and leisure in which to charm the audience. The recipient must glean enough satisfaction from the poem on first hearing. (Accessibility in this context tends to depend upon syntax, I think. The complexity of sentence structures, rather than the diction. You can get away with complex word choices in performance if the sentence structures are simple). Does this mean that the page poet cares less about how welcoming their poems are? No – there are simply different expectations about what is reasonable in terms of accessibility. Charles Simic has said of poems: ‘once you read one you have to go back and start reading it again. That’s what a poem does.’ A poem in performance doesn’t have this luxury.
(2) immediate dramatic impact – similarly, because you only get one bite at the apple on stage, there must be an immediate dramatic pay-off in performance. The audience is paying for material that they can’t carry around with them in their pocket and refer to again, they can only carry a memory of its immediate impact.
(3) pattern – a poem in performance benefits from some pattern or structure as a kind of scaffold for climbing inside the audience’s ear. The ear (which is naturally inclined to be lazy and must also try to recall 20 or 30 other poems performed only once that evening) suddenly wakes from slumber and pays attention if there is pattern. This means establishing some kind of terrain within the poem which becomes familiar – rhythms, sound effects, patterns of imagery or word choice, structural form. Good performance poetry is about establishing patterns, and possibly then disrupting them as part of the effect.
(4) mood – Robert Frost said a good poem moves from delight towards wisdom. In a similar way, I’d argue the audience needs to have been charmed early on with entertaining material, before a poet risks their serious material. If they open with a serious, sober poem, the mood in the room shifts, it’s much harder for them to extract full value from light-hearted poems after that. If they read out material that makes the audience feel sad or morbid (an audience with little option but to stay in its seats and endure the poem – they can’t turn the page) it had better be good. That said, it does depend on the poems read out by the previous performer. Maybe the previous poet did all the necessary charming, and a shift in mood, opening with something poignant, becomes effective.
(5) poems with background stories – a poem with a personal anecdote attached or interesting biographical context can come to life when performed. The story can draw out underappreciated aspects of a page poem. And it strengthens the link between the “I” in the poem and the real person on stage, giving poems greater emotional impact than they would have if read in isolation.
(6) topicality –subject matter that’s been in the news recently can generate additional interest. When a group of people gather, somehow the collective consciousness in the room responds in a way that is greater than the sum of its parts, like laughing at a joke louder when others are around you laughing too.
(7) diction – performed poems succeed by relying more on the natural language of verbal conversation. A tendency to use Latinate diction, high-falutin’ terms, or more ambitious / ostentatious turns of phrase are harder to tolerate when heard live. Poems which unwittingly diverge from ordinary phrasing are harder to connect with live. This is different from poems which deliberately play with unusual or unnatural speech. (For similar reasons, poets are repeatedly advised to read their poems out loud as part of the editing process, to uncover awkward turns of phrase).
(8) poems which suit the venue – poems that work well in a pub are unlikely to work well in a church or a library setting. If they are, the poet is probably onto something special.
I wonder if we can think of “Page vs. Stage” as similar to the difference between film actors and theatre actors. It’s possible for some people to be good at both types of work. But watching a movie (=reading a poetry book) people can revisit the subtle gestures, the tiny details, on second or third viewing. We therefore appreciate quieter methods. In theatre, the actor’s performance must have a visceral connection that hits the audience in the gut or the drama fails that night. More subtle gestures are less likely to be noticed.
If a poem like Homer’s Iliad can survive initially by recitation alone yet still succeed when scrutinized on the page, is that not the greatest achievement a poem can hope for? Ultimately, a good poem in either context still boils down to the same central contract with the reader: memorability. Don Paterson has said a poem “is no more or less than a little machine for remembering itself”, which I think is a memorably intricate way of reminding us that a poem is a device whose aim is to get into the bloodstream as permanently as possible.
What after all are the great poems of past centuries if they are not poems which are remembered?
– Mike Loveday