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Performance Poetry

Performance Poetry

Have you ever read a poem and wondered what the emotions and ideas the poet wanted to convey with their writing? Wouldn't it help to hear the writer read their poem aloud, to hear which words they emphasise, where they pause, and the rhythm they use?

That's what performance poetry is all about!

Performance Poetry definition

As said by English poet Adrian Mitchell;

Written poetry is different. Best thing is to see it in performance first, then read it. Performance is more provocative.

Performance poetry: Poetry composed with the intention of being performed or poetry that is composed during a performance in front of a live audience.

History of Performance Poetry

The foundations for contemporary performance poetry can be dated to the early 20th century, as poets such as Basil Bunting pushed for poetry to be perceived as something closer to music than writing on a page, arguing that a poem cannot be fully understood until spoken. In the 1950s and 60s, some poets began composing poems orally with a tape recorder, including Allen Ginsberg.

Allen Ginsberg: An American poet part of the Beat Generation who lived from 1926 to 1997.

Performance events rose to popularity through the Beat Poetry movement, during which many poets from the Beat Generation held jazz and poetry reading nights. The Beat Generation, also popularised recording poetry. For instance, both Allen Ginsberg and Jack Kerouac released audio recordings of their poetry. In the 1960s, David Antin held improvised poetry performances which he named ‘talk poems’.

Beat Poetry: A form of poetry developed by the Beat Generation, a post-World War Two counter-culture literary movement that critiqued American capitalism and academic elitism.

Jack Kerouac: An American writer who lived from 1922 to 1969. Kerouac was one of the founding figures of the Beat Generation.

David Antin: David Antin was an American poet who lived from 1932 to 2016, he was a performance artist and performance poet.

Although performance poetry can be found throughout history, it became a genre in its own right during the late 20th century. The term was coined by Hedwig Gorski in 1982 in the ‘Litera’ column of the Austin Chronicle. Gorski used the term to separate her experimental spoken word from performance art.

Hedwig Gorski: An American performance poet born in 1949.

Performance poetry was performed with music, similar to Gorski’s work with the band East of Eden Band, which reached a height of popularity in the 1980s, particularly in New York and San Francisco. Interestingly, Austin, Texas, was the third most dominant scene for performance poetry, featuring Hedwig Gorski among other notable artists such as Roxy Gordon.

Roxy Gordon: A Native American writer and musician, descended from the Nakota and Choctaw peoples. Gordon gained fame for his spoken word performances with musical accompaniment.

Performance poetry-focused cafes and clubs were established, paving the way for slam poetry. This resulted in the performance poetry genre splitting into two forms. The first form focused on recording and broadcasting poetry, in place of publishing it in the form of written word. The second form was centred on performing poetry for intimate live audiences.

Slam Poetry: A competitive form of spoken word poetry.

Performance poetry remains popular today, with performance poets performing at large festivals such as The Edinburgh Fringe and specific poetry events such as The New York City Poetry Festival.

Performance Poetry and postmodernism

Performance poetry refers to poetry composed with the intention of being performed, or composed during a performance in front of a live audience. This style of poetry developed as part of the postmodernism literary movement.

Postmodernism: A literary movement that arose in the mid-20th century as a reaction to the limitations of modernist thought. The movement was characterised by scepticism, fragmentation and isolation.

Performance poetry went against the standard structures and forms of traditional poetry – such as sonnets. Instead, this genre of poetry experimented with different rhythms to engage the audience and convey the poem’s meaning.

Sonnet: A form of poetry consisting of fourteen lines in a single stanza and iambic pentameter.

Examples of performance poetry

As we noted in the overview of performance poetry's history, poetry performances took place before the term was coined in 1982. Take a look at the four examples below and see whether you can spot any differences between the examples of performance poetry before and after 1982.

Robert Frost's reading of 'The Gift Outright' (1941) at President John F Kennedy's Inauguration in 1961

In 1961, Robert Frost became the first poet to perform at an Inaugural ceremony. After this performance, spoken word recordings by Robert Frost became more popular.

'The Gift Outright' was first recited by Frost in 1941, and first published in 1942. The poem itself is written in a simple form, consisting of a single sixteen-line stanza. The simple form of the poem is reflected in Frost's simplistic, steady tempo as he reads the poem aloud.

Performance Poetry, Robert Frost looking down at a book, StudysmarterFig. 1 - Robert Frost is well know for his poems 'Fire and Ice' and 'The Road Not Taken'.

Allen Ginsberg at 'The International Poetry Incarnation' in 1965.

In 1965, Allen Ginsberg performed Beat Poetry at 'The International Poetry Incarnation' at the Royal Albert Hall. As he reads to the audience, Ginsberg emphasises some words, stretching them out as he pronounces them. He also uses physical movement and varied intonation to portray different emotions as he reads.

Performance Poetry, an image of Allen Ginsberg, StudysmarterFig. 2 - Allen Ginsberg was a prominent poet of the Beat Generation.

Roger McGough performs 'The Sound Collector' (2012)

In 2012, Roger McGough gave a reading of his poem 'The Sound Collector' for BBC Two's Let's Write Poetry: The Big Slam. As Roger reads, a visual performance is given by the shadow of a man, who represents the 'stranger' in the poem.

John Cooper Clarke performs 'Smooth Operetta' (2014)

In 2014, John Cooper Clarke performed at BBC Radio's 6 Music Festival in Manchester. In his reading of 'Smooth Operetta' he uses rhyme, repetition, and colloquial language to create a rhythmic poem which is engaging to listen to.

Types of Performance Poetry

Poetry performance has been around for centuries, and over time it has developed into different types including; poetry reading, spoken word, slam poetry, and jazz poetry.

Poetry reading

Poetry reading refers to poems originally published and experienced in a written form, which are later performed aloud to an audience. Usually, this form of performance will be less experimental with sound and rhythm, not going beyond what the author wrote on the page.

Spoken word

This type of performance poetry refers to poetry produced with the intention of being performed. Spoken word poetry may be written down and published, or it could be only presented in its oral form.

Music can be incorporated into spoken word, from hip-hop to rock, alongside theatrical elements such as movement and expression.

Poet Kevin Coval was inspired by hip-hop music to start writing poetry and incorporates this style of music into his work. This is exemplified in his 2005 poetry collection Slingshots: A Hip-Hop Poetica.

Common features of spoken word poetry are repetition, rhyme, and word-play. Often, spoken word poetry is written with a rhyme and repetition so the poet may improvise around what they've already written while performing.

Traditionally, spoken word poetry focused on political issues, raising awareness through verbally and visually engaging performances.

Cristin O'Keefe Apotwicz has published a number of poetry collections, focusing on topics such as growing up, womanhood, and class.

Slam Poetry

Slam Poetry is a type of poetry performed at poetry slams, a spoken word poetry contest. This type of performance poetry will typically reflect the atmosphere of most poetry slams; i.e., lively, loud, and full of energy. The intention of poetry slams is to make poetry accessible for everyone, rather than being confined to academia.

The first poetry slam was held at the 'Get Me High Lounge' in Chicago in 1984, organised by Marc Smith. In 1999, the first National Poetry Slam was held and covered by The New York Times. Today, poetry slams have officially moved poetry into the 'mainstream'.

Unlike 'performance poetry' as coined by Hedwig Gorski, slam poetry can not involve props or music. Instead, all of its theatrical elements have to come from the way in which the speaker moves and speaks.

Jazz Poetry

Jazz poetry is a type of performance poetry that has a similar improvised feel to jazz music. For instance, Langston Hughes' poem 'The Weary Blues' (1925) is written in free verse and holds a similar sound and rhythm to the jazz and blues music of the 1920s. Hughes' utilises repetition, rhyme, and varied sentence lengths to create this sound.

Some later jazz poetry, written by poets associated with the Beat generation, even incorporated jazz music into the reading of the poem itself.

Jack Kerouac was commonly accompanied by the piano or bongos when performing his poetry, and Lawrence Ferlinghetti was often accompanied by the saxophone.

Features of Performance Poetry

Performance poetry holds many features similar to written poetry, utilising techniques such as rhyme, rhythm, and imagery to convey a message to the reader. However, there is one key difference, performance poetry is spoken aloud, allowing for new, sound and visual-focused features.

Emotive speech

As performance poetry is spoken aloud, the most notable feature which makes it different from written poetry is the emotions the speaker is able to put into their speech and movement.

Emotive speech, performance poetry techniques

  • Tone: variation In the poet's voice to portray their perspective.
  • Gesture: Body movements to highlight certain meanings.
  • Dynamics and register: Use of different volumes and registers.

Rhythm

While rhythm is a feature of all types of poetry, in performance poetry the poem's rhythm is often experimented with. In some cases, the poet may have a musical accompaniment or backing track. Alternatively, they may choose to change the poem's rhythm as they read aloud to emphasise certain points.

Rhythm, performance poetry techniques

  • Pace: The speed at which the poet speaks.
  • Pauses: Leaving space between certain words or lines to emphasise certain things or create suspense.
  • Beatboxing / Singing: Incorporating different sounds and styles into the performance.

Improvisation

Sometimes, performance poets will write a 'skeleton' version of their poem before going on stage. This 'skeleton' version will contain the poem's general narrative and structure but will allow room for improvisation on stage. Alternatively, some performance poetry is completely improvised and made up on the spot in front of a live audience!

Improvisation, performance poetry techniques

  • Audience involvement: Involving the audience by asking them to clap to the rhythm or repeat key lines.
  • Call and response: Asking the audience to respond to certain words or phrases.

How do the features of Performance Poetry differ from traditional forms of oral poetry?

Performance poetry existed before the post-modernism literary movement began. Oral storytelling and poetry reading has played a significant role in many societies throughout history, particularly in pre-literate societies. However, while performance poetry as we know it today is known for its experimental use of rhythm and rhyme, traditional oral poems used simple rhyme-schemes, repetition, and consistent rhythms as memetic devices.

Performance Poetry - Key takeaways

  • Performance poetry is poetry composed with the intention of being performed or poetry that is composed during a performance in front of a live audience.
  • The term 'performance poetry' was coined by Hedwig Gorski in 1982, and was originally used to separate Gorski's spoken word performances from performance art.
  • Performance poetry went against the standard structures and forms of traditional poetry, experimenting with different rhythms to engage the audience and convey the poem’s meaning.
  • Poetry reading, spoken word, slam poetry, and jazz poetry are all types of performance poetry.
  • Three key features of performance poetry are; emotive speech, rhythm, and improvisation.

Frequently Asked Questions about Performance Poetry

In 2012 Roger McGough read his poem 'The Sound Collector' for BBC Two's Let's Write Poetry: The Big Slam. In the recording, McGough reads at a steady pace as a silhouette moves behind him.

Poetry composed with the intention of being performed or poetry which is composed during a performance in front of a live audience.  

The base of performance poetry is the same as any poem. Find a subject or story which inspires you and write down your ideas - these could be words, phrases, or entire stanzas. 


Decide if you want to write in a certain form or use free-verse. Then construct your poem. You can speak aloud and then note down what you say, or just write.


Once you've written your poem, consider what performance elements you can incorporate into it. Perhaps you could play with the pace you speak? Or use different volumes and pitches?


All you have left to do is perform your poem to a live audience, or your teddy-bears (just make sure they applaud you at the end)!

The purpose of performance poetry is to entertain and engage and audience, while conveying the meaning of the poem through your voice and movement.

Three key characteristics of performance poetry are; emotive speech, rhythm and improvisation. 

Final Performance Poetry Quiz

Question

What is performance poetry?

Show answer

Answer

Poetry composed with the intention of being performed or poetry which is composed during a performance in front of a live audience.  

Show question

Question

When was the term 'performance poetry' coined?

Show answer

Answer

1982

Show question

Question

True or false? Poetry performance existed before the term 'performance poetry' was coined.

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Answer

True! People have been performing poetry for centuries. 

Show question

Question

Which poetry movement did performance events gain popularity through?

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Answer

Beat poetry.

Show question

Question

Which poetry held improvised poetry performances called 'talk poems'?

Show answer

Answer

David Antin

Show question

Question

Who is Hedwig Gorski?

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Answer

An American performance poet born in 1949 who coined the term 'performance poetry'.

Show question

Question

Which of these artists was prominent in the performance poetry scene in Austin, Texas?

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Answer

Roxy Gordon

Show question

Question

What is slam poetry?

Show answer

Answer

A competitive form of spoken word poetry.  

Show question

Question

How is performance poetry different from traditional poetry?

Show answer

Answer

Performance poetry went against the standard structures and forms of traditional poetry experimenting with different rhythms to engage the audience and convey the poem’s meaning. 

Show question

Question

Which poet performed at Kennedy's inauguration in 1961?

Show answer

Answer

Robert Frost

Show question

Question

Where did Allen Ginsberg perform in 1965?

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Answer

'The International Poetry Incarnation' at The Royal Albert Hall.

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Question

What four types of performance poetry where described in the article?

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Answer

Poetry reading, spoken word, slam poetry and jazz poetry.

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Question

What is spoken word poetry?

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Answer

Poetry produced with the intention of being performed. Spoken word poetry may be written down and published, or it could be only presented in its oral form.  

Show question

Question

True or false? Music can be incorporated into performance poetry.

Show answer

Answer

True! From hip-hop to rock to jazz, many types of music can be incorporated into performance poetry.

Show question

Question

What is slam poetry?

Show answer

Answer

Poetry performed at a poetry slam, a spoken word poetry contest.

Show question

Question

What poetry techniques are associated with emotive speech?

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Answer

Tone, gesture, dynamics and register.

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