On performance poetry

 28 June 2012

Geraldine Collinge explores the origins of performance poetry, and its importance in the arts world today.

Apples and Snakes runs over 90 performance poetry events every year, like open mic nights. Photo: Jack Goffe
Apples and Snakes runs over 90 performance poetry events every year, like open mic nights. Photo: Jack Goffe

In pubs, clubs and arts centres across the country, an art form has emerged that is leading the development of new artists and new sorts of work.

Regular nights are attracting huge audiences where poetry crosses over with music, with some artists achieving mainstream success. Other poets are reinventing theatre and creating new work that doesn’t need any kind of label to identify it as an essential night out.

Festivals such as Latitude and The Big Chill have used performance poetry as a central plank of their programme and have attracted growing numbers to their tents over the past few years.

Performance poetry has grown as a scene since the late 1970s, when it began to be used as a term to describe poetry written for performance rather than for print.

The expression also differentiated performance poetry from performance art, which saw performers such as Laurie Anderson working with text and performance.

The origins of performance poetry

Poetry in performance has its roots in oral poems that preceded the advent of the printing press. Its revival grew in the 20th century through the influence of jazz, music hall, the poetry of Langston Hughes and the Harlem Renaissance and the free verse of Walt Whitman.

Many poets who write for the page are also excellent performers of their work.

These led to the Beat Poetry scene in the USA and UK with Allen Ginsberg and Jack Kerouac, Michael Horovitz, Jeff Nuttall and Pete Brown being key players in the respective scenes.

Gil Scott-Heron’s seminal album track The Revolution Will Not Be Televised was released as the B-side of a single in 1971. It has influenced many performance poets and rappers as well as popular culture, being used on advertisements by Apple and Nike among others. Its political and cultural references still resonate today.

In parallel to this, in the 1970s the UK’s punk movement gave birth to John Cooper Clarke who opened for acts including the Sex Pistols and The Fall. John Cooper Clarke is still a regular on the performance poetry scene and has inspired a new generation of poets and musicians including the Arctic Monkeys.

In the 1980s the scene boomed with Linton Kwesi Johnson spearheading the dub poetry movement; Attila the Stockbroker the ranting scene; and Porky the Poet (Phill Jupitus) the comic one. This gave birth to the Poetry Olympics and Apples & Snakes.

The Slam movement was started by Marc Smith in Chicago in America and activists such as Bob Holman in New York popularised the art form.

Later Def Jam created the long-running poetry television show on HBO and the spin-off live event that ran on Broadway for a year and made a brief appearance at the Edinburgh festival.

“As sales of poetry books decline in the UK and US, performances of poetry are increasing."

Investment in the art form in the late 1990s, and onwards, has ensured that today the scene is booming in the UK.

Every city seems to have a regular night, there are very many grass-roots organisations and hundreds of people make their living as performance poets.

Many poets who write for the page are also excellent performers of their work and there is an increased importance placed on being able to do this well. Writers are happy to exist in both worlds and are starting to not see such a divide.

Rhythm, poetry and society

Performance poetry has an essential role to play in society today. It is a gateway into working with communities who do not have access to poetry or feel alienated by it. The popularity of Rap has brought performance poetry to a new audience and given young people a voice.

Many schools work extensively with poets to help them to bring the curriculum alive, to inspire young people and to assist with the development of communication skills and self-esteem.

“As more artists work with other art forms, performance poetry has become a vital part of the arts scene."

There has also been a great deal of work done in prisons and with young people at risk of crime.

Apples & Snakes pioneered a project with the police in Greater Manchester that set up poetry groups on the street as a means to enable young people to express themselves. This resulted in a reduction in crime of up to 40 percent with the target group.

The internet brings new audiences and new possibilities for performance poetry. As sales of poetry books decline in the UK and the USA and a report by the National Endowment of the Arts showed that poetry reading was also declining, performances of poetry are increasing.

The audiences that can be reached online and the possibilities for self-promotion through social media, YouTube and poets’ own sites are enormous.

Performance poetry is also beginning to respond to the internet creatively. There have been poetry performances online, there are poetry films and online poets-in-residence are sharing their work and thoughts.

Performance poetry has carved out a niche that is here to stay. As artists collaborate more, and work with other art forms it has become increasingly seen as a vital part of the arts scene. It still has political bite, and its roots in dissent and activism are feeding new artists today.


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