- "Spoken words fly away, written words remain."
The written word, then, usually comes with some assurance that we can return to it later. This, in and of itself, discourages memorization.
The spoken word may be no less a mandala than existence itself but, in a field where participants could synchronize their watches and argue about the time of day, there is an almost unanimous consensus that:
- poetry is primarily and originally an oral/audiovisual mode of communication;
- few modern poets are even passable performers; and,
- cultures that still revere poetry also value performance.
Why, then, do so few poets, professors, MFA and English graduates learn the rudiments of performance?
Impressions: Based on the paucity of crossovers (i.e. well known active members of more than one group), the society of performing poets has to be the most isolated of the three metacommunities. The average age seems to be lower, the gender mix similar to the Print World. The Presentation World certainly takes pride in its "democratic" nature but I'm not convinced that the word "anarchic" wouldn't be more apt. Surprisingly, its aesthetic may be the most narrow, rarely straying far from the stereotypical impassioned rant. As with Print Poetry, whole genres (e.g. elegy, allegory, epic), including the three most popular with audiences (i.e. comedy, romance and third party narrative), are largely ignored.
Overview: Performance poetry is a reserved expression describing "anything goes" stage poetry. It tends to eschew competition but allows props, costumes, music, actions and whatever else the poet deems appropriate. By contrast, slam poetry is a competitive format that permits nothing but words and gestures. The most common live venue is the open mic[rophone], many of which follow a reading from a recently published book.
Perspective: The medium that will likely take center stage in poetry's revival is YouTube (and sites like it). Consider this contrast in mindsets: those from the Print World despair at how difficult it would be to resurrect interest in poetry. Performers marvel at how easy it would be: two or three poetry videos going viral might be all it takes!
For a state-of-the-art view go to YouTube and search for "Poetry". The unfiltered results are unlikely to impress you. Indeed, it confirms the Crap Constant, 98.3%, that we discussed here. There is a wrinkle, though. Just as bad verse is more noticeable than bad free verse, the visual effect makes terrible performance more evident than terrible writing. This leads to the misimpression that all presentation poetry, like all doggerel, is awful. This problem is exacerbated by performed verse, a double-whammy often riddled with clanging rhymed couplets and bone-jarring meter. In that vein, here is some gratuitous advice for new presenters:
- Poet, look the bastards in the eyes...
You need to look at your audience, if only to know when you may be losing them. Pick two or three prominent listeners, spaced evenly about the audience, and speak exclusively to them. Make it intimate. Let some hear while others overhear.
- while not allowing yours to rise.
When looking away to avoid staring and/or to feign thought peer down and to the side, so that you don't appear to be reading from notes, or turn your entire face upward. Do not roll your eyes upward and to the right; that is a sign that you are trying to recall something you've read or seen. (Upward and to the left means you're performing a calculation rather than a poem.)
- Imagine patrons in their drawers.
Unfortunately, for me, this brings up a disturbing mental image:
I hope this bit of advice works better for you than me. In one variation, we're also supposed to imagine that everyone in the audience owes us money. I'm not sure what that is about. In any case, remember that everyone is there to be entertained; they're pulling for you.
There is no need to be nervous. Consider practicing on your webcam. Oh, and remember to breathe!
- Don't read from scripts, from books or scores.
Teleprompters? Maybe. Reading prose? Sure, but that is the difference between prose and poetry. If your verse isn't memorable to you, it won't be to anyone else (even if your message is). You wouldn't tolerate this level of unprofessionalism from performers in a movie or a play, would you?
- How much of verse resides in pace,
Close your eyes and listen to the rate of a performer's words. Notice how uniformity, lack of pauses or undue haste adds an alienating level of artifice.
- in body and expressive face?
Study how much a great Shakespearean actor's gestures add to context, clarity and emphasis.
- Speak at, not to, and none will heed...
I can't stress this enough: there is no special voice for poetry. Talk to your audience exactly as you would to three buddies in a diner booth.
- as auctioneers blur words with speed.
Rookie open-mikers and slammers make the mistake of trying to cram too many words into the allotted time. Pick shorter pieces. Better to leave them wanting more than less.
- Performers pause for thought, not breath...
The essence of performing is in the apparently impromptu nature of the speech. Act as if your words never existed before you spoke them. Own them. This cliché is fundamental to all theatre, of which presentation poetry--if not all poetry--is a subset.
- as monotones bore all to death.
All too often, slammers scream non-stop, without variation in pitch, pace, tone or volume. This is no more interesting than a reader droning.
Samples: There is no shortage of examples of how not to perform poetry. Here are the two best known recent cringefests, one from each of the Poetry Worlds we've discussed:
- Elizabeth Alexander's dismal outing at Obama's inauguration gave us Rule #24: "Poetry's only selling point is that it is cheaper than tear gas."
- Not to be outdone, Shane Koyczan's beer commercial ripoff, "We Are More", at the 2010 Olympics demonstrated once and for all the danger inherent in mixing nationalism, "art" and laziness.
It wasn't easy to find examples of well-performed poems. If you can link to a convincing one, please do so in the Comments box below. There are a few at "Poetry Out Loud: Learning Recitation", including:
- Allison Strong
Sonnet CXXX: My Mistress’ Eyes Are Nothing Like the Sun
by William Shakespeare
- Shawntay A. Henry
by Robert E. Hayden
Many of these efforts illustrate how difficult some modern poems are to perform. IMHO, great poems have to be written with performance in mind yet still stand up to review as text. Due to the isolation of the three Poetry Worlds, few contemporary poets have exhibited both talents.
Conclusions: We can blame music for the precipitous drop in poetry's fortunes between 1920 and now. How do we explain the gap between poetry's popularity in anglophone versus other modern cultures, though? The lack of theatre in our prosodies and prosody in our theatre seems the only explanation.
We can and should preserve on video the best performances of our time. Nevertheless, there will always be a you-had-to-be-there presence to them. As such, this critical aspect of the art form has to be reinvented and reiterated by each generation. That this transitory magic cannot be preserved like text is its charm--a strength, not a weakness.