The Art and Awkwardness of Poetry in Performance

Fleur Adcock reading poetry

Having recently attended far too many poetry readings, spoken word events and open mic nights for any normal person, I have begun to notice there are certain ways of doing things, some which work well, and some which don’t work so well. I think it would make an interesting PhD study, but, as I’m a rather impatient person, here’s a slightly more immediate and concise exploration of the art of performing poetry…   

First Point – What is the difference between poetry and spoken word?

If you google this you get a lot of different opinions, but my view is simply that there is a lot of crossover, not only between poetry and spoken word but also with storytelling and forms of music such as rap. I’d say the main difference is:

Spoken word is written / prepared specifically to be spoken aloud in performance, rather than read on a page.

Poet Roy Marshall

Roy Marshall

Poetry encompasses spoken word and can be read / spoken aloud in performance, but it often refers to work which is specifically designed to be read from the page.

The following exploration of performance techniques relates to the latter, reading poetry from the page, and to organised poetry readings with professional poets, rather than open mic nights, where things are often a bit more informal.

Technique number 1 – The ‘poet voice’

There are some poets (fortunately these are few and far between) who use their normal, mumbly, hesitant voice for reading their work aloud. Personally, I get annoyed with this style, as it feels like the poet isn’t enjoying the experience of reading their own work, that they don’t take pride in the selection and careful placing of each word…  and, more importantly, this makes it very easy to drift off and stop listening.

There are others who put on a voice which is so totally different to their normal voice that no-one stepping into the room could possibly mistake it for anything other than POETRY. This can also be off-putting, as it can seem a bit pretentious and (sometimes) ridiculous. It can also create a dull monotone, which requires extra concentration for the listener to actually hear the words. But it can be a very popular style, and there are some famous poets well-known for their ‘poet voice’.

The perfect compromise…

I’d say that most poets have a certain, special, personal ‘poet voice’ which they only use when reading their work. It is slightly slower, clearer, louder and more rhythmic than their normal speaking voice, but in a subtle way. It doesn’t shout: “This is a POEM!!!” and it doesn’t create a monotone barrier between the poet and the listener, but it does give the audience time to hear each word and to consider the lines as they flow together. I’m not an expert (more like an opinionated beginner) but I think breathing and patience have a lot to do with it, as well as having confidence in your own work, and in the ability of language to communicate, using its own natural rhythm.

Technique number 2 – How to finish a poem

There are some audiences (perhaps the more high-brow type) who will sit and listen in silence until the very end, when everyone bursts into enthusiastic applause. There are others who want to clap after each poem. Clapping between each poem works better with longer poems, otherwise there is a danger of the entire event becoming nothing but a chance to applaud every few seconds.

Angela France poet

Angela France

But there comes the problem of what to do if it’s not obvious that a poem has reached its final line. Some poets have the knack – a certain something in the tone of voice, a way of looking, or turning the page. Others move seamlessly from one poem to the next, leaving the audience to guess, or assuming that they will wait patiently until the end to show their appreciation. And sometimes the audience gets confused. I recently heard a poet read a long poem, over several pages, and each time they turned the page, the audience clapped, thinking it was over.

Other times I’ve breathed a sigh of relief when a poet instructs the audience to wait until the end. It means everyone knows what to do and there’s no embarrassment. (This could be a British thing – the need to eradicate any potential misunderstandings or awkward moments).

Technique number 3 – How much to say

I like it when a poet introduces each poem before reading it. It’s harder to grasp words and meanings when listening (compared to reading a poem, where you can easily go back to the beginning and read it again). This makes it even more valuable to get an explanation, or a bit of context, especially if several people are taking turns to read – you need time to forget what you’ve just heard and re-align your senses to a new voice and a new subject.

It also gives the listeners a certain privilege – it makes the performance a unique event, with extra snippets of information that they wouldn’t get from reading the poet’s work at home. This can, of course, go too far the other way. A few sentences to introduce each poem is enough, especially if they’re short. Any more, and it will break the special kind of atmosphere you get from attending a poetry reading.

Technique number 4 – Detect the atmosphere

Have you ever heard a poet read the same poem in two different venues, and it felt like two entirely different poems? The atmosphere can change the meaning in a poem, in unexpected ways.

Gillian Clarke & Imtiaz Dharker

Gillian Clarke

It varies, of course, but the size of the space, background noise, the distance between the poet and the audience, the theme of the event and the type of work which is read by other performers all combine to provide the backdrop for each poem.

It could be close and intimate, serious, political or deep. It could be funny, captivating, informal, friendly or passionate. Whatever the venue, whatever strange or wonderful circumstances in which the poet finds themselves reading their work, I think it’s important to go with the flow, change plans, adapt and read in a way that fits with the people and the place.

What do you think?

Are you a poet who has tried different methods of reading your work? Or an audience member who prefers a certain performance style? Please do comment below and let me know what you think…

You can read this article in which Andrew Motion collates ten ‘best’ recordings of poets, many of whom are no longer alive. Another interesting piece from mashable analyses the linguistics of ‘poet voice’.

6 thoughts on “The Art and Awkwardness of Poetry in Performance

  1. I would encourage readers to include a few words between poems; even if you don’t say much, it is good to have a slight break from the intense concentration of listening hard to a poem, and it also gives people a chance to see the poet as a person rather than a persona.

  2. I hadn’t noticed till recently how many physical gestures I make. Stepping forward, standing back, raising my hand, looking round the room. I should be on the flippin’ stage!

  3. I just try things to see if they work and to test my limits. Silly or serious, how much can I put into it to make the words and performance work as one whole? And recently was pleased to get the chance to read all of The Coward out for the first time at G39. 12+ minutes of a Great War Deserter losing all hope and faith and patriotism as he ponders his situation during the last night of his life waiting for the dawn and his most consistently deliberately poem-y poem. At different sessions of The Arena also brought Booty Song, sung Heaven Knows, and at the last of the current run of The Arena will muse on the nature of ‘ Freedom’.

    There are no limits except those we place on ourselves. Re being afraid to read, I am Mr Stagefright himself. But faith in the integrity of the ideas and words, with even the stupidest stuff being true to itself and experience of succeeding and failing to pull off a rant/recital/rap style piece or whatever and the pre-read fear not resulting in death and the very occasional payment for doing such stuff is quite nice. And choosing the pieces for the occasion is half the trick of avoiding the awkwardness , combined with remembering how it feels to be an audience member seeing people trying hard for you versus seeming to believe you are privileged to be in the presence of their genius and barely bothering to acknowledge that reading to/performing for an audience is the privilege, especially if people are paying.

  4. Poetry works best for me when I am curled up in a quiet corner with a book in front of me. I can apply my own internal voice to the poem, and I can see how the poem is constructed, and spend more time studying its obscurities. The spoken word, which has been an oppressive cult since the 1960s, does not allow this experience. Poetry performance is best suited to actors who are trained to project their voices, and it only really works with poems which are of the easily accessible, instant type. Dylan Thomas might be cited as an exception, but I wonder how many people understood what he was saying rather than let themselves be enthralled by his Welsh intonation? Performance poetry is discriminatory in that it effectively excludes poets who are dumb or who have speech impediments. Philip Larkin hardly ever gave poetry readings for the latter reason. Performers will claim that real poetry had an oral tradition in its early days, but since the invention of the printing press that has been unnecessary. I have been to readings by W. H. Auden, Allen Ginsberg, William Empson, Peter Porter, Vernon Scannell, U. A. Fanthorpe and many more, and on no occasion has the spoken word been better than reading from the printed page. Incidentally the spoken word renders ‘free verse’ of any kind redundant since the listener has no means of knowing where lines end. The ‘free verse’ poem might as well be written as prose (which I think most of it is) – who would know the difference?

    • Thanks for your comment, and I do agree that reading poetry and seeing how it is set out on the page is often the best way to get the full meaning. But I also love hearing poets read their work, and have always got a certain thrill from it, which inspires me to write myself.

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