Performance poetry might, at first glance, seem to be the reading of poetry, but that would be oversimplification of this art form, as it has come to be regarded. As the name suggests, to perform poetry is more then to simply read it, and for the most part, it suggests that the poet will be using this as an opportunity to show case their work in a manner they feel best represents their voice. Although in its present form it would seem to be a postmodern phenomenon, the tradition of performing oral poems dates back to pre-literate cultures, when the passing of oral history was a major part of educating the next generation.

The advent of the printing press shifted the focus and made the written word an easier means to reach the masses. Poetry benefitted from this because its availability increased its popularity, but some may argue that in doing so, certain essential elements of its very core are left unexplored. The poet Basil Bunting, in the early twentieth century, was calling for a return to poetry as a spoken art form and felt that, like a musical score, it was not fully understood until it had been performed or recorded, so as to be heard the way it was imagined by the poet.

Experimental Poetry

Cid Corman

In a more experimental fashion some poets, such as Cid Corman, an American poet of the 1950s, began recording spontaneous compositions onto tape and others soon followed suit with this more free form style of poetry and performance. Taking that a step further, the poet David Antin was somewhat influenced by hearing Corman’s tapes and began creating poetry in this improvised fashion in front of a live audience. This experimental vein continued through the sixties which saw the emergence of performance art in general and combined multiple art mediums, such as art, poetry, music and dance. From this reemerging interest in the oral presentation of the poem, many more mainstream poets began to increase their visibility and show off their work at major readings.

Traditional Roots

Hedwig Gorski

Thus, by the end of the sixties, there was a more obvious return to some of the past traditions of oral performance, coupled with innovation and diversity. Currently, three distinct groups of performance poetry are evident. Firstly, there is the more traditional poetry reading, when written poetry is read aloud to an audience, usually by the author. This format continues to be popular on both a large and small scale, with performances ranging from specific festivals to the local coffee shop hosting an open mic night. Secondly, there are the performances that are written specifically with the oral delivery in mind or are even composed in that moment with a more acute awareness of the audience role. Included among these poets are those who used the beat method, where the poem is rendered against the back drop of specific rhythm.

Finally, taking this to the next level, the poet Hedwig Gorski specifically composed her poems to be performed with music and thus made the two art forms dependent on the other. Arguably, she represents the first true performance poet and later went on to bring together the performing of poetry with visual art as its compliment and partner. Clearly then, the field of performance poetry is one of great diversity and something that continues to evolve to this day.