performance poetry

performance poetry
   Broadly, performance poetry is any poetry delivered effectively in performance; narrowly, it is poetry composed specifically for performance rather than for the page. With the spread of literacy, Britain had lost any earlier tradition of poetry performance, and modern, essentially urban, performance poetry began in Britain in the late 1950s. Influenced by US jazz and beat poets such as Allen Ginsberg, mostly young poets began to perform their work at jazz clubs and cafes, both with and between the jazz. From this unlikely initial setting, pop poetry grew to become a major part of 1960s counterculture. Adrian Mitchell (b. 1932) became an important political voice, speaking poems with a directness, outrage and musicality that drew on Brechtian drama as well as rock ’n’ roll.
   Meanwhile in Liverpool, during the rise of Merseybeat, Adrian Henri (b. 1932) was bringing together the existing poetry scene with multi-arts events. These events, more accessible than the arts ‘happenings’ in the USA, led poetry performances to incorporate elements of drama, satire, comedy and music as well as the visual arts. Roger McGough (b. 1937) delivered his funny-sad poems with sharp satirical wit, performing both solo and with The Scaffold, while Henri formed the poetryand-music band The Liverpool Scene, and Brian Patten’s (b. 1946) lilting hypnotic delivery brought a particular emotional intensity to his lyrical poetry. Henri, McGough and Patten performed widely with the poetry—music—comedy roadshow Grimms into the early 1970s, and still command a wide audience.
   With the rise of punk rock, new wave and reggae music in the mid-to-late 1970s came new styles of performance poetry, mostly with a fresh political emphasis. John Cooper Clarke mixed highspeed wit and scorn with frequently surreal imagery. Joolz delivered aggressive urban poetry to the music of New Model Army. Of the reggae and dub poets, Linton Kwesi Johnson (b. 1952) first achieved prominence in the late 1970s, followed in the 1980s by Benjamin Zephaniah and Levi Tafari.
   During the 1980s and 1990s, the initial flourishing of alternative cabaret and comedy venues prompted more comedic and dramatic approaches. John Hegley combines the roles of poet, singer and comedian; Henry Normal and Lemn Sissay both use comedy, and Ian McMillan blends surrealism with satire. The group Atomic Lip frequently act out their poetry and interweave their four voices, a development of the vocal blending used by rap crews since the original ‘rapid poetry’ of The Last Poets. 1990s performance poetry promoters include Apples & Snakes (London), the Dead Good Poets Society (Liverpool), Morden Tower (Newcastle), and the Edinburgh Writers Association.
   Further reading
    Forbes, P. (ed.) (1997) Poetry Review 87(3), special issue on performance poetry.
   DAVID BATEMAN

Encyclopedia of contemporary British culture . . 2014.

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