Defining performance poetry, spoken word and live literature is a mug’s game. You can see the reason why we attempt it, pigeon holing may be frowned upon but it’s a necessary evil when seeking media attention or applying for funding. I get that most of these definitions are set up to inevitably fail and it’s in the nature of our art to defy the category as soon as it’s established. So, rather than ripping the whole lot to shreds, let me just focus on one in particular:
Unlike a page poem, which can be read many times over, the performed poem has only one chance to make an impression and therefore has to be immediately accessible.
I’m sure you’ve heard this one somewhere along the way. It seems to make sense for a little while, but evaporates on further inspection. The first thing we can do is compare it to other live or time based art forms.
Music. Sure, every song in the billboard top 100 is there because the song is sticky, something about it hooks into your mind on the first listen. But can the same be said for a Bach fugue? Or a later John Coltrane recording? There is something compelling about these on the first listen, but they are designed to yield more on subsequent listening.
Film. Again, look at the top box office hits and you’ll find a bunch of films that everybody flocked to see and didn’t need to see again. But what about the films that constantly make the viewers or critic’s choices: Godfather, Citizen Kane, Seven Samurai. All films that are enjoyable first time round, but all films that get better with subsequent viewings. Even the box office smash of last summer, Inception, made most of its money by cynically promoting and tailoring it as a repeat viewing experience.
Theatre: In one corner I give you Mama Mia and We Will Rock You; in the other William Shakespeare and Samuel Fucking Beckett. Nuff said.
So what is my point? My point is that our relatively young art form (let’s not fool ourselves by connecting ourselves to pre-literature hunter gatherer griots, we are as continuous to them as aristocratic red coated fox hunters are to ancient huntspeople) shouldn’t fall for the idea that the first hearing of a poem is its making or breaking. We shouldn’t be afraid of challenging the listener, of trying something difficult. This doesn’t necessarily mean alienating the audience, more treating them as intelligent adults. They may not whoop and holler, but they may walk away thinking, “Something about that poem really hooked me in, I can’t quite put my finger on it. I need to listen to that poem again!”
In short, a poem that does all its work in the first listening, be it political, sensual, or controversial, is not not fundamentally a performance poem. It is a pop poem. Nothing wrong with that, I’ve written a fair few myself, but that’s what it is. Don’t shoot the messenger.
Niall O’Sullivan is a poet, editor and event host. He has published two books of poetry with Flipped Eye and hosts London’s biggest open mic, Poetry Unplugged, at the Poetry Cafe. http://niallosullivan.co.uk