Performance Poetry

By Beal, Heather | National Forum, Spring 1994 | Go to article overview

Performance Poetry


Beal, Heather, National Forum


Periodically, I run across an essay declaring that poetry is dead. Some critics explain this alleged phenomenon by writing that "professionalism" has sapped the lifeblood of contemporary verse--that an abundance of grants, fellowships, subsidies, and salaried faculty positions has led to the creation of "professional poets" who earn their degrees from one of the more than 250 creative-writing programs in this country, only to spend their lives teaching others how to write.

In turn, this cycle has alienated poets from the social and political issues of our era; transformed poetry's creative process into a therapy group session, during which the only acceptable comments are "supportive"; and reduced the audience for poetry to an elite group of teachers, students, editors, and bureaucrats. In short, the "death-by-professionalism" critics contend, no one cares about poetry except those who write it and those who provide financial support for its creation.

Well, if poetry died, I missed the funeral. In fact, I believe poetry is so pervasive in our society it has become transparent to us. Defending this hypothesis is risky business, however, because it requires using examples from popular culture to prove that the most highly revered of literary genres still has value.

Take, for instance, Tracy Chapman's song "Freedom Now." When Nelson Mandela was released from prison, I turned this song on and danced around my living room, celebrating to the sound of these words:

Soon must come a day When the righteous have their way Unjustly tried are free And people live in peace I say Give the man release Go on and set your conscience free Right the wrongs you made Even a fool can have his day Let us all be free, free, free, free

If a neighbor had stopped by to see if I were feeling okay, I could have dissected this transcendental experience by employing conventional tools of poetry analysis. "Freedom Now" not only has rhythm and rhyme, it also uses iambic pentameter for emphasis. The fact that its words are lyrics doesn't diminish their power. Poetry has been sung as well as spoken for centuries.

The most exhilarating poetry I have experienced lately, however, has been performed at art centers, coffeehouses, bars, night clubs, and bookstores, where slams, open mike readings, group recitations, and multimedia presentations are extending poetry's reach into the community. Few, if any, of the people who participate in these events qualify as "poetry professionals." During the day they work as carpenters, video artists, sculptors, lab technicians, technical writers, and business professionals. The one characteristic performance poets and their audiences seem to share is a desire to initiate and sustain a public discourse that has not been sanctified by the media or formalized institutions.

Those who believe poetry readings are no longer as impassioned as they were during the Romantic Period should attend a "poetry slam," a literary contest executed in the manner of an athletic competition. These rare and raucous events are attracting people who might never page through an anthology or purchase a chapbook.

During "open slams" any poet present can compete for prizes and the honor of progressing to the "slam shut" and "grand slam" levels. Neither the judges, who are selected randomly from the crowd, nor the audience members refrain from shouting their opinions--negative as well as "supportive. …

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