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Tony Grist

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Performance Poetry [Jan. 4th, 2005|09:29 am]
Tony Grist
I write book reviews. It's a painful business. I don't like hurting people, but how can I avoid it when so much of what passes under my nose is so dreadfully bad?

The book I reviewed yesterday, for example- a book of performance poetry: it should never have been published. Performance poetry is a branch of stand-up. Take it off the stage and it's like a fish on a slab, all the wiggle gone out of it. Would you put Frankie Howerd's monologues in a book? Well, would you? I jolly well hope not.

I'm trying not to be scornful, but as a print poet, one who writes for the page, it niggles me that you can make a reputation on the back of such limp stuff. I understand that performance poetry can't be complex, that it has to be fully comprehensible at a first hearing, but, even so, I'm surprised at the low-level of verbal invention, the banality, the lack of technique.

But I guess it's the way they tell them.

Which reminds me, Cyril Fletcher died a couple of days back. They didn't call 'em performance poets in his day, but that's essentially what he was. British readers may remember him as the chap who sat in an armchair and recited "odd odes" on Esther Rantzen's TV show. The odd odes were pretty naff- coarser, clumsier versions of Hillaire Belloc's Cautionary Tales- but Cyril's delivery just about made them work. He had a slight squint and a plummy voice and he wore a velvet smoking jacket (green I think it was.) He was quite old even then and the rest of the cast treated him as a beloved great uncle- a link to an earlier era of entertainment.

Dare I say I didn't like him? Yes I dare. I squirmed at the way he caricatured my profession. Green velvet smoking jacket indeed!

At least these days we no longer think of poets as effete wimps. And I'll concede that we've got the performance people to thank. Today a poet is a person with a cigarette (or spliff) in one hand and a pint in the other who holds forth to raucous audiences in pubs. The verse in the book I reviewed isn't literature, but it's chippy and sparky and it deals with topics of real interest, like race and politics and war. It's my (getting to be hackneyed) complaint about print poetry that so much of it is so dully middle-class- all about my lovely garden and the churches I visited in Spain last summer. Performance poets would have things thrown at them if they served up that tepid, suburban stuff.

Which brings things full circle, I guess- because that's how poetry got started. The first poets were popular entertainers who went from town to town with epics in their heads. Have harp, will travel. Homer was a Performance poet.

So, OK guys, you've got the cred back. Now how about learning some craft?

[User Picture]From: jackiejj
2005-01-04 05:13 am (UTC)
Performance poetry is an unknown to me, so this was most interesting.

When I was searching for library books for my visiting grandchildren, I came across a fine book of poetry for two voices. What a great idea--two children read at the same time from the page from two side-by-side poems. Here's a sample from the book, Joyful Noise: Poems for Two Voices, which is a Newberry winner. You can see how one child would pause in the space while the other child would fill in.

We tried it. Even with two adult voices, it's musical and charming, and the singled out lines become very important.

When you were growing up, did you ever do choral readings? They can be very stirring. A thrilling way to discover the rhythm of a fine poem.
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[User Picture]From: poliphilo
2005-01-04 05:48 am (UTC)
I can't remember ever doing choral readings.

The insect poems are nice.

It was my father who introduced me (when I was very young) to the idea that poetry could be read aloud. He had a favourite anthology and two or three favourite poems and- if I pushed for it- would read them by the fire on winter's evenings. One of them was Edward Lear's "Jumblies"-

"Far and few, far and few
Are the lands where the Jumblies live..."

I've always puzzled about this. Never after did he ever show the least interest in poetry.

Except that he informally requested that one of his friends read a (rather bad) poem about race-horses at his funeral.

Which the friend duly did.
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[User Picture]From: jackiejj
2005-01-04 07:58 am (UTC)
Isn't that puzzling, your father suddenly outcropping a yearning for a poem, and it's about the lands where the Jumblies live! Actually, I think it's wonderful!

And then asking for a race-horse poem to be read at his funeral.

One never knows when the need for a poem will surface.

My father would let us small children bounce on his knee while he recited a French poem about a galloping horse in a terrible Texas accent. He bounced faster and faster until we fell off laughing.

And you've also helped me suddenly remember these moments with my dad:

He could make little white mice out of his handkerchiefs, and he would make them appear to move in his palm.

And he'd patiently draw pictures to go with each alphabet letter--I remember sitting in his lap and learning A and seeing a crayoned red apple.

Another memory of my father breaks through: toward the end of his life, my sister and I could sing the Pie Jesu duet for him from Weber's Requiem, and he'd cry every time. We can't sing it anymore, or we'll cry ourselves, remembering him.
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[User Picture]From: poliphilo
2005-01-04 08:21 am (UTC)
My father wasn't very present during my childhood. Just one or two things stand out.

I remember a dream he told me. It was about how he was being chased through swamps and when the pursuers caught him they crucified him. I wonder now if this was a past life memory.

And (free-associating) I remember a dream of my grandfather's. It involved a bandit chieftain called She Bluebell. I thought that was a wonderful name and promptly took it up into my own personal mythology.

That dream must be getting on for a hundred years old. Freud could have analysed it....

I would draw pictures of She Bluebell. He looked a lot like Popeye's Bluto. He had lots of very big teeth and a fringe of beard and a hook in place of a hand.

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[User Picture]From: jackiejj
2005-01-04 10:50 am (UTC)
Wonderful dreams, very visual and unusual.

Being pursued is common enough in dreams, but being crucified isn't, I don't think. I wonder why a crucifixion? Which is not just a murder, but a ritual murder...fascinating.

And "She Bluebell," the bandit chieftain! Did he describe any of the plot for you?

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[User Picture]From: poliphilo
2005-01-04 11:24 am (UTC)
I don't think there was ever much of a story conected to She Bluebell; the memorable thing was always the name.

My father told us the crucifixion dream over tea one evening. He made a big thing of the nails being driven home. My mother tried to hush him up, thinking it would upset us. (It didn't.)
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[User Picture]From: halfmoon_mollie
2005-01-04 09:19 am (UTC)
My father is still, thankfully, here on earth. He wasn't very present during my childhood either, but for reasons that are if not acceptable, at least forgivable. One of the things I remember from when I was younger was him singing in the car on the long drive to my grandparents' houses. And I remember him taking out the knife he always kept in his pocket (and still does) and removing 'slivers'. It never hurt when he did it.

Gee, thanks for helping me remember that!

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[User Picture]From: halfmoon_mollie
2005-01-04 09:16 am (UTC)
"Far and few, far and few
Are the lands where the Jumblies live..."

"Their heads are green, their hands are blue
and they went to sea in a sieve."

The first poem I ever remember hearing read aloud was "The Highwayman" - still one of my favorites (and read by my mother). I was encouraged to read poetry, there were books in my bedroom.

But you know, after I had to MEMORIZE *Old Ironsides* the charm wore off for awhile. I read a translation of Beowulf, because I thought I should, and ended up falling in love all over again. I'd love to hear it 'spoken'.

Performance poetry is dangerous. Strange things happen at Poetry slams, they aren't near as much fun as open mic nights.

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[User Picture]From: poliphilo
2005-01-04 09:57 am (UTC)
I don't know Old Ironsides. Is it patriotic?

My favourite patriotic poem is Tennyson's Ballad of The Revenge. I committed whole chunks of it to memory when I was a boy.

At Flores in the Azores
Sir Richard Grenville lay
When a pinnace like a flutter'd bird
Came flying from far away,
"Spanish ships of war at sea;
We have sighted fifty-three..."

I know people who do Slam, but I don't think it would be my thing at all. I'm far too rare and delicate a bloom.
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[User Picture]From: jackiejj
2005-01-04 10:54 am (UTC)
Oh, I just remembered my dad's favorite poem: Crossing the Bar.

He had to memorize it in high school.

An aside: He and his brother were both students at Lubbock High School in Lubbock, Texas. For some reason, his brother was called "Ham" and Dad was called "Eggs." Odd.

They both became architects, and both married art teachers.

Dad's brother died very young, leaving a little girl.

He slept on the wet ground while in WWII in Germany, and it is thought that contributed to his kidney failure.

...A little meandering down one family's memory lane, sorry...
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[User Picture]From: poliphilo
2005-01-04 11:18 am (UTC)
Sunset and evening star, and one clear call to me...

Very beautiful.

I believe Tennyson wrote it very late in life.

I like hearing these little bits of family history.

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[User Picture]From: jackiejj
2005-01-04 10:58 am (UTC)
Sorry, but I was incorrect--

My mother and her sister were both art teachers.
My dad and his brother were both architects.

But Dad's brother didn't marry an art teacher. What was I thinking? He married a Texan named Dixie.

LJ comments can't be corrected.

I guess this is only important to little old me, but I don't like passing along an error like that. Sigh.
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[User Picture]From: halfmoon_mollie
2005-01-04 12:15 pm (UTC)
Aye, tear her tattered ensigns down
long have they waved on high
And many an eye has danced to see
that banner in the sky
Beneath it rung the battle shout,
And burst the cannon's roar;
The meteor of the ocean air
Shall sweep the clouds no more.

Her deck, once red with heroes' blood,
Where knelt the vanquished foe,
When winds were hurrying o'er the flood,
And waves were white below,
No more shall feel the victor's tread,
Or know the conquered knee;
The harpies of the shore shall pluck
The eagle of the sea!

Oh, better that her shattered bulk
Should sink beneath the wave;
Her thunders shook the mighty deep,
And there should be her grave;
Nail to the mast her holy flag,
Set every threadbare sail,
And give her to the god of storms,
The lightning and the gale!

It's about the USS Constitution. Written by Oliver Wendell Holmes. Once I knew the story, it seems to me he wrote it in response to a story in the Boston paper that the government had decided to scrap the ship...and he didn't agree.

I had to read "Crossing the Bar" in one of my college English classes. It means more now than it did then...

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[User Picture]From: poliphilo
2005-01-04 12:22 pm (UTC)
Yes definitely patriotic.

When I was a kid I owned a volume called Lyra Heroica, A Book of Verse for Boys- and it was full of things like that. I thought it was wonderful :)
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[User Picture]From: jackiejj
2005-01-04 11:00 am (UTC)
What's a Slam, please?

Is it when the listeners tear into the poet and throw tomatoes and insults?

How awful.

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[User Picture]From: poliphilo
2005-01-04 11:27 am (UTC)
A Slam is competitive. That's how it differs from an open mic session. The tomatoes and insults are optional.
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[User Picture]From: karenkay
2005-01-04 06:15 pm (UTC)
Hm. I don't think it's always competitive. I haven't done it--but this is what my friend Carolyn does.
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[User Picture]From: poliphilo
2005-01-05 01:52 am (UTC)
just checked out this site- http://www.e-poets.net/library/slam/. I haven't done more than skim it, but it seems Slam started in Chicago, in the late 80s, with events where poets went head to head in parodies of boxing/wrestling matches. It has since evolved. In the early days it was strongly aligned with Punk.
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[User Picture]From: karenkay
2005-01-04 05:53 pm (UTC)
Performance poetry is an unknown to me, so this was most interesting.

Sometimes it's called slam poetry. My friend Carolyn, whose poetry I've posted, is a slam poet.
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[User Picture]From: karenkay
2005-01-04 06:09 pm (UTC)
Thanks for mentioning this book. I'll have to get this for, well, at least a couple of people!
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From: morrison_maiden
2005-01-04 09:41 am (UTC)
Hmmm. When I think of performance poetry, I think of that HBO program called Def Poetry (or some such name), which I never really liked. Sometimes it just seems forced, the voicing and harshness of the readings. I hate reading my poems aloud because I feel like something is lost when I start to recite it...I guess I just think that it's stronger in written form, where the reader can interpret it whichever way s/he chooses.
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[User Picture]From: poliphilo
2005-01-04 11:14 am (UTC)
What does Def mean? Is it short for definitely?

There's a big difference between poetry written to be spoken and poetry written for the page. Poetry written to be spoken has to be a bit raw and obvious.
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[User Picture]From: halfmoon_mollie
2005-01-04 12:06 pm (UTC)
I thought *def* meant good - I seem to remember Janet Jackson (before her wardrobe malfunction) taking part in this...but I could be wrong. I didn't like it either.
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[User Picture]From: poliphilo
2005-01-04 12:26 pm (UTC)
I just went to the Def Jam website. It seems we're talking hip-hop. I should imagine Janet might well have put in an appearance.
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[User Picture]From: karenkay
2005-01-04 06:05 pm (UTC)
I disagree.

But then I think I think that all poetry is meant to be read/spoken....

I can think of several US poet laureates whose poetry is incredible when read/spoken: Carl Sandburg, Maya Angelou, Billy Collins. I love Billy Collins; he's a real poet of the mundane. Those are the ones who pop into my very tired mind.

This is an excellent thesis for a very spirited argument, but I'm too tired, sorry. I was listening to a book on sleep a few days ago, and haven't been able to sleep since. I hate my subconscious! (The book was all about how to get better sleep.)
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[User Picture]From: karenkay
2005-01-04 06:06 pm (UTC)

LOL! I am such an idiot!

This is the statement I disagreed with:
There's a big difference between poetry written to be spoken and poetry written for the page. Poetry written to be spoken has to be a bit raw and obvious.
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[User Picture]From: poliphilo
2005-01-05 02:13 am (UTC)
I was bouncing off this book I've had to review.

It's a collection of poems written for performance and they all (well, nearly all) look meagre on the page. They feel like they've been plucked out of their proper element.

What I'm saying is that performance poetry/slam poetry tends to be raw and obvious. It makes me question whether it deserves the title "poetry" at all.

I'm not saying it's not a valid art form, but that it's a hybrid form- and that performance is a big part of it. Take the performance away and the poem- the performance script- just doesn't cut the mustard.

But you're right- real poetry should work on the page AND on the stage.

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[User Picture]From: hepo
2005-01-05 02:26 am (UTC)

I often pop into Waterstones and pick up a 'Top Ten' best seller, read the first few pages, toss it back. I'm so annoyed at the dribbley mush that purports to be dynamic, the here and now, writing. Bull S++t!

Poetry you say! I adore poetry. Try and pen it myself. But thank heavens I understand that poetry may take several minutes to write but a lifetime to master. So don't publish before you've lived.

I remember Cyril Fletcher. A wonderful orator. So what colour is YOUR smoking jacket?

According to statistics [Waterstones] only one in ten thousand reads poetry, and worse still, only one in one hundred thousand purchases it. I like those figures, being a reader, writer, buyer, kinda makes me an elite. In America every man and his hound writes poetry, has published, has vanity problem, has bonfire with unsold copies.

So you go ahead and hammer the book. There's far to much rubbish out there. Here's some useful phrases [and I do jest in my comments]:

'Couldn't put it down' -- 'Shakespeare! Eat yer heart out!' -- 'Very nice.' -- 'Lovely poems.' --

Poets so hate sarcasm or words that are non descriptive.


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[User Picture]From: poliphilo
2005-01-05 03:35 am (UTC)
W.B Yeats tells a story about going into a pub- probably the Cheshire Cheese in London- and finding it full of poets. He turned to his companion at the bar and said, "Wow, ain't this great."

And his companion gave him a gloomy look and said, "all I know is that there are far too many of us."

The point is that in any generation there will be only one or two poets whose work will survive.
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