January 4th, 2005

Performance Poetry

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?