In defence of performance poetry


If I had a pound for every think-piece I’ve read about how bad slam poetry is, I’d be more financially secure than your average performance poet.

Clichéd, low-brow, forced: these are just a few of the words I’ve heard used to describe the medium by its detractors, who typically consider performance poetry the nadir of art. To me, this couldn’t be further than the truth (unless you consider performance poetry to be those awful Nationwide adverts, in which case I can forgive you.)

When you hear the term “performance poetry”, you may think of what linguist Lindsay Allen has called “slam voice”. Characterised by its unusual intonation and shifts in pitch and volume, it’s an oft-mocked feature of many slam poems. A memorable parody in 2014’s 22 Jump Street epitomises the contrived, cringeworthy reputation of this particular form of performance poetry.

Not all performance poetry is slam poetry, and not all slam poetry is the same. Poetry slams are competitive environments, with poets performing to a panel of judges. There are certainly stylistic trappings that slam poets and performance poets in general, particularly inexperienced ones, can fall into.

Overutilizing certain “tropes” of performance poetry, like the use of gesture or off-beat rhythms, can make a poem seem artificial.

Here’s, it’s important to remember Sturgeon’s Law; “90% of everything is bad”. Not all performance poetry is brilliant, but that can be said of any artistic medium. You wouldn’t stop watching movies because you didn’t like The Room, and for all the bad performance poets out there, there are individuals like Saul Williams, Denice Frohman, and Andrea Gibson making some incredible work.

“Slam voice” is a vocal reminder of the genre and artistic heritage a piece belongs to, in the same way that a heavy drinking anti-hero and a femme fatale might remind you of Film Noir. In the right hands, like most artistic devices, slam features can amplify a poem’s resonance.

In the best films, genre tropes blend in so perfectly that you don’t even register them, or subvert them in new and interesting ways. The same is true for performance poetry.

The worst objection I’ve heard to performance poetry is that it is too wedded to ideas of personal identity, of experiences of marginalisation concerning race, sexuality, gender, and class. I find it difficult to believe that page poetry is somehow divorced from these topics, but performance poetry has long been a space in which these intersections of identity might be discussed.

Performance poetry has typically been rooted in a particular form of politics, and for those who are galled by the efforts of poets to shed light on such issues, this is enough to condemn the medium for them. I’d ask those people to open their minds, both to new art forms and to the experiences discussed within them.

There are some that castigate performance poetry because it conjures up images of earnestness, the same kind of conviction that lies behind many awkward memories of adolescence. For me, witnessing that vulnerability is what makes the medium so powerful.

In a time where some consider “ironic bigotry” humour, and cringe culture teaches us that caring isn’t cool, the sincerity that’s often forefront in performance poetry can feel like a welcome outlier.

David Foster Wallace once described how the next literary rebels might “have the childish gall actually to endorse and instantiate single-entendre principles” with their work. These individuals might “risk accusations of sentimentality, melodrama. Of overcredulity. Of softness. Of willingness to be suckered by a world of lurkers and starers who fear gaze and ridicule above imprisonment without law.”

In my mind, Foster Wallace’s words are the best possible endorsement of performance poetry. The medium isn’t a homogenous movement and irony is often used to great effect, but not at the expense of the sincerity it celebrates.

The benefits of performance poetry when done well are manifold. Performance poetry nights are shared events that you experience with a group of people, connected so intimately to speech and the way that we communicate with each other that each performance becomes a study of living language. Iterations of a poem develop with each new staging and respond to conditions of its environment. No two versions are the same.

Not everyone is destined to be a performance poet. As someone who’s given it a go before, I know that much personally. I firmly believe, however, that anyone can enjoy watching a performance poem. Not every piece will be to your taste, but performance poetry is as versatile a medium as any other.

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