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performance poetry


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A term applied to poetry specifically written to be performed out loud. The work may sometimes transfer successfully to the printed page, but its true power usually lies in the moment of public performance. Often with an anti‐establishment edge, performance poetry covers a wide range of poetic activity, from topical satire and burlesque to ranting and agitprop, including avant‐garde sound poetry and mixings of word and music. Usually performed from memory, rather than read, it can be accompanied by highly choreographed gestures and subtle voice techniques, leading to accusations (not always unjust) of style over substance. American jazz poet Kenneth Rexroth's (1905–82) motivation to ‘get poetry out of the hands of the professors… to make poetry a part of show business’ remains at the heart of performance poetry today. Performance poets are less likely to appear at literary clubs than in music venues, bars, comedy festivals, and on radio, and some issue a CD before a book.

In the 1960s, Ginsberg took oral poetry into coffee houses, pop festivals, and art happenings. In Britain, the spirit was spread by M. Horovitz, A. Mitchell and the Liverpool Poets. Maverick figures with a music‐hall tilt followed, including Glasgow absurdist Ivor Cutler (1923–2006); then, in the mid‐1970s, punky quick‐fire monologuist John Cooper Clarke (1950– ), and from the mid‐1980s cabaret scene, John Hegley (1953– ). In America performance activity has recently been sparked by New York's Nuyorican Poets Café, home of the Poetry Slam, a raucous stand‐up poetry talent contest. Meanwhile in Britain, performance poetry has now become most closely identified with black writers such as Zephaniah, L. K. Johnson, and the more playful Guyanese‐born poet J. Agard. See also jazz poetry.

Subjects: Literature.


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