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Performance poetry is a type of poetry that is performed for an audience. The poetry can be written in advance, or it can be spontaneously composed while the performance is in progress. It is different than just reading poetry aloud that has been written for the printed page. This type of poetry has risen and declined in popularity throughout the years. The most recent revival started in the U.S. in the 1980s with the beginning of open mic nights and poetry slams, which are competitions for performance poets.
In some ways, performance poetry, sometimes known as spoken word, is connected to oral traditions that date back to ancient times before the written word. In these cases, the poetry, or story, was passed down orally to each generation. They then added their own twists and styles of performance into the story so that each performance was unique. As these poems or stories had to be memorized, certain devices were used to aid this process, and they are still used today. Some of these include using rhyme, alliteration — which is when several words start with the same letter — and kennings — in which a phrase, often poetic, can be substituted for a noun in a poem.
Percussion is also important in performance poetry. The modern style has been influenced by hip-hop, which utilizes all of these devices. This type of poetry should also have an idea, emotion, or perspective that drives the poem. Often, this may relate to popular culture or social or political events. Performance poets also often incorporate aspects of their personal lives into their performances.
The poet's use of gestures or body language while performing the poem is also important. This can be connected to an earlier form of performance poetry, in which theatrical events were the venue for this type of art. Music may also be part of performance poetry; for example, beat poet Allen Ginsberg often incorporated the spoken word with jazz. While performance poetry cannot be captured for the mass audience in the same way that a written poem can, audio recordings have made it more accessible to a larger number of people.
The National Endowment for the Arts (NEA) in the U.S. categorizes performance poetry as literature rather than visual art. This is largely because the performance is focused on rhetoric and language. There are national performance poetry competitions, and the NEA offers programs dedicated to teaching this type of poetry.