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What Is Performance Poetry?

By Meghan Perry
Updated May 23, 2024
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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.

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Discussion Comments
By chivebasil — On Jan 26, 2012

Is it appropriate to go to an open mike poetry night and try to do an aggressive style of performance poetry, something that involved lots of movement or bombast?

I am wondering because I have an idea for a poem to accompany a performance, but I have never seen anything like it done at an open mike night which is probably the only place I could find a stage to do it.

Are there any poets out there? How would you feel if you were at a very chaste and respectful poetry reading and someone busted out a wild performance? Would this be exciting or just gimmicky?

By gravois — On Jan 25, 2012

I had a friend who wrote a lot of poetry with repeated words. On the page it would just look like the same word over and over again.

But when he read the poems out loud, particularly in front of a real audience, he would inflect and stress and project each word in it's own unique way. Each word took on a different meaning in spite of having the same spelling as the word which came before it.

It was really cool to watch and the crowds often responded positively. His poems were really made to be performed. Without him there to do them they became something much different and much less.

By tigers88 — On Jan 24, 2012

To a certain extent all poetry is a performance. Poetry can have an incredible effect on the page, but to truly get the impact for a work you have to hear it out loud, hopefully from the voice of the poet.

Even in a setting where the poet makes no attempt to add performance elements there is something added by seeing and hearing the words spoken out of a face on top of a body sitting or standing. I have seen very nervous, monotone, rushed or whispery poets give amazing performances, almost in spite of themselves.

So I don't think we should be too quick to define performance poetry. It is a general aspect of poetry, it exist for all poems.

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