Performance Poetry – As artful as poetry?

Normally it is thought that performance poems are generally less well wrought than written prosy. In some cases this may well be true: an excellent performer is able to get away with using potentially cliched rhymes by delivering them in a comic way, or is able to justify a lack of metrics with their own animate performance. But in some cases this is not true, performance poems can be well crafted, not only as pieces of dramatic, physical expression, but also with the words on the paper themselves, the rhetoric or the poetic language so to speak, also working on the audience. This combination is highly effective, in fact, it is hypnotic: it is the stuff that made Hitler’s rallies so diabolically compelling and the spell that the Hierophants of ancient Egypt cast over their people.

A good example of this effective combination was shown to me a few weeks back by a friend on my Creative Writing course, who’s also a committee member of the excellent ‘Writer’s Bloc’ creative writing society in Birmingham. The video has stuck with me for a long while, and I felt it time to look at some of the things that make this performance, and this poem, so exceptional.

The whole poem is onomatopoeic, he is playing the character of a malfunctioning machine or robot, and both his words and his performance of them imitate  and represent this state. He uses repetition, and stutter, as part of the language to create the sense of a glitching computer system and in the middle of the poem the metre and regularity literally go haywire as the sentences become so fast and frantic each line seems to become merely what he is able to deliver in one breath. The breakdown into almost indecipherable language reflects the robot’s own total malfunction. It spews out thoughts, tenuously related phenomenon, and imagery as if its memory banks are overloading and the system is crashing. But after this chaos, which some may view scepitcally due to its lack of any remote form, the poem, the subject and the charatcer of the robot all move to order in the last line: ‘I am ripping cables out of me and finding I am still electric.’ – it conforms to a perfect trochaic beat (stress, unstress) giving it a purposeful but measured drive – exactly like the workings of a machine.

It is true that performance poetry is quite obviously a very different art to that of written poetry, effects can be achieved in each that cannot be achieved in other, but it is still equally as challenging to construct a good performance poem, and in that vein, we must give all due credit and admiration to B. Dolan.


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