Saturday, August 20, 2011

What Kind of Poet are You -- Page or Stage?

Page, or Stage – What’s the Difference?

Published Poets
Page poets generally come from the academic side, who, according to a blog by Nic Sabastian, "tend to be better writers, in that they tend to be better read and more aware of the tradition they’re working in." (The Best American Poetry).  Their goal is to be published in journals, magazines, anthologies,  and other print media.  Not all who write for the page are good at reciting or performing their poetry.  In fact, some are awful at it!

Performance poets, on the other hand, write or compose poetry for the purpose of performing in front of a live audience -- at poetry readings, open mikes, slams and other types of venues.   But performance poets are challenged, too.  Their work is compromised when rhythm and repetition predominate over substance, or in jazz poetry, for example, when the music fights with the poem instead of being an integral part of it.
Slam Poetry
But Some Poets Can Do Both.

As noted in Sabastian's blog, there are some poets who forcefully deliver their poems whether written for performance or not.  He cites a poem by Carolyn Forche that is recited, and another one that he describes as a “wonderful reading, in which she is straight reading and doesn’t even look up from the page.”   He uses Patti Smith’s work (recitation, reading) to make a similar comparison.

Truth is, Both Types of Poet Can Learn From Each Other.   

Those who write for publication would do well to read their poetry aloud, if only to themselves.  Hearing it aloud can uncover awkward phrasing, slack lines, or other elements that are a drag on the poem.  Page poets should not be intimidated by performance poets.  Even a quieter intimate poem can be compelling.  Poems that lose something by being read loudly or boisterously still work if read with the help of a microphone.

Poetry Reading

Similarly, performance poets can enrich their poems by paying attention to the richness of the language in addition to repetition, rhythm, and various word plays.  If a poem goes thud! on the page, it won't have the same integrity as a poem that does.  And a poem that's more about sound than sense wears thin pretty quickly.

All of this is encouraging, since it may challenge poets in new ways creatively, as well as provide them with another way to hone their craft.  Anyway, that's how I see it.  I'd love to hear what you have to say about it!


  1. Betsy - had no idea there was that much difference between the two types of poets, nor, particularly, that there might be any sort of friction between written and performed. Very enlightening.

    I've not written poetry in quite some years, but have always, when I did, read it aloud first, both to myself and then to my partner or a very close friend. In fact, I even make a practice of reading my articles aloud, as what one has wrtten may LOOK great, but sound bloody wretched.

    One of the many things I've always enjoyed about one-man or one-person dramatic presentations is that, if done right, one feels rather like the actor has recited poetry to you, albeit of a rough variety, perhaps. Am thinking here of one-man shows I've seen of Oscar Wilde, John Barrymore (by Christopher Plummer, I believe), Junius Brutus Booth.

    Even, in a way, Glenn Close's monologue as Sunny von Bulow, telling her side of life with Claus (played by Jeremy Irons) while in a comma and in her hospital bed. "Reversal of Fortune was the film." Likewise, many of Derek Jacobi's monologues during the "I, Claudius" series strike me now as almost performance poetry.

    As a little, slightly perverse addition, I'm closing out with one of my all-time little favorite written poems by Hilaire Belloc. Title is "The Modern Traveler." Dug it up & used it for an article in Suite 101 that concerned the Maxim, Gatling & Nordenfelt guns (all rapid-fire) & how they changed the whole landscape of war:

    Blood thought he knew the native mind;
    He said you must be firm, but kind.
    A mutiny resulted.
    I shall never forget the way
    That Blood stood upon this awful day
    Preserved us all from death.
    He stood upon a little mound
    Cast his lethargic eyes around,
    And said beneath his breath:
    'Whatever happens, we have got
    The Maxim Gun, and they have not."

    "The Modern Traveler" by Hilaire Belloc
    Best, Larry Slater (wonderful blog entry btw)

  2. Hi, Larry. Thanks for your comments -- interesting as usual! I agree that any type of writing, poetry or expositive, can improve when the writer reads it aloud. And I like the connection you make between poetry and deeply moving monologue.

  3. Hi Elizabeth: I'm basically a performance poet but I do have a book out that's selling pretty well. I do take some acception to your comments that Performance Poetry is limited to open mics and Slams. Their have been many professional poets through the years who have done quite well with performance work examples include: Walt Whitman,Henry Miller,Cicero and Tupac Shikur. "Reverend" Otis of the world renowned Watts Prophets Performance Poetry Troupe once told me a way to describe the difference between the two camps. He said " Page poets write on paper. Performance poets write on the hearts of their listeners." Performance Poets have long been looked down on by their "page based brothers" and are often considered less than they as a cultural vehicle. Yet if you ask someone how they make a living and they answer"my poetry", odds are good that their probably a performance poet. Thanks for sharing your opinions and allowing me to give mine. "Laughing" Larry Berger

  4. Hi, Larry. Thanks for your comments! You're right that there are performance poetry artists I didn't mention. The history of performance poetry, including the origins of the oral tradition and the contributions of Cid Corman, who coined the term "oral poetry" Hedwig Gorski, who is the first so-called "performance poet" (writing poems solely for performance) and Alan Ginsberg and the "beats" among others. As far as venues in which performance poetry is currently performed, slams and open mikes are in the mix, but I didn't say they were the only venue. I just cited them as examples. I realize people feel strongly about the two sides; I was hoping to show that they needn't be in competition with each other -- they're just different from each other. Both, in good ways. Again, thanks for your interest.



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