#9: Some Performance Poets Are Not Very Good At Poetry

They’re often yelling, for starters,
and even the good ones have a particular cadence
and that annoying inflection that always goes up at the end
as if they were, in the words of one performance poet, always asking a question.

One wonders if the same poems, the ones shouted at audiences
or delivered at break-neck speed for no apparent reason,
would survive on the page, or the screen for that matter,
simple, elegant, black words on a white sheet.

What would The Reader do without that insistent, petulant voice,
the voice that is oftentimes saying really important things
that get lost in the shouting or the awkward hand gestures
or the navel-gazing rocking back and forth?

She would, ultimately, have only the words to deal with,
words that must or should at least aspire to be in print
equal to what they would be coming out of a beautiful mouth.
I wonder how often they’d fall flat, and she’d respond by saying,

Some performance poets are not very good at poetry.

Notes:  in yet another situation where I am simply trying on a stance for the sake of a poem, I’m not sure that I can be totally down on the slam poetry movement. There are some truly gifted performers out there, some of whom are also really great writers.  And, more importantly, I think that performance poets and slam poets have done a tremendous service–to kids, generally speaking, in that they have given young people a forum for speaking their truth, and for poetry, in that they have made absolutely hip this thing that so many people peg (albeit, incorrectly) as elitist and inaccessible and frightening–mostly because they had teachers who taught it that way in high school–ugh–or who didn’t teach it at all–double ugh.

But, there is, we must admit, some huge stylistic pitfalls with the performance poem, those described in my little poem.  And as a writer, and one that enjoys the performance aspect of a reading, I find myself often asking at the end of a really strong performance: how would that thing work on the page?

Cheers.  See you tomorrow!

Published by michaeljarmer

I'm a public high school English teacher, fiction writer, poet, and musician in Portland, Oregon

4 thoughts on “#9: Some Performance Poets Are Not Very Good At Poetry

  1. Interesting thoughts! I just stumbled across this looking at other people who are doing NaPoWriMo. I’m a performance/slam poet and for a long time I considered my “page poetry” and “slam poetry” to be completely different genres. Lately I’ve been trying to write performable page poetry / readable slam poetry and I think the result generally improves things in both directions. It’s a hard balance though!

    1. Halogenglass,

      I think you’re absolutely right–thinking both about how the thing looks on the page and how it sounds when read aloud–best of both worlds. Thanks for reading and commenting!

  2. Bravo! Yeah, I went to a slam poetry reading once and encountered the same problems. I am thinking many could learn the basics of oratory.

    1. Yes, indeed, El Santo. Even outside of the slam, I’ve heard great poems read poorly and bad poems read well–and that’s what it’s about most of the time: effective oral communication. Thanks for reading and commenting!

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