Friday, 6 April 2012


Now that spring is with us here are a couple of photographs of the bluebells from last year. Not long now to wait for them this year.

This post though I want to ask you a question. Is there a difference between a poem that is written to be performed and a poem that is written to be read? You could argue that a performance is a reading and thus the question is meaningless.

However what I mean by performance poems are those poems specifically written to be performed rather than read on the page. An example of performance poetry would be John Cooper Clarke, the Bard of Salford who came to prominence in the late 1970’s as part of punk. Here is John reading I Married a Monster From Outer Space ( John was a great influence on performance poetry. Here is Attila The Stockbroker performing A Bang and a Whimpey (

Last nigh I was involved in a discussion about the differences between performance and written poetry, though I suppose all poetry was oral at one point, and still is in some cultures. To continue with Michael Langley’s metaphor from the last post, that prose is beer to poetry’s whisky, perhaps performance poetry is more like beer.

Many performance poems appeal to the ear more than the eye; when you see them on the printed page they do not work as well as when you hear them. I have to say at this point I am not trying to say one is better than the other. In fact I do consciously write poems that are meant to be spoken aloud. When you are on stage at a festival you have to capture attention of the audience, a sonnet at times will not do the trick, but something that is designed to be spoken loudly will.

I think the gist of the discussion last night was that poetry is meant to be lingered over, and that is easier for people in our culture to do when we read it. Perhaps the strength of performance poetry is that it takes us back to those times when we listened rather than read.

I cannot close without mentioning Beaseley Street By John Cooper Clarke, written in the early 1980’s Beaseley Street is a hugely ambitious work that contradicts all I have said about performance poetry. It works on the page, it works on the ear and in this version it works with a band ( ). At the time I always thought Beaseley Street was John’s answer to Desolation Row by Bob Dylan. I suppose this was partly because John looked like a dead ringer for Dylan in around 1966.

Here is a poem I tried out last night and intend to recite at the festivals I am at over the summer.


Try a long ladder, but take some butties along in a resealable box, it may be a long climb

Tie balloons full of helium to your arms. Tip: when you inflate them think Bill Clinton and do not inhale otherwise the Selanites won’t understand a blinking word

A trampoline won’t do it, you’ll just get a headache

Trick a flock of birds, harness them to your favourite item of garden furniture, perhaps use seagulls, but be careful, they may lead you a merry dance

Stowaway on a rocket, it will be a tight squeeze, ensure you are not in one of the booster stages than fall away and burn up on re-entry

Or fly there in your head, faster than a moonbeam made up of Higgs-Boson particles, expect to be disappointed, it is either too hot or too cold

The moon is nowhere, necessary but nothing to write home about, everywhere really interesting is so far away you would not believe the distances involved

Sleep now, the coming day will make you believe you could touch the sky and scoop the sun in both of your hands

But remember, all this is an illusion, it only looks real

(A word of explanation for those not brought up in the north-west of England butties are sandwiches.)

I am the festival poet at The Acoustic Festival of Britain ( ) and John Cooper Clarke is on the bill, why not come along and see both of us.


  1. I've wondered this myself. It's an interesting subject!

    I love your poem.

  2. Glad you like the poem. I'm performing it tomorrow at the poetry cafe in Frome.

  3. written and spoken word definitely take different skill sets. i personally suck at performance poetry. i have very little charisma and a lot of social anxiety. i prefer expressing myself on the paper, but i respect either way.

  4. Aguilar: I am sure you are better at it than you think, we are always our own worst critics. I tend to read fast, probably due to nerves, I have to consciously slow down. As you say both are good.

  5. Great poem Paul. I have recently tried reading my own poetry on YouTube but have decided that I have a face for radio! I know what you mean. The poem 'V' by Tony Harrison is enhanced by performance.

  6. Interesting post, Paul. I find some performances of "Performance Poetry" rhythmically relentless, others just fine. It seems there is space for a middle ground here: poetry that has its eye on being performed -- being accessible to fleeting encounter, while also carrying itself well on the page.
    The interface/Ven diagramme with rap is an interesting one too...

  7. I think all poetry MUST be read aloud, but ''performance'' poetry involves more aloudness than other poetry. JCC involves himself, his personality and the space around him. Heaney for instance, was very self-contained, stood back - only the words were the focus. I like both. I find with my students, as soon as I read aloud the poems they are studying, they come to life and they understand them. Bit like Shakespeare...... but that's another story!!

    1. Couldn't agree more. Heany chose each word so carefully there is a real power to his work.