Although poetry has long been pronounced a dying literary genre, it is currently experiencing a renaissance through the spoken word. When I went to London in 2004 for a year of study and research, I was surprised to discover a great variety of live poetry events, where poetry was performed in a direct encounter between author and audience. The poetry slam—a staged poetry competition at which the poets’ performances are judged by the audience, rather than by experts—has spread to Europe from the USA and gained in popularity with its fresh, accessible idiom.
In the UK, the new awareness of the orality of poetry has also given rise to more demanding, experimental and avant-garde forms beyond the competition format. The complex, sensual poetry of Anthony Joseph, for instance, unfolds its full effect in performance: the poet exploits the expressive potential of the human voice, produces subtle nuances of tone and employs his whole body, so that many of the peculiarities of his work emerge only in performance. Furthermore, he often recites his poetry by heart. It would therefore be wrong to speak of a “reading”—he establishes eye contact with his audience and thus addresses them directly.
Without Public Attention
The UK, like the USA, has recently seen the development of a dedicated live poetry scene consisting of organisations, festivals and agencies that organise poetry performances all over the country and are fully committed to the spoken word. What is new about these developments—after all, poetry readings and performances have existed for a long time—is the willingness to concede to live poetry an aesthetic value independent of print: the “spoken word” is regularly proclaimed an art form in its own right.
However, literary critics have hardly taken notice of the activities of the new live poetry scene; poetry performances are hardly ever reviewed. Moreover, literary studies offer no systematic methodology, no analytical ‘toolkit’, to address live poetry’s distinctive characteristics. The reason for this neglect may be found in the aura of primitivism that is sometimes thought to surround the spoken word, in contrast to the more “sophisticated” medium of writing. More likely, though, it is due to the fact that live poetry bears literary, musical (speech melody, rhythm) and theatrical (mimic, gesture) features, which makes it difficult to allocate it unambiguously to traditional research disciplines and review categories.
Trying to Close the Gap
It thus seems to be situated in an undefined, liminal zone, with the result that no one feels competent or responsible for its critical examination. One can argue, however, that poems consist of words, and that the word—not to mention language in general—exists in two medial forms: written and spoken. A poem can thus be realised in two different media by the poet. The etymology of the term “poetry” (or the German term Lyrik) does not imply writing, in contrast to the origin of the overarching term “literature” (from Latin littera meaning “letter”). Consequently, live poetry can be regarded as a basic mode of poetry rather than as an oral presentation of an essentially written text. As poetry has long been an object of literary studies, live poetry can and should be counted as part of this research discipline.
My research at the University of Vienna is aiming to close the aforementioned gap by developing a systematic approach to poetry performances. I start from the assumption that suitable methods for describing and analysing live poetry can be found in different disciplines and made applicable to the study of live poetry. The analysis can be based on a ‘close listening’ and a ‘close viewing’ of a recorded performance. Thus, for instance, musical notation may serve to represent aspects such as speech melody or rhythm. The expressive potential of speech sounds and acoustic features such as timbre can be established with the help of a semiotic approach that is geared towards identifying ‘meaning potentials’ (rather than definite, objective ‘translations’).
The field of kinesics offers tools for the analysis of gesture, for example, while theatre studies and performance studies shed light on possible relationships between poet-performer, audience and space. Ultimately, the outcome will be a comprehensive ‘toolkit’ for researchers of live poetry that enables them to engage with the aesthetics of poetry in performance. This will, I hope, bring live poetry into the mainstream of literary research and criticism. After all, it should not be forgotten that scholarly engagement with live poetry touches upon an important question concerning poetry in general: that of the future development—and survival—of the genre in contemporary media cultures.