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A note on performance poetry

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Poetry for the Stage and the Page

You don’t need to wander lonely as a cloud to express your feelings and opinions, or compare your love to a summer’s day to be a poet. Poets of the 21st century are popularising performance poetry once again. Spoken word has become a genre of its own. Open mic poetry nights are popping up everywhere from urban main streets to small country towns.

allen ginsberg performance poem america extractPoetry has always been read aloud, with the first ever poets doing a service of public poetry, back when the majority of the population couldn’t read. However, the main things that separate a poetry reading from a poetry performance are passion and purpose. The beatnik Allen Ginsberg, after having his works banned from sale and public radio, took advantage of back rooms and backstreets sharing his controversial views and sharp, naked observations of the world from the curb with those who wanted to hear them. Consequently, spoken word in this form was a revolt from convention and a need to be heard.

In more recent years, the likes of Kate Tempest and Akala have cast a huge light onto the spoken word scene. With the convergence of rap music and literary prowess, spoken word poetry reaches out to more audiences than ever, spreading its wings from political protests to playful comedy. To give an idea of the vastly inspired creative leaps in performance poetry, Tempest has quoted two of her main influences as William Blake and the Wu-Tang Clan.

Poetry slams and jams

Poetry slams became popular in the late eighties. These are competitions in which poets perform their work to an audience. Sometimes they’re given a subject or theme, sometimes no theme, and sometimes freestyle poetry which brings to mind freestyle rap battles. Eventually, poetry slams bore poetry jams. These jams are open spaces for poets to perfect their craft. They can try out new material or simply perform with like-minded writers. DEF Poetry was a show on HBO during the 2000s. It promoted spoken word poetry with performances from slam winners from around the United States including Rives and Beau Sia.

lemn sissay inspire and be inspired performance poem

In the UK, live shows – unfortunately not for broadcast as of yet – are increasingly popular. Community programmes and schemes which aim to promote and encourage young writers are garnering huge support.

Promoting poetry through performance

Apples and Snakes was founded in 1982 by a group of spoken word artists dedicated to the cause. It is the first and biggest organisation for performance and spoken word poetry in the UK. Apple and Snakes works with all kinds of institutions from schools to prisons. The programmes bring the art of performance poetry into the lives of those who may not usually be exposed to it.

extract from human beings by adrian mitchellPoetry written for the stage can be just as thrilling on the page, with sprawling text or visual aids to help stimulate the rhythmic vibe of performance. Furthermore, spoken word poets release their verse in audio format as well as books, so you could even experience both at the same time. At World of Books, we have a vast selection of poetry collections, from culture-defining classics to vivacious new verse.

Try something you wouldn’t usually go for, and don’t forget to check out live performances of poetry when you can. I’m sure there’s a spoken word night somewhere near you! You may even be privileged to witness a future laureate.


Check out our eclectic mix of used poetry books, anthologies, and collections. Find or re-discover a whole new world of verse.

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If you dabble in poetry writing, why not turn your hand at writing for performance? Let us know your favourite poems to read aloud in the comments.

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