page vs performance

Ros Barber is annoyed by the use of the term ‘performance poet’ in a disparaging way and “can’t see the sense in perpetuating the page/performance divide”. George Szirtes thinks the distinction is useful, and makes a good point about the intimacy and privacy of reading poetry from the page.

One-to-one reading is like reading a letter. Its context is concentration, direct address, detachment, the sense of being alone with experience, language and little else.

I basically agree with Szirtes. I think of poetry as a written medium that should work orally, rather than an oral medium that happens to be recorded in writing. A good poem should have been painstakingly written to get everything the poet wants into the words themselves, and the very idea of ‘performance’, with its implication of adding something to the poem, offends my sense that the words should be everything.

Of course if a poet is going to give readings, they should try to do them as well as possible; but for me, that means a careful, thoughtful reading-aloud of the poem, rather than an attempt to make it into a microdrama. I find poetry readings by actors are often unbearable for that very reason – they tend to use the poem as the script for a performance, rather than effacing themselves and trying to do the best possible job of communicating the poem.

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