|Pigs will eat cheese but ignore poetry|
Perhaps it’s a bit like the first act in a variety show. The audience need a warm-up, the big guns are being saved for later; it’s a moment for the brave new souls with ambitions to chance it. The first night of the Bath Lit Fest, for me anyway, consisted of following a performance poetry troupe on a pub crawl. It was a Friday. Bath ale pubs may not be rowdy, but they were certainly full of people who had gone out for a good chin-wag over a hearty brew and who did not want their gossip exchange interrupted with amplified phases that rhymed.
I was there with a poet, Richard Jones, who has just produced his first pamphlet, of which he is rightly proud. It is a stunning thing, full of phrases and implicit insights that silence me as I think, how did he do this? It is poetry to be read aloud, preferably in Richard’s own Swansea rhythms, but it is not ‘performance poetry.’ Performance poetry is a breed all of its own. It is not quite song, not quite hip-hop; that it is often featured in a ‘slam,’ or a kind of high-speed breathless battle of diaphragms, is telling. When it is really funny it can be brilliant, but also when it is angry polemic, or a form of rhythmic rant. We did laugh, in Bath, when we were able to catch a whole poem over the hubbub, but sometimes we also cringed. This is to be expected.
There is poetry out there that works perfectly on the page, but also lends itself to being spoken and absorbed through the ears. On the other hand, there is poetry, especially some performance poetry, that is made only for aural consumption, and is weak on paper without the accelerating engine of a charismatic speaker to bring it to life. Some poetry depends for its soul on the out-loud voice of the maker. If you’ve ever heard a Radio 4 reader reproduce a poem by Benjamin Zephaniah you’ll know what I mean. Zephaniah’s poems are still a wonder when read in the head though; they are not only for the ears. Even though he confesses himself that he cannot bear to hear them read aloud in British middle class received pronunciation, those of us who speak that way can engage with them alone, even if a performance is better.
All this rattled around my head as I listened to students in those Bath pubs lamenting relationship failures, subjecting themselves to cruel satirical scrutiny and proclaiming their multi-national roots in verse. When I didn’t get it I feared I was missing something myself, that I was out of touch with modern poetic modes. I wondered if I would still have cringed or giggled if I had been reading the same words at home in my room.
But after all, there was something – dare I say it – authentic about what those daring performance poets put out into the genteel air of Bath Spa. The next day I couldn’t face a recording of Radio 4’s The Book Show with Mariella Frostrup, or Alain de Botton pontificating about religion for atheists. Instead the poet and I wandered amongst junk at the market, trying on purple leather gloves and admiring battered leather suitcases that were far too self-consciously cool for anyone over 21. Authentic, yes, but cringe-inducing also; we left them at the market and ate a big plate of cheese instead.