MESSING WITH THE CANON: PERFORMANCE POETRY
BY MARTHA BLOW
In our current age of tweets, memes, emojis and ‘instapoetry’, when there are ‘more writ- ten words flowing between us than at any other time’, the dominance of print culture is waning (Sissay). Consequently, performance poetry has made a steady resurgence, going from poetry slams at the Chicago Green Mill Bar in the mid-1980s to a prime-time spot on BBC with Kate Tempest in October 2016. Although oral poetry harks back to pre-literate societies, the dominant voices in the modern Western poetic canon are white, middle-class and male: indeed, Carol Ann Duffy was the first woman breaking this canonised tradition when she was appointed poet laureate in 2009. Performance poetry breaks from this ascendency, giving a voice to those left out of literary history.
Spoken-word poetry is innately rebellious, resisting the traditional written poetic form. The boundaries between forms are transgressed in performance poetry, resulting in Kate Tempest winning the Ted Hughes Award in 2013 for Brand New Ancients and also being nominated for a Mercury Prize in 2014 for Everybody Down. Moving away from in- ward-looking lyricism, which characterised poetry from the Romantics to the Confessionals, poems often focus instead on inequalities of society. John Cooper-Clarke’s poetry gives a glimpse into life in working-class Salford, epitomised in ‘Beezley Street’: “it’s a sociologist’s paradise / each day repeats / uneasy cheesy greasy queasy beastly beezley street” (Cooper-Clarke). Linton Kwesi Johnson and Benjamin Zephaniah share Jamaican heritage which they bring to their poetry, often categorised as ‘dub-poetry’ due to Jamaican dub-music’s stylistic influence. Sabrina Mahfouz is concerned with the empowerment of women, and Kate Tempest takes down capitalism. However, this is not to reduce the nuanced meanings of their work; only to demonstrate their concerns outwith prevalent poetical discourse.
From the 1970s-present day, their poems were composed during times of huge social upheaval in Britain; from the alienation of the working class through Thatcher’s deindustrialisation and the ‘sus’ law of the 1984 Vagrancy Act, which often targeted young black men, to the current moment in which Donald Trump is president and when we have yet to witness the fallout of major political events such as Brexit. Despite their location in history, the themes of each of these poems are nonetheless hauntingly familiar. John Cooper-Clarke’s ‘You Never See a Nipple in the Daily Express’ could be a tagline of the current ‘Free the Nipple’ campaign; Johnson’s ‘Sonny’s Lettah’ bears an uncomfortable resemblance to ongoing police brutality in the US; Sabrina Mahfouz undermines the view that strip clubs and sex work is empowering and urges women to reclaim their bodies; Zephaniah’s ‘Rong Radio’ resonates with the 2016 Word of the Year, ‘post-truth’ (Oxford Dictionaries). Tempest’s ‘Europe is Lost’ is too recent to consider history, released in the midst of Brexit, Trump’s election, selfie culture and global warming. Tempest contrasts the ongoing list of global crises with the British culture she condemns: “massacres, massacres, massacres / new shoes”, in turn forcing the listener to question their position in the world and inviting them to speak up and protest with her (Tempest).
Performance poetry is made to be public and collective. Through the spoken word, language alters to be given a new meaning through each new utterance and context, meaning that the spoken-word poem is a collective one. This form of poetry is democratic, simultaneously providing a platform for the lesser-heard voices of society racial minorities, women, the working-class, and others not represented by these poets and blurring the boundaries between poet and audience in a way which is uncommon in written poetry. It is therefore fitting that the themes of protest heard within their poems are projected through performance, which has both given voice to the authors and will continue to give voice to the listeners. This is reflected in the variations between the spoken poems and their written counterparts. Unlike a written poem, whose words are unchanged and which remains static in its location in history, these poems are given new relevance and meaning through each new performance. Live renditions of Cooper-Clarke’s ‘You Never See a Nipple in the Daily Express’ vary from “I’ve seen fairytales turned into facts / concerning strikers’ terrorist acts” (Cooper-Clarke 2012) to “I’ve seen fairytales disguised as facts / concerning Hughie Scanlon and his treacherous acts” (Cooper-Clarke), morphing the poem to fit a new context and utter a new protest at each recital. The relevance of this style of performance is unequivocal: one questions what his performance would entail in the wake of the Hollywood sexual abuse scandal or in an era of post-truth politics.
Performance poetry is, therefore, a form characterised by its universality. Sabrina Mahfouz’s ‘First Night’ becomes universal through her performance; Mahfouz employs different accents and characteristics throughout her recitation, demonstrating the transnational nature of the issues she addresses. This would fail to translate on the page; the performance is integral to the meaning of the poem. Similarly in Linton Kwesi Johnson’s work, the use of reggae music and rhythmic accentuation, which are only available in performance, are fundamental to his protest. The validity of the black voice is legitimised through his rejection of typical Western poetic forms in favour of Jamaican styles of oral storytelling and song. Furthermore, this type of performance poetry was made necessary by the discrimination black poets faced in being published. Each performance is a protest against the discrimination minorities felt in the Western canon. This is also addressed by Benjamin Zephaniah, who legitimises dub poetry as opposed to canonised forms in ‘Dis Poetry’: “I’ve tried to be more romantic, it does nu good for me / So I tek a Reggae Riddim an build me poetry” (Zephaniah). The ubiquity of these messages of resistance spans history, nationality, class, and gender.
Nonetheless, this is not to limit Zephaniah and Johnson’s work to the experience of the black British poet; Henghameh Saroukhani makes the case that their poetry “necessarily moves beyond black Britain” (Saroukhani). The reggae rhythm in Johnson’s trochaic poem ‘Dread Beat an’ Blood’ is intoxicating to the listener; elsewhere in his poetry, such as ‘Wi a Warriyah’, Johnson uses a call-and-response to engage the audience. Raphaël Costambeys-Kempczynski states “[Johnson’s] is a poetry neither sitting on a dusty shelf nor locked away in the culture of negritude but a poetry accessible to and addressing other groups” (Costambeys-Kempczynski). Through these methods, the reader becomes implicit in Johnson’s protests, and in turn the words form part of their own protests.
Zephaniah similarly uses Jamaican patois and reggae rhythm within his poetry, and through this undermines the dominance of a white capitalist culture. ‘Rong Radio’ echoes Cooper-Clarke’s damnation of media propaganda: “I was beginning to believe that all black men were bad men / and white men would reign again” (Zephaniah). The repeated refrain “I’ve been listening to the wrong radio station” creates a relationship with the listener who is compelled to join in on these utterances, therefore becoming part of Zephaniah’s protest; again something only experienced in performances (Zephaniah). Tempest exploits song-writing tropes such as choruses in order to invoke audience participation as listeners sing along. This dissolves the boundaries between forms and highlights the collective and performative nature of her protest: ‘Europe is Lost’ repeatedly asks “what am I gonna do to wake up?”, forcing the readers to question this themselves (Tempest). Cooper-Clarke’s motor-mouthed delivery, Mahfouz’s dramatisation, Zephaniah and Johnson’s rhythmically inflected speech and Tempest’s powerful energy are all defining features of their poetry which are impossible to replicate on the page; and these paralinguistic elements are integral to their resistance of dominant culture.
This form of poetry is not without controversy. Despite the rise in performance poetry’s popularity in recent years, amongst the literary elite it is still frequently viewed as philistinic and poetically inept. A damning review of Tempest entitled “Kate Tempest’s poetry is simply no good” in The Spectator displaces her talent, instead crediting “Arts Council grandees who believe their mission is to reach down to the uncivilised and protean human type” as the cause of her popularity (Evans). This attitude is prevalent amongst those who fear the ambiguity of performance poetry: when Linton Kwesi Johnson became the second living poet to be published in the Penguin Modern Classics Series, academic Caryl Phillips claimed Penguin were “messing with the canon” (Jaggi 2004). Performance poetry is often seen as revolutionary rather than evolutionary and an atavistic fear amongst critics en- sues, reinforcing the dominance of a white patriarchal canon.
However, this is precisely why these poems are important: the canon must necessarily be “messed with” in order to remain relevant. In our technological age, written poetry is no longer necessarily pertinent. Moreover, at a time when ‘instapoet’ Rupi Kaur has amassed 1.9 million followers on Instagram, and Benjamin Zephaniah and Lemn Sissay are using Twitter’s character limit as a new form of poetry playfully referred to as the ‘twihaiku’ by The Independent— the need for poetry to fit into past tradition must be challenged (Cripps). Performance democratises the poem and each new recitation offers a revision of meaning, ultimately taking poetry “from the shelf to the street, from the individual to the community, from the private sphere to the public sphere” (Costambeys-Kempczynski). Through the spoken word, the poetic also becomes the political; allowing women poets, working class poets, black poets and other poets often left out of the canon to make their voice heard.