Poetry 101 - The Art of Noise

Poetry 101 logo

For the second day of our Poeme'en weekend, Susan Omand tries to help you unlearn all the things that school taught you about poetry and made it so scary...

Poetry is about more than just the words and their meaning. I mean, it IS about the words, otherwise there would be no poetry. It is just about more - the actual sound the words make together can really enhance the work.

Music may be able to get off with a lack of scripted noise (John Cage's 4'33" for example is four and a half minutes of somebody NOT playing an instrument and the "music" comes from the ambient surrounding noises of the concert hall or wherever, making for a different performance experience each time) but I don't think poetry can do this. This is why I think poetry should be read aloud in some way, even if you read it aloud in your head, which sounds odd but you'll see what I mean.

A good example of poetry that benefits from the sound of the words is the Night Mail by W H Auden. It was written specifically for a 1936 documentary film about a London, Midland and Scottish Railway (LMS) mail train from London to Scotland, produced by the GPO Film Unit. Read this little bit so you can hear the words and you'll find yourself falling into the rhythm of a steam train (remember it was 1936)...

"Letters of thanks, letters from banks,
Letters of joy from girl and boy,
Receipted bills and invitations
To inspect new stock or to visit relations,"


You see? The rhythm is very evocative and you can really only appreciate it by saying it. So it is with most, if not all poetry. Poetry is not silent - the rhythm and rhyme is important, if it is there. The use of alliteration (words that start with the same sound or letter) and onomatopoeia (words that sound like what they represent - think of the "Biff" "Bang" "Pow" in comic books) all really need to be pronounced.

Which brings me neatly to the performance of poetry. Not to be confused with Performance Poetry, poems that are written specifically for performance rather than print distribution, the performance of poetry is an essential way of getting poetry out there in a form other than conventional poetry books which many would not pick up, because of the aura of elitism that still surrounds them.

People are, however, quite happy to stop and listen to someone busking poetry on a street corner, or to watch a Youtube video. As with all audio experiences, the voice and the presentation are key and can make or break a poetry performance. Sometimes the writer of the poem is not the best person to perform it if they are not used to public speaking - bad readings can be stilted and uncomfortable to listen to and the focus is removed from the work itself. Either that or it can be theatrically declaimed in such an over-the-top manner, that again the focus is moved from words to performer. However, other writers can really add something extra to their own work, because they are comfortable with it and do not need to read it from a page. A great example of a writer performing his own work is Benjamin Zephaniah, who is actually a Performance poet and therefore relaxed enough with his own work that he doesn't have to read it from a page, allowing him to put the effort into the presentation of it.

And, from that, you know that it is only a very small step to some of the most accepted performance poetry of all...