Performance poetryperformance poetry is poetry that is specifically meant to be seen and heard by an audience, as opposed to being read off a page (or a computer screen). in this sense, performance poetry is a _sonic_ phenomenon, first and foremost, and thus more akin to music than to literature.
since the late 1980s, performance poetry has experienced a tremendous resurgence in the cultures of the united states and across the world. open mikes, which allow "unknown" poets to take the stage and share their own work in 3-5 minute increments, are common in cities large and small, and have birthed countless poets, some of them more performance-oriented than others. the best of this new breed of poets work from memory, and bring their poetry to life with passionate delivery that can fire up a crowd. the biggest open-mike in the world is "da poetry lounge" in los angeles, which takes place in the greenway court theater just off the intersection of fairfax and melrose, and draws some 200-300 people on a weekly basis. (see http://www.performancepoetry.com for more information, specifically http://lounge.performancepoetry.com.) slam poetry has become one popular form of performance poetry. in a poetry slam, performance poets -compete- against each other in front of an audience. the poets use their own original work, without any props or musical accompaniment, and are subject to a strict 3-minute time-limit with severe penalties for going overtime (generally half a point for every ten second increment over). poets are scored by 5 judges, who use a 0.00 to 10.00 scale, with the high and low scores being thrown out. the unique thing about the competition of slam, however, is the way that the judges are chosen -- they are selected -randomly- from the audience! in other words, they have -no- qualifications at all. indeed, since many slams are held in bars, the judges might well be -intoxicated-. this random selection is -by-design-, because the idea behind slam is that you shouldn't have to be a poetry expert to be able to understand and appreciate poetry, that it's the poet's job to make their work accessible to all. in this regard, slam poetry -- and performance poetry in general -- is a -populist- art-form, far removed from the ivory towers of print-based academic poets. because of the way the judges are picked, the competition of slam is more accurately characterized as a "mock" competition, but many slam poets didn't get the memo, and take it far too seriously. nonetheless -- or perhaps -because- of this -- a few sayings have become mantras in the slam community, one of them being "the best poet always loses", and the other being "the points are not the point, the point is poetry." the apex of the slam experience is the "national slam finals", held in a different city each year, where teams of poets (representing venues across the united states and canada) meet to compete against each other. as many as 63 4-person slam teams have journeyed to nationals, and it's always a big party. by the finals event, on saturday night, only 4 teams remain, and they compete in front of a crowd that has been as large as 2,000 people.
performance poetry has also been boosted considerably by the appearance of def jam -- the hip-hop recording company helmed by russell simmons -- on the scene. def jam has created a television show that showcases performance poets that runs on h.b.o., as well as a show of performance poets that ran on broadway for almost a year and won a tony award.
Performance poetry is certainly not a modern phenomenon. It begins with the performance of oral epics in Classical times -- necessitated by the difficulty of reproducing written text. All poets of ancient Greece and Rome performed their work before an audience. The art of reading silently was virtually unknown.
The custom was carried forward through the Middle Ages by the troubadors and travelling bards who went from one noble's court or house to another in order to earn their living.
Perhaps the first modern instance in English are lyrical ballads that arose in the Romantic period to tell the story of certain industrial events. Some of these lyrical ballads developed as the 'afterlife' of certain major poets such as Robert Burns and William Wordsworth.
In the 20th century, performance poetry was augmented by poetry readings from poets like Robert Frost. From small gatherings largely academic in nature, poetry readings were given national prominence when Frost was commissioned to write and read "The Gift Outright" at the inauguration of John F. Kennedy. After that event, spoken word recordings of Frost and other major figures enjoyed increased popularity.
Today, poetry readings are widespread at such events as the Geraldine R. Dodge Poetry Festival. In the 1990s, the Favorite Poem project of then U.S. Poet Laureate Robert Pinsky gave new visibility to ordinary Americans reading and performing their favorite poems.
Contemporary poets are experimenting today with poetry performances adapted to CD, to video, and to web audiences.