There has been much handwringing over the terms ‘performance poetry’ and ‘spoken word’. Neither really apply to Ranting Verse as each of these three occupy their own space in time and have their own style of writing and delivery.
Ranting was a boot up the arse of lazy, established poetry. Sometimes one with too blunt a toecap, but that’s revolutions comrade. Ranting was angry, working class and very rough around the edges. It was also diverse and enthusiastic, sometimes undeservedly. What it did well was to get a generation of writers onto the stage. There wasn’t talk of a page/stage divide in the 80s.
With more and more poetry venues starting back in the 80s, such as Apples and Snakes who were very different then from what they are today, more and more people took to live poetry. In those days one of the criteria for getting an Equity card was having done a number of performances. It was easier for drama students to be ‘a poet’ than it was for them to get acting jobs and so during the late 80s-90s poetry venues were awash with posh actor types delivering ‘hilarious’ character turns as poets. They were noticeable by the way they’d adopt a stereotypical ‘fick’ working class accent every time they portrayed a yob, average bloke, housewife or copper. The likes of myself and Tim Turnbull took to loudly booing them as this became more and more prevalent and more and more annoying.
Performance Poetry was the next generation on from ranting and wore its drama school togs with pride. Performance poetry was memorised by the poets, usually had a liberal political twist, Grauniad rather than Class War, and was accompanied by much arm waving and posturing. Alas, poor Yorick. Performance poetry claimed to be opening up poetry, which to an extent it did, but whilst ranters had performed with bands and sound systems, gigged widely and button-holed anyone who’d listen the performance poets seemed to care less about the normal punters and keep an eye on the culture section of the Sunday papers, desperate for any mention.
Arts admins were quick to sweep out the more salty ranters, and to be fair the literary quality of a lot of ranting poetry wasn’t great. The new middle-class poets were happy with the ‘performance’ tag as it differentiated them from us and also from the poetic establishment. The poetic established invests in applying caveats such as ‘performance’ to keep the elite elite.
As more and more teeth were gritted at the forced earnestness of ‘performance poetry’ a new term came to be in vogue: spoken word. For writers of my generation, born in the 60s!, spoken word could well apply to people such as Spalding Gray or Lydia Lunch who weren’t exactly poets but did do live shows that also weren’t theatre. With the new generation it carried a more poetic twist, much of it from rap, and was keen to be distanced from the painful pretence of the worst of ‘performance poetry’.
Personally I’ve only ever been happy being referred to as a poet. I know the power in names and labels and also know that no matter how good you are on stage, good writing underlies everything you do there. I have punched people who’ve written of me as a ‘punk poet’. No doubt I will do so again. I look forward to it.
These days the terms are usually found in the regular ‘poetry is dead’/’poetry is the new rock ‘n’ roll’ articles churned out by lazy journos and pored over by admins desperate for press inches to bleed for funding criteria. As ever the poets themselves enjoy the ever widening range of styles and the new people to dance, drink and dally with. Or not, yeah… they’re the performance poets.