Monday, 5 December 2011

Performing Poetry

Beryl Cook: Poetry Reading

I've been planning to post something on 'Seeing Things: the Poet's Vision' but my 'poetry time' has been much taken up with preparing for a poetry performance with the group I work with - choosing poems, timing them, finding images to complement them, rehearsing and so on.

As it seems a long time since I posted here I thought I'd repost some of what I wrote a year ago about performing poetry (you can read the full account here) with a few added comments.

"To prepare I read up on the performance of poetry in medieval Wales.... I was rather interested in the word used for ‘to recite’ , ‘datganu’, literally ‘to sing back’. I don’t know what the underlying concept of this word was – it could be something fairly prosaic perhaps, such as the idea of the poem being sung back to the poet – but it sparked off various mystical overtones for me. If poetry is inspired, i.e. breathed in from the Muse or the Awen, then to recite it is to breathe it out – to give it life and offer it back to the source - and out to the external world.

Uttering something is also creative and may be an act – or enactment - of truth. The performance of the law in early Ireland not only served as an aid to memory for recording judgements but also created and transformed law. So, I mused, performing poetry is also creative in itself and an enactment of truth, however humble, homely or personal.

I didn’t really expect to find any useful information about how to successfully perform one’s poetry, but surprisingly the Gramadegau’r Penceirddiaid (the Welsh Bardic Grammars), and the Statute of Gruffudd ap Cynan, offered me some, courtesy of Patrick Ford [Patrick K Ford, ‘Aspects of the Performance of Poetry in Medieval Wales’, Bangor University Foundation Lecture, March 2003].

Firstly: ‘Tri pheth a beir kanmawl kerdawr, nyt amgen: dychymycvawr ystyr, ac odidawc kerdwyryaeth, ac eglur datkanyat’. ‘Three things that bring praise to a poet: imaginative meaning, formal excellence, and clarity of recitation.’ (GP)

Secondly: ‘Tri pheth a gytbreinant ymadrawd (ac a’e) teilygant: ehudrwyd parabyl, a (chywreindeb) synwyr, ac annyan(a)wl dyall y datk(einyat)’. Three things that bring honour to (poetic) expression and make it worthy: fluency of expression, elegant sense, and full understanding of the reciter’. (On the other hand, ‘pŵl datkeinyat’ , ‘dullness of the reciter’ results in a loss of dignity.) (SGC)

Thirdly: ‘Tri phetha vrddassant gerd: ehudrwyd ac ehofynder parabyl ac ethrylith y datkeinad’. Three things that ennoble poetry: the liveliness, confidence, and natural ability of the reciter. (GP)

It would suit me, I thought, to have a datgeiniad to recite the poems for me while I stood ‘proudly by’ as one Irish commentator put it. Although, as the Bardic Grammars pointed out, it is rare that a reciter is able to recite a poem exactly as the poet composed it. But in the absence of such a person I had another entity to fall back on: the persona. And as confidence was an important component of the performance of poetry, I felt that I needed to call upon a confident persona that the unconfident self could hide behind…

So, I concluded, what I needed was fluency of expression, elegance, a sensitive reading of the poems which brought out their meaning, liveliness – and a confident persona –

As well as this useful advice, I was greatly helped by Ami Mattison’s wonderful website/blog poetryNprogress which I happened to find. Her 11 Tips for Spoken Word Beginners were invaluable. The most useful I found were these:

1. Develop a unique performance style. Always express your poetry in your own style.
2. Rehearsal is fundamental to consistent and successful performances.
3. Never apologize or make excuses and don’t explain.
4. Love your audience. Ami says this is the most important and I couldn’t agree more. She says that when you perform it’s not about you, it’s about the audience. Respect and love them by giving them everything you’ve got to give in your performances. It’s a privilege to share your poetry with an audience of strangers."

I'll add here some words by D. Idwal Lloyd, a Welsh poet and member of the Gorsedd of Bards in Wales, about taking in poetry through the ear rather than the eye:

"Welsh poetry has been traditionally oral, so its sound was as important as its sense. It had to be aurally pleasing so that the listener could enjoy it even though he or she did not understand every word. Since printing has replaced the laborious copying of manuscripts, books of verse have been readily available so that the appreciation of the poems has been increasingly influenced by the eye more than the ear. As the eye is the gateway to reason, poetry today is more often judged on its logical content while the pattern of words, metres, rhythm and rhymes are regarded as an additional though not essential ornament. In the past Welsh poetry was listened to rather than read, hence the importance of its sound to the ear, for the ear is the way to the heart as well as the mind." [my italics] (Celtic Word Craft)

The Poetry Archive is an excellent resource for listening to poets reading their own work.

How do you find it reading or performing your own work?  How important to you is sound? I'd love to hear from you!


  1. Thoroughly enjoyable post...'aurally pleasing', passionately whispered, & attractively scribbled on a page...the many facets of a poem.


    1. Thank you, Irina. I've been enjoying your blog (The Continuous Poem) which I found via your post on Plath.