The Performance v Page Debate is a Red Herring


I only made it to two sessions at Poetry in Aldeburgh last weekend, but I was extremely glad to have seen and heard what I did. The ones I saw were ‘The National Poetry Competition at 40’ and ‘A Cambridge Quartet of First Collections’, the first of which featured readings by Dom Bury, Yvonne Reddick, Philip Gross and Liz Berry; and the second Adam Crothers, Rebecca Watts, Alex Wong and Claudine Toutoungi. I was struck by how differently all the poets read their work and how I as a listener got caught up far more in the sound of their voices and the movement of their hands, the expressions on their faces, than on the actual content of their poems.

This is what I wrote up from my notes on the poets:

Dom Bury is of the Poet Voice school of reading, leaning towards the austere and liturgical, there is power in this brand of solemnity – he holds the lectern and often closes his eyes; Yvonne Reddick is expressive in the earnest manner of an amateur dramatist, its effect is cumulative across poems – her hands play out the action of her lines; Philip Gross (my favourite poet bar none) brings something otherworldly to his reading: simultaneously Arial and Caliban flitting then lurching through a wood; Liz Berry clutches at herself emotionally and rides her strong accent as though it’s a creature performing the poems with her – she looks out at the audience, monologuing; Adam Crothers has self-deprecation knitted into the confidence that underlies his word-play and wit – his hands stay in his pockets, awkward but not; Rebecca Watts is deliberately neutral in a way that surrounds and defends her lines – she gets the closest to disappearing; Alex Wong leans forward gently on the lectern, speaks to the page and with reticence stirs pleasing sonority from mumbles; Claudine Toutoungi gives the air a shove with her no-nonsense clarity of diction and awesome comic timing, she wrings each utterance for conversational acuity.

That I could not remember the content of the most of the poets’ poems by the time I headed home from Aldeburgh later that afternoon was, I’m sure, largely due to the fact that by and large I am a ‘reader of’ poetry rather than a ‘listener to’, and I think it is fair to say that there is some skill in listening to poetry. That’s what I’d like to write about a little here, if only to think it through for myself.

There are interesting debates around the dichotomy (a false one according to some) between ‘performance’ and ‘page’ poetry, but they all seem to centre on what the poet-performer does as opposed to the reader-listener. It is not controversial to say that a ‘reader of’ poetry and a ‘listener to’ poetry are doing two different things – one is reading and the other is listening (even though the ‘reader of’ may be reading aloud and so listening to their own voice, it is their voice they are listening to, not someone else’s). So, there is clearly a ‘true’ dichotomy going on in this sense. I was fascinated by Jack Underwood’s Poetry Review article ‘On Poetry and Uncertain Subjects’ and his response to my blog post earlier this year which made me re-visit my understanding of the ever-changing meaning-making relationship between not only the poet and their text but between the reader-listener and the same text. Bearing Jack’s words in mind, though not entirely abandoning my own ideas about ‘linguistic DNA’, it seems reasonable to talk about a tacit meaning-making contract between the originator and the receiver of a text. I feel like this aligns with ideas found in reader-response literary theory, although I find the position of Stanley Fish (whom I have come across since my previous blog on this subject, and who claimed in 1976  to have ‘made the text disappear’ entirely – ‘Is There a Text in this Class?’) hard to follow to its extreme.

In relation to the page-performance question, the idea of a meaning-making contract is a useful one insofar as it relates to the physical transfer of data/signals/symbols or whatever from A (poet-performer) to B (reader-listener), and the skill required of B in gathering these data/signals/symbols before they can go about interpreting them.

1)    For a ‘reader of’ poetry, their side of the contract is very much in their own hands – the ink on the page is the only real vestige of the originator’s side and (although there are different fonts, different paper types, or other written contexts entirely) generally speaking the reader can take their time and does not (ideally) have any major distractions to deal with (not ones that add to the meaning of the text anyway). The reader will go about generating meaning in whatever way they generate meaning, but crucially for my point they only have the ink and paper (or whatever) to go through to do so, and they can do it in a time-frame that is comfortable and natural for them.

2)    But for the ‘listener to’ poetry, the contract is performed in real-time, they have to keep up and maintain their end of the contract at whatever pace is dictated to them by the performer. In my other, non-poetic, life I am an EFL teacher and from this context I know that listening is a skill, and not a simple one, it’s easy to get lost and easy to lose focus. And in addition, ‘listeners to’ have numerous other ‘distractions’ to deal with (as mentioned in my Aldeburgh notes above): the performer’s reading style, accent, pitch, timbre, cadence, lisps, hand gestures, facial movements, use of the dramatic pause, comic timing etc. And that is not to say anything of the other distractions outside the performer themselves (such as all the other people in the auditorium, the lighting, the microphone system – at Aldeburgh there was the occasional hum of mobile phones, and the atmospheric seaside squawk of far-off gulls).

This leads me to my Main Point. For a poet, the idea of a page poem or a performance poem is a false dichotomy, because both are generally created with the way the words sound in mind (there are exceptions, of course); and when we read a poem to ourselves, either out loud or in our heads, we are in effect performing it to ourselves and so the dichotomy between page and performance is also false in that sense. But when we listen to a poem being read by someone else, we are clearly doing something different, and the dichotomy is real. Thus, as with so many things, whether there is a performance-page dichotomy or not comes down to perspective. There both is and isn’t. If we accept that both poet-performer and reader-listener are involved in generating the ever-shifting meaning of the poem then it becomes clearer that any debate around page and performance is actually a red herring. What is really being debated in these cases has nothing to do with poetry – or at least is a priori to it – the arguments are ideological, they are about class, society, education, power, race, identity and probably various other things out of which poetry comes to be sure but which will not be agreed on by debating whatever poetry point is under discussion. Poetry becomes simply a useful cultural battleground in a wider ideological war. You can read the Rebecca Watts/Holly McNish furore, the Toby Martinez de las Rivas palaver and many hundreds of social media horn-locks in the same way.

So, Aldeburgh underlined for me that I am not a particularly good ‘listener to’ poetry because I was focused so much on the poets’ delivery of their work that I was not able to open myself properly to the poems’ meanings – or perhaps I should say I was unable to fulfil my side of the meaning-making contract adequately. But it also occurred to me that (notwithstanding the red herring of my Main Point) we as ‘listeners to’ cannot help but arrive at a performed poem through the performer, and so (for all the reasons mentioned above) a poem’s meaning becomes subordinated to the style of its delivery. Just as it is harder to see something through warped glass – although I accept that just how warped the glass is, is down to the listener (for example, I love Liz Berry’s marked Black Country accent, which may warp the glass one way for me, while another member of the audience may have a hated work colleague with such an accent and this may warp the glass of Berry’s performed poems the other way for them) – the poem’s meaning takes secondary importance to its delivery because the delivery has such a tight grip on that meaning for the audience; it can obscure, distort, even change a line’s meaning entirely.

And as a final thought, we might also say that a poem’s delivery itself adds significantly to the total number of ‘formal units’ of meaning (as I think Fish calls them) with which the ‘listener to’ a poem is faced: in other words, the poem on the page has ‘less to it’ than the performed poem. We could therefore see a performed poem as more complex than and therefore superior to a page poem or as less pure in relation to perceived authorial intention and therefore inferior. Again, we are back to perspective.

7 thoughts on “The Performance v Page Debate is a Red Herring”

  1. Just to complicate things: have you read and listened at the same time? I think I have, but I can’t remember. I wonder what effect that would have, either of a poem you know well or one you’re completely new to.

    I’m sure it’s fine to consider a poet’s reading of their own work to be the definitive performance (unless there are major variations between different readings then they are REALLY messing with us) but then things get vague when there are no recordings of the poet reading from their work. At the Globe Theatre Museum they have over a dozen different recordings of “To be…” (oh, Richard Burton, you had me at “To.”) and I suppose it’s up to the individual to choose the most appropriate. Or record one yourself.

    I guess you’re not discussing “definitive-ness” but the relationship between poet and audience. I just like how, when you really think carefully about it, the whole “It’s whatever YOU think it is” breaks down.


  2. What a good post on the factors of this complicated relationship!

    A few random reactions and reflections after reading this:

    I too have found myself loosing attention and the thread of meaning in a poem at live readings. I’m embarrassed at myself for doing so, but it’s a real phenomenon. Is that the fault of the reader or the listener? Could be either is my working theory.

    You comment on forgetting meaning after readings, even when you may have enjoyed some of the readings in the moment. Again complicated, but an experience I also share. I find this happens with written work too (for me) sometimes (not just readings), and meaning stick for aural events at other times. Your point is likely that it happens more with spoken word if I read you right. Could be.

    In drama (even verse drama like Hamlet) we often experience the reverse though. The process of an actor embodying the character brings meaning to lines that escape us otherwise. For example, Fiona Shaw’s performance of Eliot’s “The Waste Land” makes more of that famously Hermetic page-poem comprehensible in 35 minutes than any other course of study.

    I think there are certain kinds of intellectual meanings, particularly those with complex and dependent arguments that are difficult to transfer in a single spoken/listened to performance, no matter the performers skill. Emotional and word-music content on the other hand lends itself to a poet/performer speaking aloud. Shaw in the above clip shows this, and in my view poetry often expresses the former kind of meaning through this later pair of effects.

    Of course, if one values the former well above the later pair (and distrusts them for their ability to lie) then this value is as much a danger and a benefit. I myself will sometimes have a default distrust of “Am-Dram” kinds of poetry reading styles. “What are they covering up or compensating for?” I must be thinking.

    The compromise that I’m experimenting with over the past few years is recorded presentation of poetry. I use original music with the poetry, almost encouraging that drift in attention that occurs during unaccompanied poetry readings. On the other hand, I don’t usually sing the words, as melody can obscure the word-music. My idea (which I’m unsure of how many of my listeners appreciate or practice) is that one can listen to a piece several times, without feeling that one must capture the whole meaning at once (or ever). Meaning then may accrue without undue anxiety about “getting it.” In my experience, that’s the path to the deepest way to experience the meaning of poetic art.


    1. Thanks, Frank, for such a thoughtful response to my blogpost. I have always been suspicious of music/poetry combinations for fear that the one distracts from the other, but your comments make me interested to hear more. I like this idea of their combining to reduce ‘anxiety’ – I certainly hadn’t thought of it from that perspective before. I can’t follow your link for some reason, but I love Fiona Shaw, so I will certainly look up her ‘Wasteland’. All the best, Chris


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