The power of the word
Author of the Week: Portugal
Poetic performance throughout times
Throughout the history of humanity, poetry has been a vehicle for the transmission of emotions but also philosophical, religious and political ideas, leaving us a faithful civilisational portrait that nowadays allows us a better understanding of our evolution as a species. This article addresses the importance of poetic performance and its potential as a creative logos in the various artistic disciplines that use the word as a driving force.
In the beginning was the word
At the opening of the Gospel of Saint John – originally written in classical Greek and translated into Latin by Saint Jerome more than 1500 years ago – word, or verbum (in Latin), appears as the translation of the term logos which, in Greek philosophy, encompassed the idea of the word, symbol, reason, action and knowledge.
Logos appears in the Bible, and in this Gospel in particular, as the beginning of everything, the logos that became man, the logos that was the Word of God, omnipresent and from which everything comes.
For all of human history, the word (logos) has assumed the primordial role of communicating, informing, transmitting ideas and concepts, defining rules and behaviours and has also served to express thought and reasoning as well as the abstract beauty of emotions accurately. It is from the word that all human bonds are established. It makes communication and the transmission of knowledge possible, builds bridges between cultures and facilitates interaction between civilisations. Poetry emerges as one of the most important ways of recording our evolution (or involution). First in its oral form and then through writing, it has left us descriptions of great achievements and countless possibilities for understanding human nature itself.
The origin of the poetic performance is lost in the mists of time. Could it be that the first manifestation of man through language was poetic? Until the invention of writing and the print press, oral transmission was the only way in which the primordial facets of poetry could reach us. By the same token, poetic performance was an important vehicle of communication and transmission of knowledge, being associated with religious, philosophical and artistic rituals and practices.
What is poetry for?
The poetic word is more than a mere act of conveying information in that it facilitates the fruition of a particularly emotional moment or, through the innumerable possible combinations of words, makes it possible to impart to the listener or reader what we want him or her to retain in their imagination. From our perception of the symbolic meanings that poetry contains, we reconstruct images in our mind that are the result of the subjective and objective drives that words transmit to us. In fact, we never look at just one thing – we always see the link between things and ourselves at the same time as the things see us. And poetry is an attempt to verbalise this, an attempt to explain how, metaphorically or literally, I see things.
Poetry can also assume different modes of reading: when read silently, when read aloud, when illustrated with images, or when accompanied by music. With all these modes we reach different possibilities of influencing and modifying what we call structures of the imaginary. That is, what we construct when we listen to a poem or a poetic performance in a hybrid mode (with sounds and images) is necessarily different from what the poet or author intended to signify with words alone. It is necessary to take into account other factors that awaken our imagination: the relationship between what we see and hear and what we know and believe, our way of being in the world and also the degree of sensitivity that we have, which greatly affects the way we see things.
And what are we talking about when we talk about poetic performance?
Before Gutenberg invented the printing press in the 15th century, reading was a collective and auditory experience, whereas individual, silent is quite a recent one. In fact, the tradition of oral transmission (which covered all forms of knowledge) left a mark on the world’s literature. Cervantes, in the introductory note of Don Quixote, addresses the reader by saying the book was ‘for whoever reads it and whoever hears it read’. The current success of the poetic performance demonstrates that we are reviving this ancient literary tradition.
To contextualise the new genres of poetic performance we must go back to the beginning of the 20th century, when the avant-garde movement, using new experimental and transdisciplinary ideas and methods, such as the use of fragments, sampling, repetition and lost phrases usually combined with a suppression of the narrative, introduced something truly revolutionary in this performative genre. Take Gertrude Stein’s language poetry as an example. Stein used speech and, among other techniques close to Dadaism, explored intentional repetitions that were sometimes monosyllabic, simulating a kind of ‘mental stuttering’ without meaning or with a meaning close to that of the sound experiments very much in vogue at the time.
In the mid-1920s, spoken word poetry emerged, linked to the American countryside, characterised by humour, some political content and guitar accompaniment and, a few decades later, popularised by names like Woody Guthrie, Bob Dylan and Pete Seeger. We may also highlight jazz poetry, characterised by its association with jazz improvisation, dub poetry by its pronounced rhythmic accentuation, dramatic stylisation of gestures and political attitude, sound poetry, associated with the Futurist and Dadaist movements and in the second half of the century beat poetry, associated with the hippie movement, rap (rhythm and poetry) which gave rise to hip-hop and the poetry slam.
One of the main characteristics of the poetic performance, or live poetry, is the close relationship between the performer and the audience built on interaction and audience participation encouraged by the performer who uses techniques such as anaphora, contradiction and repetition to generate empathy (frequently used in slam poetry), and humour as a guarantee of audience engagement in a specific spatiotemporal situation in which ‘the conception of oral performance is a manifestation of poetic art and not just a mere presentation of a written text. [It is], in essence, an experience of sharing between the performer and the audience.’
Today, the poetic performance, popularised by new kinds of events, constitutes simultaneously a specific form of artistic expression and a different way for the public to access poetry. This taste for the different readings by the poets themselves, as well as by writers and slammers, actors, performers and, sometimes, the use of music as an accompaniment, has shown the pertinence, vitality and importance of this performative genre.
Poetry, globalisation and the power of the Word
Globalisation is a constantly expanding reality, a result of the efficiency and rapid evolution of communication technologies that has had an enormous impact on financial policies and the consequent proliferation of the capitalist system. It is still difficult to determine with certainty where it may end up and what marks it will leave on the culture of future societies.
Let us also consider that one of the main characteristics of life in modern cities is the intercommunication between its different dimensions: economic, political, social, environmental, technological and cultural. If we connect this with the phenomenon of globalisation, we can assume that we are heading towards a homogenisation of the big cities and a possible loss of their singularities so fundamental to our memory and the affective relationship we have with them.
Regardless of the perspective we may have on globalisation and its impact on the cultural identity of societies, the inevitability of this phenomenon adds relevance to all the actions that we may take in the exercise of citizenship to protect this identity from multinational corporations and the predatory tendency of capitalism to flatten the cultural idiosyncrasies that are the main identity mark of contemporary cities. I am not talking only about the need to check the invasion of multinational brands on the historic areas of our cities. Rather, I stress the obligation to defend and spread around the cultural heritage of our communities that is the hallmark of their identity – poetry, the Word and language. And it is in this global society dominated by the economy and economic policies that we can frame an international perspective as the ultimate place for the Word in its widest and most universal sense, and also for the multiple possibilities that can result from it when combined with other artistic disciplines.
I believe that this is essential for the cohesion and unification of ideas and proposals for the preservation and evolution of cultural identity. In this whirlwind of information and noise that sweeps up our days, poetry tends to move away from the living city. Venues close, books close, but people do not. And this is where the poetic performance finds its meaning: to give spoken poetry back to the city, bringing people, artists and poets closer together.
Currently, there are dozens of poetic performance events taking place in Portugal, demonstrating the existence of a large, interested and participative public, and also the importance of cultural manifestations of the word and poetry. Poetic performance has the enormous power to bring the new and the old, forgotten and unknown poets closer to an increasingly attentive and dedicated audience. It brings poetry closer to everyday life. In short: it is the poetry of proximity.
 Julia Novak: Live Poetry: An Integrated Approach to Poetry in Performance, 2012.
CURRICULUM VITAE / ALEXANDRE DE SÁ PESSOA CORTEZ PINTO
Musician, producer and manager of Cultural Projects, Alexandre, studied Architecture at FAUL
(Lisbon), also Cultural Management at the CCB (Lisbon) and music at the Hot Club and Academia dos Amadores de Música. He has a master’s degree in Entrepreneurship and Cultural Studies in the Creative Industries area (ISCTE).
He created and founded CTL – Cultural Trend Lisbon, Production and Management and
collaborated in the design and foundation of two cultural and entertainment venues:
Musicbox Lisboa (2006) and Povo.Lisboa (2011). He is also a musician, producer and
professor at the World Academy (Academy for training in the field of audio visuals, events
and new technologies) and at ETIC (School of Innovation and Creation Technologies).
He founded some of the seminal projects of new Portuguese music (Radio Macau, Palma’s
Gang) having given hundreds of shows in Portugal and abroad. As a musician, in total, he
recorded around 33 albums with his band Radio Macau and with musicians such as Nuno
Rebelo and Vítor Rua in the musical project of the American choreographer Mark Tompkins,
Jorge Palma, Sérgio Godinho, Vítor Rua and Nuno Rebelo, Chris Cutler and Rui Reininho,
among many others.
He is currently president of the non-profit cultural association ‘A Palavra’ (Palavrarubra)
having been the creator and programmer of the festival MAP – Mostra de Artes da Palavra,
which will hold its third edition in October 2023, and ‘VOZ – O Poder da Palavra’, an oratory
and eloquence contest for young people.
He also created several projects that relate poetry to music – Wordsong, Social Smokers,
Poetry Ensemble and LPO, highlighting the Lisbon Poetry Orchestra as the main project. He
programmed and created Festival Silêncio, Festival Transform Zone and Festival LISBOA,
CAPITAL, REPUBLICA, POPULAR!
Photo by Vitorino Coragem