The trance of the read verbal artifact
Author of the Week: Belgium
Poetry and Performance
Poetry is not a slogan, but always primarily word art. (De Strycker, 2009)
Poetry: a verbal artifact that appears
Poetry wants to reach our minds as a verbal artifact through our eyes and ears, says Dick Higgins in his Horizons. The listener/reader/spectator experiences a poem by first identifying it as such and then decoding it accordingly. The act of identification itself determines or changes the result of the decoding. This Duchampian interpretation gives the reader/viewer/hearer the important function of giving meaning to a poem. Oral poetry forms like sound poetry, spoken word, slam poetry, performance poetry, etc. are not inferior read-only alternatives to any poetic form, but full-fledged poetry forms, part of the common world heritage and even of a common future as essential parts of how humans experience art.
Thanks to Jacques Roubaud (2009), among others, I am able to give an objective definition of poetry including this Higgins-Duchamp axiom: ‘Poetry is a score consisting of a quintet of manifestations. These manifestations are the three external, namely the written form, the spoken or oral form, and the performance, which expresses and supports the iconicity of language parts through co-speech gestures, and two internal manifestations, namely the read form (wRitten form) and the heard or aural form.’
Two of the three external manifestations of poetry, the written and the spoken or oral form, exist anyway, although one of them can only exist virtually. Between these two forms there is an interplay or antagonistic relationship that supports the rhythmic component of poetry. Complementing and overlapping this is the third external manifestation, performance, which expresses and supports the iconicity of language components through co-speech gestures.
Everyone knows a baby that splutters, babbles or lets out a cry of pain after a fall, or sweet smile, a conspiratorial wink or hands forming a heart shape. You, like the rest of the world, are familiar with the meta-meaning of baby’s babbling and know what the flipping of the middle finger means and can interpret the gestures of a police officer directing traffic. Several neurolinguists identified this as forms of multimodal communication. This form of communication develops before speech and is recognized as communication by the environment in which one grows up or lives. These co-speech gestures can be hand movements, facial expressions, postures, portraying what is in a text (or not!), the intonation of the voice, the movement and positioning of the performer with regard to the viewer-reader-listener, but also elements that have to do with the performer’s appearance, such a dress, use of colour and make-up, perfume (or lack thereof), etc. All these co-speech gestures direct the interpretation of what is communicated verbally, visually or auditorily. In other words, our interpretation of the ‘score’ is guided by the ‘performance’.
It is also important to mention the importance – to be totally woke – of the contextuality of these three external manifestations, meaning that they are interpersonal and readily transferable between members of the speech community in which that poem was written. This also means that every interpretation is time- and location-bound and a contemporary interpretation can deviate from an earlier one, such as in poems written before and read after #metoo.
The internal aspect of the internal manifestations relates to the recipient of the poem in question, or rather the person who really defines the poem. They are situated in the mind of the recipient and are essentially not transferable from one person to another because they are always related to the recipient’s memory.
Ultimately, the written form does not matter, because the mental page is the read form, meaning that a poem only exists when it is read and that existence is only in an individualized form. Similar to an individual virtual reality experience.
The spoken and heard manifestations of a poem – and language in general – have the essential function of enhancing the sound and the meaning of words. The sound of language adds an irrational or non-logical layer to a poem, which, according to Bernstein (1998), gives language a physical shape. Performance overlaps sound as well, because reading, just like writing, is an (unconscious) form of performing.
Poetry is a physical art form because it involves several senses. When we write, we immediately think of typing on the keyboard or writing with a pen or pencil, deleting, erasing, etc. When we read, the whole body replaces the voice as the medium. Even when one reads in silence, Young argues, one has to turn the pages, the head and the eyes follow the text, and the text is spoken soundlessly in the mouth.
Poetry connects language with our body in a very primal and fundamental way according to Michelis (2005) through the way we open and close our mouth, how we form words using our tongue, palate, lungs, vocal cords, pharynx and nasal cavity. Creating words is a physical event, especially when we read poetry out loud.
Poetry enters the world through performance and is brought to life through the aural and oral. Contrary to Jakobson’s (1971) claims, performance is not parasitic, but all co-speech gestures are an integral part of the score and play a crucial role in the understanding and processing of the poem. With sound and performance poets, the physicality is externalized and accentuated by their voice, gestures, body language, etc.
Reading (out loud) is a ritual
Poetry is the missing link between age-old rituals and natural languages, as De Roder claims. It seems inconceivable to him that people would just create an artificial (poetic) language in addition to the natural language of everyday communication. The rhythmic layer, the prosody of poetry, is just like the syntactic structure. An empty structure, based on the principles of ritual. The poetic experience reflects the physical sensations inherent in rituals. Also, Schrott and Reijmerink share this anthropological explanation. For them, oral poetry and its memorization of the texts are an anthropological relic of ancient rites, since in earlier civilizations the poet tried to influence nature and people with his spoken language. When the knowledge and history of peoples was written down, poetry lost its magical character and social significance. De Roder continues that the meaninglessness of rituals in the sense that they are pure acts in which only the correct performance of the acts counts, is their role, not their supposed reference.
The audience, as studied in Africa by Mutia (2003, 2005), participates in certain rituals by carrying out instructions or by answering in a chorus, clapping to the rhythm, etc. during the performance. Author has found that anansesεm, a story telling technique, is an indirection strategy in social communication, which brings the past and the present together in performance, serving as a means of production for local knowledge.
Contemporary performance poets will either go for a more spiritual, inwardly-directed form or will guide the audience towards the outside world by holding up a mirror to them. The audience snap their fingers in approval of what the poet says, applaud, cheer and voice approval, and in this way they become participants in the performance. Even when one reads poetry in the privacy of their room, bracing oneself, turning the pages, searching, appreciating the images and losing oneself in them, etc., it is all part of the ‘curl up with a book’ ritual.
Slam poetry & poetry slam
This article is too short to further discuss and debate the earlier forms of poetry performance which survived for ages until the advent of the written word, or even past that point. However, the new globally recognized form of poetry encapsulating the poetic, the theatrical, the musical, the ritualistic, the participatory and the competitive deserves our attention here.
Almost every form of poetry presented on stage is seen as slam poetry nowadays, whilst a poetry slam is a spoken word competition in which several poets battle on stage for the audience’s favour. The poets keep their performances short, so as to avoid boring the audience, and the interaction between the poets on stage, the jury and the audience is essential.
There is not one single starting point of slam poetry. Minstrels and troubadours, rhetoricians and actors, professionals and amateurs sharing their work in writing salons wrote and recited their way through the ages. The birth of the poetry slam as a competition, however, can be traced to the events Marc Kelly Smith organized in Chicago in the 1980s, even though poetry as a competition was an Olympic discipline from 1912 to 1948. It is not widely known that artists producing work inspired by sports in five disciplines also received medals at these Olympics. This is because the medallists were not mentioned anywhere on the International Olympic Committee’s rosters, as Perrottet explains in his essay in the New York Times, in addition to the fact that the poets – like the athletes – were prohibited from making money from their sport due to their amateur status.
It is common knowledge that the genesis of the poetry slam is rhizomatic. This is because the competitions drew participants from the academia, especially the creative writing programmes, as well as from the ranks of spoken word artists living and performing in deprived neighbourhoods. The latter plied their trade mostly in the street, as part of rising urban art scenes comprising hip-hop, rap, slam, RnB, etc., whilst the former sought to rekindle the spirit of Ginsbergian beat poetry by extending audience participation via a voting system. There is a serious lack of academic research on this subject, especially the contested question of who actually started poetry slam.
Poetry slam was spread around the world by Marc Kelly Smith and later by the – still very controversial – Pilote le Hot and others, each within their language groups and some supported by the language institutes as cultural diplomacy. Poetry slam events became more and more social meetings and artistic happenings.
After the local championships, the slam scene was organized around regional or national championships in the noughties, followed by continental editions in the early 2010s. I have been part of the European scene since 2008 and have advocated for these regional, continental and worldwide poetry slam competitions, to help professionals, the organizers and the slammers, and to inspire them by making them share the stage with people whose language they seldom understand.
The first World Poetry Slam Competition, set up by a worldwide grassroots network of organizers and volunteers, took place in September 2022, under the same motto that says it is not about winning, but about poetry, and has seen the founding of an international non-profit organisation World Poetry Slam Organization with members from all continents. It will support the professionalisation and dissemination further of this art form. Meanwhile, competitions are held in around 160 countries, in all types of neighbourhoods, and continues to be a form of emancipation, decolonization, resistance, freedom and sharing. On every continent one can hear stories in the form of poems performed by people deprived of a proper voice. Some of these poets have overcome this and have become a voice for their community, some even reaching stardom.
It is difficult to talk about the best slammers or best slam scenes, because one needs to experience the competition live, because the audience has a crucial role to play. The adrenaline rush isn’t experienced on stage only, but also at the jury desk and in the audience seats. I adore the work of so many people, so better not to name names lest I forget someone and have to apologize afterwards.
Charles Bernstein, ‘Introduction’, in Charles Bernstein (ed.), Close Listening: Poetry and the Performed Word, New York, 1998, p. 3–26.
Marcel Duchamp, The Creative Act, in Marcel Duchamp, Robert Lebel (ed.), New York, 1959, p. 77–78.
Roman Jakobson, ‘Visual and Auditory Signs’, in Selected writings: Word and language, vol. 2, p. 334–337, Den Haag, 1971.
Roman Jakobson, ‘On the Relation between Visual and Auditory Signs’, Concluding Remarks at the Symposium on Models for the Perception of Speech and Visual Form (Boston, 1964), in Selected writings: Word and language, vol. 2, p. 338–344, Den Haag, 1971.
Angelica Michelis, ‘Eat my Words: Poetry as Transgression’, in Eva Müller-Zettelman & Margarete Rubik (ed.), Theory into Poetry. New Approaches to the Lyric, Amsterdam-New York, 2005, p. 82–95.
Babila Mutia, ‘Stylistic Patterns in Oral Literature: The Form and Structure of Bakweri Dirges’, in Nordic Journal of African Studies, 12(3), 2003, p. 387–406.
Babila Mutia, ‘Performer, Audience, and Performance Context of Bakweri Pregnancy Rituals and Incantations’, in Cahiers d’études africaines, 2005/1–177, 2005, p. 218–237.
Jacques Roubaud, ‘Prelude: Poetry and Orality’, vertaald door Jean-Jacques Poucel, in Marjorie Perloff & Graig Dworkin (ed.), The Sound of Poetry, the Poetry of Sound, Chicago-London, 2009, p. 18–25.
 Roubaud’s term, a homonym of ‘written,’ coined out of necessity for the purpose of showing the closeness of terminology and its definition/function (Roubaud 2009, p. 19).
Brussels-based Belgian multilingual poet/performer Philip Meersman pushes the boundaries of poetry in both written and spoken form, drawing on current affairs, sociopolitical and environmental issues. He teaches avant-garde, visual and performance poetry worldwide, serves as curator of Poetryfest.brussels and the president of the World Poetry Slam Organization.
Meersman holds a master’s deegree in art sciences and archeology from the Flemish Free University of Brussels. He is currently studying for a PhD at the AP University College of Antwerp with a thesis on the transformation of visual poetry into an immersive XR-experience.
He has published two books, This is Belgian Chocolate: Manifestations of Poetry (Three Rooms Press, NY, USA, 2014) and There Is Blue Somewhere (Cyberwit, Allahabad, India, 2020).
Meersman turns his poems into sculptural, location-bound works of art, and dates them like visual artists do. He also tags his poems to show where they were written and which techniques and materials were used. There Is Blue Somewhere is therefore not only a collection of poetry, but also a travel chronicle and an exhibition catalogue.
Photo by Literatuur Vlaanderen