alternative poetry


alternative poetry
   The strongest ‘alternative’ tradition in contemporary British poetry is performance poetry, a form as varied as its practitioners. Often based on song-structures (such as repeated refrains) and the rhythms of popular music (including jazz, rock, reggae and hip hop), performance poetry is usually composed in the vernacular—often the dialect of specific regions or cultural groups—using devices (such as rhyme and alliteration) from oral rather than literary poetic traditions.
   Inspired by the American Beat writers, in the late 1950s and early 1960s Christopher Logue’s ‘jazzetry’ and Michael Horovitz’s Poetry Olympics sought to recover poetry from the academic and literary establishment. Performances across the country by such poets as Adrian Mitchell, Jeff Nuttall, Libby Houston and Tom Pickard culminated with the Royal Albert Hall Poetry Olympics of 1965, attended by crowds of 8,000. The success of the Mersey Poets’ pop-based writing of the late 1960s, and of John Cooper Clarke’s punk poetry and the dub poetry of black performance poets in the 1970s, opened up new audiences through recordings (often with musical accompaniment) for independent labels and local radio. The dub and punk poets (also known as ranters) helped make protest poetry the dominant mode of performance poetry in the 1970s. The early 1980s saw comic poets like John Hegley and Seething Wells appear on the alternative cabaret circuit, and new wave performers like Attila the Stockbroker, Henry Normal and Joolz performed on the fringe at rock festivals. There was also a 1960s revival of Dada- and Surrealist-influenced experimental performance poetry: from Bob Cobbing and Edwin Morgan’s sound poetry through to the spellbinding performances of profoundly deaf poet Aaron Williamson, the avantgarde used performed poetry to explore the boundaries between language and physical sound. Despite critics’ fears in the 1960s and 1970s that performance poetry would break literature into rival camps, conventional poets have shown an increasing interest in performing their works. As a BBC radio producer from 1973, the Group poet George MacBeth presented performances from new young poets to a wide non-specialist audience, and Tom Leonard, Liz Lochhead, Wendy Cope, Tony Harrison and Rita Ann Higgins are among the many poets to whom performance is as important as publication. By the 1990s, performance poetry was being taught on university courses and at workshops. Poetry slams regularly attracted large audiences, and poets performed with club DJs and in a variety of media, exploiting new video and recording technologies. The commercial potential of performance poetry was acknowledged by EMI’s much hyped £1 million advance to Murray Lachlan Young in 1997.
   Further reading
    Forbes, P. (ed.) (1997) Poetry Review 87(3)(special issue on performance poetry).
   SIMON COPPOCK

Encyclopedia of contemporary British culture . . 2014.

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