A View of Performance Poetry by Peter Leyland
A View of Performance Poetry
In London on 11th June 1965, 7000 people spontaneously filled The Albert Hall to listen to Beat poets from America and their English counterparts, making it the first major ‘happening’: ‘The Albert Hall booked for £450 had never seen anything like it. From it came the confidence to found the first underground institutions like The International Times,’ says Jonathon Green in Days in the Life (1988).
The programme ranged from Allen Ginsberg, author of Howl, Laurence Ferlinghetti and Gregory Corso, to Michael Horovitz, Christopher Logue and Harry Fainlight. The high point, however, came when Adrian Mitchell read To Whom it May Concern, his satirical attack on the Vietnam war. Finally, Ginsberg read Tonite Let’s All Make Love in London and while he read a girl danced, oblivious of time and space and people, following the rhythms of poetry as if it were music.
At around this time there were growing movements of performance poetry in cities like Liverpool and Newcastle. The first of these, led by Adrian Henri, Roger McGough and Brian Patten took place in and around the pubs in the area of Liverpool which surrounded The Everyman Theatre. This movement was immortalised when their poems were brought together and published as The Mersey Sound in 1967, a book that has now sold over 500,000 copies. Its difference with The Beat Poets was that The Mersey Sound drew its inspiration from the environment in which the poets lived. Henri, McGough and Patten paved the way for later performance artists such as John Cooper Clarke, Benjamin Zephania, and Linton Kwesi Johnson to whom I will return later.
The second, led by Tom Pickard and his wife Connie in 1963, took place in a bookshop called The Mordern Tower Book Room in Newcastle. Basil Bunting gave the first reading and the American Beat poets read there too. Barry MacSweeney who in 1968 published The Boy from the Green Cabaret Tells of His Mother, also joined them. In 1967 MacSweeney had organised the Sparty Lea Poetry Festival which was instrumental in The British Poetry Revival . He was later to give readings at college campuses around the country which is how I met him.
The Story of Barry MacSweeney: A Memoir (2017)
As with David Hockney, who I have mentioned earlier, Barry came to our student Literary Society to give a reading of his poetry. What follows is (mostly) true.
Barry was a bright star, a boy wonder. He was born in Newcastle-upon-Tyne but close enough to the countryside nearby to roam there and enjoy its riches. He had published his first poetry book to great acclaim. His publisher nominated him for the Chair of Poetry at Oxford. He was 19, had three O’ Levels and was lambasted in The Times for his presumption. It was 1968.
Yes, it was 1968 and then it was 1969, and we were four lads who had met at a university college and who were lodged in a flat in Finchley. And all of us thought, just thought, that we might be budding poets because, if Barry MacSweeney could do it, then some of his magic might rub off on us. (Or perhaps it was just me, reader, who hoped this, because to this day Pete says that he never liked Barry’s poetry, and Eriks, who was Latvian, couldn’t have cared less. He was just there to get a degree in English Literature.)
If we are to assign responsibility for Barry to anyone, then it must be to Dave, who was a Geordie, and who, after the poetry reading, and a few beers in The Midland Arms, invited Barry to come and live with us in our flat. (I should mention here, reader, that to a Geordie, ‘a few beers’ can mean anything upwards of 16 pints, so you can imagine the camaraderie there in The Midland Arms.) Anyway, Barry happily accepted and moved in shortly afterwards with a mattress, and then later brought his girlfriend, Vivienne - a round, blonde woman who wore red lipstick - to share it.
And they took over the corner of our living room, and Barry pounded away upon his typewriter, writing The Last Bud (1969). There is no record of Vivienne anywhere I could find, of how she was related to Barry’s early success or indeed what happened to her; there is only a dedication inside the book; and reader, I am afraid to say that Barry could be irredeemably sexist, saying to her, Get on with your woman’s work, as she did the hoovering for us, and, Get a load of this! as he strode naked around our flat. But, of course, poets were allowed to behave like that in those days, especially if they wrote such beautiful poems for the women they loved…or were they? I’d be interested to hear your views.
Why am I telling you this? I’m telling you because I mentioned how much I was enjoying writing this memoir in an email to your friend L..., and she said in reply, what a great time you all had in the eighties in that East-London house-share, and I felt an echo; so now you know, but I’ve always secretly wanted to tell someone all about Barry, and what a transformational time it was for me. Here is what he wrote to me in his book, The Last Bud.
Message: ‘for Pete/ Wishing you all great things mate/from Barry/August 1969
Years later it was May 2000 and I had been attending a poetry course led by Gillian Clarke at the Hay Festival, I sat down for coffee and opened my newspaper only to find an obituary for Barry MacSweeney. It immediately took me back to that time in Finchley. When I had finished my coffee, I walked down to The Poetry Bookshop in Hay where I bought every copy of MacSweeney’s books that were there. That first book, The Boy from the Green Cabaret Tells of his Mother (1968) was a great find, but I felt a terrific sadness at Barry’s death.
Nowadays there are a number of performance poets, male and female, who followed in the footsteps of those from Liverpool and Newcastle. Linton Kwesi Johnson, who has recently received the PEN Pinter Prize and the Pinter International Writer of Courage Award, is a favourite of mine. A group of my students have set up a weekly Zoom poetry sharing session because we are now unable to meet face to face, and recently I read to them Inglan is a Bitch from his book Mi Revalueshanary Fren (2002). If you propose to read it aloud yourself, make sure you practise it first so that you can do justice to Kwesi Johnson's incredible use of language.
The question might be asked, when is reading a poem a performance and when is it just a reading from a page? A note from my own experience might serve to illustrate: When I read poems which had been published in Iron at a musician’s workshop in Bedford people decided to go for a beer; when I made the poems humorous with titles like Thatched Cottage Blues and A Liverpudlian’s Tale, (I had you might guess just suffered a break-up), they stayed to listen. They had made a connection with me and were able to engage with the life experiences that I was telling them about.
Performance Poetry is I think more vital, less academic. So far, I haven’t said anything about female poets but there are many whose work I have read and listened to such as Carol Ann Duffy, Liz Lochhead, Fiona Benson and the amazing Maya Angelou. The performance mantle, however, has now been taken on by poets like Kate Tempest. Born in Brockley, East London, Tempest is a writer who performs spoken word pieces against a background of hip-hop music. Her theatre piece Brand New Ancients won the Ted Hughes Award in 2013. Tempest is keen on the empathy poets can create with their readers in their work and in reading about her I found this quotation: “I think it’s important to pay close attention, to look again, to recognise that you’re part of something much bigger than yourself… If at any moment your own narratives become too loud, just blink twice and look around and I guarantee you’ll be blown away by what you see. There’s so much life.”
Poetry - whether in performance, on the page, read in a class or amongst friends, has the power to affect us deeply and leave an imprint. At a reading in my local area not so long ago, Roger McGough, then nearing 80, held an audience captivated for an hour as he read from his considerable body of work: ‘Reading books can fix things,’ he said at one point and who would disagree?