Some Useful Ideas for Those Writing Poetry (part 3)

Some Useful Ideas for Those Writing Poetry (part 3)


Chapter 6.


Performance Poetry


A lot of people write poetry about important events in their life. Often this may be useful to them as it allows them to deal with e.g. bad memories. But often this type of poem is not , for others, especially interesting to listen to. Unless it has a new twist to it.

Take your time when you perform. You must read confident that the audience want to hear the Poem (anything less is an insult to the Audience, to the Poem, and to the Performer).

Take your time when you start your performance. Wait until all noise in the venue has ceased.

You might need to emphasise important words (or at least be aware in your mind that these words are particularly important e.g. underline them in the text you use to practise with).

Understand the importance of all the phrases you use.

Every word and phrase carries a meaning. Use them well and appropriately.

You must change the tone of your voice to suit the words you are speaking and the emotions you are communicating.

The words you speak may also have an attractive sound, and so deserve a particular mode of delivery. Pay attention to any inbuilt rhythm in the words, or in the sentences, or even rhythms built up through the Poem. You should listen to Dylan Thomas reading his poems in order to learn about rhythm in poetry. Also perform some Dylan Thomas poems yourself. To a modern day listener, Dylan Thomas sounds a bit dated, but his poems and his reading voice are full of rhythm (much more than any other poet I have read or listened to).

It is good to perform other poets work. It is good because you need to work out what they were meaning in their poem. You know what you meant in your poems. Well, I hope you do. Sometimes, I have performed what I thought was a pretty average poem (by another poet) and it has come to life. I find that quite often.

I have heard critics saying that because people like rhythm that poets should deliberately underemphasise (if there is such a word) any parts with rhythm. I disagree. I try to have as much rhythm as possible in my poems. People in audiences have said to me how much they enjoy poetry with lots of rhythm in it. Many famous poets who talk a lot about the essential nature of rhythm in poetry don’t seem to have much rhythm in their poems. I have listened to a few published poets performing their work live (and heard many poets online and in recordings and CD’s). Few seem to read with any great rhythm in their voice.

Be careful when you read faster, as words may become jumbled and hard to hear by the audience. But do vary your speed!

Pay particular attention to the words you read out at the end of a line: often people get quieter at this point. Others run out of breath. Breathe properly and make sure you have sufficient air in your lungs.

Make sure you read clearly-so the words can be heard. I normally speak with a strong Glaswegian accent. I do not like this. I do not think it sounds nice. And the audience will not understand all the words. So I try to speak “properly”.

Don’t read/speak from the page. Remember your poem.

Face the audience and speak to various members of the audience. Make good eye contact.

Act out the poem. Give the same amount of attention to the poem that a famous actor would give to reading Hamlet.

Practise so often that you know the Poem inside out and understand all its nuances (of meaning and of the sound of the words). And practise in front of an audience as often as you can.

Usually, the reading of the Poem should be a balanced whole and not unbalanced by one particular section.

If you can, record yourself reading the Poem and listen to it carefully. See where your reading of it can be improved. Ask yourself if you would enjoy it, if you were in the audience.

Perhaps take a Certificate in a, “How to Improve Your Voice” Course. I took such a ten week Course and it helped a lot (my natural voice is weak; has a dreadful Glasgow accent; is monotonous; has a narrow range, has little character, is effeminate, etc).

A Poem is short and has no gimmicks or music. The words are everything. Hopefully, the Poem you are reading is so well written that the audience will enjoy it.

See yourself as an actor delivering the main speech of the show.

A few simple props can help to support an idea. For instance, I use a mask when I perform a particularly sad poem about death. It does help to emphasise the importance of the message. Poetry is important. Never perform thinking, “It’s only a poem, the audience won’t like it and I must rush though it so they don’t get bored.”

I am not a fan of events were the props take over though.

I have performed with professional musicians trying to “support” the words of my poems. It was very far from my poems being turned into songs. However, I am a purist and think poems should “do the job” on their own.

The audience are there to experience the poem and your performance of the poem. Both should be as good as they can be.

Go to Poetry nights (advertised in Poetry magazines and on the Internet). Most Cities have a few poetry nights. Find one that suits you. Some are Academic. Some competitive. Some mainly comedy. Others are mostly music. Others exist to allow Poets to give opinions on each others poems. Listen to what others (critics) say, but trust your own “inner voice”.

Often, when I write a performance poem, I try to have some of the meaning (or the purpose of the poem) easily accessible to the listener. But I try to ensure that there are a couple of bits where they must reread the text or work at it in their own mind.

I have an awful memory and sometimes write poems as stories-so that they are easier to remember. My Poem, Muraho was originally written as a short story. For Refugee Week, I had to prepare a piece of writing. For two weeks I had writers block. I know little about the life of a Refugee, so I got started by writing down various episodes from the life of one of my Refugee friends. And then I found that a few rhymes suggested themselves. Then, I thought I may as well put the whole poem in rhymes-which I did: rhyming couplets. It is one of my favourite poems. An extract:


As she pours out the tea, her hands shake with the strain,

Dreams of her parents, her head filled with pain

A half-smile on her face as we eat and we drink,

But she never sleeps well and she struggles to think


Enjambment is a technique which also ensures that the performer and the reader of the poem is dragged onto the next line again and again. In Tam O’ Shanter by R. Burns the story never finishes on a line and the reader has to go to the next line to find the finish. But is then again “dragged” onto the next line, again and again. Try and read it and see.

When I first tried performing poetry at events, I was terrified. My voice and body shook with the effort of trying to remember the words and not make a mistake. Try to know all your poems (that you are performing at a Gig) by heart. I do though see nothing wrong with having the words on stage if you have a bad memory. If you go blank, better by far reading from the page for a page or two rather than totally forgetting an entire poem and standing there looking blankly at the audience.

The next stage of reading poetry is when you become confident with a few poems. Sometimes I use the same poem at four or five different poetry nights in a row. Usually each performance is better than the last. Sometimes, I have even found a better understanding of the meaning of the poem from this (even when it was my poem).

The last stage is to use a few simple props and to perform like an actor. I am just trying to enter this stage myself. Here you must deal with subtle changes in volume and tone in order to properly communicate things like differing emotional states.

Next, I will next deal with some of the things that I learnt at Voice Classes.

As someone who is almost tone deaf I find it hard to use pitch as an effect in my Poems. But I am using the relevant exercises that I was given at the Class. I think they are having a positive effect.

Although I have always used volume and timing as an effect, I now use timing much more: by this I mean putting in halts in the performance of lines (up to a second or two). I also use a change in the pace of delivery (of poems) more than I used to.

I have always used change of tone in a Poem (e.g. from a conversational tone to an intimate tone), but I try and do this more often than I used to.

Some people have naturally lovely voices (like Sean Connery). But although he only does the one voice it has been attractive enough to keep him in work all his life. The ideal is to have a lovely voice that can change in character and tone to fit lots of roles. This is very hard to achieve and can take years of training.

Below is a much shortened version of some of the articulation exercises I was taught at the Class. The exercise sheet below was a good length for me to use three or four times a day in the week leading up to a show. I simply don’t have the time to do all the exercises I learnt at the Class. Many techniques like Breathing and Relaxation, well you really have to go to a Voice Class to learn them properly (and I do recommend this).



Thanks to The Centre for Lifelong Learning at Strathclyde University for permission to reprint these exercises from their Finding Your Voice Evening Class (which I do use).



(all instructions carried out, and then whole sheet repeated once)


TONGUE TWISTERS. (each line said three times)


Peggy Bapcock

Red Leather Yellow Leather

Unique New York

A Cricket Critic

Lemon Liniment

Red Lorry Yellow Lorry

Rubber Baby Baggy Bumpers




pb,   td   kg,       kg   td   pb,       pb   td   kg,        kg  td   pb.


KEENING (pitch exercises-repeat for 30 seconds)

Make puppy dog noise through nose-going upwards in pitch, then lower in pitch


PITCH EXERCISE (repeat for one minute)

MA (middle pitch) MAW (low pitch)  MAY (high pitch)



“Come Here”, said loudly- repeated in different tones







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