16th December 2015
After a performance of my poem sequence Malkin about a month ago, one member of the audience came up to me and commented that it was interesting that the poems had a ‘double life’ – that is, they seemed to be enactive both on the page and on the stage.
The poems – which are dramatic monologues (poems written in the voices of individual characters) concerning the horrible but fascinating events of the Pendle Witch Trials, and so lend themselves easily to theatre – make use in print of unorthodox or ‘free’ spelling, through which they achieve a number of effects, some of which I’ll mention below. I added the performative aspect to the recital of the poems only recently – since the way the poems appear in print is idiosyncratic and emotive, the only way to equal this off the page was to embody a similar impression in performance. (Likewise, I might add, the only way I thought it possible on the page to equal the passion and empathetic engagement of a performed character was to make use of free spelling!)
Both are enactments of identity, albeit in different ways. Both H.G. Wells (in his essay ‘For Freedom of Spelling: the Discovery of an Art’) and Simon Horobin (in his 2014 book Does Spelling Matter? ) have noted how orthodox spelling has been singled out as an indicator of class, intelligence and even moral goodness in the past; for a sequence of poems about a group of people maligned by society, no representation of language could be more appropriate than a subversion of this norm. Additionally: on the page, as David Crystal (in Spell it Out) has pointed out, certain combinations of letters can have an emotive effect – instilled through cultural associations inherited from the language’s history – in much the same way as colours. Consider, for example, all the emotional associations summoned by the colour red. Something very similar happens when we are confronted with spellings like ‘kh’, ‘sc’, ‘gn’ and so on – especially when the words most commonly associated with those spellings only arrived into the English language very recently, and so still feel unfamiliar to the native speaker.
How can this sense of identity and emotion come across in a run-of-the-mill, stand-at-the-lectern-and-read-out poetry recital? It can’t – the language is there, but the psychological upheaval isn’t. When Allen Ginsberg performed, it frequently looked as if he was possessed by the poetry, as if for those moments he was something – or was in touch with something – larger than himself. The same is true of the fierce vulnerability brought to contemporary performance poetry by Kate Tempest, or to internet poetry by Steve Roggenbuck. Their popularity is clear evidence of the human connections they’ve made. These connections, some heightenings of empathy, are surely the goal of any ambitious poetry reading.
This kind of raging performance isn’t the only effective kind, of course. Often poetry calls for a more restrained response – quiet conviction, a slower revelation of meaning which allows the audience to meditate on what they are hearing. Many of the performances given by Poetry By Heart participants are like this; as these are performances of work by another poet, they are to some extent also attempting to relate another identity. Some are dramatic monologues, too.
‘Spelling’ is in itself a kind of pun – simultaneously a reference to spelling in orthography and an allusion to the oral tradition in poetry at its most ancient (the tradition of the spell or charm, or the chant of ritual). As Simon Armitage recently stated in his inaugural lecture as Oxford’s Professor of Poetry: originally, “poetry’s instinctive address was to the ear, not to the eye.” This is not at all to say that we should be literary luddites and ignore the technology of text – just that, where possible, it’s a good idea to use the full range of performative resources at our disposal, to make a work connective in as many ways as we can. The ear and eye should move the mind in tandem; to produce work that maintains links not only with literature’s (and, by this, humanity’s) past but with its future, it’s pertinent to remain aware of the traditions of bard and scop as well as more recent textual developments. (It’s worth mentioning at this point that unorthodox spelling, through the influences of the internet and txtspk, has almost become our vernacular.)
Why might it be necessary to state this case, to combine resources, augment the traditional with the avant-garde and vice versa? Perhaps because, in the face of contemporary literary movements like ‘uncreative writing’, the lyric poet has the opportunity to loudly reassert and reinvent her relevance. I, like so many writers, want to connect to the audience in a way that is visceral and resonant. I want the audience to feel as well as hear the words, to know that here is poetry with blood in its mouth, that never minds its Ps and Qs and isn’t scared of spitting. As Maya Angelou famously said, “People will forget what you did, but people will never forget how you made them feel.” The performance of poems with a theme this dark can be a kind of community catharsis – but particularly a kind which recognises the smallest voice, which raises the smallest voice to a volume at which it can be appreciated. That feels important right now.
There are numerous ways for a poem to wing its way into the world. To give poems a double life, or to make them doubly alive, make the most of most.
About the Author: Camille Ralphs started in Stoke, and has studied in Lancaster, Cambridge and now Oxford. She has been a poetry editor at international arts and literature magazine The Missing Slate since 2013; her debut pamphlet Malkin is out now with The Emma Press, and can be purchased here: https://theemmapress.com/shop/malkin-paperback/. Some of her earlier work has been published in Earth-Quiet: Poems from the Tower Poetry Summer School 2012, Best of Manchester Poets Volume 3 and elsewhere. She has performed her work in various venues across the UK. In 2014, she was shortlisted for the position of Staffordshire Poet Laureate.