Performance versus Page in Poetry

Bemused recently when a poetry editor suggested the poems I’d sent him were “more suited to performance than print” and wondered what he actually meant.

The distinction between a “page” poem and a “performance” poem is false and does not exist.  All poems have to work in both mediums: that’s one of the things that differentiates poetry from prose.  Prose need not be read aloud.  Obviously prose has a rhythm: a country stroll will be described in long, meandering sentences whereas a narrator being chased by a serial killer will use terse, tense sentences.  However, a poem doesn’t just have a prosaic rhythm, but also a musicality.  It could be that the sounds of the words, the rhythm – shaped by line endings and verse breaks as well as grammar and punctuation – and the meaning complement.  It could be that rhythm and sounds run counter to meaning and create a tension that a writer can’t do in prose.  A poem that’s too difficult to be read aloud is a failed poem.  A poem that is easily performed but doesn’t have sufficient layers of meaning to sound to satisfy on the page is a failed poem.

The distinction then is not the poem, but the poet.  Some poets are natural performers and perfectly happy with poems in an oral medium, reading aloud to audiences.  That’s not to say that their poems don’t work on the page, but that they’re happier with poetry in a social setting.  Other poets are happier in the intimacy and privacy of reading poetry from a page (or aloud to themselves only).  That’s not to say that they don’t make good readers, but they’re happier surrounded by paper or alone with a computer screen.

I’m definitely a page poet, so the idea my poems were “more suited for performance” is a surprise.  But I don’t get the qualification “than print”.  The poems still have to work in both mediums.