Gelli Fach

Gelli Fach

I'm a cell, I'm fragmented, I change my form;
I'm a repository of song, I'm a dynamic state.
I love a wooded slope and a snug shelter,
and a creative poet who doesn't buy his advancement.

Wyf kell, wyf dellt, wyf datweirllet;
wyf llogell kerd, wyf lle ynnyet.
Karaf-y gorwyd a goreil clyt,
a bard a bryt ny pryn y ret.

From: Legendary Poems from the Book of Taliesin, edited and translated by Marged Haycock

Sunday, 14 November 2010

Poetry and Performance

Poets of The Word Distillery after the 'Out of Our Heads' performance
(I'm the one holding the poster)

I’ve been meeting up with a group of local poets to workshop poems for just over a year now. They’ve given a couple of performances at the local Arts Centre during this time and I decided to be brave and join them for this November’s event.

Although I’ve done quite a bit of teaching, given talks, performed the odd poem at book launches or celebrations and conducted two or three ceremonies, I’m always – not to put too fine a point on it – terrified. The last time I recited a poem (not one of mine) was at my son’s wedding a few years ago. I didn’t make a very good job of it, so I was aware that my performance could be a total disaster. But – as those who follow this blog may know – poetry is becoming part of my spiritual path at this stage of my life, and because I draw inspiration from ancient Celtic poetry which was only or mainly oral, I felt it was important to explore and promote this aspect of the craft.

To prepare I read up on the performance of poetry in medieval Wales. Of course there are major differences between Welsh medieval poetry and the poetry of the present day. For one thing it was formal, often in strict metre, whereas today it is mainly free verse, mine included. Another major difference is that it in the early period it seems to have been performed not by the poet but by a professional reciter, to the accompaniment of a string instrument played by the reciter or a musician. (One fourteenth century poet asked: what good would a poem be without a harp to accompany it?) Only later, it would seem, during the period of the 14th to the 16th century, did the poet recite and accompany himself.
I was rather interested in the word used for ‘to recite’ , ‘datganu’, literally ‘to sing back’. I don’t know what the underlying concept of this word was – it could be something fairly prosaic perhaps, such as the idea of the poem being sung back to the poet – but it sparked off various mystical overtones for me. If poetry is inspired, i.e. breathed in from the Muse or the Awen, then to recite it is to breathe it out – to give it life and offer it back to the source - and out to the external world.

Uttering something is also creative and may be an act – or enactment - of truth. The performance of the law in early Ireland not only served as an aid to memory for recording judgements but also created and transformed law. So, I mused, performing poetry is also creative in itself and an enactment of truth, however humble, homely or personal.

I didn’t really expect to find any useful information about how to successfully perform one’s poetry, but surprisingly the Gramadegau’r Penceirddiaid (the Welsh Bardic Grammars), and the Statute of Gruffudd ap Cynan, offered me some, courtesy of Patrick Ford.

Firstly: ‘Tri pheth a beir kanmawl kerdawr, nyt amgen: dychymycvawr ystyr, ac odidawc kerdwyryaeth, ac eglur datkanyat’. ‘Three things that bring praise to a poet: imaginative meaning, formal excellence, and clarity of recitation.’ (GP)

Secondly: ‘Tri pheth a gytbreinant ymadrawd (ac a’e) teilygant: ehudrwyd parabyl, a (chywreindeb) synwyr, ac annyan(a)wl dyall y datk(einyat)’. Three things that bring honour to (poetic) expression and make it worthy: fluency of expression, elegant sense, and full understanding of the reciter’. (On the other hand, ‘pŵl datkeinyat’ , ‘dullness of the reciter’ results in a loss of dignity.) (SGC)

Thirdly: ‘Tri phetha vrddassant gerd: ehudrwyd ac ehofynder parabyl ac ethrylith y datkeinad’. Three things that ennoble poetry: the liveliness, confidence, and natural ability of the reciter. (GP)

It would suit me, I thought, to have a datgeiniad to recite the poems for me while I stood ‘proudly by’ as one Irish commentator put it. Although, as the Bardic Grammars pointed out, it is rare that a reciter is able to recite a poem exactly as the poet composed it. But in the absence of such a person I had another entity to fall back on: the persona. And as confidence was an important component of the performance of poetry, I felt that I needed to call upon a confident persona that the unconfident self could hide behind…

So, I concluded, what I needed was fluency of expression, elegance, a sensitive reading of the poems which brought out their meaning, liveliness – and a confident persona – simples! as the meerkat says…

As well as this useful advice, I was greatly helped by Ami Mattison’s wonderful website/blog poetryNprogress which I happened to find. Her 11 Tips for Spoken Word Beginners were invaluable. The most useful I found were these:

1. Develop a unique performance style. Always express your poetry in your own style.
2. Rehearsal is fundamental to consistent and successful performances.
3. Never apologize or make excuses and don’t explain.
4. Love your audience. Ami says this is the most important and I couldn’t agree more. She says that when you perform it’s not about you, it’s about the audience. Respect and love them by giving them everything you’ve got to give in your performances. It’s a privilege to share your poetry with an audience of strangers…

This last one really helped me. Most of my fear of performing is fear of the audience: I think that they are there to criticize me - perhaps it’s to do with the household I grew up in! But no, they have paid good money to enjoy themselves, to be entertained and perhaps learn something. And so, I reasoned, it was my job to entertain them, to give them everything I’ve got. They might not like it but that’s up to them: all I had to do was fulfill my part of the bargain.

So, having rehearsed and borne in mind the advice of the medieval bards and Ami, I stopped on my way out of the house to ask for the blessing of the ‘household gods’: Brigit for eloquence and fluency, Cernunnos for a touch of wild wisdom to energise the art - and the Buddha to remind me to retain equanimity and a philosophical outlook if the whole thing was a disaster.

I didn’t drive my usual way into town, instead going by way of the coastal village of Borth to pick up some throat lozenges from the chemist (as I had rather unfortunately caught a cough and cold from my family at the weekend). The chemist was closed so I didn’t stop but set off up the road which rises above the sea, towards Aberystwyth. There was a slender waxing moon, high above the bay. Rather than a heavenly body, it looked like a crescent cut out of the black material of the sky, giving a glimpse of a silver realm beyond. Threading my way along the dark and winding country road, I suddenly had a strange feeling - as though I were going, not to a poetry performance but to an initiation ceremony. Although still scary, it was a rather heady and exhilarating feeling and so instead of shrugging it off I let it settle around me as I drove, until, coming to the murky orange lights on the main road at the edge of the town, it dissipated and I forgot about it.

* * *

Well, my voice wasn’t as good as it could have been – I wasn't able to use it to its full capacity and had to break off to cough once or twice – but I did my best, trying to speak clearly and enliven the poetry, to embrace my confident persona and remember that performing my poems was an act of truth, a sacred thing. And I loved my audience rather than being afraid of it (well, perhaps a little afraid).

Today I got an email sent from a member of the group, commenting on each of us. He said, “Hilaire was a natural performer, she was totally at ease with the audience-- a real pro.” So, I think the preparation must have worked and I should like to recommend the advice of the ancestors, the medieval bards, as well as the poetryNprogress website.

I’ve realised, too, that to step into new territory, even if it is a small step to the other side of the footlights, or a larger step outside one’s comfort zone, is to be initiated into a new perception and a new knowledge…

1. In fact, our word ‘recite’ meaning ‘to repeat or utter aloud something previously composed, heard or learned by heart’ comes via French from Latin: ‘Re’ plus ‘citare’, ‘ to cite’. And ‘citare’, interestingly, means ‘to set in motion, to call’. So perhaps our familiar word recalls an underlying Indo-European idea of the creative power of words to bring things into existence?

2. See Patrick K Ford, ‘Aspects of the Performance of Poetry in Medieval Wales’, Bangor University Foundation Lecture, March 2003.


  1. What a lovely, lovely piece, Hilaire! Your "initiation" story is wonderful. I especially like your descriptions of the moon and the landscape during your drive; I definitely know the contemplative solitude that comes before offering your poetry to others.

    And I'm utterly fascinated by two things now: the history of Welsh poetry and the etymology of "recite." I really want to learn more!

    Finally, I love this: "performing poetry is also creative in itself and an enactment of truth, however humble, homely or personal." So true!

    Thank you for graciously citing poetryNprogress and the "11 Tips" article. I'm honored that my advice was a part of your experience in some small way.

    Good luck in your future performance adventures!

  2. Thank you for visiting and leaving such positive comments, Ami!

    I'm delighted that my post has made you want to learn more about early Welsh poetry and I really like the idea of 'offering one's poetry to others' - that's a lovely way of putting it.

    Good luck with all your adventures in poetry and thank you again for sharing your journey and good advice!

  3. Sounds like you had a wonderful experience. I've never done performance poetry but I do sing, not professionally, but I have performed for various audiences.

    I find a little drink (and I do mean just a little) can help loosen the voice a bit and help with the nerves. Not possible if you are driving of course but if you are performing when you don't have to drive you might want to try it :)

  4. Well done for overcoming your stage fright. I can understand why you would be terrified (me too), but you really have no need. I have linked your Samhain post to my latest entry. If that 'terrifies' you i will gladly remove the link. Just let me know xJ

  5. Thanks for the tip, Potia. I did nurse a half of guinness through the evening so maybe that helped too!

    Jasmine - no, that doesn't terrify me, I am honoured, thank you :-)