Semiotics of Performance Poetry

By Chris Arning

Many performers adopt ‘on stage personas’ or ‘adopt a mask’ when ‘in role’ on stage or in front of the camera. They ‘perform their identity’ as academic Judith Butler would have1 it. However, poetry, when performed on stage, is a different beast. Despite the genre evolving through the formal strictures of Modernism and the ironic stratagems of postmodernism, it remains in thrall to the vestigial influence of Romanticism, typified by Wordworth’s idea of poetry as a ‘spontaneous outflow of powerful feelings’. Their value is assessed by a yardstick of emotional sincerity as typified by John Keats’s maxim – ‘truth is beauty, beauty is truth’.

The sub-genre of performance and slam poetry which developed in the late 20th century is a different beast. A need for ‘truth’ remains, but in a culture industry and experience economy where art is commodified, it has morphed into the vexed term ‘authenticity’. Performance poetry, a subgenre driven by a desire to explore and express marginal identities, is a site where inflections of one’s identity jostle alongside a need to be in integrity. In this context, ‘being true to oneself’ is both valuable poetic currency and a mode of identity construction. Being a performance poet means embarking on a journey of self-
reflexivity. Unlike in some other professions, it does not require transforming one’s actual appearance. However, it does require strong commitment experimentation with identity through introspection, negotiation with oneself and with language, performed identities then tested with and upon audiences.

Can semiotic frameworks help us analyse this? If being a poet on stage is a journey involving both competence and performance then French semiotician Algirdas Greimas2 is a strong candidate for relevance with his narrative and generative trajectory. Certainly, performance poetry is a noble quest of gaining competences with both helpers, opponents (some internal, some external) and sanctions on the way. However, from this author’s perspective the driver is not the glory of external accolades but rather an inner vocation to develop one’s own voice.

For this author, poetry issued from a desire to find my own voice during my adolescence. Performance has been part of it, allowing me to try different styles and to find myself through the tangle of heteroglossic voices within; a form of meditation and in community with Myself. 

Yuri Lotman, founder of the Moscow-Tartu school and progenitor of cultural semiotics, was influenced by avant-garde poetry and cut his teeth on analysis of Pushkin’s verse. Lotman took poetry seriously as a source code for understanding how texts and codes work. In his work on Analysis of the Poetic Text, 3 and in the book, The Universe of the Mind, 4 he talks about the special status of the poetic text. What is most germane for this piece, however, is Lotman’s notion of I to I auto-communication, when he writes that: “while communicating with him/herself, the addresser inwardly reconstructs his/ her essence, since the essence of a personality may be thought of as an individually set of socially significant codes, and this set changes during the act of communication” p.22. Poetry is a technology for self- transformation.

Writing and performing a poem on negative self-talk makes me become more compassionate to myself. Writing about the nuances racial identity allows me to reconcile and integrate them and to hold them with more lightness. Writing poetry involves testing one’s imagination, and internal rhythms against one’s conscience and critical voice. One might say, following Antonio Damasio5 that writing is a negotiation between the proto self and autobiographical selves. The writing process is a dense spiral of writing, editing and re-editing. Semiotician Charles Peirce talked about a Play of Musement as a form of ratiocination which “begins passively enough with drinking in some nook in one of these three Universes. But impression soon passes into attentive observation, observation into musing, musing into a lively communion and give and take between self and self…” (CP 6.458). In writing a poem we move between these universes: what he called Firstness, Secondness and Thirdness. We move from mere tendrils of feeling or soupçons of rhythm to concrete drafts the realm of Secondness ‘brute fact’ of writing. Each Object carries a Representamen that triggers a new interpretant, and so on. It is in perpetual edit if not
infinite semiosis, teeming Interpretants help the poem grow. 6Thus, we pass into a realm of Thirdness, of habit, relative fixity of words that become mantras and the messages that are contained in these, to the earnest poet can become shibboleths.
Over time as we memorise our poems, and, as Peirce had it, habit gradually becomes belief. The poems, both their semantic and phonetic codes, become part of us, narratives osmosed and metabolised. Poetic devices are turned over in one’s mind’s ear in readiness for the stage.
Arguably, writing and performing poetry serves the more skilful function of being proactive in identity formation and staving off stultifying external conditioning. When writing poetry, irritations to settled beliefs in the form of constant Firstness bubbling staves off ossification.

Identity construction, goes through a rite of passage on stage. Performing, especially without notes, forces memorisation. This makes the reproduction of the words in the right cadence with the right emphasis, pauses for effect, and accompanying stagecraft a constellation of coordinated movements that is all encompassing. Absorbing a cocktail of various codes: rhythmic, semantic, phonetic, aesthetic is a prerequisite for the performer, to replicate them.
The relationship between poet and audience in such environments transforms rarefied ambience of literary poetry recitals something much more visceral and more symbiotic too. The codes of performance poetry go beyond the formal qualities of page poetry in a way that emphasizes the multidimensional communicative functions of its stretching of language. In Jacobsonian7 terms it profiles the EMOTIVE, CONATIVE and PHATIC functions as well as REFERENTIAL and POETIC in ways the literary world traditionally has frowned upon. This sub- genre also often questions its own conventions through METALINGUISTIC self-parodies too.
Performing poetry forms a liminal space between the revolving carousel of introspective ideation, composition on the page, ruminations in monologue and the live rendition itself.

As a final note, we can also see John Searle’s speech acts 8 as relevant. Words spoken aloud and borne witness to by an audience activates their transformational meaning. Performance poetry is ‘doing things with words’ that goes beyond mere expressives (one’s feelings) and assertives (arguments and opinions) the rite of passage that is doing poetry also involves commissives (committing oneself to the words) and declaratives (changing one’s own reality). A new reality is brought into being every time one performs a poem; for oneself and others.


(1) Butler, Judith Gender Trouble: Feminism and the Subversion of Identity (New York Routledge; 1990)
(2) Greimas, Algirdas Julien On Meaning: Selected Writings in Semiotic Theory (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press; 1987)
(3) Lotman, Yuri, Analysis of the Poetic Text (Ann Arbor: 1976)
(4) Lotman, Yuri, The Universe of the Mind: A Semiotic Theory of Culture (IB Tauris: 1991)

(5) Damasio, Antonio The Feeling of What Happens: Body and Emotion in the Making of Consciousness(Mariner Books; 2000)
(6) Peirce, Charles Sanders Collected Papers (Harvard University Press, 1932)
(7) Jacobson, Roman Language in Literature (Harvard University Press, 1987)


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