Picture of Edith Sitwell

Performed Poetry: Drivel or Avant-Garde?

London, England — Following the first public performance of Edith Sitwell’s Façade collection on June 12th, 1923, the poetry presented as a dramatic reading in conjunction with music composed by William Walton was dismissed as drivel by headlines. Today, this unusual collection is celebrated as a prime example of Modernist art in the 20th century. Intended to be performed rather than read, Sitwell’s poems are experimental in their form, and they explore strange or whimsical subjects. While regarded negatively by many critics in the early 1900s, Sitwell’s performed poetry attempted to create something new, something fresh. According to Dame Sitwell, “At the time I began to write, a change in the direction, imagery and rhythms in poetry had become necessary, owing to the rhythmical flaccidity, the verbal deadness, the dead and expected patterns of some of the poetry immediately preceding us” (“Edith Sitwell: Biography”). This quote reflects a similarity with Virginia Woolf’s ideas about a need for change in literary world that matched changes in the Modern world.

Painting of Edith Sitwell

Dame Edith Sitwell

Despite the revolutionary forms of her writing, Sitwell tried to build on the preceding traditions, rather than completely disregard the past. In fact, some poems within Façade allude to Romantic or Victorian poets like Samuel T. Coleridge or Alfred Lord Tennyson, including “Mariner Man” and “Sir Beelzebub.” Her poetry aimed at celebrating the past as the past rather than perpetuating what had already been done. By pairing her writing with music and publicly sharing it via megaphone at Aeolian Hall in June of 1923, Dame Edith Sitwell managed to do something that sparked a response—first, an outcry of displeasure, now, words of praise for early avant-garde artistic expression.

Posted By: Rachel Nelson

Works Cited:

“Edith Sitwell: Biography.” Poetry Foundation, n.d. Web. 30 September 2016.

Lloyd, Stephen. William Walton: Muse of Fire. Rochester, NY, Boydell Press, 2001.

Samberger, Sonja. Artistic Outlaws: The Modernist Poetics of Edith Sitwell, Amy Lowell, Gertrude Stein and H.D. vol. 4, Münster, Lit, 2005.

Media Cited:

Edith Sitwell. Digital Image. Troublesome Love of Edith Sitwell. Artlark, 9 December 2015. Web. 30 September 2016.

SmilingPessimist. “Sitwell and Walton—Façade with Edith Sitwell and Peter Pears.” Online video clip. Youtube. YouTube, 25 June 2009. Web. 30 September 2016.

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