Friday, 18 February 2011

Auction chant as poetic form

Does auction chant qualify as a form of poetry?

I think the clue is in the word chant. Derived from the French word to sing, chants form the basis of the most elemental expressions; ranging from playground and football chants, hardcore punk to battle cries and liturgy.  Auctioneer chant, like poetry, has formal rules and uses rhythm and repetition among other techniques to command attention; it is a kind of performance technique.

At its simplest, auctioneers speak using a rhythmic repetition of numbers and "filler words" - usually active verbs make, go, bid - spoken by an auctioneer as the auction progresses.  "One pound, one pound I have, make two pounds, two pounds". Of course, the talk will be the sweeter and slower where there are more valuable things to sell: we have all seen or read about the drama of an expensive vase or painting going under the hammer. The chant itself is a learned skill and you can go to auctioneer school; for example, the modestly titled World Champion College of Auctioneering in Bakersfield, California ( or train in one week at the in Mankato, Minnesota (which has the endearing claim that their "students are of all ages, men and women, from all states, Canada and the world"). There are competitions for the best calling such as the National Auctioneers Association in the US and far from being unintelligible, clarity of chant is one of the criteria used for judging.  The fastest calling, and therefore the most difficult for outsiders to understand, is to be found at car auctions (125 to 175 cars per hour), commodity and livestock markets; the average household auction sells 60 items per hour on average.

"Rhythm is as important as speed in developing an effective chant. Auctioneers will adjust their speed, depending on the bidding experience level of their crowd, and the numbers of a good chant will be readily understood," says Joseph Keefhaver lately of the National Auctioneers Association. Sounds almost like a poet working a room at a gig to me.

Of course, auctioneers aim for a sound that is their own and they will be able to maintain it uniformly throughout a whole auction but perhaps that is not so dissimilar to a ballad specialist or the recitation style of the Compline.

Poets recording online can learn something from the intense chant preparation of auctioneers. Is there a performance school just for poets? I'd like to hear from you; especially if you are not just the slam end of performance.

I remember a great chant poem performed at Larry's Bar, Columbus, Ohio by Charles Ciccarello when the repeated words White Jeep, howled and tugged at the very walls of the room...

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