For the past several hundred years, since the invention of the printing press and the dissemination of books in fact, the most frequent encounter with the poem has been with what we find on the page. But that is not the way poetry was meant to be experiencedany more, I suppose, than Scripture should be followed along in a missalette when it is being proclaimed by a living voice.
Poetry was originally meant for either singing or reciting, Gerard Manley Hopkins tried to explain to his younger brother in a letter dated November 1885. A record was kept of it; the record could be, was, read, and that in time by one reader, alone, to himself, with the eyes only. This reacted on the art: what was to be performed under these conditions, for these conditions, ought to be, and was, composed and calculated. Sound-effects were intended, wonderful combinations even; but they bear the marks of having been meant for the whispered, not even whispered, merely mental performance of the closet, the study, and so on. But, he went on, the true nature of poetry, the darling child of speech, of lips and spoken utterance was that it should be spoken. Until then it was not performed, did not perform as it was meant to, was in fact not itself. True poetry was speech, speech purged of dross like gold in the furnace and required the essential elements of speech. But speech heightened, brighter, livelier, [and] more lustrous...than common speech. And60 years laterWilliam Carlos Williams would reinforce this idea in a talk he gave to a group of students, when he insisted that they listen to what he had to say in his poems.
But how hear the living voice of the poet unless you were present? Bless Thomas Edison for changing all that, for finding a way to capture the living voice, beginning with three of poetry’s venerables on his newfangled wax cylinder recording machine. The year was 1888. It was the dawn of recording history, of the living voice caught for posterity, and so, for a brief moment, the voices of Tennyson, Browning and Walt Whitman unfurl from the distant past, caught in the rise and fall of the wax cylinders themselves.
Now comes a new collection of verse, which carries with it three CD’s inside the front cover, edited by Elise Paschen and Rebekah Presson Mosby, entitled Poetry Speaks: Hear Great Poets Read Their Work From Tennyson to Plath (MediaFusion/Sourcebooks, 336p, $49.95). From among its more than 40 poets, introduced by Charles Osgood, we hear some of America’s, Ireland’s and England’s foremost poets saying their own poems. We can hear Tennyson chanting The Charge of the Light Brigade, Browning forgetting some of the galloping anapests of his How They Brought the Good News from Ghent to Aix, then bravely lurching forward, the men in the room with him giving him a rousing three hip-hip-hoorays when he has finished facing off with the strange recording device. And a voice, perhaps the author’s own, reads from Walt Whitman’s lyric, America.
How sad that we should have missed Emily Dickinson, who died in 1886, just two years before the wax cylinder was invented, or Father Hopkins, who died in 1889 in Dublin, both private poets, unrecorded, so thatlike Sappho and Chaucer and Villon and Shakespeare (among so many others)they must remain on the far side of the great divide of recording history. And, alas, others, too, who came late enough in history that they might have been recorded, but apparently were not: Stephen Crane, Edwin Arlington Robinson and Hart Crane, who back in the 1920’s was actually invited to record his poems at a New York City radio stationso the story goesbut who was sent home when some news story broke and was asked to come back at some other, more convenient time, which never came. (The other version is that he did record his wonderful poems, read in that elevated orphic chant-like style of his which the poems themselves invite, only to have the tape erased to be used for some ad.) Both great stories, both very much, unfortunately, in the American grain.
But other voices have survived, and we should be grateful to have them. And here they are, in this new anthology, some known, many rare, a few released here for the first time. A catalogue, then, of some of them: the great Yeats, chanting his poemsand defending his elevated style in a recording from 1931. Gertrude Stein, in a style the very antithesis of Yeats, repeating phrases and pronouns in a versatile delivery undercut by the fragmentary nature of the poems themselves, the equivalent of verbal scattershot, fragments akin to the Cubist paintings of Picasso, Braque and Juan Gris. Here too is Robert Frost, growling his poems like some no-nonsense Yankee farmer, his irony and understatement cutting the listener off at the knees in the silences following the recordings. And Carl Sandburg, his Norwegian accents lifting through his poems as they rise toward the level of music, suggesting the river of dialects that make up the American idiom.
And others: the powerful disembodied meditations of Wallace Stevens, who hummed his poems to himself walking to and from his insurance office on Asylum Avenue in Hartford, Conn. The high, nervous pitch of William Carlos Williams, the baby doctor, saying his linesjagged lines playing against the actual language he heard about him every day, and which derived, he insisted, from the mouths of Polish mothers. Or Ezra Pound, reading from his Usura Canto at Harvard in early 1939 to the ominous accompaniment of drums. Pound: Yeats’s disciple and Williams’s friend, Idaho-born, polyglot master of five or six languages, the American expatriate back in the states from Italy in 1939 to try and talk some sense into the head of F.D.R. as he believed he’d succeeded in doing with Benito Mussolini. Pound, who insisted he had broken the back of the iambic pentameter and given us back a music that captured the classics and the music of the troubadours. Here too is E. E. Cummings (he despised the lowercase spelling of his name, a typological tic foisted on his readers by his publicists), reading slowly and distinctly, as if wading through molasses, the audible effect rather like some Chinese water torture. Here too is W. H. Auden, that brilliant public performer, and Louis MacNeice and Ogden Nash and the Middle Generation: Theodore Roethke, John Berryman, Robert Lowell, Randall Jarrell. Here too are the Welsh cadences of Dylan Thomas and the acerbic understatements of Philip Larkin.
There are also the voices of some of our best-known Modernist women poets. H. D., reading her classic poems classically, tremulously, a rare reading from her long sequence, Helen in Egypt, delivered in her final years, the classical half-goddess Helen meeting the even older antecedents of Egyptian culture. Edna St. Vincent Millay, the first woman to win the Pulitzer for poetry, reading in a voice at once dramatic, ironic, intense and detached. A delight to listen to andin this readingsounding very much like Sylvia Plath, who closes this collection. Dorothy Parker, silken, brilliant, acerbic, witty, comic and honest. And Laura Riding Jackson, reading decades after she had foresworn poetry altogether. And Elizabeth Bishop, at the outset of her career (tentative, almost apologetic) and again at the close, in complete command of her poems and her own voice. Add to these the voices of Muriel Rukeyser, Denise Levertov and Anne Sexton.
Among the most powerful readings in this collection are those by African-Americans: Melvin B. Tolson’s explosive and shocking reading of a poem about the lynching of a black man, in which the speaker is a Southern judge drunkenly defending his actions to some nameless white bartender. Langston Hughes, in a never-before-released recording from 1959, capturing the syncopations of The Weary Blues and narrating the origins of his early poem, The Negro Speaks of Rivers, as he discusses American slavery, something he knew of firsthand from his grandparents. Or Robert Hayden reading Those Winter Sundays and a powerful poem celebrating El Hajj Malik El-Shabazz, better known perhaps as Malcolm X. Gwendolyn Brooks reading We Real Cool, with its syncopated and enjambed sweep. And Etheridge Knight, whose voice resonates with hard-won knowledge of American race relations.
These are not extensive recordings, but rather a sampling of voices, something in the tradition of the old Caedmon series, but briefer. There are other collections, more satisfactory in many ways. The old Voices and Visions series, for example, or the series edited by J. D. McClatchy, called The Voice of the Poet, which includes more extensive readings of such figures as Ashbery, Auden, Bishop, Jarrell, Lowell, Merrill, Plath, Sexton, Louise Bogan, H. D., Millay, Rukeyser and Stein. Andif one is luckyomnibus collections of poets like the 20-volume set of William Carlos Williams dating from 1942 to 1962, assembled by emeritus professor Richard Swigg of Keele University.
What is especially interesting about Poetry Speaks are the short, impressionistic essays by some of our best-known poets in a variety of English-speaking traditions writing today. Thus Anthony Hecht on Tennyson, Edward Hirsch on Browning, Galway Kinnell on Whitman, Seamus Heaney on Yeats, Richard Wilbur on Frost, Mark Strand on Stevens, Robert Pinsky on Williams, Robert Haas on Robinson Jeffers, Rita Dove on Tolson, Billy Collins on Ogden Nash and my friend Agha Shahid Ali, who died last December, on his old favorite, T. S. Eliot. These are all short essays of a thousand words or so, but they usually do what they were meant to: give us a sense of why poet A matters to poet B. Less successful, perhaps, but still quite serviceable, are the overall introductions to each poet provided by the general editors.
Charles Osgood’s comments introducing each of the poet’s readings on the three CD’s are just that: introductory comments he has been given to read. If you know modern poetry, you won’t learn much new here. If you are being introduced to modern poetry for the first time, the comments won’t hurt, as long as you remember that these are sound bites, package markers only. Still, what more fitting packagepoems, introductions, commentary and especially the voices of the dead poets themselvesto remind us of the richness of American and English poetry over the span of the late, great 20th century?
For the price of a good dinner, any drowsy emperor can summon these ghostly voices and bid them play for us over and over again. But beware, for there are voices here, and cadences, and cries that may change the drowsy emperor before the emperor is finished changing them.