Sunday, November 27, 2005
For the last few weeks, I have been listening to Caedmon’s three-disc poetry anthology on my way to work. Getting to know the anthology has been pleasurable, humbling, and strange. The strangeness results from a trivial feature of the discs: each track begins abruptly, without any announcement of the name of the poet or the title of the poem. I identified some of the poems within a few syllables, but others were completely unfamiliar. I stumbled blindly from track to track. Was that woman with the British accent Denise Levertov? I should know her voice; I once took a workshop with her. But I remember other registers of her voice: casual, irritated, and ironic, for example (Student: “Wow, you could really spend hours just thinking about line breaks!” Levertov: “A lifetime, in fact.”). The hieratic, slow-paced, elaborate poem about an animal’s corpse sounded familiar. Was it by Richard Eberhart? And there were seven or eight poems on two different discs that sounded as if they were being read by the same person: a man with a reedy, nasal, self-satisfied voice. As I stopped and started in the traffic jams on the Brooklyn-Queens Expressway, the air was filled with half-visible ghosts.
Another disorienting feature of the anthology was that some of these vocal phantoms were old and some were young. The arrangement of the poems on each disc was at least partially chronological, but the poets had been captured at different stages of their lives. On the first disc, I heard the tremulous, vatic elderly Yeats; the crisp, efficient middle-aged Auden; the hammy but engaging Dylan Thomas near the end of his brief life; and then a dimly familiar poem about the Vietnam war (“Lieutenant, this corpse will not stop burning”): was it Galway Kinnell or Robert Bly? It didn’t sound exactly like either of them, but it turned out to be Kinnell, an unfamiliar, youthful Kinnell who seemed simultaneously outraged about the war and pleased with his own cleverness. That intelligent, angry, resonant, youthful voice with a thick Southern accent: could it be Robert Penn Warren? Yes. After a dozen sentences, I recognized the line about girls who “chewed gum while they screwed.” But he had written that poem as an old man, hadn’t he?
Even the familiar recordings took on unfamiliar colors when juxtaposed with readings by other poets. After Yeats’s slow chanting (“and Iiiiiieeee shhhallll have some peacccccccce therrrrrre”), Wallace Stevens sounded quiet and conversational in his reading of “The Idea of Order at Key West.” T. S. Eliot reading “The Waste Land” sounded oddly similar to Gertrude Stein: both produced sculptural, beautifully enunciated syllables, with their words precisely paced and arranged. While Robert Frost’s poems had “sentence sounds” deceptively close to ordinary speech, Stein and Eliot both produced a kind of musical abstraction, with the meanings of words secondary to the sonic architecture in which they were placed. Eliot did “do the police in different voices,” imitating the various speakers of his poem, but all in his own voice, in his own perfectly controlled manner. Surrounded by the voices of many other poets, “The Waste Land” in Eliot’s voice did not sound like a heap of fragments; it sounded Mies van der Rohe’s Neue Nationalgalerie.
I must admit that when I signed up to TA for the Irish Modernism course, I hadn’t heard Yeats read, and so had trouble understanding much of his late work. But once I heard him read--SFW so long as those around you appreciate sing-song poetry--that cantorial (or, if you’re not Jewish, precentorial) quality to his late work enthralled me. I should say “enchanted,” but that would be the worst pun in the history of everything. My point? I’m a contributor, I don’t have to hav...is simply that I think poetry meant to be read aloud ought to be read aloud. Part of my problem with contemporary poetry is that it is so inclusive, so impersonal, that there’s no chance it will enter the public sphere. Hearing Yeats intone “The Lake of Innisfree” irrevocably alters one’s reading, if not understanding, of the poem. Since I’m an historicist, I’ll say that the reason why is that students--and at the time I first read and dismissed Yeats, I was an undergraduate at LSU being taught by an old friend of Brooks and Penn Warren--are taught to divorce poetry from culture in ways that do injustice to poetry not written to be read by New Critics or fellow members of the New York School. (Sorry, that’s a cheap shot. I’ll bring out the cannon tomorrow or Tuesday and aim it squarely at the coterie-think of the New York School.) Yeats is best read with an understanding of the cadence of Irish-inflected English. All Irish writers are. Does anyone else remember how they felt the first time they heard Joyce read The Wake? I do.
Depending on available server size, maybe we should start a collection of such readings...I mean, what’s preventing us from soliciting readings from working poets?
Scott, I love the idea of an archive of poetry readings. I would also love to hear more about your own listening experiences.
I never associated Eliot’s (very nice) reading voice with Stein’s (to quote myself, “Margaret Dumont playing Groucho"), but Pound sounds like SUCH a Yeats rip-off.... That incantory style, though, was possibly more generally fin-de-sieclish than particularly Yeatisan. I’ve never heard any Swinburne recordings, but presumably if they exist, McGann’s site will dig them up and digitize them and settle the question.
I like O’Hara’s voice a lot (both spoken and written), and Spicer’s voice a lot (both spoken and written). Warren’s voice confirmed my dislike. It might be worth comparing who became less interesting after we heard them read. For me, I have to admit Pound seemed dumber, and Silliman’s and WC William’s voices (true to their own assessments) added nothing to the experience of their pages.
I actually enjoyed listening to Pound. He sounded just as batshit crazy as he actually was.
In particular, when he recites that verse from Moeurs Contemporaines:
Upon learning that the mother wrote verses,
And that the father wrote verses,
And that the youngest son was in a publisher’s
And that the friend of the second daughter was
undergoing a novel,
The young American pilgrim
“This is a darn’d clever bunch!"
you can hear the venom dripping from tongue.
A guy a knew in college told of an incident from his adolescence. He was alone in his room playing Eliot’s reading of the Waste Land, perhaps too loudly, when his father entered in full rage demanding that he turn that trash off. Who says poetry can’t be as fun as rock and roll?
& a hearty “hear hear” on the props for Stein’s reading. For anyone teaching her, I strongly recommend playing it. I have found that the students are surprised at how she combines the serious & the playful (as Ray says, Margaret Dumont AND Groucho).
I have one question, though. Are there any recordings of Stevens other than the reading at Harvard? I have not really looked into it, but I know of no other. According to the oral biography, Stevens was so quiet that no one beyond the very first rows heard him. So the recording captures an event that, practically speaking, never took place.
From the Romantic Circles website:
Poets on Poets is an audio archive of Romantic-period poems selected and read by practicing poets from around the world. These poets have chosen poems they particularly admire, and some have provided audio commentary on how the poem has influenced their work.
Matt, I’m a certifiably strange listener of poetry, since when I attend readings I’m reading the poet’s lips as much as I’m listening to auditory cues. When I listen to recordings, however, I have to do so with the text memorized or in front of me, which means that my eyes are keyed to the words and my ears to the rhythm.
Then there’s the article a doctor-friend of mine sent me a while back about the way children with severe hearing loss during early childhood (I was stone deaf until corrective surgery at two or three) end up with brains wired to handle language differently. Ray knows more about this than I do. From what I understand, there’s no demonstrable influence on my communication skills, only on the parts of the brain responsible for them. I can’t remember which parts, but I know the way I experience sound is different from the way other people do. For example, I “hear” noises in people’s voices that other people’s brains filter out, so what I hear when an ordinary person speaks isn’t what you hear. All of which is mere preface to this:
When I listen to poetry I have the distinct impression that I’m not listening to human speech; the rhythms, the way the mouth moves, the noises other people’s brains filter out all combine to create the distinct impression that I’m listening to something speech-like, but not actual language. I have to work to snap the sounds back into language, much like when one stares at one of those magic eye stereograms--it clicks for a moment, then I have to “refocus” and it does again, ad infinitum. In other words, I could describe my experience listening to poetry to other people, but I’m not sure it’d be relevent in any meaningful way.
(1) Go Matt, hit it Scott. The loss of the living connection between speech and page has impoverished both. Would it be interesting to devise a course focussing on just that, using the vast wealth of C20 recording? Everything from the orotund (Dylan Thomas) to the embarrassed murmurs of the 1950s Group & Movement, the Black Mountain concept of ‘breath’, the Liverpool poets in the wake of the Beatles, today’s poetry jams, rap, - richesse indeed.
And get ‘em reading themselves?
(2) When Yeats read ‘The Lake Isle of Innisfree’he made no compromises for the microphone. That’s what makes it so fascinating to experienced readers/listeners, because it’s a sample of a whole, largely vanished approach to poetry. But it’s by no means the best sample - as WBY would have agreed - and to students it’s a hoot. How to introduce them to that declamatory moment? WBY himself describes his ideal reading in a couple of well-known essays (’Speaking to the Psaltery’, ‘LIterature and the Living Voice’). Like all descriptions of performance (let alone ideal performance) these can only entice and set us dreaming. But I was once fortunate enough to hear Padraic Colum read the poem ‘The Death of Cuchulain’ and there it was, what WBY describes, the poem recited, not acted, making its effects with a quite small range of pitch (cp Gielgud et hoc omnes) but in its tiny variations of both pitch and rhythm miraculously subtle. The tradition lives on to some extent in Siobhan McKenna, Cyril Cusack and many others.
Scott, your description of your listening experiences sounds like the kernel of a terrific essay. Raritan? Southwest Review (Willard Spiegelman is an occasional Valve reader)? Harper’s?
Ray, thanks for the tip about the SFSU poetry archive. Both SFSU and Buffalo, of course, focus on experimental and avant-garde poetries. Perhaps readers with experimental tastes have also been faster to embrace the web.
Rules the brazen cars.
Not to put you on the spot, Scott, but I agree with Matt. If you’re comfortable with the idea of combining autobiography and research in an essay, your reading-aloud experience seems like a remarkably interesting topic. Particularly for poets, I’d guess—some poets have described their own experiences in terms much like your summary.
[Breaking my “never comment on The Valve again” policy:]
Charles Bernstein is assembling an amazing archive of poetry sound files, and you should all go over right now and listen to Susan Howe and Steve McCaffery, two of our best readers of poetry around today. (FYI, Susan Howe just cut a CD with former Gastre del Sol multi-instrumentalist and Rick Moody friend David Grubbs, and it’s available from Drag City Records.)
PENNsound is located at:
I hope you break that policy often, Luther. God knows our national policy-makers have provided plenty of precedent.
I’m also a Susan Howe fan, and so it’s great to hear about the CD. Has anyone written about the relationship of her extremely layout-dependent poetry to her readings? (I’d been very curious about how she would deal with the transition from page to voice before I first heard her in person, and was delighted by the results.) I know one person has written about the changes in her poems between editions, although probably not enough, given their importance.