I suppose all of us who have ever set pen to paper, or sat at a keyboard with the intent of writing something significant have attempted to breach the walls that surround that most magical of chalices, the heart of the poet. I know that at one early, misguided point in my pursuits, that I considered myself adept enough at looking into the heart of matters to be able to comment on it in verse.
There is a certain cachet involved with being a poet; it's almost as if the word should be said and written in italics, that regular type face is not up to the task of transmitting the essence of the word. Romantic allusions and illusions cling to the surface of the word poet in a way that eludes most other artistic pursuits.
Even in this electronic age we find ourselves living through, the word poet still evokes for some of us images of quills, ink and parchment over the more prosaic world of the keyboard and the monitor. One cannot visualize Shelly, Byron, or Colridge sitting down at their laptops and composing any of their famous odes or epics
We describe people as having the heart of a poet, when we want to give them credit for being attuned to feelings and emotions, or being able to perceive elements of the world that are beyond the ken of regular mortals. Even though a novelist creates worlds and populates them with strange and wonderful beings, he or she is somehow never granted the same artistic status of the poet.
Perhaps it is the relationship they have with language; their ability to manipulate commonplace words to express the uncommon, the secret, the sacred, and even the profane; that sets them apart. Or is it the fact that they lack our inhibitions about expressing emotional truths that makes us step away; their voices leaving them at odds with mainstream decorum.
The elements of the work that appeals to us, that quickens our hearts and stirs our blood, are those very things that both distinguish and isolate the poet in society. But no matter what role we designate for them, madman or genius, their impact is without doubt. I'm sure that each of us, no matter how un poetic we may consider ourselves, have some bit of doggerel or line of verse imbedded in our brain.
Whether it is a psalm from the bible or a limerick, poetry has the amazing ability to ingratiate itself into our psyche. Is it any wonder that before we had the written word we had epic poems? They were our first means of recording events and of mass communication.
The Odyssey and the Iliad of Homer were not necessarily the first or only ones of their kind; every major culture produced its orations praising their heroes, but they are easily the most widely known in our society. Originally Homer would have recited the lines himself from memory, or as he created them. Others would hear them and memorize them, or he would teach them, and they would be performed for audiences.
There is something about poetry that endures today that seems to demand its proclamation. Laying on the page in its twelve-point text it cries out to be recited. Although anyone could have learned the Iliad and recited in Homer's day, there would have been the world of difference to hear them from the master's lips rather than the pupil.
I'm sure if it had been possible the people behind the amazing Poetry On Record: 98 Poets Read Their Work 1888-2006 would have got him to recite a page or two from the Odyssey, but the technology at their disposal has allowed them to go back only to wax cylinder recordings of Alfred, Lord Tennyson recorded in 1888 reciting "The Charge Of The Light Brigade" and "Come Into The Garden Maud"
Although with the recordings of both Tennyson and Robert Browning, you'd be hard pressed to recognise a word of what they are saying unless you have any familiarity with the text, to all of a sudden hear the man who wrote the lines "Into the Valley of Death rode the six hundred" reciting them as he saw fit, rising out of a sea of static, is heart stopping. These two are only the beginning of amazements that are contained in this four disc set spanning over a hundred years of poetic genius.
It seems that somebody somewhere along the line was always managing to stick a microphone and recording device in front of the some of the major poets of the twentieth century. Individual recordings have been compiled for this one collection so that the romantic lyricism of William Butler Yeats, and the word play of Gertrude Stein rub shoulders with Ezra Pound and Langston Hughes, and that's just disc one!
…"when we hear a poem read by its author, we learn what music the poet intended it to have. We also learn what the poet sounds like, how he or she breaths and, on occasion, catch the poet in an unguarded, telling moment of emotional vulnerability – all helping give weight to the poem's message." Rebekah Presson Mosby, "Our Lives Distilled", Poetry On Record: 98 Poets Read Their Work 1888-2006 included booklet, 2006 p.20-22
While from an intellectual and academic perspective, I'm sure that is worthwhile. To me nothing matches the thrill of actually hearing the voices behind so many poems that I have read and tried to imagine to life either in my head or through my own voice. To be able to listen to T. S. Elliot recite "The Journey Of The Magi" or Robert Frost speak of "The Road Less Take", the doomed Sylvia Plath talk of "Daddy" in the year of her death all in one collection is a gift beyond reckoning.
Poetry On Record: 98 Poets Read Their Work 1888-2006 is a guided tour of North American poetry of this time (a few British exceptions) and the wonder is the remarkable diversity of voices that poetry has always had. Even in the twenties, when lynching was still common in parts of the South, African American poems and poets were appearing in the North.
Watch and listen, as the twentieth century progress, the dynamic of the world changes. The voices grow freer and less constrained in both form and substance. Faces and accents lose their homogeneity and become representative of the population at large.
Perhaps there is some sad irony in the Native voices using the oral traditions of their conquerors because theirs has been overwhelmed, but at the same time they and their Chicano, Asian, and African American contemporaries are able to utilize the tools at hand to bring the contemporary stories of their people alive.
One could quibble with the decision to select primarily North American voices, ignoring as it does countless other English language voices, but one also needs to remember the intended audience for this compilation. In that context it makes perfect sense to focus only on those poets who are pertinent to this continent.
When you listen to this collection, put aside all politics of whatever, instead, revel in the rare gift that is being offered. Do not deny yourself the excitement and the thrill derived from hearing these voices. Now that you can hear them for yourself, what do you think?
Is there something special or different about a poet? Are there clues in their manner of speaking which show us how they find their way to those words they have chosen to describe circumstances or a theme? Doesn't that poem you were forced to memorize in class sound so much better spoken by the tongue of the person that wrote it than a stumbling, embarrassed and resentful classmate?
Poetry On Record: 98 Poets Read Their Work 1888-2006 is a treasure any lover of poetry will regret not owning. I guess it would be possible to round up recordings of some of these poets in other places, but not all of them, and maybe not even these poems selected here.
With the included booklet containing essays that speak to both the nature of poetry in general, and the items and recordings of these discs in particular, you will be hard pressed to find a better means of passing these bits of our oral history on to a new generation. If you don’t buy it for yourself, at least buy it for your grandchildren.
(Originally published April 2006)
Richard Marcus is the author of two commissioned works published by Ulysses Press, editor in the books section of Blogcritics.org and contributor at Qantara.de. He has been writing since 2005 and his work has appeared in publications all over the world including the German edition of Rolling Stone Magazine.