Voices in the Cave of Being
Back in 1959, I published in The Graduate Student of English, a quarterly that I was co-editing at the University of Minnesota, an article titled “Poetry and the Exacting Tape,” in which I talked about the usefulness of the tape-recorder as a way into poetry. Thirteen years later, when I devised the seminar “Traditionalism and Experimentation in Poetry, 1880-1920,” I was able to put my preaching into practice.
I put a couple of tapes in the university’s language lab, one to practice on, the other on which to record poems that would be coming up at the next meeting. Every week the seminar members would each record a poem or passage of her or his choosing. The last reader would bring the tape along to the meeting, and we’d listen to the week’s harvest before they settled down to discussing the week’s paper, a couple of copies of which would have been made available previously, a procedure that I acquired from Lionel Trilling and Jacques Barzun’s seminar at Columbia.There were probably about half a dozen students in the group, on average.
The listening was a low-keyed affair. I’d usually only say things like, “That was lovely,” or, “You speeded up a bit in the middle, didn’t you?” or, “I sort of lost the syntax towards the end.” And usually, to judge from murmurs and nods, it would be obvious to everyone when something was particularly good.
What preparation had there been for these activities? Not much. Only one class session, plus an ongoing concern with scansion. The second meeting of the year had been on “The Speaking Voice,” with Yvor Winters’ essay “The Audible Reading of Poetry” as the main text, plus two or three xeroxed handouts, including a couple of poems to scan, plus readings by Yeats, Frost, Williams, Stevens, Cummings, Thomas (Dylan), Cunningham, Winters, Levertov, Wright, and Kinnell that I’d put on a cassette.
I wasn’t trying to persuade everyone to sound like Winters, at least when he read his own poems. The best recordings by him were of poems by Williams and Stevens. I thought that Frost read well, and Cummings read well but inimitably, and that Stevens read interestingly for the sense, and that Kinnell read well, and Wright read badly. Probably I said so.
Subsequently I came up with Helen Thomas’s splendid reading of Edward Thomas’s “Adlestrop” and something by dear lovely Stevie Smith. But back then the recorded voices of women reading their own poems —Bogan, Bishop, Moore, and so on—tended to be a bit sharp-edged and staccato.
In any event, what mattered was pace, and pitch, and phrasing, and an over-all shaping, and it was hard enough finding those in combination anywhere. A lot of poets simply didn’t perform their poems, as distinct from merely transposing them from print into sound. Or else they were hammy. You couldn’t learn from their reading about how to read.
I must have been doing something right, for over the years there were lots of good readings by seminar members, some of whom began almost at ground zero and then independently turned themselves into fine readers. But after my retirement the ten or dozen cassettes sat there gathering figurative dust. Luckily, the Web permits second chances.
Recently, during an extended power outage after Hurricane Juan, I went through the cassettes on a battery-powered recorder, and picked a number of readings that I particularly liked and that seemed at a viable sound level. These were then digitalized by Findlay Muir, further processed by David George, and transferred by my webmaster Rob Stevenson onto the site. I am proud of them. I chose them for the quality of the performances, without regard to what was being read.
The 1972 reading of Poe’s “The Raven” by Martin Reyto, himself a poet, is a tour de force, as is, in its lighter way, the 1991 rendition of Shakespeare’s sonnet 72, back before digital manipulation, in which Scott Yano’s voice is the last one you hear. I had nothing to do with either of those creations, which are the only ones where I can attach names to voices. They don’t sound in the least like Winters, but they seem to me, at a deeper level, in accord with the principles that he enunciates, as do all the readings here. I wish I knew who the impeccably sustained rendering of “Kubla Khan” was by. I wish I knew the names of all the readers.
[And now I do know more of them, Catherine Luke, having made the other identifications that you see here. All three readers were in fact in the same seminar twenty years ago.]
I have included Helen Thomas’s reading of “Adlestop,” too good to remain buried in whatever spoken-word LP I found it in.
No doubt there are other good readings on the tapes that I have overlooked. To their creators, my apologies. Perhaps I can retrieve some more later.
I have omitted the last thirteen lines of “Idea of Order,” since the reading falters slightly there. There is a small glitch at the start of “The Raven,” which has been there for a number of years.
If the speakers in your machine are underpowered, as mine are, listening to some of the numbers may be a bit like listening to very old 78s. But the essentials are there, and all the readings contain delicacies of phrasing in which the expressive speech patterns of the works have been internalized and “meaning” and “feeling” are one.
The copyrights belong with the individuals whose voices you hear.
Click the titles to hear the poems...
- William Shakespeare, Sonnet 73 (“That time of year thou mayst in me behold”) (© Robert Fiander, Julie Gibson, Peter Johnston, Grace Stockton, Scott Yano)
- S.T. Coleridge, “Kubla Khan” (© Catherine Addison)
- Edgar Allan Poe, “The Raven” (© Martin Reyto)
- Thomas Hardy, “Exeunt Omnes”
- W.B. Yeats, “Presences”
- W.B. Yeats, “The Cat and the Moon”
- W.B. Yeats, “An Irish Airman Forsees His Death” (© Catherine Addison)
- Edward Thomas, “Adlestrop” (read by his widow) (© Helen Thomas)
- Wallace Stevens, “The Snow Man” (© Tiree MacGregor)
- Wallace Steven, “The Idea of Order at Key West” (all but the last two short sections) (© Catherine Addison)
- D.H. Lawrence, “Brooding Grief” [WAV version]
- D.H. Lawrence, “Pax” (© David Sullivan)
- Ezra Pound, “Albatre”
- Edith Sitwell, “Madam Mouse Trots”
- T.S. Eliot, “Portrait of a Lady” (section III)
- T.S. Eliot, “Cousin Nancy
- T.S. Eliot, “Hysteria”
- T.S. Eliot, “Burnt Norton” (excerpt) (© Steve Gregoris)
- T.S. Eliot, “Burnt Norton” (excerpt)
- Kenneth Koch, “Variations on a Theme by William Carlos Williams”
- Sylvia Plath, “Mushrooms”
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