High-Performance Poets

W. H. Auden, James Merrill, and Sylvia Plath read from their work in recordings previously unavailable

THE 1990s saw a resurgence of poetry in American culture, especially poetry read aloud. Today poets fill auditoriums, lecture halls, and urban performance spaces in a way not seen, perhaps, since the 1950s, when Dylan Thomas popularized public poetry readings as he toured the United States, and the work of Allen Ginsberg and his fellow Beats thrived as much in performance as on the printed page. Poetry slams and the rise of "spoken word" or "performance poetry" -- influenced by rap and hip-hop musical styles -- are now a pop-culture phenomenon. Meanwhile, poetry has proliferated in the multimedia realm of the Internet, as online magazines and literary Web sites (including The Atlantic's, at www.theatlantic.com) offer, alongside the texts, audio recordings of poets reading their own work and that of others. The U.S. poet laureate, Robert Pinsky, champions reading poetry aloud in many media. And he's not alone. Television specials, feature films, and festivals attest to the renewed national interest in verse.

Last spring, quietly, at the end of that very vocal decade, came the first volumes of "The Voice of the Poet" -- a series of audio books published by Random House and edited by the poet and critic J. D. McClatchy. Each volume presents never-before-released archival recordings of a major twentieth-century poet reading his or her work, along with a slim yet sturdy booklet containing the text of the poems and a brief introductory essay by McClatchy. The first three volumes to appear are and ($15.95 each), and three more (Elizabeth Bishop, and Anne Sexton) are scheduled to come out this spring. The recordings come on cassette tapes. In the age of the compact disc, the CD-ROM, and the Web, such a conspicuously low-tech approach might seem quaint, populist, or retro, depending on one's inclination.

Random House hails this combination of rare recordings and printed text as a first in audio-book publishing. And in fact, previous collections of twentieth-century poets reading their own work (for example, the series put out by Caedmon, and Rhino Records' essential ) have not included the printed texts. Nevertheless, those recordings -- by W. B. Yeats, T. S. Eliot, Robert Frost, Ezra Pound, Gertrude Stein, Marianne Moore, William Carlos Williams, Dylan Thomas, and others -- are among the century's most important literary artifacts.

Now we have Auden, Merrill, and Plath. Their claim on us holds, and will hold, because they wrote so well. They also read well, though not in the way we hear most poets reading today, nor in a way that contemporary listeners are likely to find easily accessible. Call them "high-performance" poets. Indeed, reading and listening to these three volumes forces us to think about the relationship between the written and the spoken word, poetry on the page and poetry on the air (or in the ear). It forces us to think about the looming presence of the poet's personality and the persona created for and through the performance -- to ask ourselves what it is exactly that we respond to in great writing, and what we mean by "the voice of the poet."

IN a BBC broadcast from London in 1949 Dylan Thomas offered these comments in a talk titled "On Reading Poetry Aloud":

All that a reader aloud of his own poems can hope to do is to try to put across his own memory of the original impulse that is behind his poems, deepening maybe, and if only for a moment, the inner meaning of the words on the printed pages.... [But there is a danger,] for what a reader aloud of his own poems so often does is to mock them or melodramatize them, making a single, simple phrase break with the tears or throb with the terrors from which he deludes himself the phrase has been born. There is the other reader, of course, who manages by studious flatness, semi-detachment, and enormous condescending undersaying of his poems, to give the impression that what he really means is, "Great things, but my own." That I belong to the very dangerous first group of readers will be only too clear.

Auden is immediately recognizable as Thomas's second category of reader. Merrill -- easily the best, most natural of the three on these recordings -- falls somewhere in the middle. Merrill's readings are precisely what one would expect from this refined and cosmopolitan poet, born in 1926 and considered by some to have been the most accomplished lyric poet of his generation. Merrill reads in a relaxed, assured, and, yes, aristocratic voice. The high art of the poems -- which begin in polished traditional meters and rhymed stanzas and develop into a more complex and satisfying free verse in such poems as "Days of 1964" and "Lost in Translation" -- is embodied in the voice. Listening to Merrill is like hearing a maestro conduct, or perform, his own masterpieces.

Plath, though, is one of Thomas's "dangerous" readers -- and these recordings are a revelation. From the stilted affectation of the early recordings, made in Massachusetts in 1958 (in which we hear the young poet aspiring just a little too earnestly), to the unnerving voice of the late recordings, made on October 30, 1962, just after Plath completed the first batch of her Ariel poems and less than four months before her suicide, we hear a transformation that parallels the transformation of Plath's poetry during the same period. Plath's voice on these recordings of "Ariel," "Lady Lazarus," "Daddy," and "Fever 103°," to name four of the most striking, is all but impossible to get out of one's head. In the 1962 recordings she does not exaggerate or melodramatize -- she lives the poems, and the intensity is almost unbearable. One is forced to retreat to the printed page, where the welcoming silence restores to the poems their reassuring status of literary objets d'art.

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