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Books High-Performance Poets

Illustration by Brad Lethaby

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

by Wen Stephenson

Discuss this article in Post & Riposte.

More on poets and poetry in The Atlantic Monthly and Atlantic Unbound.

From the archives:

"Can Poetry Matter?," by Dana Gioia (May, 1991)
Poetry has vanished as a cultural force in America. If poets venture outside their confined world, they can work to make it essential once more.

"What Makes Poetry 'Poetic'?," by David Barber (March, 1999)
A review of The Sounds of Poetry: A Brief Guide, by Robert Pinsky.

"Poetry and American Memory," by Robert Pinsky (October, 1999)
The poet laureate reflects on what makes the American people "a people" -- and what our poetry can teach us about the "fragile, heroic enterprise of remembering." Plus, hear Pinsky read poems by Abraham Lincoln, William Carlos Williams, Robert Frost, and Frank Bidart.

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 W. H. Auden, James Merrill, and Sylvia Plath ($15.95 each), and three more (Elizabeth Bishop, Robert Lowell, 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 In Their Own Voices: A Century of Recorded Poetry) 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.
From "The Voice of the Poet":

audioear picture Hear James Merrill read the first stanza of "Days of 1964" (in RealAudio).

audioear picture Hear James Merrill read the first four stanzas of "Lost in Translation" (in RealAudio).

audioear picture Hear Sylvia Plath read "November Graveyard," recorded on April 18, 1958 (in RealAudio).

audioear picture Hear Sylvia Plath read "Lady Lazarus," recorded on October 30, 1962 (in RealAudio).

(For help, see a note about the audio.)

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.

W. H. Auden is the most illuminating of these three readers. He is also in some ways the most frustrating, and the tension between the performance and the words on the page makes hearing and reading Auden a riveting experience.

Auden's literary executor and biographer, Edward Mendelson, has stated rather boldly that "Auden was the first poet writing in English who felt at home in the twentieth century." Yet listening to the Auden volume of "The Voice of the Poet," one wonders if he felt at home in the twentieth-century medium of recorded sound. Born in 1907, Auden rose quickly to fame in the early 1930s, as radio and the phonograph were taking hold in Western culture, and he soon came to be the best-known political poet of the day, writing and speaking in support of socialist causes and against fascism. He made numerous appearances on BBC radio, and even appeared, with Christopher Isherwood, on a British television program in 1938. Nevertheless, Auden's relationship with the microphone, as heard here, seems to betray a distrust of the mass medium of recording.

Not that Auden was a failed public speaker. Mendelson, in his Later Auden (1999), tells us how, shortly after emigrating to New York in 1939, Auden delivered a rousing political speech to a meeting of foreign correspondents which left him frightened at his own potential for demagoguery; afterward he resolved to make no more political speeches. Nevertheless, as Mendelson recounts,

[Auden] did not hesitate to use his newly discovered powers as a speaker when reading his poems at public gatherings. William Carlos Williams, one of the American poets who shared the podium with him at a 1940 reading in New York attended by perhaps a thousand people, recalled that "Auden's success before the audience as contrasted with the rest of us was the feature of the evening."

These recordings suggest Auden's ambivalence concerning the poet's role as public spokesman, an ambivalence that was at the center of an inner debate animating much of Auden's work in his middle years. There is something austerely impersonal, as though emotionally tentative, in Auden's readings. One hears it in the way he adheres so strictly -- at times almost woodenly -- to the meter of the verses. Quite often he will come to a full stop even at the end of an enjambed line -- one in which the punctuation and syntax do not call for so much as a pause. It may be too easy to persuade ourselves that what we hear is a cold aloofness -- even, at times, a sort of affected world-weariness, as in the monotonous reading of "As I Walked Out One Evening," one of Auden's best-known ballads, in which two lovers are warned that not even their perfect love will outlast death.

From "The Voice of the Poet":

audioear picture Hear W. H. Auden read "As I Walked Out One Evening" (in RealAudio).

(For help, see a note about the audio.)

But all the clocks in the city
   Began to whirr and chime:
"O let not Time deceive you,
   You cannot conquer Time."

Certainly, the voice on these recordings is not the intimate voice of an internal monologue, spoken in the natural tones and cadences of everyday speech. Instead we hear a self-consciously public, quasi-musical performance of formal poetry.

THE most renowned of the poems in this collection is Auden's elegy "In Memory of W. B. Yeats," written in February of 1939, shortly after Yeats's death and only days after Auden disembarked in New York, where he would live much of the rest of his life. I'd like to focus on it here for a moment. (Oddly, the version of the poem found in the booklet is not the one heard on the tape. Random House has reprinted Auden's final, heavily revised version from the 1976 Collected Poems. I quote here from the recording, in which Auden reads an earlier -- and to my ear superior -- version.)

Having heard a string of poems read by an older Auden, we are called back to an earlier time and hear the slightly higher-pitched voice of a younger man on a poor recording that crackles and fades in and out, so we can imagine it as almost foreshadowing the wartime broadcasts soon to become part of everyday life. "In the nightmare of the dark / All the dogs of Europe bark" -- Auden's voice floats out in the poem's final section as though from a great distance.

From "The Voice of the Poet":

audioear picture Hear W. H. Auden read "In Memory of W. B. Yeats" (in RealAudio).

(For help, see a note about the audio.)

Beyond writing an elegy for a dead poet, Auden took the occasion to argue publicly with himself over poetry's status in the world, and over the claims that poetry makes for itself and that are made for it. In this recording Auden moves through the three sections of the poem with subtle variations of tone, rhythm, and pacing, working his way from fatalism through ambivalence toward qualified affirmation. From the opening lines of Part I the reading moves like a funeral procession, and Auden maintains an evenly measured pace.
He disappeared in the dead of winter:
The brooks were frozen, the airports almost deserted,
And snow disfigured the public statues;
The mercury sank in the mouth of the dying day.
O all the instruments agree
The day of his death was a dark cold day.

The great poet is dead. All that's left is for his words to be remembered by his admirers (and detractors).

By mourning tongues
The death of the poet was kept from his poems.
Now he is scattered among a hundred cities
And wholly given over to unfamiliar affections;
To find his happiness in another kind of wood
And be punished under a foreign code of conscience.
The words of a dead man
Are modified in the guts of the living.
From Atlantic Unbound:

"The Matter of Poetry," by Wen Stephenson (April 1, 1996)
The question "Can Poetry Matter?" is as provocative today as it was in May, 1991, when Dana Gioia asked it in The Atlantic Monthly. An introduction to Atlantic Unbound's Poetry Pages.

Soundings: W. B. Yeats, "Easter 1916" (February 4, 1998)
Richard Wilbur, Philip Levine, and Peter Davison give voice to one of the century's greatest poems. The first installment in a series of classic-poetry readings by contemporary poets, with an introduction by David Barber.

Web Citations: "Democratic Vistas," by Wen Stephenson (February 17, 1999)
"I sing the body electric," Walt Whitman wrote. Little did he know what he was prophesying.

Interviews: "Philip Levine: A Useful Poetry," by Wen Stephenson (April 8, 1999)
In an Atlantic Unbound interview, Philip Levine talks about politics, history, autobiography, the successes and failures of language -- and why poetry matters.

Related links:

The Favorite Poem Project
Launched in 1997, the Favorite Poem Project is establishing a multimedia archive of poems read aloud by a thousand ordinary Americans, to be delivered to the Library of Congress this spring and made accessible on the Internet.

The Internet Poetry Archive
Created and edited by Paul Jones, the Internet Poetry Archive features the work of living poets from around the world -- including Seamus Heaney, Philip Levine, Yusef Komunyakaa, Czeslaw Milosz, Robert Pinsky, and Margaret Walker -- in both text and audio format.

Fooling With Words with Bill Moyers
The Web site created as a companion to the PBS television special, featuring video and audio clips of prominent poets reading their work.

The Geraldine R. Dodge Poetry Festival
"The largest poetry event in North America .... offers four days of poetry readings, poetry discussions, poetry conversations, and poetry workshops."

Then, in Part II, Auden turns suddenly to address Yeats directly, and with the deftness of a skilled orator, modulates the tone, cadence, and volume of his voice, reading straight through enjambments and slowing down markedly for emphasis on the stanza's last words.
You were silly like us: your gift survived it all;
The parish of rich women, physical decay,
Yourself; mad Ireland hurt you into poetry.
Now Ireland has her madness and her weather still,
For poetry makes nothing happen: it survives
In the valley of its saying where executives
Would never want to tamper; it flows south
From ranches of isolation and the busy griefs,
Raw towns that we believe and die in; it survives,
A way of happening, a mouth.

As Auden's voice accelerates and crescendoes on the line "Now Ireland has her madness and her weather still," what sounds like real conviction inflects the syllables, and the lines take on more of the sound of actual, intimate speech.

In Part III, however, Auden reverts to the steady, nearly dispassionate voice of the first section, emphasizing the precise tetrameter of the rhymed stanzas, like the 4/4 time of a march.

Earth, receive an honoured guest;
William Yeats is laid to rest:
Let the Irish vessel lie
Emptied of its poetry.

Auden's delivery of these lines, and those following, may leave many listeners disappointed -- for in a way it is anticlimactic. Just when we might expect to hear his voice swell with the words on the page, he refuses to give us the satisfaction. Instead we hear the emotional numbness of one who senses that the poetic reaffirmation of life, meaning, and poetry itself cannot be entirely convincing.

Follow, poet, follow right
To the bottom of the night,
With your unconstraining voice
Still persuade us to rejoice;

With the farming of a verse
Make a vineyard of the curse,
Sing of human unsuccess
In a rapture of distress;

In the deserts of the heart
Let the living fountain start,
In the prison of his days
Teach the free man how to praise.

"In Memory of W. B. Yeats" is a poem as much about the voice of the poet -- and poetry as a physical, spoken art -- as it is an elegy for Yeats. It begins and ends with the mouth, the tongue, the body, the voice. "By mourning tongues / The death of the poet was kept from his poems.... The words of a dead man / Are modified in the guts of the living." Even the mercury of the thermometer sinks "in the mouth of the dying day." Poetry itself "survives / In the valley of its saying" -- it is "A way of happening, a mouth." Poetry is not silent and passive but vocal and active. We cannot expect it to effect changes in politics and commerce, but we know that it makes something happen within bodies, minds, and souls. The poet is exhorted to sing, with an "unconstraining voice," in a desperate ode to joy that wells up in a final chorus of hope, tempered as it is by a knowledge of poetry's limits and humanity's failures.

And yet Auden, at least in the recording here, is not able -- or willing -- to answer his own exhortation. There is nothing "unconstraining" or rapturous in the poet's voice. Instead it seems the perfect expression of stoicism and ambivalence, of the soul's emotional desert in need of the healing fountain. In the end I cannot hear Auden read this poem without feeling somehow betrayed. Maybe that's the effect he intended. But whether I am reacting to his personality or to the austere persona cultivated by him in the performance, my sense of this great poem has been forever altered by hearing Auden read it. For better or worse, a kind of paradise has been lost.

LISTENING to Auden -- and, to a lesser extent, Merrill and Plath -- causes me to wonder, Does the poet's reading somehow become the "authoritative" reading, or way of hearing, a particular poem? Can the voice of the poet exert a kind of tyranny over the reader's internal voice, as he or she reads in silence and solitude? If there is such a tyranny, perhaps it is one to which we gladly surrender ourselves, the way we surrender ourselves to the performance of a great actor or singer -- even the way we surrender to the "voice" of an author on the page, whether we've ever heard the actual, living voice or not. And yet I confess that there are times when the only way for me to break the spell of the poet's voice -- and to reclaim my own imaginative stake in a poem -- is to say a poem aloud to myself. In the best of circumstances I have a strange and powerful awareness that I have breathed new life into the poem on the page -- that the word has been made flesh. I read aloud and understand: the voice of a dead poet is modified in the mouths of the living.

Wen Stephenson is the editorial director of The Atlantic's online journal, Atlantic Unbound.

Illustration by Brad Lethaby.

All audio recordings courtesy of Random House, Inc. Used by permission.

Copyright © 2000 by The Atlantic Monthly Company. All rights reserved.
The Atlantic Monthly; April 2000; High-Performance Poets - 00.04; Volume 285, No. 4; page 120-124.