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 (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.
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.