Hearing Aid

Sometimes poetry should be seen but not heard.

It’s a good bet that, if you’ve ever bought a book by a living poet, you’ve been to a poetry reading. Over the last 50 years, readings have become one of the most common ways that poetry is experienced. Poets regularly make the rounds of bookstores and college campuses, increasing sales and getting welcome proof that their audience exists. W.H. Auden even wrote a witty poem about his fans, “On the Circuit”:

God bless the lot of them, although
I don’t remember which was which;
God bless the U.S.A., so large,
So friendly, and so rich.

For poets, then, the attraction of the poetry reading is clear. But why has it become so popular with audiences? There is the allure of celebrity, however minor; there is the esprit de corps that solitary readers can feel by meeting the poet (and each other) in person. At bottom, though, is the idea that hearing an author read his or her poem is a more authentic way to experience it.

This idea has been nourished by the unprecedented availability, in the last hundred years, of recordings of poets. The voices of Shakespeare, Milton, Wordsworth can never be heard; but T.S. Eliot reading “The Waste Land” is in any library. It took the technology of the 20th century to revive the practice of Homer and the medieval troubadours, whose verses were meant to be chanted to small groups of listeners. And if anyone should object that poetry ought to be read, not heard, those examples always come up. Surely, if it was good enough for Homer, it’s good enough for us.

Except that it’s not. Recordings by the great 20 th-century poets are interesting, of course, and have some historical value; but they usually aren’t the best ways to experience the poetry, and the growing popularity of the recording is a bad sign. Such thoughts are prompted by Poetry Speaks, a grand new anthology that, in addition to a large coffee-table book, includes three CDs of recordings by more than 40 poets, from Tennyson to Plath. Let me say right away that Poetry Speaks is a beautifully produced work: Even aside from the CDs, which are the most comprehensive ever assembled as far as I can tell, the book contains introductory essays by dozens of eminent living poets and functions as a fine anthology in its own right. Certainly it will be an object of desire for anyone who loves poetry. But listening to it makes it clear that the voice of the poet holds little key to the poem.

The earliest recordings in the anthology are the most fascinating. It is strange to think that Alfred Tennyson, whose first book was published before Victoria was crowned, lived long enough to chant a few lines into Edison’s wax cylinder. Today his reading of “The Charge of the Light Brigade” sounds strangely artificial and melodramatic: He almost sings the lines, leaning strongly on the rhythm of the verse. But this is because the poem is already songlike; Tennyson wrote at a time when poets were not embarrassed to sound very different from prose writers.

Some 40 years later, W.B. Yeats keeps to this tradition, trusting the music on the page even when it makes the speaking voice strain, swoop, and catch. Listen to the second stanza of his famous poem “The Lake Isle of Innisfree“: The way Yeats recites the line “Dropping from the veils of the morning to where the cricket sings” is far from the way he, or anyone, would simply say the words; he draws out the vowel sounds in “veils” and “morning” to theatrical length, turning our attention away from the sense of the line and focusing us on the sound. His exquisite ear for verbal music leads him to savor and prolong the lines; we feel that the recording captures the way Yeats said them in his head as he was composing. (And it’s amusing to notice that Ezra Pound, who was Yeats’ disciple and a great poetic mimic, reads with the same passionate brogue, even though his roots were closer to Boise than Coole Park.)

But the key point is that we can “hear” the poem perfectly well, without ever hearing Yeats read it. The information is all there, on the page; in fact, you could say that the whole skill of reading poetry is knowing how to recreate the music without external help. And the definition of a great musical poet is that he knows how to give you that information. The way Yeats reads “Innisfree” is distinctive, but not authoritative.

Other poets, less musical or simply less skilled as readers, may actually give a bad representation of their own work. John Berryman’s recording of his “Dream Song 4” is an example. Berryman sounds self-conscious, mannered: Listen to how his voice rises artificially on “on her” and “brilliance.” But there is a bigger problem than the performance. The very form of Berryman’s poem resists the Yeatsian chant. The intonations of his written voice are so nervous, the emotional shadings so various and changeable, that the “Dream Songs” might not be speakable at all, no matter who’s doing the speaking. The triumph of the poem is that the poet has put more into the lines than he can say.

In fact, one test of poetic value is whether reading aloud exhausts the poem. If the poet’s own performance is too perfect—if she seems to get every bit of substance out of the poem—then maybe she didn’t put enough in to begin with. With Edna St. Vincent Millay’s “Recuerdo,” her shrill, theatrical reading seems all too appropriate to the shiny plastic lines. It’s not just the arch pronunciation of “merry” and “ferry”; notice the fake wide-eyed enthusiasm of Millay’s “smelled like a stable.” If a poem needs that kind of purely exterior effect, there’s usually something hollow inside. It comes as no surprise, really, to learn from Nancy Milford’s recent biography that Millay was a pioneering and very popular reader, on the circuit and on the radio. In this recording, the poem is a prop in a show.

In none of these cases does the recording significantly increase the pleasure we get from the poem. Either the poet tells us what we already know, as with Yeats; or, as with Berryman, the poet cuts off some of the poem’s possibilities; or, as with Millay, the poet reveals the poem’s actual shallowness. And these three cases are representative of almost every recording in Poetry Speaks. (In the Yeats category, I would put Dylan Thomas and, in a different way, Elizabeth Bishop, who read their poems just as we imagine they would. Frost and Stevens go in the Berryman group—a trained actor would probably get much more out of their poems. And Carl Sandburg is of the Millay type—his reading of “The People, Yes” is comically overdone.)

What we really get from recordings is not enlightenment, but something more primitive: a relic of the poet, a glimpse of aura. This is especially true of the oldest extant recordings—Robert Browning’s voice, resurrected after so many years, sounds uncanny. But even recordings of poets well within living memory, like Robert Lowell, are cult objects, focuses of devotions for their admirers. And so far they are harmless, like a lock of Keats’ hair.

The danger is that, in a time accustomed to passive, mediated “content,” poetry will degenerate from a written to a spoken art, from literature to performance. The poetry reading has already started to affect the way poetry is written, encouraging poets to write simple, conversational, jokey free verse. And for the “audience,” listening to poets, rather than reading poems, prevents a full experience of the complexity, the substance, the music of verse. The poem is always only what the poet wrote down on the page. Everything else is show business.