Gertrude Stein Rocks

Should great poems be seen and not heard?

When it comes to poetry readings, I’ve always sympathized with an acquaintance of Myles na gCopaleen’s, who, upon finding himself at a “verse speaking bout,” “hurried outside and tore his face off. Just that. He inserted three fingers into his mouth, caught his left cheek in a frenzied grip and ripped the whole thing off.” Thus is monotony defeated and dolorousness assuaged, at least for those who can muster the energy; the rest of us let our heads loll and our attentions wander until the hour or so is over.

It was with some hesitation, then, that I sat down to listen to The Spoken WordPoets, a new CD issued by the British Library containing recordings of poets from Tennyson to Robert Graves reading aloud. From the library’s point of view, the reason for releasing such a thing is simple: They have a huge collection of recordings, many of which have rarely been heard, and some of which are of more than archival interest. Moreover, there seems to be a trend these days toward recognizing that recorded sound is an important part of a nation’s heritage; the Library of Congress recently began a National Recording Registry (it includes Caruso singing Pagliacci in 1907 and DeWolf Hopper reciting “Casey at the Bat” in 1915).

Still, I was skeptical whether there was anything to be learned about poetry, as such, from hearing it read by the men and women who’d composed it—and not just because live readings are so deadly dull (the only poet I’ve ever seen truly hold the stage was Joseph Brodsky, who chanted in Russian to an American audience and was magnificent), but because the performance of poetry seems inimical to the thing itself. Modern poems are like Victorian children: They should be seen and not heard. The essence lies on the page, not in the air, if only because so much of the authors’ effort goes into effects that can only be printed: line length, enjambment, stanza form—all these disappear when voice becomes the medium.

Nevertheless, the dead have their advantages, not least of which is a certain mystery. To hear Keats read “Eve of St. Agnes” may not tell us a very much about his poetry, exactly, but were such a recording available it would be impossible not to listen to it at least once, if only to know a little more about the human being behind the verse on the page. I’d give up lunch for a month to hear Blake’s voice for a minute, and as for Shakespeare, well, there are prizes too precious even to contemplate.

In some cases, intimacy is its own reward; so, on the British Library CD, for example, we hear Robert Browning at a dinner party in 1889, to which someone has brought one of those newfangled recording devices. Gamely, the poet yelps his way through the first few lines of “How They Brought the Good News from Ghent to Aix”—and then forgets the words, stumbles, stops, apologizes profusely, and accepts the consolatory cheers of his would-be audience. A charming, if nugatory performance. And Ezra Pound, reading a poem he translated from Anglo-Saxon in an accent that seems entirely of his own invention, accompanies himself by banging at odd intervals on a kettledrum, confirming that he was, among other things, as complete an ass as his contemporaries described him to be.

Still, there are some real lessons to be learned from listening to the CD, and even a few revelations. The first is about cadence and rhyme, which register almost subconsciously when you read a poem to yourself, but come through overwhelmingly when the poet is at the podium. Depending on who’s on stage, this can be a boon or a bust. Gertrude Stein, genius though she may have been, is difficult to read at any length; but on the CD she rocks, tearing through “A Valentine to Sherwood Anderson” in a tart voice, her clauses ricocheting off each other like billiard balls at the break. Then again, Robert Frost declaiming“Stopping by the Woods on a Snowy Evening” in his echt Yankee accent, hammers the ends of his lines so hard you can hardly hear the point of the poem. And Eliot, conversely but with the same dismaying result, swallows the stately rhymes in “The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock” as if he were slightly embarrassed they were there at all.

Indeed, if there’s anything that reveals itself over the period covered by the CD (roughly 1890 to the late 1960s), it’s a certain growing shyness about poetic diction. On the first track, Alfred Lord Tennyson recites“The Charge of the Light Brigade” in a tough and dignified voice, harboring not the slightest self-consciousness. “Theirs not to reason why/ Theirs but to do or die”; it’s genuinely stirring, this late-Victorian relic, describing a battle that had taken place a half century earlier. He’s not kidding, and he’s in full possession of his faculties and he knows his place in the world.

Yeats reading“The Lake Isle of Innisfree” is much the same: a great man who knows that he’s great, knows that poems are important, each line a rivet in the fortress of literature. But as the decades pass that sense of purpose seems to dwindle. Williams Carlos Williams seems to toss off his verses; Pound, as I said above, flounders; and even Eliot—who recorded almost everything he wrote—uses a tone of voice that occupies a kind of compromised middle ground: neither rousing and declamatory nor conversational. All the ritual and magic is stripped away; what remains has almost no connection to any other kind of performance.

What you hear on the British Library CD, then, is the emergence of a new kind of voice—a poetry-reading voice, carefully measured, somewhat heightened, but occupying, with some combination of uneasiness and defiance, an oratorical territory all its own. Once upon a time, with Tennyson in the background, such diction must have been necessary and daring. But it’s still with us, now in its nth generation and increasingly pointless. It’s interesting and edifying to know whence it came; perhaps we can all return to the reading hall, without fearing the compulsion to tear off our faces, when it’s finally gone for good.