It is hard even now to find good quality recordings of poets reading their own work aloud, however the poet’s voice (in the most literal sense of the term) can enormously effect both the process of writing poetry, and the way that the reader/listener receives it.
Every evening Alfred, Lord Tennyson, read the poetry that he was working on whilst living at Farringford to his wife Emily Tennyson. The sound of the poet’s voice was, therefore, integral to his process of poetic composition. What sounded good would have been just as important to Tennyson as what read well, and the sonic quality of his poems, with their subtle repetitions, carry as much meaning as the meaning of his words. The ‘beat’ of these lines from Tennyson’s ‘Maud’, their ‘noiseless music’ in the ear, carry the sense of dancing and yet also an ‘undercurrent’ of threat or ‘woe’ that the word beat, with its onomatopoeia, generates.
‘And ye meanwhile far over moor and fell
Beat to the noiseless music of the night!
Has our whole earth gone nearer to the glow
Of your soft splendours that you look so bright?
I have climb'd nearer out of lonely Hell.
Beat, happy stars, timing with things below,
Beat with my heart more blest than heart can tell,
Blest, but for some dark undercurrent woe
That seems to draw—but it shall not be so:
Let all be well, be well.’
Indeed, throughout the nineteenth century it was common, (more common that it is now) for poets to travel and read their work aloud to an audience. This was a typical way of boosting publicity even for novelists, such as Charles Dickens, who travelled to America reading extracts from his novels aloud. At the same time as these lectures and readings, the first methods for recording sound were developed, amongst them the wax cylinder recording, invented by Thomas Edison in 1877. Some of the first sounds to be recorded, alongside folk music and orchestra performances, were, of course, poets reading aloud their own work. The first of the English poets to be recorded was Robert Browning, who memorably forgot the words to his own poems. These recordings have also caused great controversy, whilst allowing us to access the voices and words of those now lost to us, it will never be known if that early recording of Walt Whitman’s ‘Leaves of Grass’ is actually his voice, or, in fact, a fake.
Modern day recordings of poets speaking their own poetry aloud can still provide a knowledge of both the poet and poetry that it would otherwise not be possible to gain. Charles Olsen, the 6 foot 8 poet from America, has no trouble reading aloud the long stretched sentences of his ‘Maximus’ Poems, that otherwise look so strained to the reader’s eye.
‘The nest, I say, to you, I Maximus, say
under the hand, as I see it, over the waters
from this place where I am, where I hear,
can still hear
from where I carry you a feather
as though, sharp, I picked up
in the afternoon delivered you
it flashing more than a wing,
than any old romantic thing,
than memory, than place,
than anything other than that which you carry
than that which is,
call it a nest, around the head of, call it
the next second
than that which you
can do!’ – ‘I, Maximus of Gloucester, to You’
There is a recording of him speaking - Charles Olson reads Maximus
Similarly, you would not be able to understand the careful precision of Susan Howe’s verse, as she tries to avoid her natural stammer over her lines, an annunciation whose precision totally determines her style of writing, and an obsession with speech and learning to speech which re-emerges across her poetry.
‘A work of art is a world of signs,
at least to the poet’s nursery
bookshelf sheltered behind the
artists ear. I recall each little
motto howling its ins and outs to
those of us who might as
well be on the moon illu illu illu’ – Debths
There is a YouTube recording of Susan Howe speaking from this collection of poetry - Susan Howe reading
One of the most famous wax cylinder recordings is, of course, Tennyson reading aloud his poem ‘The Charge of the Light Brigade’ a recording which you can hear if you come to visit Farringford, as well as at Angela Ransley’s ‘Echoes of Dead Voices’, an evening exploring early sound recordings, from Brahms, to Tennyson, to Florence Nightingale, which is on at Foyles Bookshop this October. The importance of this recording for understanding Tennyson’s poem can be testified to by its enduring popularity!