Why I prefer to read a poem than hear it recited

When I was a  very young boy, I was an obsessive reader of Charles Schulz’s comic strip Peanuts. Not only did I read it as soon as the daily paper arrived, but I cut out every strip and pasted it in a scrapbook, with a whole page reserved for the big Sunday color strip.  The animated films and television adaptations didn’t come out until 1969, when I was long past the age of Peanuts infatuation, but when I saw them I was horrified. The characters didn’t sound the way I thought they should sound! 

Mind you, I didn’t know how they should sound, for when I read comics or any work of literature, I don’t form a mental audio representation of the characters’ voices. (But when reading all literature, I always have an imagined visual representation of the people and the surroundings, as I think most of us do. (When I read Anna Karenina, for instance, I form an image of not only what Anna, Vronsky, and Levin look like, but also what the scenery and houses looked like.) It’s just that no voice would do; comics and literature don’t come to me with voices. That’s why, when I saw the first Lord of the Rings movie, I didn’t like it because the hobbits’ voices didn’t sound right; only Gollum’s seemed accurate.

And I think this goes for poetry as well—at least for me. When I read a poem I may conjure up a scene, but I never imagine a voice reading the words. And when I hear anybody doing that, even the poets themselves, I don’t like it. Poetry, at least for me, is meant to be read and not heard, even though its mental effect resides largely in the beauty or sonority of its words. Isn’t that curious?

I realized this again last night when, perusing YouTube, I was at first chuffed to come across Sylvia Plath reading her poem “Daddy”—one of the great poems of the twentieth century. I could read it again and again, and have done so many times, always enthralled with the wonderfully unexpected language and disturbed by the tortured picture of her father. Here’s the written version as given on the Poetry Foundation page:

Sylvia Path
You do not do, you do not do
Any more, black shoe
In which I have lived like a foot
For thirty years, poor and white,
Barely daring to breathe or Achoo.
Daddy, I have had to kill you.
You died before I had time——
Marble-heavy, a bag full of God,
Ghastly statue with one gray toe
Big as a Frisco seal
And a head in the freakish Atlantic
Where it pours bean green over blue
In the waters off beautiful Nauset.
I used to pray to recover you.
Ach, du.
In the German tongue, in the Polish town
Scraped flat by the roller
Of wars, wars, wars.
But the name of the town is common.
My Polack friend
Says there are a dozen or two.
So I never could tell where you
Put your foot, your root,
I never could talk to you.
The tongue stuck in my jaw.
It stuck in a barb wire snare.
Ich, ich, ich, ich,
I could hardly speak.
I thought every German was you.
And the language obscene
An engine, an engine
Chuffing me off like a Jew.
A Jew to Dachau, Auschwitz, Belsen.
I began to talk like a Jew.
I think I may well be a Jew.
The snows of the Tyrol, the clear beer of Vienna
Are not very pure or true.
With my gipsy ancestress and my weird luck
And my Taroc pack and my Taroc pack
I may be a bit of a Jew.
I have always been scared of you,
With your Luftwaffe, your gobbledygoo.
And your neat mustache
And your Aryan eye, bright blue.
Panzer-man, panzer-man, O You——
Not God but a swastika
So black no sky could squeak through.
Every woman adores a Fascist,
The boot in the face, the brute
Brute heart of a brute like you.
You stand at the blackboard, daddy,
In the picture I have of you,
A cleft in your chin instead of your foot
But no less a devil for that, no not
Any less the black man who
Bit my pretty red heart in two.
I was ten when they buried you.
At twenty I tried to die
And get back, back, back to you.
I thought even the bones would do.
But they pulled me out of the sack,
And they stuck me together with glue.
And then I knew what to do.
I made a model of you,
A man in black with a Meinkampf look
And a love of the rack and the screw.
And I said I do, I do.
So daddy, I’m finally through.
The black telephone’s off at the root,
The voices just can’t worm through.
If I’ve killed one man, I’ve killed two——
The vampire who said he was you
And drank my blood for a year,
Seven years, if you want to know.
Daddy, you can lie back now.
There’s a stake in your fat black heart
And the villagers never liked you.
They are dancing and stamping on you.
They always knew it was you.
Daddy, daddy, you bastard, I’m through.

So I was delighted to find her reading it in a YouTube recording, as Sylvia Plath’s readings aren’t easy to come by. Here it is:

Many of you might like this, but I don’t. I don’t like the cadence, her voice sounds wrong (granted, no voice would be right!), and I don’t like the “eech” pronounciation of “ich”. Granted, this is one of the better readings I’ve heard by the composing poet, but I much prefer reading it to hearing it.

Particularly grating to me are readings by another favorite poet, T. S. Eliot. His voice is simply flat and monotonic, and overly “toff”, even though he was an American. Here he is reading what I consider his greatest poem, “The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock”, begun when the poet was only 22 and published when he was 27.

It’s a boring and almost pompous reading. I much prefer the written version, which you can find here.

So many poets decide to read their works in a monotone voice.  That, too, is my problem with Dylan Thomas, one of my favorites. Here’s his reading “Do Not Go Gentle into That Good Night” (not one of my favorites, but perhaps his best known work). I don’t like the semi-monotonic voice, the quavering tone, and the overly histrionic bits:

Maybe actors, trained to use their voices, can do a better j0b, for here’s Anthony Hopkins reading the same poem, but in a way I like much better (his version starts at 2:15 after an introduction):

In my life I’ve been to several presentations of poetry read by the writer, but I’ve never liked any of them. And so I’ve stopped going, for I prefer my poetry imbibed alone, perhaps with something else to imbibe. Am I alone in this opinion?


  1. Posted August 23, 2017 at 12:13 pm | Permalink

    Nope. It is rare that I hear a book read to me that sounds at all like I think it shoot. The one exception: the Rob Inglis reading of the Lord of the Rings, an absolute masterpiece.

  2. Posted August 23, 2017 at 12:16 pm | Permalink

    I tend to agree with you intensely!

    I adore the inclusion of Dylan Thomas; however, and should you ever be given the chance to watch/listen to a production of “Under Milk Wood;” a play for voices, do; it’s astonishing in the hands of the right voices.

    As for reading, I do favour this:

    • JonLynnHarvey
      Posted August 23, 2017 at 12:37 pm | Permalink

      I also like James Earl Jones’s rendition of “The Raven”.

      • Posted August 23, 2017 at 1:14 pm | Permalink

        I like his version of the alphabet.

      • Posted August 24, 2017 at 11:55 am | Permalink

        As shown on _The Simpsons_, IIRC.

    • Posted August 23, 2017 at 1:16 pm | Permalink

      I think the Hopkins version of “Do Not Go Gentle”is one of the best poetry readings I have ever come across: the ineffable sadness on his face as he recites the final stanza is heartbreaking.

      I generally enjoy Richard Burton’s readings, full of sound and fury — well, possibly *too* full of sound and fury at times. Later in life, he self-deprecatingly called it “doing a Burton”. However, he could also “go gentle” with the best of them.

      Possibly, it’s the Welsh cultural tradition of *hwyl* as when a preacher would lose himself in poetic verbal ecstasy that influenced both Dylan Thomas’ and Burton’s style of recitation.

      • Christopher
        Posted August 23, 2017 at 1:41 pm | Permalink

        You beat me too it! Burton is fantastic and by far the best voice for Thomas’ poetry.

      • Tim Harris
        Posted August 23, 2017 at 8:13 pm | Permalink

        I love Burton, too, although he rather too often, as I’m afraid I think Hopkins does in ‘Do Not Go Gentle’, does what Goethe complained of in, I think, ‘The Sorrows of Young Werther’, which is to give an overly dramatised reading of what is fundamentally a lyrical poem. (I much prefer Dylan Thomas’s own reading, despite the tremolo.) Incidentally, ‘Adlestrop’ – the poem Burton is reading – is not by Dylan Thomas, but by Edward Thomas, another Welshman, though brought up in London, the friend of Robert Frost and recognizer of his worth, and a greater and more subtle poet than Dylan (though I love Dylan at his best). Edward T was killed in the First World War, and there is a moving poem by Frost in his memory. The best reading of poetry I know is by Micheal MacLiammoir – if you can find his reading of Spenser’s Epithalamion, do listen to it.

        I find that most poets are not very good readers of their own poetry, and actors, tend to over-dramatise por ham things up – for something frightful, listen to Derek Jacobi read Milton.

        • Posted August 24, 2017 at 8:44 am | Permalink

          I do enjoy all the Welsh “Thomas triumvirate”: Edward, Dylan and R. S. For complexity and subtlety of thought, I would give R. S. Thomas the laurels. However, reading John Goodby’s book on Dylan shows that there was more depth of thought in his poems than is often generally thought.

          • Tim Harris
            Posted August 25, 2017 at 7:18 am | Permalink

            I’m not fond of R.S., I am afraid, apart from some of his earlier work – ‘The Song for Gwydion’ is magical. I find the later work, with its religiosity and its ‘existential’ air, mostly portentous, possessing an air of (spurious) importance and urgency that is created – or was thought by the poet to have been created – by the constant use of short lines and savage enjambement; but enjambement is used so frequently as to render it lacking in the expressive force it should have. Dylan & Edward are much better poets, and Edward the most profound and subtle of the three. His music, once sensed, is unforgettable (I came across two poems of his in an anthology when I was fifteen, and was so taken by them that I begged my father to buy his collected poems – which wasn’t so simple in those days). The opinion is not mine alone. Ted Hughes called him ‘the father of us all’; Seamus Heaney admired him hugely; C.H. Sisson, who was a fiend of mine, wrote of him, ‘All passion for the truth is revolutionary and Thomas’s work is a critique of what the world thinks of itself, and of its methods of thought…. He is, without doubt, one of the profoundest poets of the century.’ Derek Walcott wrote a discerning poem about him, ‘Homage to Edward Thomas’ which I recommend.

            • Posted August 25, 2017 at 12:07 pm | Permalink

              You’re much more well-versed in the technicalities of poetry than I am! I had to look up what “enjambment” meant. I guess what Beecham said about music applies to poetry and me: I just like the way it sounds.

              I still hold that R. S. is a fine poet. Some of his later work like “No Jonahs” stay with me

              What do the whales say
              calling to one another
              on their extended wave-lengths?
              Why suppose that it is language?
              It is pain searching for an echo.
              It is regret for a world that has men in it. Shadows are without weight in water yet bleed their litres to the harpoon. They have reversed human history, so that land is the memory of whence they once came. They are drawn to it to drown, as we are to the sea. Their immense brain cannot save them; can ours, launching us into fathomless altitudes, save us?

              • Posted August 25, 2017 at 12:11 pm | Permalink

                Ach! Formatting is completely messed up! Please ignore above and I will repost!

      • infiniteimprobabilit
        Posted August 23, 2017 at 9:42 pm | Permalink

        Only Adlestrop station I can find is a long-closed one in Gloucestershire, on the Great Western’s ‘Old Worse and Worse’ (Oxford Worcester & Wolverhampton) line. It would have been an express from London to Worcester and places beyond, and the stop would certainly have been ‘unwonted’ for an express train, which is doubtless why the platform was empty.

        Google Maps labels the ‘site of Adlestrop railway station’ as a ‘tourist attraction’ but I suspect that’s just generic Googlespeak. I can’t see anything to distinguish this spot in the pleasant partly-wooded countryside. You can see the line from the A436 road bridge in Google Streetview.

        As English country station names go, though, it surely can’t compare with Blandford Forum, or Wimborne Minster, or Combe Martin, or Ottery St Mary, or…

        (Sorry, can’t help myself. My brain makes me do it).


        • Tim Harris
          Posted August 23, 2017 at 11:40 pm | Permalink

          It’s a tourist attraction because of Thomas’s poem, I think. It’s his best known poem, though far from being his best.

        • Posted August 24, 2017 at 8:48 am | Permalink

          I think Adlestrop was a station that did not survive the Beeching cuts to the railway network.

          • infiniteimprobabilit
            Posted August 24, 2017 at 6:25 pm | Permalink

            Looking at the map you can see why. It would only serve a couple of small villages. When the line was built it would have been the main means of access to a considerable area of the surrounding country, but the coming of sealed roads and the motor car changed all that.


    • Stephen Mynett
      Posted August 24, 2017 at 12:43 am | Permalink

      I agree, Under Milk Wood is a superb piece, here is the version with Richard Burton.

      • Posted August 24, 2017 at 5:14 am | Permalink

        Beautiful. Read poetry at its best.

        I generally agree with Jerry though, it is rare to find a read version, particularly by an author, that doesn’t somehow disappoint.

        I often have long drives to make. Listening to an audiobook or some music or even a recorded play is nice enough on a trip. But for someone who really loves poetry there is no choice when undertaking a long drive but to put on a recorded poetry CD. It takes some hunting about, but there are some really good releases around for most poets. I find the Naxos series quite dependable for read poetry – gifted actors with a sensitive interpretation (often with sense of flow that one has not sensed in ones own reading of the poem). And reading with the RIGHT ACCENT – eg.Robert Burns by a Scot….

        • Tim Harris
          Posted August 24, 2017 at 7:58 am | Permalink

          I think the problem is that one hears a poem in a certain way, even if one cannot speak it in that way. And then everything else sounds wrong, or not quite right. But I do think that if one gets used to listening to different speakers speak a poem, then this problem grows less and one becomes able to appreciate (or to fail to appreciate even more strongly) what different speakers of a particular poem do, what they bring out (something that perhaps you haven’t noticed) or fail to bring out better.

          And so, with Shakespeare, I am happy to see what John Gielgud brings out, what Burton brought out in his splendid Hamlet, or what the excellent American actor Hume Cronyn brought to Polonius (the best Polonius I have ever come across, or what Donald Wolfit brought to Lear (the best Lear I have come across). So it is to a considerable degree a matter of experience in listening to speakers. And if one has experience in acting, as I have, one realises that there are different possibilities, just as there are different possibilities in the interpretation of musical compositions.

          Which does not mean that I am ever going to be able to appreciate Derek Jacob’s dreadful recording of Milton (and I have very good reasons for saying that it is dreadful, which I set out in a review of it for a British literary magazine), or, since Manley Hopkins’ ‘The Windhover’ is mentioned below, Sir Michael Tippett’s musical setting of the poem, which simply does not go with the energy and sweep of the original. For musical settings of poems are another ‘hearing’ of them. Composers like Dowland, Purcell, Schubert, Francis George Scott and Judith Weir were – or are in Weir’s case – acutely sensitive to the qualities of the poems they set. I recommend Weir’s marvellously humorous setting of the Child ballad ‘The Elfin Knight’.Tippett is certainly a good composer, but I don’t think he was in the case of ‘The Windhover’.

          I might add that I do not find Plath’s reading of her own poem bad at all. One might want a reading that gets those jaunty and chilling nursery-rhyme rhythms better, but it is certainly not bad.
          Since there are so many fans (like me!) of Richard Burton, I recommend getting the BBC recording, if you can, of parts of David Jones’s great poem of the First World War ‘In Parenthesis’. Dylan thomas is in it, too, reading the great passage entitled Dsi’s boast.

          • Posted August 24, 2017 at 9:12 am | Permalink

            I must say, one of the great pleasures of Jerry’s site is in communicating with interesting people holding one’s own subject interests, but who have different perspectives on the matter (and not just items of Darwinian or philosophical theme).

            I too love Shakespeare and I agree very much with everything you say. Goodness knows how many times I’ve read Hamlet but nothing beats a good performance. As you say, on reading or seeing the play many times, one develops ones own sounding and interpretation of the lines in ones own mind. That, I feel, gives only a base for further appreciation. Then one goes to a really good performance (my last Hamlet was Andrew Scott in Robert Icke’s London production this year). Then one hears perhaps something entirely unique in structure or emphasis and it’s – well – entirely amazing.

            I’ve also noticed how excellent acting can make Elizabethan language so much more understandable to someone quite unfamiliar with Shakespeare. I’ve always wondered at how this happens – it’s not that a good performance makes the listener pay more attention, I really think it’s in how well expressed lines actually have more meaning, even if the language itself is obscure.

            By the way, if you’re based in Britain there’s the added benefit of the Victoria and Albert Museum’s performance library (Blythe House) containing videos of almost every west end theatrical production. It’s even more Hamlet – Hamlet that one has missed – and all of it for free.

            • Posted August 24, 2017 at 11:58 am | Permalink

              Even speaking Shakespeare aloud can help. I recommended that to Professor Bunge once, who for all his polymathism, *is* a native speaker of Spanish, French and German first! I also told him there’s no shame in using a student edition with footnotes!

              • bbenzon
                Posted August 24, 2017 at 12:33 pm | Permalink

                I assure you, scholar’s editions of Shakespeare plays have MANY more footnotes than student editions (often taking up half the page), and much more “apparatus” besides.

            • Tim Harris
              Posted August 24, 2017 at 5:21 pm | Permalink

              Alas, I live in Japan, and have done for 44 years.

    • gravelinspector-Aidan
      Posted August 24, 2017 at 4:57 am | Permalink

      Watching a friend in a production of Under Milkwood is one of the few times I’ve been to the theatre, and one of the few that I’d go to again.

      • Posted August 24, 2017 at 7:42 am | Permalink

        Watching my husband as First Voice at the Battersea Arts Centre was thrilling too = )

  3. jwthomas
    Posted August 23, 2017 at 12:22 pm | Permalink

    Reading the poem to ones self, not by just looking at it but by pronouncing each word yourself, is the best way to read poetry, because it immerses you into its world in a way no other method can. You don’t need to read it aloud, just mouth the words to the rhythms as you read along. As a test try reading the opening lines of “Paradise Lost” to allow yourself to experience how this works. Good poems are not meant to be just intellectual experiences, but physical ones too.

  4. Posted August 23, 2017 at 12:26 pm | Permalink

    Once I read a poem and “get it,” I am open to dramatic reading by a fine actor.

    This is my favorite poem.
    Elizabeth Barrett, Sonnet 22 from
    “Sonnets from the Portuguese”

    I consider it an anthem for
    loving on earth, rejecting heaven. There is evidence Elizabeth was ‘religious’, but this is an atheist poem.

    When our two souls stand up erect and strong,
    Face to face, silent, drawing nigh and nigher,
    Until the lengthening wings break into fire
    At either curvèd point,—what bitter wrong
    Can the earth do to us, that we should not long
    Be here contented? Think. In mounting higher,
    The angels would press on us and aspire
    To drop some golden orb of perfect song
    Into our deep, dear silence. Let us stay
    Rather on earth, Belovèd,—where the unfit
    Contrarious moods of men recoil away
    And isolate pure spirits, and permit
    A place to stand and love in for a day,
    With darkness and the death-hour rounding it.

    There is one video recitation that might be a candidate for “YES!” It’s a very fine performance of the poem. It’s from the film Love Story, and it’s Jenny’s wedding vow.
    You may have to suspend prior impressions of this film, the story, etc. Also, I suggest stopping the video as soon as Jenny finishes — “Oliver’s” poem and acting might make you nauseous.

  5. rich lawler
    Posted August 23, 2017 at 12:34 pm | Permalink

    Charles Simic, on the other hand, is great to listen to, and I prefer that much more than reading myself. But he is one of the few.

  6. KD33
    Posted August 23, 2017 at 12:35 pm | Permalink

    Funny, I was just thinking the same thing about hearing poetry readings whether by the author or not. But with one exception – I saw Ginsburg reading selections of his poetry (maybe this was 1993?) It was terrific! Highlights were segments of Howl, and “Don’t Smoke,” which he read like a chant, and with great humor. We almost wanted to clap along!

    • JonLynnHarvey
      Posted August 23, 2017 at 12:38 pm | Permalink

      For about a minute, I had to get past Ginsberg’s thick Brooklyn accent, but eventually was able to put in my mental clutch and do the gear-shift.

    • JonLynnHarvey
      Posted August 23, 2017 at 12:47 pm | Permalink

      Here is Allen Ginsberg reading his LSD influenced “Wales Visitation” on William F. Buckley’s “Firing Line” with occasional reaction shots from Buckley concluding with WFB saying “I rather like that”.

      • Liz
        Posted August 23, 2017 at 7:26 pm | Permalink

        Wow. I kind of liked it, too. I was surprised at how much he wasn’t actually reading.

  7. kieran
    Posted August 23, 2017 at 12:36 pm | Permalink

    “Besides, Lord Vetinari, the supreme ruler of Ankh-Morpork, rather liked music.
    People wondered what sort of music would appeal to such a man.
    Highly formalized chamber music, possibly, or thunder-and-lightening opera scores.
    In fact the kind of music he really liked was the kind that never got played. It ruined music, in his opinion, to torment it by involving it on dried skins, bits of dead cat and lumps of metal hammered into wires and tubes. It ought to stay written down, on the page, in rows of little dots and crotchets, all neatly caught between lines. Only there was it pure. It was when people started doing things with it that the rot set in. Much better to sit quietly in a room and read the sheets, with nothing between yourself and the mind of the composer but a scribble of ink. Having it played by sweaty fat men and people with hair in their ears and spit dribbling out of the end of their oboe…well, the idea made him shudder. Although not much, because he never did anything to extremes.”

    For some reason reading poetry instead of hearing it reminded me of this from Terry Pratchet and soul music.

    • bencbt
      Posted August 23, 2017 at 5:40 pm | Permalink

      Love it! Terry Pratchett could cut to the chase.

  8. Michiel
    Posted August 23, 2017 at 12:45 pm | Permalink

    Anthony Hopkins could read the phone book and it would still sound amazing.

    • Kevin
      Posted August 23, 2017 at 2:53 pm | Permalink


      Voice of Titus and Odin. He is the quintessential warrior god.

    • Steve Gerrard
      Posted August 23, 2017 at 9:44 pm | Permalink


  9. Raymond Little
    Posted August 23, 2017 at 12:48 pm | Permalink

    Dylan Thomas was pretty good with his own poetry, but yes, better with other people’s. His reading of a parody of T.S. Eliot (monotone, drone, up-tight accent) is priceless.
    Dunno about actors in general, but the actor Emylyn Williams sp? doing Dylan Thomas’s poems in the persona of DT himself is first-rate. Most of what I’ve heard on recordings and websites is awful, hammy intoning.
    Particularly terrible is W.H. Auden reciting his own work. His accent is pre-WWII BBC, and grates on the North American ear, to the point where his (very readable) poetry, is completely spoiled.

    • Filippo
      Posted August 23, 2017 at 2:02 pm | Permalink

      ” . . . grates on the North American ear . . . .”

      As much as the Appalachian (and Plantation) Southern U.S. accent grates on my ears? (And I was born and bred in Appalachia!)

  10. Ken Kukec
    Posted August 23, 2017 at 12:49 pm | Permalink

    When the Peanuts animated cartoons came out, I confess to not thinking much about the sound of the voices, but I dug the Vince Guaraldi scores. Had a kinda Brubeck feel to ’em.

  11. JonLynnHarvey
    Posted August 23, 2017 at 12:50 pm | Permalink

    I quite agree the Eliot’s rendition of Prufrock is monotone and pompous.
    However, I think that same style actually works better with his “The Hollow Men”. (It’s also supplemented with music.)

    Link without direct embedding.


    • JonLynnHarvey
      Posted August 23, 2017 at 12:52 pm | Permalink

      Greatest reading of an Eliot poem!!!
      Alec Guinness reading “The Waste Land”.


  12. John Crisp
    Posted August 23, 2017 at 12:53 pm | Permalink

    Wow, I read the first line of this post, and my mind went to Sylvia Plath (about whom I wrote my first Masters dissertation), then to TS Eliot, then to Dylan Thomas…, so when you cited the same poets, it felt like a real meeting of minds. The thing is, I have loved the work of those three poets, among others, ever since I can remember, but I am pretty sure that I would dislike them in person. Plath insecure, neurotic, ambitious, brittle, narcissistic, not an easy person, and I know the recording you posted, which is the voice of the person, not the poet (the voice of the poet is the one you hear in your head).

    And Eliot, prissy, uptight, enamoured of the British aristocracy and anti-Semitic to the core, but what a poetic voice (again in the sense of the voice in your head, not the voice on the recording).

    And finally Dylan Thomas. I have heard many of his recordings, and he sounds as he was, a petulant Welsh drunk. However, his poetic voice is available in Richard Burton’s (as in Elizabeth Taylor) version of Under Milkwood. Mesmerising. If you don’t know it, find it and listen to it.

    Quite a few of my friends are poets, and I have been to their readings. Listening to them makes me think of Henry James’ picture of the writer, as somebody whose public self is a kind of ghost. Poetry is, of course, a weird kind of halfway medium. In its beginnings, for example in Homer or the Norse sagas, or the Bhagavad-Gita, it was about performance, a kind of song. Today, there is some great performance poetry around, for example a lady I know in the UK called Kate Tempest. And then, people like Bob Dylan or Leonard Cohen are not so bad!

  13. Jenny Haniver
    Posted August 23, 2017 at 12:54 pm | Permalink

    I’m in the minority with a contrary opinion, Of course, I like to read poetry, but as for hearing it, I tend to prefer the poet read his or her poetry, PROVIDED they can read it well (that being a subjective opinion). Eliot, no; but I very much enjoy hearing Dylan Thomas, Plath, and Yeats reading their poetry. I want their native cadences informing the words. For the most part I do not like people reading someone else’s poetry, and I detest dramatic readings done by others. However, the poetry I gravitate to is poetry that works equally well for eye and ear. I’d have loved to hear St. John of the Cross read his poems, likewise, Salvatore Quasimodo, Pope, HD, Rilke, Georg Trakl, Robert Herrick…,I could go on.

    Those who don’t like poets reading their own poetry won’t like Yeats declaiming, but FYI here he is reading, and, at the beginning, briefly commenting on reading poetry https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=u2FT4_UUa4I.

    However, in the course of thinking about this, I found an audio of Vachel Lindsay reading his notorious poem, “The Congo” https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=O3lY8qmiLy4 (an extremely un-PC poem, even though he regarded himself as anti-racist and an advocate for African Americans, and was quite perplexed at the negative response to “The Congo” from blacks). Whatever one thinks of the poem, this is about the worst reading imaginable, yet the poem begs to be read aloud (and must be a dramatic reading, even though I say I don’t like them).

    And I would dearly like to hear PCC(E) read his poem about Honey’s fickleness, published in an earlier post. But perhaps it needs some audio of her quacking in the background and he should be standing by the pond.

    • Jenny Haniver
      Posted August 23, 2017 at 1:35 pm | Permalink

      A bit off topic because it isn’t poetry by any stretch of the imagination, but Hillary Clinton gets the 2017 Vachel Lindsay Award for Execrable Reading of One’s Own Work, now that excerpts of her memoir as audiobook have been made available just today, ex., https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=x9rrlvrYmfU. It’s her memoir but her reading is forced and wooden, and comes across as if she’s doing a cold reading of something completely unfamiliar, and it’s a very bad reading at that, especially for someone whose vocal abilities are a critical part of her person and profession — can’t be a mute politician. It’s an unconvincing reading, she seems extremely uncomfortable with the text; but then, despite the fact that public speaking is critical in most everything she does, I find her to be an awkward public speaker, and maybe there’s a connection.

    • Filippo
      Posted August 23, 2017 at 2:07 pm | Permalink

      “And I would dearly like to hear PCC(E) read his poem about Honey’s fickleness…>”

      Perhaps, rather than her perceived “fickleness,” one might wax rhapsodic about her following her bliss, and be grateful for the happenstance of existence outside ones window.

  14. Raymond Little
    Posted August 23, 2017 at 12:56 pm | Permalink

    As a recording of prose, Jeremy Irons’ audio-book reading of Evelyn Waugh’s Brideshead Revisited is incomparable. Irons also starred in the very early TV adaptation of the novel. Most audiobooks are so-so — okay for a long commute, but not well done.

  15. Liz
    Posted August 23, 2017 at 1:02 pm | Permalink

    I don’t think you are alone on that. I am the same way with books and poems. Some people love books on tape and I really don’t care for them. In a similar way, I am particular with my music. I never watch music videos. Maybe in my life I have seen a handful or so. If I see one come on, I look away. (Except for when Thriller came on when Michael Jackson died.) It completely ruins the song for me. I *listen* to music. I don’t even understand how other people prefer to watch music videos with their music.

    When I read “…but in the lamplight…” in “The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock” for the first time a couple of years ago, I immediately thought the song “Memory” about Grizabella in CATS was an adaptation of not only “Rhapsody on a Windy Night” but that too. It might have been just the line if at all.

    • infiniteimprobabilit
      Posted August 23, 2017 at 10:27 pm | Permalink

      Music videos and (sound-only) music are really two very different mediums, to be appreciated differently. Even when it’s the same song. Take any music video, rip the sound and listen to it as an MP3, and the experience will be qualitatively different. Not necessarily better or worse, but different.


      • Liz
        Posted August 24, 2017 at 2:58 pm | Permalink

        Maybe a little bit. I listen to music on cds, my ipod, computer, phone, the radio, my walkman occasionally to listen to college a capella that isn’t anywhere else now, and rarely records. It’s the visual part that I don’t enjoy as much as the music alone.

        • infiniteimprobabilit
          Posted August 24, 2017 at 11:28 pm | Permalink

          Well, it depends on the video I think. ‘Thriller’ is a case in point, there’s a story there that you miss with sound alone. Similarly Guns ‘n’ Roses ‘November Rain’.

          Classical music performances, I agree, shots of the orchestra don’t really add much.

          Rock concert videos (with a light show) such as Pink Floyd’s ‘Pulse’ with its amazing light show, I’d say there is a difference. The video is an audio-visual experience. If I rip e.g. ‘Comfortably Numb’ and listen to it on headphones, it is a different experience – I actually notice more of the musical structure because my attention is not divided between sound and vision.


  16. Wayne
    Posted August 23, 2017 at 1:03 pm | Permalink

    I find it interesting that Anna Karenina is used as an example. Having been recently sucked into this novel, I think that a keen sense of imagery is essential to appreciate the rich tapestry hidden in Tolstoy’s words (or translation thereof). Any of the various film adaptations only ruined it for me.

  17. Mark Clements
    Posted August 23, 2017 at 1:14 pm | Permalink

    You mentioned Peanuts. Did you know that Bill Watterson, creator of the marvelous cartoon Calvin and Hobbes, turned down all (no doubt very lucrative) offers to have an animated version made for exactly the reason Jerry Gives — he didn’t want any one voice to be associated with each character, but to allow the reader’s imagination to provide the voice.

    • Filippo
      Posted August 23, 2017 at 2:09 pm | Permalink

      I rolled on the floor every time Spaceman Spiff was featured.

    • mfdempsey1946
      Posted August 23, 2017 at 6:22 pm | Permalink

      This situation with live readings of poems, especially by their authors. can be compared to what took place during the transition from silent films to sound films.

      Watching silent films, individual audience members were free to imagine a personal “ideal” voice for each of their favorite actors, whose actual voices they probably never heard in life outside the movies.

      When sound came in, everybody suddenly found themselves hearing the actual voices of each popular actor. This (combined with inadequate sound recording equipment and inept dialogue writing, which replaced printed intertitles)created disappointment in many moviegoers, which cost many major stars their careers.

      For example, John Gilbert (Greta Garbo’s fabled onscreen partner) had a perfectly good tenor voice. But his career faded away and his life ended prematurely because this voice of his failed to match the fantasies that his formerly adoring silent-movie audiences maintained of how a “Great Lover” should sound.

      Even a giant like Charlie Chaplin experienced this problem. His true voice did not comport with his Little Tramp; it sounded much more posh that the voice moviegoers imagined for such a character. It took him years to figure out how to deal with this problem — gingerly in “Modern Times” by audibly singing a nonsense song and then playing two non-Tramp figures, one a parody of Adolf Hitler, in “The Great Dictator.”

    • Posted August 24, 2017 at 12:01 pm | Permalink

      Bill Watterson seems to be (at least wrt C&H) a man of profound integrity. He also ended the strip before it got bad and also more recently gave his “approval” to a very touching fan tribute.

  18. Posted August 23, 2017 at 1:15 pm | Permalink

    Don’t believe I’ve ever read any Plath before. Gosh that’s a dumb poem.

  19. Posted August 23, 2017 at 1:22 pm | Permalink

    I definitely can’t fully appreciate a poem until I’ve heard it read aloud. Usually I’m the one doing the reciting, and I find it’s something that one usually has to work at. I can’t capture the rhythm or tempo of a poem by reading it silently, and these are often critical features of a poem.

    I agree though that some poets are positively awful at reciting poetry. Professional actors tend to do a much better job. I’m reminded of Bryan Cranston’s reading of ‘Ozymandias’ – quite poignant.

  20. Frank
    Posted August 23, 2017 at 1:28 pm | Permalink

    Trivial point, but I believe the first (and best) Peanuts animation was 1965, not 1969, with A Charlie Brown Christmas. For me as a 10-year-old, this animation and Chuck Jones’s, How the Grinch Stole Christmas, were childhood high points!

    • Filippo
      Posted August 23, 2017 at 2:15 pm | Permalink

      Concur re: 1965. When “Christmas Is Here” was played, I sat there breathless, silent listening intently, because as a 10-year-old, I knew that I likely wasn’t going to hear this little musical masterpiece again until next Christmas. (It never occurred to me to say to my surviving parent, “Will you take me to a record store to buy the soundtrack album – assuming I knew that soundtrack albums existed – which I did not know.) My first exposure to the chromatic richness of jazz.

  21. Posted August 23, 2017 at 1:32 pm | Permalink

    “Poetry, at least for me, is meant to be read and not heard”

    Had I read this sentence out of context, I would have said “Yikes! You couldn’t be more wrong!” But as I read the whole piece, I have to agree with you. I’m a poet, but I hate poetry readings—even, or especially, by poets whose poems I like very much. One problem is that most poets subordinate the individual poem to their style of reading; the poems all sound the same. Most annoying is a style of reading where the voice goes up in pitch at the end of every line. I don’t know where this technique began—Dylan Thomas, maybe—but it’s annoying as hell. I have the same problem with jazz renditions of great standards that murder the composer’s melody.

    That said, I would insist that poetry is meant to be heard, not read–certainly not as you would read prose. When you read what I’m writing no, you can understand it without listening to the sound of the words. I could say the same thing in other words without losing any of the meaning. Poetry cannot be paraphrased. The sound is an integral part of the meaning, just as in music. People ask “What does this poem mean?”—as if poets suffered from some genetic defect that prevented them from saying what they mean—and the only answer is, “Listen to it—that’s what it means.” Nobody asks what the music of, say, Mozart means. This is what Frost meant when he said, “Poetry is what gets lost in translation.” The meaning of a poem is captured in the sound of these words in this order, period.

    Below is probably one of the great poems in the language—Matthew Arnold’s “Dover Beach.” If you read the poem without hearing it, you haven’t read the poem. There’s no way you can tell me what this poem means in words other than those of the poem itself.

    Forgive me for going on so long and sounding pedantic, but this may be the one topic about which I actually know what I’m talking about, and I’d hate to have anyone misunderstand Jerry’s point to be that sound is not integral to poetry.



    Dover Beach
    By Matthew Arnold

    The sea is calm tonight.
    The tide is full, the moon lies fair
    Upon the straits; on the French coast the light
    Gleams and is gone; the cliffs of England stand,
    Glimmering and vast, out in the tranquil bay.
    Come to the window, sweet is the night air!
    Only, from the long line of spray
    Where the sea meets the moon-blanched land,
    Listen! you hear the grating roar
    Of pebbles which the waves draw back, and fling,
    At their return, up the high strand,
    Begin, and cease, and then again begin,
    With tremulous cadence slow, and bring
    The eternal note of sadness in.

    Sophocles long ago
    Heard it on the Aegean, and it brought
    Into his mind the turbid ebb and flow
    Of human misery; we
    Find also in the sound a thought,
    Hearing it by this distant northern sea.

    The Sea of Faith
    Was once, too, at the full, and round earth’s shore
    Lay like the folds of a bright girdle furled.
    But now I only hear
    Its melancholy, long, withdrawing roar,
    Retreating, to the breath
    Of the night-wind, down the vast edges drear
    And naked shingles of the world.

    Ah, love, let us be true
    To one another! for the world, which seems
    To lie before us like a land of dreams,
    So various, so beautiful, so new,
    Hath really neither joy, nor love, nor light,
    Nor certitude, nor peace, nor help for pain;
    And we are here as on a darkling plain
    Swept with confused alarms of struggle and flight,
    Where ignorant armies clash by night.

    • bbenzon
      Posted August 23, 2017 at 2:10 pm | Permalink

      “There’s no way you can tell me what this poem means in words other than those of the poem itself.”

      Yes, and I say this as a person trained to be a professional academic literary critic. What’s interesting is that the profession (that is, academic lit crit) is endlessly interested in what literary texts mean, but not so much interested in their form, morphology. Even the schools of criticism that profess an affinity for biology (literary Darwinism) are uninterested in describing the forms of literary texts. It’s as though they are completely unaware of the fact that Darwin had available to him several centuries worth of patient descriptive work on morphology and lifeways, without which he’d have had little on which to build his theorizing.

  22. Ken Kukec
    Posted August 23, 2017 at 1:51 pm | Permalink

    I’m with you on preferring to read rather than hear poems (though I still get a kick out of listening to Ginsberg recite “Howl>). Part of the pleasure comes in seeing the way the poet’s laid out the words.

    As to any Lit, I generally prefer it in written form, although i’m fond of having some books-on-tape lined up when I have a long drive ahead of me. Even then, though, sometimes I find myself imagining in my mind’s eye not the action unfolding in the story, but what the words & sentences & paragraphs must look like on the page.

  23. Posted August 23, 2017 at 1:55 pm | Permalink

    Couldn’t agree more

  24. bbenzon
    Posted August 23, 2017 at 2:13 pm | Permalink

    Like many I first became acquainted with some of our canonical texts by having a parent read them to me at bedtime. My father read me such books as Huckleberry Finn, Tom Sawyer, and Moby Dick (I bet he skipped the whale taxonomy), plus a ripping good yarn or two, such as King Soloman’s Mines. I marveled at how natural his voice sounded.

  25. ThyroidPlanet
    Posted August 23, 2017 at 2:30 pm | Permalink

    hear hear to reading aloud. very easy to neglect.

    I think there are some “Just So Stories” fans here, and I’ll share that, if you want to understand why Kipling won a Nobel Prize in Literature, and why the author of any other perfectly fine piece of children’s literature will NOT win one, it would have something to do with what happens when you read JSS aloud.

    • bbenzon
      Posted August 23, 2017 at 2:39 pm | Permalink

      Yes, my father read those to me. I will remember forever the wonderful phrase, “great grey green greasy limpopo river…”

  26. winc39
    Posted August 23, 2017 at 2:40 pm | Permalink

    Theis reminds of the famous sarcasm by Stravinsky about Casals: Señor Casals offers extracts of his philosophy, too. It is a matter of some simplicities; of his being in favor of peace, for example, and of playing Bach in the style of Brahms.

    I prefer readings by the poet if it is possible. They understand the poem. They know the emotions that it taps. Another reader is just guessing. It may be a marvelous entertainment for people who do not know better, but so was a Casals concert It was not Bach. If you prefer the pallid performance of Anthony Hopkins you are not ready for the poetry of Dylan Thomas.

    • Posted August 23, 2017 at 3:39 pm | Permalink

      I never saw Casals in person. I have many recordings, and treasure them, especially the Bach Cello Suites. Do you actually claim he played Bach in the style of Brahms?

  27. ThyroidPlanet
    Posted August 23, 2017 at 2:41 pm | Permalink

    Just So Story fans : Boris Karloff reading Just So Stories – try to get this!


  28. DiscoveredJoys
    Posted August 23, 2017 at 2:56 pm | Permalink

    On a related matter I seldom listen to podcasts. I’d sooner read the transcripts (if available) or just ignore the podcasts all together. Especially if they are conducted over the telephone.

    • bbenzon
      Posted August 23, 2017 at 3:13 pm | Permalink

      I’m with your here. I can read the transcript at my own pace and skip over things that don’t interest me. But then the sound of the voices in podcasts is seldom important. That’s less true of literature, which, after all, was spoken long before there was such a thing as writing.

  29. Filippo
    Posted August 23, 2017 at 3:11 pm | Permalink

    I “confess” (assuming I owe anyone a duty of “confessing”) that I absolutely enjoy hearing William Shatner recite Shakespeare and other poetic gems (“Cyrano”) on his 1968 album, “The Transformed Man.”

    (Of course, the likes of Terry Gross on NPR’s/WHYY’s “Fresh Air” have to fatuously knee-jerk obsess about such recorded tracks as “Lucy in the Sky with Diamond” and “Mr. Tambourine Man.”)

    Though the whole universe be against me, I think Shatner’s (perhaps occasionally “scene-chewing”) delivery outstanding. (“Excess of sorrow laughs; excess of joy weeps.” Wm. Blake.) Listening to it over and over has resulted in my being able to enjoyably quote Hamlet’s soliloquy and Henry V’s exhortation to his men (” . . . or close up the wall with our English dead!”) or “Romeo and Juliet” (” . . . as he bestrides the lazy, puffing clouds, and sails upon the bosom of the air!”). I think back to yesteryear when students memorized vast quantities of poetry for its own sake. (Well, quoting poetry to make the girls swoon was a goal which, try as I might, I cannot object to.)

    I would have never memorized these gems( which were “taught” in high school or college) for their own sake, instead considering them – at the time – something of a bloody stumbling block get out of my way.

    • Posted August 24, 2017 at 12:04 pm | Permalink

      Shatner *can* be good – see his performance in “City on the Edge of Forever” and Star Trek II, for example. But he’s often been allowed to “go nuts”, which turns him into a ham. And since he’s a ham in his “Lucy in the Sky with Diamonds” cover, I can only assume that he needs direction to do right, but …

  30. Cate Plys
    Posted August 23, 2017 at 3:21 pm | Permalink

    I generally hate hearing poetry read out loud by ordinary people (non-actors) and especially by the poets themselves. But actors often really nail it. A couple of years back the actor who plays Jon Snow on Game of Thrones recited William Blake’s The Tyger as a voiceover for a car commercial and it was amazing–almost made me forget Blake’s awful drawing of the tiger’s face, which I think Jerry referred to just recently.

    And re the supposed necessity for reading poetry aloud to yourself, not just reading it: I understand many people feel that it is literally impossible to appreciate poetry just by reading it, and many of them are people whose opinions I greatly esteem. But on this, I can’t help but say that they are insisting on applying what is true for themselves to everyone. I finally tackled Paradise Lost by picking up an edition edited and introduced by Philip Pullman, who insisted the reader had to read it out loud. That was the one thing he’s ever written (that I’ve read) that was wrong. But he WAS right that I just had to read it for the enjoyment of the words etc. and not insist on understanding every little thing right off. I just don’t have to hear it out loud to enjoy the words and rhythm etc. I’ve been obsessed with the book ever since, but I will not, and do not need, to read it out loud to myself. However, long after I’d reread it to myself quite a few times,I downloaded the audiobook of it read by Simon Vance, and love to listen to that.

    • Tim Harris
      Posted August 23, 2017 at 11:45 pm | Permalink

      Milton like Shakespeare is often easier to understand when heard than when looked at on the page – if read well.

  31. Ken Kukec
    Posted August 23, 2017 at 3:27 pm | Permalink

    First time I ever heard a major poet read from his work, pretty sure it was Robert Frost at JFK’s inauguration. Didn’t go well:

    • Filippo
      Posted August 24, 2017 at 6:23 pm | Permalink

      IIRC, it didn’t go well because the sun was so bright, the day so cold and blustery. Frost had written a poem for the inauguration, but had such trouble seeing/reading it that he recited another poem from memory.

      • Posted August 24, 2017 at 6:56 pm | Permalink

        True. But the poem he ended up reciting from memory–“The Gift Outright”–was the one JFK had originally asked for. It’s not a great poem, but better than “Dedication”–the one Frost wrote on the spur of the moment and wanted to read.

        Frost, incidentally, is one of the few major poets whose readings actually do justice to the poems, largely because the cadences are very close to his natural speaking voice. His recording of “Birches” is a case in point–idiosyncratic to be sure, but vintage Frost.

        On a personal note, I spent a summer as poet-in-residence at Frost’s house in Franconia, NH and used to sit on the porch and try to look like Frost for occasional passers-by. Not easy when you’re bald.

      • Ken Kukec
        Posted August 24, 2017 at 7:00 pm | Permalink

        Yeah, that’s my recollection, too, though I’m not sure whether the recollection comes from watching it live on tv as an elementary school student, or seeing it later in life on film.

  32. Xuuths
    Posted August 23, 2017 at 4:59 pm | Permalink

    I particularly enjoyed a recording of Douglas Adams reading his work The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy, as I never actually had any of the characters with a British accent of any kind going on in my mind’s ear. It brought out new insights.

    As for poetry, I think Maya Angelou reading her own work has a better cadence than my own internal mechanism. Your mileage may vary.

    • Posted August 23, 2017 at 8:28 pm | Permalink

      Maya Angelou could do anything. She was an fine actress as well as a poet. I agree that listening (and watching) Angelou read her own poems was an exceptional experience.

    • gravelinspector-Aidan
      Posted August 24, 2017 at 5:08 am | Permalink

      I was wondering if someone else would bring up DNA.
      Quoth PCC(E):

      The characters didn’t sound the way I thought they should so

      Adams once said (I don’t have a reference for this – it may be from a radio interview or something) words to the effect that the sound quality in the books of HHGTTG was far better than on the radio productions, while on the radio, the colour balance was better than the TV series.
      In which context, it should be remembered that DNA worked for years as a TV producer, and as a radio producer, and as a script writer, and always accompanied by the ‘wooshing’ of deadlines flying past.
      You’ll note that he didn’t mention the film. I think it was still languishing in the production hell where it should have stayed. No Marvin has been right, but some have been much wronger than others.

      • infiniteimprobabilit
        Posted August 24, 2017 at 7:26 am | Permalink

        I thought the film was okay, though every incarnation of the HHGTTG was its own different entity.

        I thought the books were the best, probably because they were the first I encountered.


      • kateydandelion
        Posted August 24, 2017 at 2:06 pm | Permalink

        It might have been somewhere in The Salmon of Doubt that he mentioned that (published posthumously). As for the movie, it came out in 2005, 4 years after his death.

        • gravelinspector-Aidan
          Posted August 24, 2017 at 2:22 pm | Permalink

          I don’t think I’ve read “The Salmon of Doubt”. Might have done from the library, certainly not brought it.

          the movie, it came out in 2005,

          At least 20 years too early. Maybe, like fusion power, a good movie of HHGTTG is 30 years in the future.

  33. David Harper
    Posted August 23, 2017 at 5:19 pm | Permalink

    As others have already commented, Dylan Thomas’s “Under Milk Wood” is definitely best when read aloud. It is, after all, a play for voices which was written to be spoken on the radio. The epitome of recorded performances is the 1954 edition, which includes Richard Burton as First Voice. You need to have an appreciation for the lilting quality of the Welsh accent to really get the most enjoyment of this amazing performance.

    Burton also recorded a superb version of Coleridge’s “Rime of the Ancient Mariner”.

    And, of course, the Anglo-Saxon epic “Beowulf” was transmitted orally for centuries before being committed to vellum. Seamus Heaney, the Nobel laureate poet, recorded a memorable reading of his own translation into modern English.

    • Tim Harris
      Posted August 23, 2017 at 8:28 pm | Permalink

      There is also a dvd of the American Benjamin Bagby, complete with old Germanic harp, performing ‘Beowulf’ in Old English. He is very good.

  34. bencbt
    Posted August 23, 2017 at 5:49 pm | Permalink

    I always like to hear poems read aloud, especially after I have become familiar with them. Hearing another reader always brings other ways of interpreting the lines – thinks I never thought of. I don’t have to agree – its just enriching to be exposed to other points of view. Poets aren’t always the best readers of their own work – but usually they still enlighten.

    • kateydandelion
      Posted August 24, 2017 at 2:14 pm | Permalink

      I also like to hear poems read aloud, especially by the poet, as sometimes there’s a stark contrast in how I’ve been reading it and how they intended/interpreted it themselves.

      So sometimes I can adjust a way I read a line if it makes more sense, but usually I do prefer how I hear it in my own head. With Plath, it may be that New England-cum-Old England accent of hers, which I can’t say I’m too keen on.

  35. PatrickQ
    Posted August 23, 2017 at 6:30 pm | Permalink

    The best recitation of “Do Not Go Gentle into That Good Night” of all time.

  36. Michael Waterhouse
    Posted August 23, 2017 at 8:17 pm | Permalink

    Not poetry, and not quite the same topic, but recently topical, Jimmy Webb came to Australia many years ago to sing his own songs.

    A curiosity perhaps, and also perhaps because he had the worlds greatest talent singing his songs, he shouldn’t have bothered.

    He didn’t sound very good to me.

    Yet, as I was trying to find out when that was, my search is swamped by another tour by him, happening right now.

    • infiniteimprobabilit
      Posted August 23, 2017 at 8:48 pm | Permalink

      Not uncommon. Bob Dylan and Leonard Cohen are two others that leap to mind.


  37. James Walker
    Posted August 23, 2017 at 8:47 pm | Permalink

    Part of the problem, I think, is that poetry has shifted from a ‘bardic’ tradition in which the reading out was the primary mode, to one in which more value is placed on the written word.

    Having said that, Philip Larkin, one of my favourite poets, was quite good at reading his own poems aloud.

  38. Posted August 23, 2017 at 8:52 pm | Permalink

    I hope you will forgive my sharing this poem written by Gerard Manley Hopkins, a priest, in 1877 but not published until after the turn of the century. Hopkins wrote his poems in such a way as to inform the reader about word emphasis, line breaks, etc. He also was very particular in word choices. I was taught that most of the many denotations of the word “buckle” were applicable in the poem. “sheer plod makes plough down sillion Shine…” This is a beautiful image once you know what “sillion” is. And, learn that plodding and plowing can create the beauty of sillion. I will never forget my excitement upon reading this poem, hearing it read and researching the language.


    The Windhover
    By Gerard Manley Hopkins

    To Christ our Lord

    I caught this morning morning’s minion, king-
    dom of daylight’s dauphin, dapple-dawn-drawn Falcon, in his riding
    Of the rolling level underneath him steady air, and striding
    High there, how he rung upon the rein of a wimpling wing
    In his ecstasy! then off, off forth on swing,
    As a skate’s heel sweeps smooth on a bow-bend: the hurl and gliding
    Rebuffed the big wind. My heart in hiding
    Stirred for a bird, – the achieve of, the mastery of the thing!

    Brute beauty and valour and act, oh, air, pride, plume, here
    Buckle! AND the fire that breaks from thee then, a billion
    Times told lovelier, more dangerous, O my chevalier!

    No wonder of it: “…shéer plód makes plough down sillion
    Shine, and blue-bleak embers, ah my dear,
    Fall, gall themselves, and gash gold-vermilion.

    • Posted August 24, 2017 at 1:05 am | Permalink

      Thanks, Rowena, for sharing this. As a former Jesuit, I know the poem well, of course, but haven’t re-read it for some time. It and “God’s Grandeur” are my favorites of Hopkins, who was a true original and, as a contemporary of Tennyson’s, was decades ahead of his time in his use of language.


  39. Posted August 23, 2017 at 9:02 pm | Permalink

    The languages invented by JRR Tolkien are very beautiful, and give goosebumps when conceptualized as forerunners to English.

    One of the great moments in Tolkien’s history of reality is the exact moment when Galadriel – 6,000+ years old and the most powerful personage East of the Sea – bids farewell to her last chance to grab control of Middle Earth. She has agreed to relinquish power and “diminish.” At the moment of finality, she sings her lament in the High-Elven Quenya.

    “Namárië” (Farewell) Professor Tolkien

    Following the link to YouTube will present other versions, in song and recitation.

    Key stanza, it’s literal and metaphorical:

    Too long I have dwelt upon this Hither Shore
    And in a fading crown have twined the golden elanor.
    But if of ships I now should sing, what ship would come to me,
    What ship would bear me ever back across so wide a Sea?

  40. rickflick
    Posted August 23, 2017 at 9:06 pm | Permalink

    I find most well respected poems and poets difficult and so I don’t read much poetry. Occasionally I do indulge and I thought it would be a good idea to look at the Elliot poem more closely. I noted an analysis on YouTube which steps through the poem line by line and this gave me a much greater appreciation. Here it is:


  41. infiniteimprobabilit
    Posted August 23, 2017 at 9:12 pm | Permalink

    I agree. I suspect there may be two distinct factors operating –

    First, the poet may not have a very good voice or a very good delivery

    Second, as PCC notes, we probably have our own mental ‘image’ of how the poem goes, and even a great delivery by an accomplished voice actor will vary from that.

    And third – three, there are three factors operating –

    in printed form you can ‘see’ the structure of the poem, and maybe appreciate it better as a whole. We can look back over lines and take each line at our own speed. (This may apply more to some poems than others).

    I find I can appreciate the alliteration and the elaborate rhyme scheme of e.g. Poe’s Raven much better in printed form. Though I haven’t yet listened to Christopher Walken’s reading as per Miss Ironfist’s post.


    • infiniteimprobabilit
      Posted August 23, 2017 at 9:18 pm | Permalink

      OK, just listened. I’m sure it’s a good reading but – and this is the big but – it differs from my mental image and the rhythm I habitually impose on it, and I (quite naturally I think) like my version better.

      This is not to say that anyone else would find my version acceptable, for a start my voice is not, shall we say, Shakespearean.


  42. Robert Bray
    Posted August 24, 2017 at 9:22 am | Permalink

    I had the pleasure on several occasions of hearing the late Derek Walcott read from his own lyric and narrative poetry. The marriage of voice and sense was wonderful. Perhaps this was largely because Walcott was a man of the theatre, too, and knew almost instinctively how to make his splendid panoply of image and metaphor produce such dazzling effects out loud. Understatement became, in his Anglo-Caribbean lilt, grand but never, I think, grandiose.

  43. Hempenstein
    Posted August 24, 2017 at 9:38 am | Permalink

    OTOH, hearing a poet read his poems can be a moving experience even if you don’t understand the words (and couldn’t read them if you wanted to, anyway). Such was the case with Yevgeny Yevtushenko, who I heard once in Washington DC. My high school English teacher took a small group of us to hear him, ca 1966.

    • Filippo
      Posted August 24, 2017 at 6:41 pm | Permalink

      This Yevtushenko poem raked me over the coals. I didn’t see it coming.

      Unrequited Love

      Love unrequited is a crushing yoke;
      but if you see love as a game,
      a trophy,
      then unrequited love’s absurd, a joke-
      like Cyrano de Bergerac’s odd profile.

      One day a hard-boiled Russian in the theater
      said to his wife, in words that clearly hurt her:
      ‘Why does this Cyrano upset you all?
      The fool!
      Now I, for instance, I would never
      allow some bitch to get me in a fever…
      I’d simply find another one-
      that’s all.’

      Behind his wife’s reproachful eyes there gleamed
      a beaten, widowed look of desperation.
      From every pore her husband oozed,
      it seemed,
      the lethal sweat of crude self-satisfaction.

      How many are like him-
      great healthy men,
      who, lacking the capacity to suffer,
      call women ‘chicks’ or ‘broads’;
      it sounds much tougher.
      Yet am I not myself a bit like them?

      We yawn
      and play at shabby little passions,
      discarding hearts as though they’re last year’s fashions,
      afraid of tragedy,
      afraid to pay.
      And you and I, no doubt, are being weaklings
      whenever we so often force our feelings
      to take the easier,
      less binding way.

      I often hear the inner coward whining,
      from murky depths my impulse undermining:
      ‘Hey, careful now;
      don’t get involved…’
      I weakly take the line of least resistance,
      and lose, who knows, from sheer lack of persistence,
      a priceless chance of unrequited love.

      A man who’s clever and can use his head
      can always count on a response from women,
      for poor Cyrano’s chivalry’s not dead:
      it is not men who show it now, but women.
      In love you’re either chivalrous
      or you
      don’t love.

      All men of one law stand indicted:
      if you can’t love with love that’s unrequited,
      you cannot love-no matter what you do.

      God grant us grace that we may know the pain
      of fruitless longing,
      unreturned emotion,
      delightful torment as we wait in vain:
      the hapless happiness of vain devotion.

      For secretly I’m longing to be brave,
      to warm my ice-cold heart with passion’s burning;
      in lukewarm love affairs enmeshed,
      I rave
      of unrequited love and hopeless yearning.

      Translated by Michael Glenny

      • Posted August 26, 2017 at 6:06 am | Permalink

        Brilliant poem! Such a pleasure to discover yet another poem or poet that one really likes.
        My favorite “unrequited love” poem is one by Robert Graves. It seems to me to show how a poet, in even the shortest of poems, can capture a feeling in an image…

        Love Without Hope

        Love without hope, as when the young bird-catcher
        Swept off his tall hat to the Squire’s own daughter,
        So let the imprisoned larks escape and fly
        Singing about her head, as she rode by.

  44. Posted August 24, 2017 at 12:07 pm | Permalink

    I sometimes write poetry for close friends and family. A friend of mine who is a professional cellist told me that she loved the way one of my poems sounded. Up until then I (being the weirdo that I am) hadn’t given any thought to the sound exactly, but only to the meaning (including the “emotional associations”) of what I wrote. Maybe other (less amateur) poets are the same?

  45. bbenzon
    Posted August 25, 2017 at 5:29 am | Permalink

    We were discussing a passage from Conrad’s Heart of Darkness over at my blog, New Savanna, and I decided to see if I could find a spoken version on line. And I did, free. LoudLit.org has readings of a number of texts in various categories (novels, poetry, children’s, historical) on the web. If those other readings are of the quality of the Conrad, then they’re worth checking out. There’s also a feature where you can follow a written text while listening to the reading. That might get a bit tedious for a long novel (e.g. Great Expectations), but you won’t be doing it all in one go.

  46. Posted September 18, 2017 at 5:58 am | Permalink

    For an alternative reading of Prufrock, this may interest you, a short film in which Australian actor Daniel Henshall explores his favourite poem, and recreate a night in the love song of J. Alfred.


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