Walt Whitman was the first major poet to record his poetry, but when you listen you can just barely hear what he's saying. As Whitman reads his hymn to America and its unity under "freedom, law, and . . . love," his words are all but obliterated by the shunk-shunk-shunk of Thomas Edison's 1890 cylinder as it revolves to meet the stylus that picks up the sound impulses imbedded in wax. Edison must have been glad he got the old fellow on wax; in two years, Whitman was dead.
Today that recording is no more than a curiosity in the history of culture and technology, but it nicely introduces A Century of Recorded Poetry (Rhino), edited by Rebekah Presson and David McLees. This four-cassette collection of poets reading their own work indiscriminately mixes the banal and the magnificent, but I'm grateful to own it. Since I bought it through the Quality Paperback Book Club, it has been reintroducing me to the pleasures of read-aloud literary history. Accompanying me in my Walkman on subways and streetcars, it adds another dimension to ordinary journeys.
Poets such as Wallace Stevens, W. H. Auden and Joseph Brodsky are engaging aural companions. Among the rest there are many surprises, some delightful, some not. Robert Frost's careful, thoughtful reading of The Road Not Taken makes it feel amazingly like a new poem: He seems to be inventing it as he goes along. Edna St. Vincent Millay's silliness, familiar to readers of worn anthologies, turns sweet and winsome when she voices it; one understands why all the young men of Greenwich Village, including Edmund Wilson, fell for her in the 1920s. Hearing Gertrude Stein is even more tiresome than reading her. W. B. Yeats, Ireland's greatest poet, sounds English, not Irish, when reading The Lake Isle of Innisfree.
In the 1950s, people loved the rich voice of Dylan Thomas, the champion poetry reader of the day. But in this collection, the context utterly destroys him. His rhetorical posturing sounds absurd when so many better poets are reading their work with a straight-ahead faith in the words. When Thomas declaims Do Not Go Gentle into that Good Night, he sounds as dated as a 19th-century Shakespearean actor.
History -- personal and political -- intensifies our experience of these performances. Knowing about the madness that often crept over Robert Lowell makes his accomplishment in Skunk Hour all the more impressive. And we can hardly hear Anne Sexton read the exasperated line, "I am tired of being brave" (in The Truth the Dead Know) without reflecting that 1974, the year she recorded this, was also the year she killed herself.
It's impossible to remain unmoved by Ezra Pound's grandiloquent reading of his furious poem about modern times, Hugh Selwyn Mauberly. The pathos is overwhelming: Lines full of densely compressed energy are read by a helpless old bard, undone by his craziness. Pound wrote it in 1920, out of his rage at the colossal and careless waste of lives in the First World War and his sense of a corrupt, dying Europe. Critics called it needlessly difficult, but later his work became far less accessible; today this is among his most transparent poems.
He wrote it as a brilliant 35-year-old with an apparently golden future, standing at the centre of modern literature. Only one word in the poem hints at his fate: This is where "usury" first appears in his poetry. It was around 1920 that he began to believe in his unique understanding of money, banks and politics. That was the mistake that soon began tugging him toward Social Credit, anti-Semitism, fascism and his hate-filled wartime broadcasts against the U.S. -- all the calamities that wrecked his career and at the end drew from him a harsh self-judgment on his life's work ("I botched it").
Pound reads the poem to us in 1958 from (I believe) a room in the mental hospital in Washington, D.C., where kindly psychiatrists confined him so that he could avoid being tried for treason. In the course of the reading, he seems to re-enact the drama of his life: Now he sounds firm and resolute, now mad and scattered, now defeated. He speaks with great swooping power, flags for a while, then pulls himself together and charges forward again. I've listened to that poem half a dozen times, and the force of the experience never dissipates. It's a recording that puts a listener in intimate touch with the wretched old man reading the poem, and at the same time with the brave young man who wrote it.